Monday, November 4, 2013

What Is The County School Facility Tax?

Over the past few months, you may have read some area newspaper articles referencing the "County School Facility Tax" (CSFT).  School Boards have a fiduciary responsibility to fully investigate any potential school funding source to determine if it would be advantageous for the constituency they serve.  Currently, the District #1 Board of Education is going through that very process regarding the CSFT.  To date, the District #1 Board has taken no position on the viability of the CSFT as a funding source for Coal City Schools.  However, they are continuing to gather feedback on the idea.  Our local newspaper reporters have done an excellent job of summarizing the CSFT, but I wanted to provide a little more detail regarding how the CSFT works.

The Illinois Legislature passed a law in October, 2007 which allowed a county to approve a sales tax to fund school facility costs.  The law allowed for a maximum sales tax of 1% in 1/4% increments.  The law was based upon a similar law that is currently in place state-wide in Iowa.  As originally written, the County Board had to approve the question being placed on the ballot, but in August, 2011, the law was amended to exclude this requirement.

Currently in Illinois, there are 18 counties where the voters have approved the CSFT, and it has failed in a little over 20 counties.

The two most important things to understand about the CSFT are what items are taxed and how can the resulting revenues be used by the public schools in the county.  If the tax is approved by the voters, everything in the municipal and county sales tax base is included with the following exceptions:
  • Cars, Truck, ATVs
  • Boats & RVs
  • Mobile Homes
  • Unprepared Food
  • Drugs (including over-the-counter and vitamins)
  • Farm Equipment and Parts
  • Farm Inputs
School districts are limited by statute in how they can utilize the revenues collected via the CSFT.  They can use the funds for the following capital expenditures:
  • Construction of New Schools (only with voter approval)
  • Construction of Other School Facilities
  • Additions & Renovations
  • Ongoing Maintenance
  • Architectural Planning
  • Durable Equipment (non-moveable items)
  • Fire Prevention and Life Safety
  • Land Acquisition
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Parking Lots
  • Demolition
  • Roof Repairs
  • Abatement of Property Taxes Levied to Pay Bonds Issued for Capital Purposes
School Districts cannot use the funds for:
  • Salaries or Benefits
  • Any Direct Instructional Costs
  • Text Books
  • Buses
  • Detached Furniture & Fixtures
  • Computers
  • Moveable Equipment
  • Operating Costs
There are three ways school districts can use the revenues from the CSFT.
  1. Pay as you go capital projects. (new roof, windows, parking lots, etc.)
  2. Issue new bonds for current capital needs (support bonds with sales tax)
  3. Retire existing debt issues for capital purposes (abate taxes)
How is the CSFT revenue distributed?
  • All of the revenue from the CSFT throughout the county is pooled together and then distributed evenly on a per pupil basis throughout the County.  Therefore, a student in Coal City would receive the same amount of funds as a student in Minooka.
So what are the potential benefits to the taxpayer in District #1?
  • Based on the 2012 tax figures, District #1 would receive about $2.8 million per year from the CSFT fund.
  • Currently, District #1 makes about a $3 million bond payment per year to pay the bonds associated with the building referendum that was approved by our voters in 2006.  If the county had the CSFT, the District #1 Board could use those funds to pay the majority of their annual bond payment.  This would result in a property tax savings of about $220 on a $200,000 home.
  • About 40% of the sales tax received in Grundy County is generated from sales from people who do not live in Grundy County.  Therefore, people outside of our county would be helping to fund schools as opposed to the current funding method, which places the responsibility solely on property owners within the county.
What are the potential problems the CSFT could cause within District #1?
  • The current sales tax rate within Coal City is 6.25%.  By raising the tax rate to 7.25% there is a chance that some could look outside of Grundy County for certain purchases.  Some of the current sales tax rates of neighboring communities outside of Grundy County are listed below.
    • Braidwood                    7.00%
    • Joliet                             9.00%
    • Ottawa                          7.00%
    • Kankakee                      6.25%
    • Dwight                          6.25%
  • The Village of Channahon has various "Point of Sale" agreements with businesses located in Cook County.  These agreements allow Cook County businesses to avoid paying the higher sales tax rates in Cook County by completing their "point of sales" in Channahon.  About 47% of the sales tax generated in the county comes from these "Point of Sales" agreements.  If the CSFT passed and the sales tax rate for the County increased, these Cook County businesses could set up their "Point of Sales" agreements in another location.
The only way this question gets placed on the ballot is if school boards representing more than 50% of the resident student enrollment in the county adopt resolutions.  If that happens, the Regional Suiperintendent must certify the question to the County Clerk to be placed on the ballot for a county-wide vote.

As previously stated, the District #1 Board of Education is still thoroughly investigating the idea of the CSFT and has taken no formal position on the issue.  Should you have any further questions on the CSFT, please feel free to comment on this blog.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Future Really is Bright

How many times have you heard one of the following statements.
Kids these days don't have a work ethic.
These kids are lazy.  They will never make it in the real world.
These kids don't know what a hard days work is.
If these are the future leaders of our country, we're in trouble.
As an educator, I have heard each of these statements often in reference to our students.  However, I would like to assure everyone that the future is far from bleak.  In fact, when I look at what many of the young adults in our school system are accomplishing, I would argue that the future has never been more promising.

I would challenge anyone who believes our students are lazy to shadow some of them for just one week.  We currently have almost 300 students participating in various extra- and co-curricular activities at CCHS.   Many of these students are arriving at school at 5:45 a.m. for an athletic practice and not leaving school until 9:00 p.m. or later due their various other extra- and co-curricular commitments (i.e. band, chorus, madrigals, theater, etc.).  Then they are going home and completing at least an hour or more of homework.  These students are putting in 15 to 16 hour days five days per week, and then they usually have either an extra- or co-curricular practice over the weekend, as well as more homework to complete.  Many of them are routinely putting in 80 hour weeks between school and school-related activities.  If these students were working adults, they would be earning quite a hefty sum in overtime pay!  Instead, they are learning valuable lessons in time management, organization, dedication towards a cause, and a work ethic that will serve them well as future leaders. 

I also am amazed at what many of these students are accomplishing in the classroom.  Under the careful and caring guidance of their teachers, they are learning how to thrive in the global economy of the 21st Century.  They are learning to harness the power of technology to create, collaborate, communicate and critically think.  Instead of just being able to recall information, they are becoming problem solvers.  They are becoming adept at working with others to collaboratively solve real world problems.  These are the types of thinkers that will be necessary for our economy to thrive in this new paradigm of the 21st Century marketplace.

I can remember conversations I used to have with my father when I was younger.  He would tell me that when he was a teenager, his dad (my grandfather) used to tell him, "Kids nowadays are spoiled and they don't have any work ethic."  Well, here we are two generations later, and we adults are still saying the same thing about this generation of kids.  However, when I look at our young adults in District #1, I am not only proud, but excited about the future leaders we are getting ready to unleash upon our community.  I know these students will achieve some amazing things!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The New ISAT Performance Level Cut Scores

In my last post, I explained the new Common Core standards in Reading and Mathematics, which have taken the place of the traditional State Standards that Illinois public schools have worked under for many years.  These new Common Core Standards are a multi-state effort to better prepare our students for the challenges they will face as they enter either higher education or the work force.

District #1 has been working hard since the summer of 2011 to implement the new Common Core standards into our curricula, instructional approaches and assessments.  We have embraced this process because we believe these new rigorous standards promote learning at a higher and deeper level which will better prepare our students for success after high school.

As school districts across Illinois work to implement the Common Core standards, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has also been working to align the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) for math and English language arts to these new performance levels.  As a part of the state and federal accountability system, the ISAT test is given to students in grades three through eight in the spring each year.  In January, 2013, the ISBE raised the cut scores necessary for students to achieve a "Meets" or "Exceeds" score on the ISAT test.  These higher cut scores are meant to provide administrators, teachers and parents with a more thorough picture of student progress towards college and career readiness.  The ISBE accomplished this task by working with an expert advisory committee to determine the necessary college and career readiness scores of 11th-graders and then set scores for each elementary grade level accordingly.  In short, it worked back from the high school readiness scores and set grade-level appropriate scores to ensure that elementary students will be on track for college and career readiness.  This means that students will be measured against college and career readiness benchmarks earlier (3rd grade) rather than waiting for the 11th grade Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE) to yield this information.

Historically, there has been a large achievement gap between student performance on the ISAT test in grades 3-8 and that same student performance on the PSAE exam during grade 11.  In  2012, 82% of students met or exceeded standards on the ISAT statewide, while only 51% met or exceeded standards on the PSAE.  As a result, high schools were being unfairly scrutinized for a perceived drop in achievement, when in reality, a faulty comparison was being used of two completely different tests and achievement expectations.  The higher ISAT cut scores now align with the student performance expectations of the PSAE and provide a more accurate indication of whether a student is on track for post-secondary success.

As expected, these new performance levels caused a sharp decline in the number of students who received the designation of "Meets" or "Exceeds" standards on the 2013 implementation of the ISAT test.  In 2012, the State saw 79% of 3-8 graders score proficient in reading and 86% of those same students reached the proficient level in mathematics.  When the new ISAT cut scores are applied, these scores dropped to 60% proficient for both reading and mathematics.

It is important to note that these changes in performance levels do not mean that our students know less or are less capable then they were in previous years.  It also is not a reflection on teacher performance.  Instead, the ISBE is raising the bar on what students must achieve in order to be ready for success in college and career.

This fall, you will receive your child's 2013 ISAT score results, and it is important that you take into account this "raising of the bar" in cut scores when analyzing the results.  As a school district, we are excited to receive results that provide us with a more accurate picture of the college and career readiness of our students.  We will now have State assessment results that provide usable information in our continuous improvement efforts.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What is the Common Core?

One of the most discussed topics in public education right now is the implementation of the Common Core Standards.  I want to take some time to explain what is meant by the Common Core, and also how these new learning standards will impact our classrooms and students in District #1.

The Common Core State Standards establish clear expectations for what students should be learning in English language arts and mathematics at every grade level from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.  This initiative commenced from the work of 40 state governors and state education leaders from across the United States.  The resulting Common Core represents a collaborative effort to raise expectations and improve instruction for all public school students.  In short, the Common Core sets a uniform high and clear standard of performance with the purpose of preparing students for college and the workforce.

Illinois has had uniform state learning standards in place for many years.  The Common Core standards have taken the place of those state standards for English language arts and mathematics.  The major difference between the Common Core and the previous state standards is the emphasis on critical thinking and concept mastery.  In English, the Common Core focuses on the importance of reading nonfiction, using evidence to back claims and expanding academic vocabulary.  The English language arts (ELA) standards also have standards to encourage social studies, science and career and technical subjects to increase writing and the reading of informational text in their areas. This promotes a more well-rounded approach to preparing students as the focus isn’t entirely on the tested subjects of ELA and mathematics.  In math, the new standards call for a focus on fewer topics so students gain a more comprehensive understanding of those key topics.  They also emphasize the application of math towards solving real-world problems.  In both English and math, the goal of the Common Core is to give students the ability to apply their knowledge to succeed in college and/or the workforce.

With the former Illinois State Standards, school districts still maintained local control over the implementation of these standards.  This will still be the case with the state's adoption of the Common Core.  District #1 will continue to write local curricula, assessments and lesson plans for our classrooms.  The Common Core establishes the benchmarks for what our students need to know and be able to do, but District #1 will still determine the best strategies, resources, and methods for achieving those benchmarks.  District #1 teachers will continue to make their daily instructional decisions about how best to meet the individual needs of their students.

District #1 started preparations for the Common Core in the spring, 2011.  In the summer, 2011, our teachers in English and mathematics started to rewrite their curriculum and assessments to align with the new Common Core learning standards.  This process continued in the summer, 2013.  By embracing the Common Core early, our goal was to provide our students with the best possible chances for academic success as schools across Illinois are required to fully implement the curricula  during this school year.

Our hope is that our students will benefit from the higher expectations for critical thinking and concept mastery that the Common Core demands.  By encouraging our students to apply and demonstrate their knowledge in real-world settings, we hope that our students will be even better prepared for post-secondary and career success.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Welcome to the 2013-2014 School Year!

We are very excited about the start of the new school year in Coal City Community Unit School District #1.  Our school year started on August 14th and 15th with Teacher Institutes, and the first day for students was on August 16th.

At our opening day in-service, we talked about our District theme for 2013-2014, which is "Passion & Professionalism".  One of the highlights of the first day was a short video of Rita Pierson, which was shown to all faculty members.  Rita was a fierce defender of public education and the important role educators play in the lives of our students.  She believed that "Every child deserves a champion", which is a phrase we will be using often this year in District #1.  Unfortunately, Rita passed away only a month after giving this passionate speech.  I hope you get a chance to view the video as it is quite powerful.  Our faculty and staff looks forward to putting our "Passion & Professionalism" on display everyday as we proudly serve the students and wider communities of District #1.

As we start the new school year, there are a couple of items I wanted to share.

Some of you may be aware that the Early Childhood Center is now a "Peanut-Free School".  This procedure was instituted because we have a student in that building with a very severe allergic reaction to any peanut protein. The American's with Disabilities Act requires that we educate all students with disabilities in the "least restrictive environment."  Also, the school district is required to make any "reasonable accommodations" necessary to provide that "least restrictive environment".  The court system has consistently maintained that making a school "Peanut-Free" is a "reasonable accommodation" and one that must be made to provide students with an education in their "least restrictive environment".  A very recent appellate court case out of Michigan once again supported this position public schools must take.  As I expected, our parents and school community have been very supportive of this new procedure…especially once they understand the potentially dire consequences for this student.  However, anytime a new procedure is put in place, people want to know the rationale behind the change.  Hopefully, this provides that information.

During this summer's HVAC project at the Intermediate School, the contractor discovered some damage to a roof truss above the Library.  Therefore, we have closed the IS Library until we can get the issue fixed.  In the meantime, I would like to thank Tina Vignocchi and the Coal City Public Library for still providing library services to our IS students during this time.  The Public Library has even been opening early to accommodate our IS students, and Mrs. Vignocchi has gone above and beyond for our kids.  It is nice to see two public entities cooperating so well to provide a valuable service to our students.

All of us in District #1 are excited about the 2013-2014 school year.  We look forward to partnering with you to provide the best possible educational experience for our students.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Family Wellness Night

The District #1 Wellness Committee is very proud to sponsor the 2nd Annual "Family Wellness Night" event on Thursday, April 11 from 6-8:00 p.m. at Coal City High School.  Thanks to many of our area vendors, last year's event was a huge success, and we are hoping for bigger and better things this year.

The major enhancement to this year's event is the addition of a "Healthy Food Court".  We currently have nine area food vendors who will be providing samples of some of their healthy menu items.  We expect this to be a very popular draw at this year's event. 

With the addition of the "Healthy Food Court", we have over 40 vendors who will be in attendance.  There will be doctors, personal trainers, chiropractors, the free taking of vital signs, wholistic wellness, hearing screenings, activities for kids, and many other wellness-related vendors and activities.  Thanks to the generosity of our participating vendors, there are also many free give-aways and a huge free raffle.  Thanks to the District #1 PSO, all participants will receive a free tote bag for all of their goodies!

The District #1 Wellness Committee is excited to bring this opportunity to our students and the communities we serve.  Come out on Thursday, April 11 from 6-8:00 p.m. and enjoy this free event.  It promises to be wellness fun for the whole family.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The New Illinois Licensure System

Most educators are aware that the ISBE has adopted a new process which will switch all current teacher and administrator certificates to licenses.  As of July 1, 2013, all previously held certificates will no longer be valid as all will be exchanged for Illinois educator licenses.  Even though this major change is right around the corner, there has been very little information shared from the ISBE as to the specifics of this process.  I contacted our Regional Office of Education earlier this week, and they stated the same frustrations.  However, they assured that as soon as information is available, they will be sharing with school districts.  In the meantime, this is what I currently have been able to ascertain.

As of July 1, 2013, all of an educator's current certificates will be exchanged for a Professional Educator License (PEL).  For example, let's say an educator has a Type 09 Certificate with a Middle School Math Endorsement and a Type 75 General Administrative Certificate.  Under the new licensure system, that person would now receive a PEL which contains all of their certificated areas and endorsements under a single license.  Each license will contain an educator's specific areas and grade level ranges he/she is eligible to teach.  For example, instead of "Middle School Math Endorsement", the license will specify eligibility to teach math in grades 5-8.

Currently, educators will not have to do anything as this switch will automatically take place on July1, 2013.  An educator should lose nothing (endorsements) in the exchange to licenses.  However, there are still renewal requirements, which to my knowledge, are yet to become finalized.  Once those requirements are finalized, educators will need to adhere to the determined timelines for renewing their PEL.

If an educator fails to pay the necessary $50 fee to renew their five-year PEL within six months of the PEL lapsing, then it can only be renewed by paying a $500 fee or completing nine college credit hours.

Another important point to remember is that there will be no paper copies of the PELs provided.  Educators will need to go to the Educator Licensure Information System (ELIS) to print a paper copy if needed.

Finally, until the new renewal requirements are finalized, educators should keep all documentation of completed professional development.

I am sure there will be much more to come on the process for exchanging certificates for licenses.  Once that information becomes available, I will be sure to share.  In the meantime, if there is someone who has more information on this process, please feel free to leave the information in the "Comments" section of this blog for all to see.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

School Closings: How, When, Who & Why?

As all of you are aware, the decision was made to close school today due to the impending severe winter storm warning.  I receive many questions about the school closing process, so I thought I would take a moment to explain how such decisions are made.

As District #1 Superintendent, I make the final decision about whether or not weather conditions merit closing school.  However, I never make such decisions without first consulting with the District #1 School Board President.  Prior to making such an important decision, there are many variables to consider.

Discussions begin with area school district superintendents the night prior to an expected weather event.  All of us watch the local news forecasts, and we also receive weather alerts from the Grundy County Emergency Management Agency.  I am sure all of you have experienced inaccuracies in local weather reports.  Therefore, if at all possible, I try to wait until early the next morning to make a decision, so my determination is based on the most current weather information.  I usually start looking at local weather reports and forecasts at 3:00 a.m. to see if anything has changed from the previous night.  If it has been snowing, I start driving our school district's country roads at 4:00 a.m. in order to make an informed decision by 5:00 a.m.  If we close school, the school district begins its communication process to the public at 5:30 a.m.

The safety of our students is always our school district's top priority.  There have been times in the past where the weather report calls for snow mid-day, and some parents wonder why we don't let school out early in such cases.  My experience has been that in such situations, by the time school is out, the snow plows have done their jobs and the roads have been cleared.  The absolute worst time to let students out is in the midst of a snowstorm.  Last Tuesday was the perfect example of this.  We received a midday snow, but by 3:00 p.m., the roads had been cleared.  Therefore, the timing of a snow event is an important consideration.

I recognize that canceling school places a significant inconvenience and burden on working parents who depend on the consistent child care provided by sending their children to school.  Therefore, I try to be very judicious in canceling school due to a weather emergency.  However, when a serious safety concern is present, it takes precedence over child care issues.

Some are under the impression that State funding is impacted by the district canceling school due to weather emergencies.  This is not true, as the State requires that we have 174 student attendance days no matter what.  Therefore, we build five emergency days into our calendar to utilize in case of such events.  The canceling of school due to weather has absolutely no impact on school district funding.

Finally, everyone with students in our school system should have received notification of school being canceled via our automated phone system.  If you did not receive such a call, please refer here to make sure we have your correct information in our system.  Also, on "snow days", the District office remains open and on regular hours.

As a reminder, the day missed today must be made up at the end of the year.  Therefore, the end of the year calendar will be adjusted as follows...
  • Friday, May 24               Last Day of Student Attendance
  • Monday, May 27            Memorial Day--NO SCHOOL
  • Tuesday, May 28            Teacher Institute
  • Wednesday, May 29       First Day of Summer Vacation
If you have any further questions or concerns about the school cancellation process, please comment on this blog, and I will do my best to respond in a timely manner.

Friday, February 22, 2013

What Makes a Great Teacher?

It's hard to believe, but we are already at that point in the school year where principals are looking to hire their necessary staff for the 2013-1014 school year.  Due to the unfortunate budget cuts throughout public education, it is a buyer's market for teachers, which means principals will be faced with a plethora of applicants for virtually every open position.  How do principals go about narrowing the field, interviewing candidates, and choosing the best possible teachers for their students?  What characteristics make a teacher great?  Is being a great teacher innate, or is it a learned skill?  Annette Breaux attempts to answer these questions in her article "Can Anyone Be a Great Teacher?"

Breaux believes that
Though some people definitely possess an innate "gift" for teaching, most great teachers were not born.  They were made!
I believe this to a certain extent, but I will get back to my personal thoughts at the conclusion of this post.

In the blog posting, Breaux identifies many characteristics of effective teachers.  First and foremost, she argues that
At the risk of overstating the obvious, great teachers truly love children!  If you don't love children, you can't be a great teacher. Period.  At the risk of really overstating the obvious, if you don't love children, you shouldn't be in education!
She goes on to discuss characteristics like classroom management skills, subject matter knowledge, positive attitude, embracing change, and setting high expectations.  However, there were two other characteristics that really made an impact on me.

Breaux posits that establishing positive relationships with students is a necessity to be considered a great teacher.  Great teachers...
...subscribe to the belief that in order to teach a student, you must first reach a student.  Thus, they get to know their students on a personal level.
Building relationships is something we have been focusing on in District #1 for the past two years, and I agree that it is paramount to the success of any classroom teacher.  Before the students will learn from you, they have to know that you care about them...and they know when we are faking it!

She also stated that, "Great teachers understand they are actors on a stage."  I still remember one of my high school teachers saying, "I'm not here to entertain you, I'm here to teach you."  Well, if you aren't entertaining, then most likely your students will be bored.  When they are bored, they will not learn.  If there is no learning, then there is no teaching going on.  Absent learning taking place, then a teacher is just talking, not teaching.  The great teachers are some of the best entertainers I know.

In summary, I agree with virtually all of the characteristics of great teachers Breaux identified.  I also agree to some extent that some of these characteristics can be learned.  However, I strongly believe there are certain innate characteristics that a teacher candidate must already possess if they are ever to become great.  In fact, I tell my building principals to look for these three characteristics in any teacher candidate.
  1. Care about kids
  2. Positive attitude
  3. Work ethic
If a teacher candidate has these three characteristics, we can teach them all of the other skills they need to become a great teacher.  However, I have never seen a teacher become great who does not possess these three traits.  Subject-matter knowledge is important, but it can be learned.  Teaching pedagogy is important, but it can be learned.  Classroom management skills are important, but they can be learned.  Caring about kids, being positive, and working hard are innate skills that people either possess or they don't.  The organization cannot teach these skills.  Therefore, we cannot afford to hire educators who don't already possess them, as they are a necessity on the path to becoming a truly "great teacher".

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Has Testing Reached a Tipping Point?

I recently read a blog post by Sam Chaltain, "Has Testing Reached a Tipping Point?"  As educators, we are all aware that since the inception of NCLB in 2001, most legislators and educational reformers have been touting the virtues of standardized testing.  Although doing so makes no statistical sense, the effectiveness of schools in the poorest areas of Chicago are being judged by the same standardized test score expectations as those schools located in the wealthiest north shore communities.  NCLB has set a completely unrealistic goal that 100% of all students must meet or exceed standards on these State tests by 2014 (even though no country in the world has ever accomplished such achievement levels).  Now, there is a State and Federal push to tie teacher evaluations to these standardized test scores.  All of this causes Chaltain to question if our country is finally starting to realize the dangers of such an all out emphasis on standardized test scores.

Such an aggressive assault on public education by the State and Federal government has caused educators to begin emotionally speaking out about the negative ramifications of focusing solely on standardized testing.  However, as the Chaltain stated, we have to be careful in how we approach trying to change the current process for the better.
To convert their opponents from hostility to acceptance, educators will need to clarify more than what they're against; they'll also need to propose specific and realistic alternatives.
That last statement closely aligned with my own personal thoughts on this topic.  We have to be very careful that in our messages espousing the inherent dangers of relying solely on standardized testing to judge students, teachers and schools, that we are not seen as simply being scared of accountability.  Worse yet, we cannot send the message to the public that we don't value the data that appropriate assessment provides.  Every profession spends time collecting appropriate data, evaluating that data, and using that data for continuous improvement.  Education should be no different.  The continuous improvement of our schools is dependent upon this process.  To not collect and evaluate student performance data would be educational malpractice on our parts.

Therefore, we have to do more than oppose the narrow focus of using only standardized testing data.  Instead, we must also identify and champion viable alternatives that can be used to accurately and fairly evaluate the effectiveness of our instruction and our schools.  That is the challenge we face, because identifying problems is easy, but offering solutions is challenging.  All educators must rise to this challenge, or accept the fact that the rules of the accountability game will continue to be dictated to us.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Illinois 5Essentials Survey

Over the next two months, certified staff and students in grades 6-12 across Illinois' public schools will be taking the newly required "Illinois 5Essentials Survey."  This survey is a research-based instrument that provides statistically valid information for school districts and the Illinois State Board of Education to use for a variety of purposes.

This online survey provides detailed information and reports on each of the "5 Essentials", which are...

1.  Effective Leaders
2.  Collaborative Teachers
3.  SupportiveEnvironment
4.  Involved Families
5.  Ambitious Instruction

The resulting information provided can, and will, be used for a variety of purposes at both the State and the local levels.  For example, the ISBE will use the results for both school improvement initiatives and to provide a picture of school performance that goes beyond simply looking at standardized test scores.  At the local level, the survey results can be used as a part of administrator evaluations, school improvement planning, determining professional development needs, and community outreach efforts, just to name a few.

This survey is required by all public schools in Illinois for the following three reasons.
  1. PERA requires one or more instruments to provide principals with feedback on the instructional environment within a school.  
  2. Senate Bill 7 requires an instrument to provide feedback from, at a minimum, students in grades 6-12 and teachers, on the instructional environment within a school.
  3. Revised report card statute requires two or more indicators from any school climate survey developed by the State.
The survey itself takes about 20 minutes to complete online, and includes about 120 questions.  All results are kept completely anonymous at the State level as school districts only receive the resulting aggregate reports.

Although certified staff and students are the only two groups being surveyed by the State this year, there is a parental survey could become mandatory in 2014.  In the meantime, District #1 is investigating the possibility of using the parental component of the "5Essentials Survey" this year on an optional basis in order to gather another data point for our continuous improvement efforts.

If you are a certified staff member in our school district, your building principal will be discussing the implementation of this survey in the next couple of weeks.  If you are a student or parent/guardian of a District #1 student in grades 6-12, you will also be hearing more in the next month.  In the meantime, if you want any further information, you can visit the "Illinois 5Essentials Survey" website.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Changes to 2013 ISAT Test

Ever since the 1982 publication of "A Nation at Risk", politicians, education researchers, and the business community have been espousing their various "silver bullets" to the ever-elusive question of how to reform public education.  For now, let's put aside the discussion of whether or not the data quantitatively proves public education actually needs to be reformed.  Such a discussion is worthy of multiple posts, and is not the point of this particular discussion.

Over the years, we have watched the education reform pendulum swing back and forth many times.  In response to "A Nation at Risk", we saw a focus on reforming education through enhancing the rigor of science and math classes.  In the 90's, we saw "Tech Prep" become the new focus as public schools were charged with trying to get students on a career track early in their educational tenure.  In this way, public schools could meet the needs of the business world that was concerned about the quality of their workforce.  Then we saw the passing of "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB), which took the focus off vocational education and tech prep, and instead, forced schools to meet certain requirements for student achievement in reading and math.  As a result, schools began to forgo vocational education, career planning and the arts, and instead placed all of their energies and resources into reading and math because the stakes were so high.  Now, the latest educational reform initiative, "Race to the Top", is focused on college and career readiness for all students.

In response to "Race to the Top", the Illinois State Board of Education has recommended significant changes to the ISAT test, which will have huge ramifications for public schools across Illinois.  They have determined that the ISAT cut scores to achieve a meets or exceeds status are too low.  Therefore, they have increased these cut scores dramatically to align them more closely with the results of the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), which is taken by every junior in an Illinois high school.

These changes are significant!  For example, on the 2012 ISAT test for 3rd grade math, 98% of Coal City District #1 students met or exceeded standards.  However, when the new cut scores are applied, only 62% of our students would have met or exceeded standards.  We have not yet calculated the impact on reading and math scores at all of our impacted grades (3-8).  However, that information will be available soon. 

Raising the cut scores is a definite challenge, but it is not the only new challenge we will be facing on the 2013 State ISAT assesment.  In preparation for transition to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which is scheduled for implementation starting in the fall of 2014, the ISBE has informed us that the 2013 ISAT test will have 20% of its questions coming from the Common Core Curriculum

In summary, 20% of the questions on the 2013 ISAT test will be much more challenging because they will be focused on the Common Core Curriculum.  At the same time, the cut scores for achieving a meets or exceeds status have been significantly raised.  It goes without saying that the overall percentage of students from District #1 who meet or exceed standards on the ISAT test will decline.  How severe this decline will be remains to be seen.

As always, our school district will embrace this new data and see it as an opportunity for continuous improvement.  However, it is important that our school community understands why school districts across Illinois will experience serious declines in the number of their students who meet or exceed standards on the upcoming 2013 ISAT test.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Illinois Pension Reform Conundrum

I recently read this post by Ralph Martire in Crain's Chicago Business.  Ralph Martire is the executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, which is a bipartisan fiscal policy think tank based in Chicago.

He brings a fresh perspective to the Illinois pension crisis that I have not heard mentioned by any of our elected officials.  As most everyone knows, the Illinois General Assembly once again failed to take any legislative action to address the $95 billion pension liability currently facing Illinois.  Martire notes that the system has
just 40% of the funding they should have currently, which is well below the 80% generally deemed healthy for public systems.
However, he argues that instead of being upset at the lack of legislative action to cut almost $30 billion in benefits, we should be relieved, because such action would not have solved the problem.

Martire believes that benefits are not the true cause of the problem.  If the only issue facing the pension system were benefits, then the system would be about 70% funded, and there would be no crisis.  The major cause of the current pension crisis is not benefits, but rather debt.

Martire states
...for more than 40 years, the state used the pension systems like a credit card, borrowing against what is owed them to cover the cost of providing current services, which effectively allowed constituents to consume public services without having to pay the full cost thereof in taxes.
The problem is now the repayment schedule for this debt.  It is so back-loaded that making the payments is unreasonable.  Martire goes on to say
It is this unattainable, unaffordable repayment schedule that is straining the state's fiscal system--not pension benefits and not losses from the Great Recession.  And no matter how much benefits are cut, that debt service will grow at unaffordable rates.  Which means decision-makers can't solve this problem without re-amortizing the debt.
Martire also believes that re-amortizing this debt is an easy process, and should be pursued by our legislators.

I find it interesting (and disturbing) that this approach is receiving no attention in the General Assembly.  If, as Martire points out, cutting benefits does not solve the pension crisis, why wouldn't our legislators go after the real cause of the issue--debt?

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Review of "Why School?"

I recently read Will Richardson's, Why School?, and found it to be a thought-provoking book full of new challenges for public education.  The basic premise of the book is a discussion of how our public schools stay relevant when learning and information are no longer scarce.

Our public school system used to have a monopoly on information and learning.  However, access to technology has changed that paradigm.  Now, teachers are no longer the gate-keepers of information, because students can access far more knowledge than any educator has with a few clicks of the mouse...or touches of the screen.  Richardson argues that even though this access to teachers, learning and information is the new reality, public schools have stubbornly held on to their traditional structures for learning, which were developed in a different time to accomplish a different means.

Richardson stated,
If the primary goal for school remains educating our children well enough to "pass the test," getting them all to consume the "right" content and store the "right" answers, there will soon be better ways to do that than by sending our kids to school.
Whether we adults see it or not, my son, your daughter, our kids aren't waiting any longer for someone to tell them what to learn.
As schools learn to adjust to this new paradigm for learning, Richardson stated there are two different directions this change could take.  The first is to use technology to do what we are currently doing "better."  In other words, "let's deliver the old curriculum through new tools."  The second is to use technology to do things "differently", which includes changing the roles of teachers and classrooms.  The second approach is necessary for our public schools to remain relevant in the face of teachers and information no longer being a scarce resource.

In the second approach to change
The emphasis shifts from content mastery to learning mastery.  That means students have more ownership over their own learning, using their access to knowledge and teachers to create their own unique paths to the outcomes we, and they, deem important.
...assessments focus less on what student know, and more on what they can do with what they know.
Developing creativity, persistence, and the skills for patient problem solving, B.S.-detecting, and collaborating may now be more important than knowing the key dates and battles of the Civil War (after all, those answers are just a few taps on our phones away...
In this new world, where "curriculum is everywhere", how will our public schools stay relevant?  How will our public schools, which were developed to prepare kids to work in factories, adapt to this new paradigm where knowledge and teachers are no longer scarce?  That is the challenge we educators face, because failure to adapt will cause parents to start asking "Why School?"

Monday, January 7, 2013

Student Safety in District #1

As we start the second semester, the tragic and senseless violence that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut still weighs heavily on all of us.  In response, schools across the country are taking the opportunity to review their safety plans to ensure that our schools remain a safe haven for students.  District #1 is no exception to this process, as the Board of Education instructed the administrative team to review all District safety plans and make recommendations for improvement.

As a result, starting today, there will be some immediate changes incorporated that will be readily apparent to visitors at our schools.

1.  All staff members will be required to have their District photo I.D. visible at all times.
2.  All classroom doors will remain locked from the outside at all times.
3.  All visitors to our schools will be required to present and leave a photo I.D. to receive a visitors pass.  Upon leaving the school, the visitors pass should be returned to the main office and the photo I.D. will be returned. (Visitors who are just dropping off items for their children will not be required to present a photo I.D.)

The District has ordered a buzzer and camera entry system for both the Elementary School and the Middle School.  Once those have been installed, all schools will have identical secure entry systems.  Visitors to the schools will use the buzzer and then be asked to identify themselves and their purpose for entering the school.  Once buzzed in, all visitors should immediately report to the main office.

All of these changes are being put in place to further enhance the safe environment we offer our students in District #1.  The safety of our students has been, and will continue to be, our primary focus.  Should you have any specific questions regarding these procedures, please contact your child's building principal.  You can also leave questions as comments on this blog posting, and I will respond as soon as possible.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

January 3 Teacher Institute

On Friday, January 3, our teachers return from the Winter Break for an institute day.  Our staff development focus for this year is "Creating 21st Century Classrooms".  Each of our staff development days has been spent training our teachers on what we call "The Four C's" of a "21st Century Classroom".

1.  Communication
2.  Collaboration
3.  Creativity
4.  Critical Thinking

At the January 3 institute, we are going to take a step back and spend time digging deeper into some of the specific technology tools that have been introduced as a means of facilitating the transformation to "21st Century Classrooms".

Specifically, I will be presenting a session on using Twitter as both a professional development tool and as an instructional aide.  I will also be presenting a training on how to set up a Blogger account and use it as an instructional tool.

The ppt presentations for both sessions can be found on my wiki page.

Comments from my Twitter session will be posted on twitter under the hashtag #CCCUSD1.

Comments from the session on Blogger will be posted with this blog entry.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Continuous Improvement in Education

I recently came across this blog posting, which was shared with me via Twitter, entitled "If You Aren't Trying to Improve, You Really Aren't Doing Your Job."  This caused me stop and reflect on my professional responsibilities as not just a school administrator, but as an educator.  As we all get ready to embark on the second half of our school year, I thought this was a tremendous reminder of the importance of continuous improvement in our profession.

Every profession has a responsibility for continuous improvement.  We expect our doctor to utilize the current best practice in medical care.  We expect our lawyer to know the latest case law.  We expect our accountant to know the current tax code.  We expect our auto mechanic to know the current technology in our car and how to diagnose any problems.  If they were using the same practices they were 50 years ago, we would most definitely look elsewhere for such services.  If we expect...even demand...that our own service providers have taken responsibility for their own continuous improvement, then shouldn't we educators have that same responsibility?  Given what we now know about brain research, assessment, and the impact of technology on learning, shouldn't our classrooms look vastly different than they did 50 years ago?  Do they?

Mike Schmoker wrote "...there is indeed a yawning gap between the most well-known, incontestably essential practices and the reality of most classrooms."  The disturbing thing is, he posited this in his 2006 book, Results Now.  Since that time, I am not sure we are doing a much better job of reading, collaborating, implementing and assessing the latest that educational researchers have discovered about effective classroom instruction.

In the aforementioned blog posting, the author stated...

After a decade in the profession, I feel like there are really just two types of teachers: One wants to learn. The other believes she knows all she needs to know.

And, if you are the latter category, the author argues...

You’re just a body in a chair but not really an educator, not really someone whose job it is to cause learning.

As we start 2013, let's be sure that none of us are "just a body in a chair".  Instead, let's commit to being an educator who "wants to learn" and is committed to using every day as an opportunity to grow and become better at "causing learning" in our classrooms and our schools.

What actions will you take in 2013 to improve yourself as an educator?