Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I'm A Wee Bit Confused!

Over the past few days I have been catching up on some reading on my favorite topic . . . education! And at this point, I must say that I am becoming more and more confused about one aspect of a trend we are seeing as well as the direction that many of the leaders in our profession say that we need to go. For the better part of the past eight or nine years, there have been very strong calls for beefed up instruction and performance in math and science as well as more extensive use of technology in the education of our children. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been made available to public schools from different levels of government and grants from numerous foundations, such as the Gate's Foundation. Schools have worked to improve programs and some have been founded as magnet schools. STEM has become an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. We educators have been constantly reminded how our students are behind their peers in other nations. There is no doubt that we have to improve in these critical areas and many individuals in my position are seeking ways to do that with the shrinking budgets we have and other obstacles that exist in our profession. How to get this done is just a small part of my confusion. In fact, I believe that we have a number of great possibilities on the horizon that can be implemented, such as the Iowa Core Curriculum, changes in instructional strategies, better assessment, and perhaps even one-to-one computers. I trust that this will sort itself out in the next couple of years!

Now that there are possibilities out there, I wish I hadn't taken the time to read some of the articles I read the past few days! I am perplexed! First of all, I read an article that summarized comments made by the Obama administration's basketball-playing Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. I had a chance to listen to him in person in Washington, DC this past July and was very impressed by him as a leader as well as the direction that the Obama administration is carving for education. Anyway, in this article Duncan stated that "education leaders in the United States must work to close the digital divide and ensure that all students have access to top-notch technology, while at the same time using technology not just for technology's sake, but as a game-changing learning tool." I buy into that 100%. He then adds "we need to be much more creative and innovative in how we do things. For instance, students today use cell phones and PDAs on a regular basis, so coming up with creative ways to deliver content and curriculum and curriculum involving technologies that students like to use is one way to grab students' attention." Again, I am on board there, recognizing that we have an outdated philosophy on these devices as evident by the policies against them that we have in many schools, ours included.

Then I read an article about a brand-spanking-new magnet school slated to open next fall in Paradise Valley Unified School District in Arizona. The purpose of the school is to boost the number professionals in science and technology related industries in that state. It is called The Center for Research in Engineering, Science, and Technology. This STEM -- science, technology, engineering, math -- school will have a hands-on curriculum with a focus on biotechnology projects and all the latest and greatest in terms of technology and equipment. They will also have the best and brightest teachers that can be hired. With all we are hearing about how we are falling so far behind in math and science and that crisis awaits, Arizona is making a huge commitment to turn that around. Yet, only 60 students have applied for the 150 slots available for the first class! What's that all about? It doesn't sound like the Field of Dreams philosophy of "build it an they will come" proves out in this respect. This sounds like something Duncan has encouraged, yet it is struggling to attract students.

After that, from the Washington Post I read Fewer High School Students Taking Computer Science Classes. You can tell by the title what this one said! As we all know, it is hard to find a student that doesn't know how to navigate the the Internet to do research, socialize with Facebook, text or tweet on their cell phone, or play a video game. Just sit outside an American high school or middle school at the end of the school day and you will see that vast majority of students using devices when they walk out the door that they have been denied the use of inside! But just as our kids are using more technology, very few of them know how computers and the Web actually work. Throughout the country fewer students are taking computer science classes, to the extent that many schools, with choices to make because of budgetary problems, are dropping course offerings in this area. The College Board has even made the decision to cancel one of its AP computer science classes. Chris Stephenson, executive director of the New Your-based Computer Science Teachers Association stated in reference to our high school students "their knowledge of technology is very broad but very shallow." The implications for this is that we are creating a generation of teenagers that use computers at a very high level yet will most likely not have the know-how to contribute to the way that computer technology will shape lives in the future. Again, this decline in computer science education comes at a time when our political leaders are hammering away that we need to improve math, science and technology skills for our future workforce.

As I said before, I am confused! However, I do believe that we have to move beyond the common practice of using computer technology as a tool and use it to truly integrate instruction and learning. It is so much more than an electronic pencil and paper with a capacity to connect our students with learning that goes far beyond the walls of the classroom. This has to be our aspiration!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Juniors Come Through On ITED's

We received the results of our annual battery of tests associated with the Iowa Tests of Educational Development and are very pleased with the performance of our junior class. While we had improvement at the other grade levels, the juniors take on special significance because this is the grade level that we have to report out to the Department of Education and is thus the one that is used to measure our success in accordance with guidelines established with No Child Left Behind. The very good news is that 87.6% of our juniors scored at or above the proficient level in reading comprehension. That score does put us above the state trajectory and is a significant improvement over our scores from last year.

In math, the level of proficiency was also good -- 77.5% -- but not as high as we would like to see in relation to the trend line. It was just a little bit higher last year, but when one looks at performance over the past eight years, the level has been relatively constant. It is an area that we need to see continued growth in to meet the trajectory goals for the state and one where we need to dig into the data to gained a better understanding of everything from instruction to student performance.

The junior's performance in science was also very strong and exceeded the trajectory level established by the DE. At NFHS, 88.8% of the juniors were proficient. And, it was in this content area that we had the largest pecentage of "high performance" students and the lowest percentage of "low performing" students. All of this points to solid understanding of the concepts included on the ITED in this content area as well as close alignment of the concepts and skills that are taught.

We put an incentive in place this year that challenged students to put forth their best effort. Many of them showed solid improvement as 58% of all of our students 9-12 met at least one of three improvement/performance criteria. If they did not have a strong sense of purpose on these tests in the past, this incentive worked for at least a few of them. In the end, our goal is that all of our students show progress each year on these tests. They are the measure used by our Department of Education to demonstrate how well our school is doing. The problem over the years has been that students see no directed benefit for them. We all know that intrinsic motivation is much stronger than external, but until the "system" has something else in place, we use what we can to emphasize to students that these tests are important. In the last few years, NFHS has also started to put these scores on transcripts and they are required on applications for Dollars for Scholars.

Once we sort through all of the results, we will have reports ready for conferences in the spring and we will also report out on other things that we discover about our student's performance. However, this first snapshot is very good news for our school and does lend some support to let us know that we are on the right track.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The New Face of College Students: It's Never Too Late!

In the Des Moines Register this morning, I read an article about a woman who earned a diploma from North Carolina Central University with a 3.98 GPA in pharmaceutical sciences. This was after growing up in a low-income family in Utica, NY, earning a scholarship to Northeastern University in Boston nearly twenty years ago, dropping out of college at least twice due to family issues, getting married and having two children, and holding a variety of jobs. Catherine McNamara attended a total of five colleges over 17 years and despite life's interruptions, persevered and will graduate this month. As she was quoted in the Associated Press article, education "is the one thing you've earned for yourself that absolutely no one can take away from you."

McNamara is the face of the new college students. For the past five to ten years, community colleges have shown a significant increase in enrollment due to an influx of "non-traditional" students, and so have colleges and universities. What are non-traditional students? By most definitions it would be one that does not fall between the ages of 18-24, but also would include individuals who may attend part-time, care for dependents, or perhaps work full time while enrolled. According to recent statistics, about one-third of all college students now fall into this category of "non-traditional."

What I also found interesting as I read further is that McNamara is an even greater success story because she will actually graduate. 80% of community college graduates state that they hope to earn a bachelor's degree, yet only 10% do and it looks like the longer it takes the less likely they are go finish. Financial aid starts to run dry and life's other demands start weighing more on the student's priorities. But, when we look at students who go right on to college from high school, the completion rate is not much different. While over 80% of high school students in Iowa graduate, the percentage that actually complete either an associates (2-year) or a bachelors (4-year) degree is less that 20% of those that start college. It is a huge problem when one considers that in our "flattening" world, this kind of advanced education/training is going to be imperative for young people to get a job!

What is the take home on this? First of all, individuals like Catherine McNamara should be considered role models as despite significant odds, she got a college degree and will get a good job. A college diploma is worth about a million dollars over a worker's lifetime, thus it is imperative that we look beyond a high school education. Students must be challenged in high school and prepared to take on the rigor of college. No more "senior slackers" or "senioritis" can be tolerated. Colleges and universities are going to have to change the way that they teach students. Like high schools, they are going to have to recognize that there is valid research that provides a road map to how students learn best. Learning must be more relevant and more importantly, students must learn how to learn. Very few high school students today will have one career or job in their lifetime. Christine McNamara recognized that no one could take that education away from her and now she is set to make a better life for herself and her family.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Snow Days

As I caught up on some work and spent some time cooped up at home, it struck me that it isn't nearly as much fun to have a snow day as a principal as it was when I was a kid. I suppose it's because when I was younger I liked being out in the snow and having fun. Now, snow is a pain in the you know what! Don't get me wrong, I love to ski, but we are a long ways away from the mountains and I couldn't have gotten there if I wanted to the past couple of days! However, I do know that this time of year a teacher doesn't mind a snow day as it gives them a chance to catch up. In conversations that I had this morning, I heard of a number of essays that got corrected and some other things done that had been put off. Of course, when we lose a couple of days like this it causes us to reschedule days and events. At this point we have rescheduled our basketball games with West Central for this Saturday afternoon. I don't know about you, but I don't mind a Saturday afternoon basketball game. Colleges play a lot of games at that time and it sure beats getting home late on Saturday night. We have not rescheduled the wrestling match from Thursday night, though we will make every effort to get that done. There have been some questions about why we played boy's basketball last night in New Hampton, but did not wrestle at Edgewood. The answer is quite simple: folks in New Hampton said that the roads were okay in their direction and after making certain that our players could get into town to take the bus, we agreed to go ahead. In the case of Edgewood, we were told by school personnel down there that they questioned whether or not we could even get into town. It is also good to note this time of year that some districts do have a policy that states specifically that if they are not in school because of snow, they will not have any extracurricular events that night. We do not have that policy in our district and our decisions are guided by the safety of our students. We will make every effort to make a cautious decision with the information we have available.

For those of you keeping score, due to the two snow days we had this week, our last day of school is now May 27. This is probably why I really don't like snow days: I would much rather have a day off in May when the weather is nice than in snowy December! None the less, I am sure that we are in for some more interesting weather this winter. With the weather we have had throughout 2009, your guess is as good as mine as to what is in store!

Be sure to check out the January newsletter late next week on the district web site. It is located under the high school link. We will have semester test information posted as well as other information you will find interesting. And, if your son or daughter is a senior, ask them about the guidance newsletter they were given this week. Mr. Clark has included a lot of very good information that you need to know!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

This blogging thing!

This is the first posting of my blog. I have to admit that until recently, I was reluctant to to take this step. But after looking through a number of blogs, wikis, and Facebook pages developed and used by teachers and administrators, I can see the value in having a blog to share my thoughts and information with others, particularly the North Fayette community. I am a slow learner, and I tend to let things sit for a while before I finish them, so this blog will most likely go through an evolution over the next few months before it becomes what I want it to be. I can assure you that my goal will be to keep it current and provide you with relevant information as it applies to our school and education.

I do want to draw your attention to our electronic newsletter that can be accessed on our school website. The Raptor is produced monthly and is designed to keep readers current on what is happening at North Fayette High School as well as provide information about the status of education in Iowa and the nation. My intent with this blog is to address issues that come up between newsletters, but also to provide a forum for discussion. I don't have the whole comment aspect of a blog figured out yet, but plan to provide that in the future. Give me a couple of weeks!

There may be times that I deviate from the topics of North Fayette and education, so please allow me the latitude to include other topics of importance to me. My thought is that there are some things related to what I do that may be of interest to individuals who read the blog.

I do want everyone to understand the the opinions expressed in this blog are mine and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the North Fayette Community School District. In some instances I anticipate that I will take a position that is not popular among some, and I hope that if nothing else, you will think about what I have to say. Civil discourse is a cornerstone of our most fundamental right of freedom of speech. There are times when a lot of good can come from sharing different opinions and perspective.

So, I am off into a new venture and I guess that now I can consider myself a blogger! Ultimately I hope that because of this source of communication, our educational programs at North Fayette High School will grow and continue to meet the needs for our students in this ever-changing world.