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?