Reality Bites

For those of you who follow my blog in some way (thanks Mom), you may have noticed that I haven’t posted for a while.  The truth is, I’ve been really busy.  But busy or not, I think its time to address an issue that’s having a major impact on school district’s around the nation.  It’s certainly had a negative impact at Sublette County School District 1 (SCSD 1) over the last five years and it appears as if the impact will not only continue, it will increase.  The topic, school funding…or more precisely the reduction of school funding.

Before you roll your eyes, scoff, or hit the back button, please know that the purpose of this post is not to weigh in on the virtue or necessity of these reductions (or lack thereof depending on your perspective).  I know you’re probably overexposed on that issue and it’s a different discussion for a different time.  The purpose of this post is to address the REALITY of these reductions and this post is meant primarily for the stakeholders of Sublette County School District #1.

As you may know, in many of my posts I try to find a way to connect what I want to say with a scientific theory, a scene from a movie, or some bit of pop culture.  My purpose in doing so is to try and find ways to make potentially complex educational and political issues more relevant to my readers who may not be educators.

In this case, there isn’t anything overly complicated about this issue, nor am I trying to connect a humorous analogy associated with this topic and the 90’s movie Reality Bites.  It’s just that as a result of the past, current, and probable future funding reductions to our school district, the educational outlook for our students, staff, and parents…for lack of a better term…BITES.

OUR PAST REALITY:  In 2013-2014, our school district  eliminated 10.5 full-time positions including 4.0 central office staff, 5.5 teaching positions, and 1.0 district-wide instructional support positions as well as $344,000 in non-personnel costs.

While we did lose some programs along the way, our Board of Trustees and Director of Business and Finance Vern McAdams worked hard to utilize a broad scale approach to budget reduction.  They prioritized the reduction of central office and district-wide support staff to limit the impact to the classroom.  When the reduction of classroom staff was necessary, we utilized attrition to save jobs for existing staff.  Additionally, a cost of living increase to district salary schedules had only occurred once in the last six years.

OUR PRESENT REALITY:  As I think EVERYONE in Sublette County knows, the downturn in the coal, oil and natural gas sectors is impacting budgets across the state of Wyoming, including education.  As a result, the current funding reduction plan for education is resulting in more cuts for SCSD 1.  Next year (2016-2017 school year) an additional 1.5 central office and student support positions will be eliminated as well as $507,000 in non-personnel costs, and once again there will be no cost of living increase to salary schedules.  In all reality, the additional cuts for next year aren’t nearly as significant in comparison to what other districts around the state are facing, e.g. our neighbors to the South, and that’s probably due in part to the cuts we made in 2013-2014 and the fact that our enrollment hasn’t dropped significantly.

I’m sure many of you may be thinking it’s about time school’s “trimmed the fat”, and you may be right.  Throughout this process, we have certainly sought ways to become more efficient, and I believe we have.  But the truth of the matter is that when we start the 2016-2017 school year, we will have 12 fewer staff members to support our students and teachers, and without private funding from local businesses like QEP and support from Sublette BOCES, that number could easily be 15, 18 or possibly more.

While budget reductions are often associated with reductions in student enrollment, to date that has not been the case in our district, so our staff members are doing more… often much more, with less.  In addition, our local funding partners are also experiencing revenue reductions, so we can’t assume that assistance will always be in place.

As a parent in our school district, here’s why that should concern you.  John Hattie is one of the worlds leading researchers on educational practice.  He has written several books that clearly delineate what works to raise student achievement and what doesn’t, even providing the relative impact (effect size) of each of these practices.

In two recent white papers, Hattie discussed the key elements to improving schools and systems, and the distractions that prevent us from doing so.  In short, the key role for schools and districts is to “…provide the resources, the forums and the emphasis on success in our schools.  Teachers, especially many successful teachers, are so busy in their orbits of classrooms that they need leaders and systems to be critical partners in building coalitions (1, 2).”

The coalitions referenced by Hattie  are the district-wide systems that:  1) provide teachers with the supports to continuously improve their practice,  and 2) assume management functions that allow building principals to focus on instructional leadership.  Hattie’s research indicates these components are critical functions for improving student achievement, yet the staff associated with these functions tend to be among the first reductions districts make.

As a result, districts are continually faced with a choice between retaining the person most critical to improving student achievement (the teacher), and the district-wide supports that improve teacher quality.   Catch-22, Morton’s Fork,…call it what you like, but districts are increasingly faced with budget reduction choices that will ultimately reduce our ability to move the needle on student achievement.   I would like to be able to tell you this is where the bad news ends…but I can’t.

OUR FUTURE:   Earlier this month, SCSD 1 Director of Business and Finance Vern McAdams updated our Board Finance Committee with some projections for the 2017-2018 budget.  There are a lot of moving parts to this kind of projection that won’t be determined for some time so the range is quite large, but we believe that we may be required to further reduce our general fund budget for the 2017-2018 school year by $250,000-$750,000, and perhaps even more, especially if our district experiences the kind of enrollment decreases that are being witnessed by some other districts in Wyoming.

Given the magnitude of these projections, we need to come to grips with our REALITY.  The fat has been trimmed from our budget and the next round of budget reductions will most certainly take meat off the bone.  What does that mean?  I think its important that you know. It will certainly result in a diminished capacity to provide the coalitions Hattie describes as necessary to improve our schools.  It could mean larger class sizes, the loss of student services, and the elimination of programs and/or activities.  

We spend approximately $225,000 more on student activities each year than the funding model provides.  Why?  We offer more sports than any school of our size in the state and the model barely funds our coaching salaries, let alone travel.  That’s $225,000 each year that doesn’t make it into our classrooms.  Fancy a discussion about which sports or activities will be eliminated in order to keep a classroom teacher?  That could be in our future.

Our high school has more “specialist” teachers than the model provides.  Why?  We feel it’s critical to provide our students with a well-rounded educational experience.   Anyone up for deciding if Art, Band, Choir, Ag, Industrial Technology or Physical Education should be eliminated from the high school curriculum?  Those courses are taught by “specialist” teachers.  The prospect of making that kind of difficult choice certainly BITES.  That too could be in our future.

And that’s just a sampling of the tough decisions our district will face in the coming months.  If your feeling a little frustrated at this point, you’re not alone.  Our school district is part of coalition that is actively advocating for a legislative solution that would reinstate the cuts to education funding, but the REALITY is that we cannot predict the outcome of those efforts, so we must plan for the reductions.

With that in mind, I would like to ask you for your help.  As our students return to school next September, SCSD 1 will begin two important processes.  The first is centered around the potential budget reductions that we face.

Based on the significant impact the budget reductions could have, we plan on expanding our typical budgeting process to significantly involve you, the stakeholder.  It is highly likely that the budget decisions will involve difficult choices and we will need your input to help us establish priorities for what appears to be inevitable programming and staffing reductions.

The second is our strategic planning process.  Every four years or so, we undertake a broad scale strategic planning initiative to establish our goals and priorities for the future.  Once again, we will need your input on determining these outcomes, especially in light of our diminishing resources.

I keep a bulletin board in my office covered with motivational quotes.  One of them says “There are two primary choices in life; to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.”  That sign reminds me to quit complaining about something and take responsibility for making it better.

But I’ve come to realize that I might have to change the “or” in my sign to an “and” on occasion.  Sometimes, part of taking responsibility for making something better might include accepting the conditions as they exist…even when I think that BITES.   

(1) Hattie, J. (2015). What doesn’t work in education: The politics of distraction. London, England: Pearson.
(2) Hattie, J. (2015). What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise. London, England: Pearson.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

There’s Something to See Here

If you’re a fan of 80’s comedies like I am, you count Naked Gun as one of the classics.  The “Nothing to See Here” scene in this film is one of my favorites.   Police Lt. Frank Drebin arrives on the scene of an exploding fireworks factory (where there is plenty to see) and emphatically states, “Move on, nothing to see here, please disperse!”   As a movie character, its Drebin’s propensity to miss the obvious that makes him funny.

Well folks, there are a lot of fireworks going off in terms of student performance in Wyoming, and I sincerely hope that we aren’t about to have Drebin moment.

After the Wyoming Supreme Court cases on education funding significantly increased the funding level for all school districts, the expectation from legislators and the media was that student performance would rapidly increase.  It didn’t, and during this time it was quite common to hear concerns from legislators and the media that Wyoming was not getting a good “bang for the buck” when it comes to education.  And in truth, we weren’t.  But like all good investments, the return on the investment is rarely immediate.

Wyoming educators of all description have asked for patience, noting that change takes time.  As a superintendent, I can speak personally to the fact that change in education does take time.  This is an industry that deals with human performance factors, and changing the factors that positively influence teaching and learning requires a lot of professional development, as well as changes in practice and behaviors; endeavors that are certainly time intensive.

But fireworks are beginning to go off.   A press release from the Wyoming Education Association noted that Senators Coe and Wasserburger, along with Representatives Northrup and Connolly, returned from the Council of State Governments-West (CSG West), and shared some positive numbers regarding education in Wyoming, that were presented to them in late July. Senator Coe and Representative Northrup are the co-chairs for the Education Committee. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, Professor of Education leadership and Policy Studies at the California Sacramento State University presented numbers to the CSG-West showing Wyoming leading the Western states in NAEP/TIMSS Science scores and sixth in the world. Wyoming’s NAEP/TIMMS Math scores also ranked first in the Western states and eighth in the world.  The statistical calculations by the National Center for Educational Statistics also show that Wyoming is statistically tied for number two in the world in Science, behind Finland.

Unlike our state-wide student assessments, the NAEP/TIMMS test is a stable, nationally recognized assessment, given world-wide.  Unlike our current state-wide student assessment, it can be used to make comparisons between the performance of Wyoming students and students in other states and countries.

The gains made by Wyoming schools the past few years, particularly in Math and Science, are no joke.  Second in the world in Science!  Sixth in the world in Math!   These results represent a lot of hard work by educators all across Wyoming, and I can only wonder if the same degree of effort will be made by our legislators and newspapers in acknowledging our successes, as was exerted in noting the lack of progress.   There are some significant fireworks to see here, and I genuinely hope that, collectively, we don’t seek to temper the good news.

That being said, there’s a broader point to be made.  As an educator, I’ve been keen to point out that test results are merely a snapshot in time, and the success of students should not be based solely on these kinds of tests.  It was all too easy for our critics to point to selected test scores and say that Wyoming education was failing.  It would be just as easy for the K-12 education community to note these high scores and take our foot off the gas.  Neither success, nor failure, are permanent states of being in education, and an over-reaction to either is detrimental to continuous improvement.

These scores are great news.  They are fireworks.  They are definitely something to see, and we should celebrate them.  They are not however, arrival at our destination, or the finale.  They are a way point on the road to continued success, just as failure is a different kind of way point on the same road.    We still have a lot of work to do, but when educators, legislators, and members of the media all begin to place both failure and success within the context of process, rather than product, I believe we will ignite even greater student achievement growth in Wyoming.

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The Scesis Increases

“Ello, I wish to register a complaint.”  So starts Monty Python’s famous Dead Parrot skit.  For fans of the Flying Circus, it’s a quintessential piece of British humor.  For those with an eye for analogy, it’s also a burning effigy of the current state of affairs for education accountability in America.

Often cited as the classic example of Scesis Onomaton, the best parts of the skit center around Mr. Praline’s attempts to convince the shopkeeper that he sold him a dead parrot; stating multiple times, and in multiple ways, that the bird is definitely…an “EX-PARROT”. Despite some really funny evidence to the contrary, the shopkeeper repeatedly refuses to admit that there’s anything wrong with the parrot.

For the better part of a decade, educators in public schools have been engaged in a scesis of our own; stating multiple times, and in multiple ways, that the populist movement to implement a high-stakes, test-based accountability model was a dead parrot.  And like Mr. Praline’s shopkeeper, policy makers have ignored a growing body of evidence that shows the current accountability model is driving the best and brightest away from of our industryhas narrowed the curriculumlowered student aspiration, and does nothing to improve student performance.   There’s nothing funny about that.

And now comes a report from Marc Tucker and the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), entitled Fixing Our National Accountability System.  Tucker, an internationally recognized expert on education reform, becomes the latest voice to increase the scesis.  Tucker’s report notes that “The test-based accountability system now universally mandated in the United States…has had ten years to prove itself.  The result is very low teacher morale, plummeting applications to schools of education, the need to recruit too many of our teacher from the lowest levels of high school graduates, a testing regime that has narrowed the curriculum for millions of students to a handful of subjects and a very low level of aspiration.  There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance, much less the improved student performance of the very low-income and minority students for which it was in the first instance created.”

Not to diminish the work of a great researcher like Mr. Tucker, but ‘Ello…school districts have been dealing with these issues for some time.  Teachers are leaving the industry in droves.  The reasons?  There are many, but stress levels for one.  And two, they now describe what used to be some of the most rewarding work on the planet as akin to punching rivets on an assembly line.

Not only are they leaving, they’re not coming in the first place.  Tucker states that “Test-based accountability and teacher evaluation systems do not simply fail to improve student performance.  Their pernicious effect is to create an environment that could not be better calculated to drive the best practitioners out of teaching and to prevent the most promising young people from entering it.”   As the British like to say, Mr. Tucker is spot on.  The number and quality of candidates our school district is seeing for most positions has decreased significantly over time, and as Tucker noted, fewer high school students see teaching as a career choice.  Why?  They just spent the better part of their adolescence with teachers, watching them work.  Our students have a firsthand view of what teaching has become under the currently accountability system, and they don’t want any part of it.

Add to that a student population that sees little value in the vast majority of accountability tests and therefore no interest in preparing for them, very little time for teachers to collaborate and perfect their craft, insufficient interest from teachers in leadership positions, and high turnover rates for principals and superintendents, and you get a system that’s become far more proficient at leaching the motivation, creativity and resilience from our students and educators than it ever was at improving student performance.

Famed management guru Peter Drucker is attributed with the quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.   As Tucker has pointed out, the negative culture created by our current accountability system is eating every strategy we throw at improving student performance for breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, and luncheon.  We can nail this dead parrot of an accountability system to the perch a thousand times, but until we focus on changing the culture that currently exists in public education in the United States, student performance isn’t going to “voom” if we put four million volts (or four billion dollars) through it.

The Dead Parrot skit, and coincidently this post, both start with the statement, “Ello, I wish to register a complaint.”  I think everyone who has a child in a public school has a complaint to register about the national accountability system, and to date, no one has more clearly articulated that complaint than Mark Tucker…and no one has provided a better starting point for a solution.   I hope you will add your voice to increasing the scesis on changing accountability in public schools.


P.S – If you don’t agree with the connected series of statements I’ve issued  in this post intended to establish my proposition, you may wish to visit the clinic.  If you’d prefer to simply contradict me, that’s fine.

P.S.S – My apologies for mixing my Monty Python and Tolkien metaphors.  Their both British.  That’s close enough…right?

 Tucker, M. S. (2014) Fixing Our National Accountability System.  The National Center on Education and the Economy.




Posted in Accountability, Student Achievement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

And a Butterfly Flapped Its Wings…

The Butterfly Effect is a term used for a small change in a sensitive system, that eventually results in large differences in the system at a later date.   It’s the notion that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo can cause a hurricane in the Bahamas.  It’s part of a larger mathematical concept called Chaos Theory, and it’s a concept educators know a little something about.

Most  people would like to believe that public education is a deterministic system. A system that is cause and effect, one in which the outcomes can be predicted from the inputs.  They believe improving student achievement is as simple as do this, fix that.   But I can tell you from first hand experience, that life for educators, and in particular teachers, is not that simple.  Currently, for Wyoming educators, it’s chaos.  And it’s far beyond a theory at this point.  It’s a reality.

Earlier this week, the Wyoming Supreme Court struck down SF 104.  I know a lot of you will want to insert your own political views at this point, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s set those aside and look at this in terms of Chaos Theory.   My stake in this isn’t the court’s decision; the only horse I have in this race is the inevitable Butterfly Effect, and it’s likely to be considerable.

Although the issues related to SF 104 have garnered a lot of attention, the truth is that the current educational weather pattern isn’t the result of seeing the occasional butterfly, flutterby,  it’s more like a monarch migration.

Research has shown that the leadership of school boards matters in improving student achievement.  School board elections occur every two years, and with them changing agendas, expectations, and beliefs about how the district should operate (FLAP).

Research has shown that district level leadership and the length of superintendent tenure is important in improving student achievement.  Yet the average tenure for superintendent’s tends to be about three years (FLAP, FLAP).

Research has shown that principal turnover adversely impacts schools, yet the average tenure for a principal is between three and four years (FLAP, FLAP, FLAP).  I wasn’t a math major, but it doesn’t take an overly analytical mind to notice that school boards tend to change every two years, superintendents every three, and principals every four (FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP).

Now consider the constant change associated with the types of topics that are dominating the educational climate such as education funding, high-stakes testing, accountability models, educator evaluation systems, increasing security threats, and the constant flutter from the adoption of the Common Core State Standards… (FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP).  I guess you get my point; our teacher’s wouldn’t bat an eye at Hurricane Katrina.  It’s the daily forecast.

For whatever reason, I’m drawn to severe weather, and I like to watch the Weather Channel when a big hurricane hits somewhere.  They always have that one poor reporter standing out in the middle of it all, showing how they can barely stand up to the elements.  If you think that’s what it’s like to be in education these days, you’re wrong.  Look over the reporter’s shoulder, at the nut job surfing the storm surge, reveling in the chaos, refusing the disaster and creating art from it, then you’re beginning to get a sense of what it takes to be teacher these days.

So as our legislators continue to sort out who’s going to run the Wyoming Department of Education, please remember that the butterflies flapping in Cheyenne often end up creating quite a storm in our little corner of the world.   If you happen to come across one of our fine educators in the near future, and they look like they’ve been caught in a hurricane, don’t hesitate to offer them a flotation device of some sort.  They might just need it.

Posted in Pinedale Schools | 6 Comments

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Careful dear citizens if you decide to dip your toe into the turbulent pool that is the 24 hours news cycle.  It’s ugly out there.  The federal government is shut down.  Congress appears historically dysfunctional.  And the national debt is pinned against the ceiling.

Wyoming isn’t exactly a wellspring of good news either.  The running gun battle between State Superintendent Cindy Hill and various members of the Wyoming legislature has resulted in a hailstorm of reports and subpoenas.  And op-ed pieces in the Casper and Cheyenne papers continue to condemn the state of education in Wyoming.

Given all of the depressing news and Justin Bieber stories (wait…are those different things?) that seem to be darkening our televisions, mobile devices and radios, I thought you might like something, in the immortal words of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, completely different.

The students, teachers and staff at your local school district have plenty of good news for you:

ACT Longitudinal - Comp2Pinedale High School ACT scores have been on the rise for the last three years.  Our district ranked 24th in the state in 2010, but our ACT scores are now second in the state.  And that’s no accident.  The teachers and students at PHS have been working extremely hard to make that happen.  Congrats to all!

District MAP Math 2013

Our teachers continue to do an amazing job of ensuring their students each year.  We use a test called the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) to measure annual student growth.  The makers of the test state that teachers who have 60% of their students meet or exceed their yearly growth target have a “high growth” classroom.  Take a minute to look at the chart on the left and you will see what kind of annual growth results our teachers are getting. 

Record Bridge BreakingIn a matter of two short years, SCSD #1 has gone from a district with minimal technology in the classroom, to one of the most technologically advanced schools districts in Wyoming.  Every student in grades 3-12 is issued a mobile device by the district, and students in grades K-2 have access to computer labs and iPads.  Our students are now putting this technology to use in the classroom and enhancing their 21st Century skills on a regular basis.  And our cloud computing solution means that we have the ability to extend learning to students beyond the classroom, at home and elsewhere.

IMG_8208SCSD #1 has committed to modeling environmental responsibility for our students.   In 2012, we partnered with Encana and Pinedale Natural Gas to open the first public/private compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling station in Wyoming, and we began the process of converting our bus fleet to CNG.   The district now has four CNG buses, and we will continue to transition more of our fleet to CNG each year; and local businesses and government agencies can fuel their vehicles at the public station.  In June of 2013, Governor Matt Mead attended the grand opening of the station and filled his vehicle with CNG to help us celebrate this accomplishment.

Cover Page PhotoPinedale Middle School teacher Dr. Steven Miller is one of three finalists for the Wyoming teacher of the year.  I don’t think anybody that knows Dr. Miller is surprised by this.  While finalizing his doctoral degree last year, Steve also led our middle school Math Counts team to a state championship.  Then he started working with PMS special education teacher Gabe Griffin on an online intervention program for students that are struggling with math.

troutLast April, our high school art students and PHS art teacher Diane McLean continued a decade of visual arts dominance by winning the statewide “Traveling Trout” Art competition.  The last statewide competition of this type, which was held five years ago, was also won by Mrs. McLean and her classes when bears were the centerpiece animal.   The trout will be on display around the state before coming home to PHS.  The winning bear sculpture, “On Thin Ice” can be seen in the auditorium lobby.

In order to be blog brief, I’ll stop here.  In doing so I’ve left out a great many accomplishments by our hard-working students and staff, and for that I’ll apologize in advance.  But take heart Pinedale, and maybe turn off the news feed for a few days.  The next generation of leaders is doing some great things right here in your own public school system.  Stop in and visit a classroom.  Or come to a sporting event, band concert, or a play.  Just take a minute to get to see what’s going on at SCSD #1.  We believe you’ll feel good about your tax dollars at work.  You might even have your faith in government renewed.   Just kidding about the government part.  I’m realistic.

Posted in Pinedale Schools

And Is Better Than Or

I spend a lot of time thinking about strategic planning.  I think a good strategic plan is an integral part of a successful school district.   As a part of that, I spend a lot of time looking at mission statements.  Rousing stuff I know…but a good strategic plan is carefully aligned to the district’s mission statement.  One thing you’ll find in the mission statement of most school districts, in one version or another, is a reference to being a life-long learner.

I think you’ll find those references to life-long learning are there for a couple of reasons.  One is that it sounds really good.  Somewhere along the line, “life-long learning” became part of the educational zeitgeist for school districts.  But prior to that, as our nation began to make the transition from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, I think good school districts began to understand that the metacognitive ability of students was as important (or perhaps more important), than the individual or collective content matter being provided.   Translation,  learning how you learn is as important as what you learn.  And I would argue, given the nature and influence of technology in our society, it’s never been more important.

Research shows that most of our students will make several career changes in their lifetime, and even those that don’t, will need new knowledge and skills as their industry changes over time.  Education is my second career, and it certainly required a change in skills and knowledge for me.  But the skills I have needed within education have also changed dramatically over time.  The skills I need to be a superintendent are different than the skills I needed as a teacher.  And the skills and knowledge you need to be a successful teacher today, are different than teachers needed 10 years ago.

So, we need to prepare students to be life-long learners.  That’s yesterday’s news you say.  That is old news, but the conversation about HOW we do that isn’t.  For students to learn how they learn, they ultimately need lots of opportunities to monitor their learning and adapt their own learning strategies.  For this to occur, they need to be placed in a variety of academic situations where they are challenged to the point of failure.  Don’t panic.  This doesn’t mean students are on the verge of getting an F in a class, it means that individual assignments are highly rigorous, and they challenge the student’s current learning pathways.  For the fitness buffs in the crowd, think about the technique of muscle confusion.   These types of academic challenges drive learning adaptation, and establish new learning pathways for the student which they will then begin to understand and apply in different situations.

My real point here, as obtuse as I have probably made it, is that in an effort to effectively prepare our students who want to go to college, we’ve forgotten some good old Wyoming horse sense.  Not every kid is going to go to college.  Dang right, say those people who want to see our high school with less emphasis on college preparation.  Well, if you’re one of those people, you might not like what I’m going to say next.

As a popular advertising advertising campaign for Ford says, “And Is Better Than Or“. Throughout the country, schools are working to prepare their students for college AND career readiness, not college OR career readiness.  Somewhere along the way we’ve come to equate the learning pathway for career track students as the less rigorous track, when its my belief that it should be the MORE RIGOROUS track.

If the sum total of a student’s formal education will be K-12, where will they obtain the metacognative (life-long learning) skills that other students are getting while at college?  Where will they face the rigorous cognitive challenges that drive learning adaptations and develop new learning pathways and skills?  In the workplace?  I can tell you that’s not what our employers want.  They don’t want to teach those skills.  They expect them to come with the employee.  And beyond the work world, the challenges each of our students face in life, will be similar for everyone.

So, if we are going to work towards true equity for all students, the students who are not choosing college as an option should be equally (or more) prepared with metacognitive skills at the high school level, than those who will have additional opportunities to learn those skills at the post-secondary level.   That means our career and technical tracks should be as rigorous as the one college bound students take.  Does that mean every student should take Calculus?  Of course not, but right now, the majority of our most challenging coursework occurs in our college prep courses.

The solution lies in collectively agreeing that our career track students will benefit from our college track courses as well as ensuring that all of our courses meet the same standard of rigor and higher order thinking skills.  I can tell you from personal experience, that my brain works harder at understanding small engines and miter joints than it does mitochondrial DNA.  Everyone has different intelligences.  The key is to get students outside of their academic comfort zone, and force them to learn new ways to learn things.  For many students who feel comfortable in career track courses, this may mean taking courses like Algebra II or Physics.

For career track students, taking these classes doesn’t mean we’re trying to cram them down the college path, it just means that we want to send them into the world prepared to deal with any learning challenge they might face.  It also means beefing up the rigor of classes where they do feel comfortable by including STEM topics and 21st Century skills.  Most importantly, it means that everyone involved in the life of our students believes that all students can learn at a high level, AND that they SHOULD learn at high levels, regardless of what choice they will be making after high school.  College AND career ready is certainly better than college OR career ready.

Posted in Career Readiness

A Graduation By Any Other Name…

A few weeks ago, the Wyoming Department of Education released the 2011-2012 graduations rates for the state and its individual districts.  The state average was down 0.85% to 78.9%.  Two years ago, I wrote a blog describing how absurd the federal government calculates graduation rates.  I’m not going to say it’s laughable, but Will Rogers famous quote “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts” certainly comes to mind.

To make a long story short, thousands of school personnel nationwide have been become responsible for tracking and documenting the movements and educational choices of our students.  Many of these people don’t care to be tracked and make our job exceptionally difficult.  Based on Glen Beck’s reaction to the Common Core State Standards, he’d probably have a stroke if knew the kind of data they expect us to glean from people no longer living in our school district (or Wyoming, or United States for that matter).

The bottom line, and the bone I’ve been publicly chewing on for the last five years, is that any student who fails to graduate in their prescribed four years is considered a drop out using the current calculation.   The WDE (under federal guidance), does keeps track of five and six year graduation rates, but these rates aren’t reported as a part of a district’s “official” graduation rate (the rate that is released to the public).  I guess my question is this, “Does it really matter how long it takes a student to graduate?”

Life happens people.  Our students experience accidents, illness, and family issues among other stressors in their lives.  And some of you would faint if you knew how many of our kids are working 20 plus hours a week on top of school and extracurricular activities (many  as significant contributors to the family income).

It would be nice if every student came to school every day completely prepared to learn.  But they don’t.  And for many of our students, the reasons they don’t are beyond their control (and ours for that matter).

So why does it matter if it takes them longer than four years to graduate?  I think the folks making these laws need to ask themselves this question?  Did I graduate college in four years?  If not, did it matter?  I think not.  I don’t see a lot of employers asking prospective job candidates if they got their diploma in four years.  Either you got it, or you didn’t.  You’re still a college graduate either way.  Why should high school be any different.

Over the last three years, the graduation rate at Pinedale High School has increased to 91.03%.  We’re proud of that fact; and it represents a lot of hard work by our students, parents, faculty, and staff.  But that statistic leaves out some pretty significant accomplishments by some really great kids that occurred at our alternative setting this year.

The whole thing kind of reminds me of an old joke.  What you call the guy who graduated last in his class at med school….Doctor.  The powers that be should be more concerned with how many of our students actually cross the finish line rather than what place they’re in.   Congratulations to all of our 2012-2013 graduates and their families.  No matter how the government classifies you, we’re proud of you.

Posted in Graduation Rates | Tagged | 2 Comments

Tinker(ing) with Accountability

Drive-by Education Experts

Tinker vs. Des Moines was a landmark legal case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court that established the rights of students.  In essence, the case established the fact that students do not “abandon their rights at the school-house door”.    The fact of the matter is that students don’t abandon a lot of things at the school-house door.  They don’t abandon addiction and abuse.   They don’t abandon cognitive delays and language barriers.  They don’t abandon homelessness and hunger.

During the Senate Education Committee on HB0091 and HB0072, Sen. Chris Rothfuss proposed an amendment that would establish a pilot project for one district to use a 360 degree evaluation as a part of the accountability process.  Taking a nod from the business world, 360 degree feedback systems have become popular in education and are a good way of using multi-source feedback to improve performance.  We require all of our administrators to conduct a 360 degree assessment and are considering one for use by our board of trustees.  I commend Sen. Rothfuss for his thinking.  From my perspective, it could be another “club in our bag”, in terms of improvement.

But as a member of the Senate Education Committee, I would also challenge Sen. Rothfuss and all Wyoming legislators to extend their thinking beyond just monitoring student performance when it comes to using a 360 degree approach.  A well established body of research shows that outside of school factors must be addressed if policy makers wish to truly improve educational performance.   The importance of these outside-school factors should also caution against policies that simplistically attribute student test scores to teachers.

The landmark study that started the “school effects” debate was the Coleman Study.  With over 650,000 students in the sample and resulting in over 700 pages, it was one of the largest studies ever conducted at that time.   Entitled “Equality of Educational Opportunity”, it evaluated how a student’s background and socioeconomic factors affect their performance.  It’s a debate that continues to this day, but it doesn’t seem to be a part of the debate in Wyoming (or anywhere else for that matter outside of research papers).

If 360 degree evaluations are good for businesses and schools, why wouldn’t they be good for educational accountability as a whole?    Why wouldn’t our legislators want to track the “outside-of-school” factors that research has shown to affect student performance as much or more than things like teacher quality;  factors like poverty, access to health care, malnutrition, truancy rates, and high-speed internet access?  Factors our legislators could influence with policy, just as they are doing with education.  

Make no mistake, I’m not trying to divert the accountability discussion, just broaden it.  School districts in Wyoming need to name our challenges and own them.  We need to take responsibility for every student that walks through our doors.   State-wide, there’s an army of people working on that issue.  But the reality is that we don’t own some of the biggest challenges we face.  To ignore this fact, fails to incorporate the basic tenets of multi-source feedback for performance improvement.

Our district uses a balanced scorecard to monitor quality indicators for our district.  These quality indicators are aligned to our strategic plan.  It’s a common practice as a part of good strategic planning.  These quality indicators include more than just student performance measures, as we know that there’s more to a providing a quality education than high stakes test results.  We measure a broad range of factors that include everything from the percentage of network uptime to a self-evaluation process for our board of trustees.  I don’t see any reason our legislators can’t begin to monitor the full spectrum of factors that affect student performance, including the out-of-school factors, and take policy steps to positively affect these factors too.

I often hear our legislators say that they just want to improve the quality of education in Wyoming.  If that’s true, the research is clear.  We have to do more than just focus on the in-school factors.  Sen. Rothfuss is right.  It’s time we begin to consider evaluating performance from a 360 degree perspective.  But, we need to put the child in the center of that data collection circle, rather than just the teacher.

Posted in Accountability | Tagged

The Surgery Was A Success…But The Patient Died

I know a lot of you probably suspected as much, but I just wanted to officially confirm that according to Einstein, I’m insane.   Or maybe I’m just a fanatic.   The scary possibility (probability?) is that when it comes to the current direction of our nation’s educational accountability systems, I’m both.   Perhaps that’s not what you want to hear from the guy in charge of your child’s education, but in the words of Henry Ward Beecher, “No man is sane who does not know how to be insane on proper occasions.”

So after listening to the discussions regarding the future of Wyoming accountability system at the Senate Education hearings this morning, I find myself sitting here in front of my computer doing the same thing I have for the last three years, mind unchanged.   Years of work and millions of dollars are going to be invested in a comprehensive accountability system for Wyoming schools that will still be asking the wrong questions, will still be implementing school reform principles that don’t work , and will still lack the capacity building structures that have made educational systems like Finland’s successful.

While that may sound hypercritical of many who are working hard to make education in Wyoming better, please don’t take it as such.   The legislators and consultants working to improve the educational outcomes in the United States and Wyoming are good, caring people.  And they know that the United States just isn’t stacking up when it comes to our performance on international comparative benchmarks like the PISA.  The problem however , is that we are using data from international benchmarking and state-level assessment data to support our existing beliefs about good accountability systems rather than using this data as a springboard to true reform.  Andreas Schleicher, Head of Indicators an Analysis at the OECD, likens this to a drunken driver who looks for his lost keys under a street light rather than where he lost them because it was the only place he could see.

It’s time that we start looking for our keys where we left them.  That will require addressing more than just a system that monitors performance.  Currently we care more about keeping score than coaching the players.  Changing our performance will require addressing factors like teacher and principal preparation programs, the nature of teacher tenure, and developing state departments of education that focus on capacity building supports more than they focus compliance.  It will require making a transition to an inquiry based system of instruction rooted in 21st century skills.  Yes, we will have to focus our energy on broad reaching, complex problems and create solutions for these problems rather just watching the scoreboard.

And more than anything else, it will require time, patience, and political support. And let’s be honest, when I say political support, I really mean support from organizations like the Wyoming Business Alliance and other similar organizations nation-wide.  These types of organizations have been adamant that the quality of education improve, and rightly so.  The members of these organizations are the kinds of opinion leaders (and campaign contributors) that can get broad policy changes to the forefront of the political conversation.

But, if you are a member of one of those organizations and you happen to be reading this, I’ve got some bad news for you.  The policy found in HB0091 and HB0072 might look like a great remedy for what ails you, but in the long run, you’re merely treating symptoms, not finding a cure.  I certainly can’t blame you for supporting this legislation, as I’m sure it looks like the only treatment option available.  But I’m here to tell you, while it might very well raise our state-level test scores, IT WON’T RESULT IN A STUDENT BETTER PREPARED FOR COLLEGE OR THE WORKPLACE.

Unless we change the instructional focus of our teachers by changing the types of tests we’re giving, focus on proven school reform research, and build capacity supports for all schools, the accountability systems that you are counting on to improve our educational systems aren’t going to produce the kinds of workers that we want (and the kind of students that WOULD perform well on a test like the PISA).  You can make the accountability systems as elegant and complex as you want.  And you can collect terabytes of data on student performance, and fire as many administrators and teachers as you want.  But in the end, you’ll be just as crazy as me.

I truly believe it’s the financial and political clout of our businesses that can make reform possible.  While our legislators are involved in this process, our businesses have a pig level commitment just like we do.  Why?  It’s your livelihood, just like it’s mine.  And it’s the future of our local and national economies that’s at stake.  So, while there’s still enough time to get a second opinion from…I don’t know, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, I guess I’m asking you to do just that.   This is major surgery we’re talking about.  Let’s don’t look back on this process in ten years and say the surgery was a success, but the patient died.

Posted in 21st Century Skills, Accountability | Tagged | 4 Comments

Changing the District Calendar: A Disciplined Approach to Improvement

It seems that almost every year I end up writing a post about our district calendar.    Creating an effective calendar is a balancing act between the needs of the district and the needs of our parents and community.   The district utilizes a calendar committee to gather input from our employees and the community for the purpose of providing the Board of Trustees with recommendations on future calendars.    Identifying the needs of the district is pretty straightforward.  Identifying the needs of our parents and the community can be a little more difficult.

Dr. Steve Miller was the chair of calendar committee.  At the December board meeting, he presented the calendar committee recommendations to our board of trustees.  Many of the committee’s recommendations reinforced components of the calendar that have been in place for many years, including the start and end dates, and the timing of our Christmas and spring breaks.

A couple of the recommendations however, would bring change to our calendar.  One of the recommendations was to stagger the dates of our parent-teacher conferences on different nights for each of our schools.  This would allow parents with students in multiple schools greater flexibility in meeting with teachers.  I think our parents will see the immediate value in this.

The recommendation that will have the greatest impact on parents, addresses the need for our district to deal with student and teacher absentee rates related to activities, and the need for collaborative work time for our teachers.  As many of our 6-12 parents know, activity travel in Wyoming is a unique animal.  It’s not uncommon for our students to miss significant amounts of instructional time as a result of long bus rides to contests.  In an effort to address this issue, the calendar committee recommended that we identify high-absence Fridays (based on activities at the high school) and other logical dates (end of quarter) to schedule half-days for students, while teachers work a full day.

While I support this action to reduce absenteeism and increase instructional time, I prefer a more consistent format that includes an early release every Friday during the school year.  The proposed release time would be 1:30 PM for the high school and middle school and 1:55 PM for the elementary school.  It is important to note that this change would reduce our total instructional time, however we increased the length of our school day this year, and as a result we would still have more total instructional time than we have had in the past.  This calendar would also provide our teachers with much needed collaborative work time and allow our parents to plan for this time on a regular basis.   It’s a calendar variation that’s being regularly used throughout Wyoming by other districts with success.

It’s certainly an added responsibility for our parents in terms of child care; an area of concern that was discussed by our Board of Trustees.  However our teachers are facing an unprecedented work load beyond their regular teaching duties.  The State of Wyoming has adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and a new accountability system is poised to tie teacher evaluation to student achievement.  While we don’t yet know what the state assessment system will look like, we do know that the new assessments will be testing students on the CCSS.  And as a result, every district in Wyoming is working furiously to implement the new standards so that our teachers and students can be well prepared to take the new accountability assessments.

On the surface, it doesn’t sound that difficult to adopt new standards.  In reality it’s a herculean task given our current timelines.   Add to that the work the district is doing on instructional strategies, 21st century skills, and implementing technology, and it’s not hard to understand why our teachers need  some dedicated time for curriculum work, collaboration, and professional development.

Until now, we’ve schedule work time for these types of activities on a few half days throughout the year.  The fact is that we just can’t accomplish all of the work our teachers and administrators need to do outside the classroom during a few half days throughout the year.  Much like fitness, the most effective means for improvement is a dedicated approach, and we will need to work out every week in order to get things in shape for the new accountability system.  Add to this the benefits of reduced teacher and student absenteeism from activity travel, and we think the proposed calendar will help us continue to improve the quality of the education our students receive at SCSD 1.


Posted in Accountability, District Calendar | Tagged | 3 Comments