Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Magnet schools I’d like to see

Our school district is thinking about turning one of our elementary schools into a magnet school. I think it would be great if the district could make a magnet school work, though I do have some questions about the idea. In any event, the news got me thinking about what sort of magnet school “themes” I’d find most appealing. Here are my ideas:

  • School’s Not Boring Magnet School
  • Humane Lunch Period Magnet School
  • Students Have Autonomy Magnet School
  • Intrinsic Motivation Magnet School
  • Local Control Magnet School
  • Free Time Is Important Magnet School
  • Think For Yourself Magnet School
  • Standardized Tests Are Overrated Magnet School
  • No Homework Magnet School
  • Democracy and Individual Rights Magnet School
  • Question Authority Magnet School

I won’t hold my breath. Most of them are probably illegal.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Little kids, not goblins

Not a perfect analogy, I know, but for what it’s worth: In 2009, our elementary school became a receiving school for families who chose to transfer out of “schools in need of assistance” under No Child Left Behind. About sixty or seventy new students showed up at the school. Not all of them were eligible for free-and-reduced-price lunches (“FRL,” our district’s proxy for low-income status), but enough were that the school’s FRL rate rose significantly. By 2010-11, the FRL rate was more than twice what it had been four years before.

My only point is: This was not a big deal. I can’t speak for other parents, but I had three kids at the school and so was in contact with a lot of other families and kids there. The particulars of the transition were rocky, since the influx of new students overcrowded the school and was announced just days before the school year started. But the presence of the new arrivals at the school just wasn’t a big deal. They were just a bunch of Iowa Citian little kids.

I suppose the orthodox thing to say is that the increase in racial and economic diversity enriched the experience for everyone. Maybe it did, I don’t know. All I know is that, at least in terms of my own kids’ school experience, the presence of the SINA transfers at the school was a big non-event. If we hadn’t been told it was happening (and it hadn’t caused crowding and last-minute logistical problems), I doubt I would even have noticed.

I certainly can’t speak for the families who transferred in. I don’t know whether they found it a welcoming place or whether it improved their kids’ school experience. I wasn’t crazy about the way the school administration reacted to the change. That was the year the school implemented PBIS; it felt as if the administration had decided that the arrival of the transfer kids was exactly the moment when everyone needed a more intense (and more dehumanizing) kind of behavior management. But that was a problem with the administration, not with the kids. The kids were fine.

I know people have a lot of different concerns about redistricting; I share some of them. I don’t like the process the district has used; I was against the particular diversity policy the board adopted; I think there is value to keeping the distance to elementary school short, and to minimizing disruptive changes to kids’ lives. I’m never automatically persuaded by assertions about what “research has shown.” But I don’t need an academic study to convince me that we don’t need to pack the bulk of our low-income families into three or four elementary schools, some of which have FRL rates near eighty percent. I can’t help but think that we can bring those numbers down without doing anything outlandish with the boundaries.

In any event, to the extent that fear of the unknown is playing a role in the discussion, it shouldn’t. It’s easy to imagine stuff that just isn’t real.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

School budget cuts are only the beginning

This is an extended version of my guest opinion in the Press-Citizen today.

Families in the Iowa City area were disappointed to learn of the school district’s planned cuts to band, orchestra, foreign language and other programming because of a $3.6 million budget shortfall. Many have contacted state officials to urge them to increase funding for K-12 education. But the state is on the verge of making matters worse, not better—and causing more cuts—if it moves forward with its plan to adopt an expensive new regime of standardized tests.

When Iowa adopted its version of the Common Core standards, it also became part of a consortium of states that have pledged to adopt new Core-aligned standardized tests, called the Smarter Balanced Assessments. The legislature has not yet approved the Smarter Balanced tests, but it has required that Core-aligned tests be implemented by 2016 and has tripled the number of grades in which the tests would have to be given. These changes were adopted with bipartisan support.

The tests currently in use, the Iowa Assessments, cost about $3.50 per student to administer and are required in three grades. By conservative estimate, the new tests will cost at least $22.50 per student and will be required in nine grades. That means that the state is about to make districts spend at least nineteen times more than they are currently required to spend on standardized testing. (Because our district already tests in nine grades, it would have to spend over six times as much as it currently spends.)

And that’s just the cost of the tests themselves. Because the new tests are designed to be administered by computer, they would also require a substantial investment in new technology. They would also almost certainly require an ongoing increase in tech support staff.

The legislature also decided to require a science assessment in nine grades. The Smarter Balanced Assessments do not include a science component, so districts would have to pay for additional standardized tests to meet that requirement. Those tests could cost another $10 per student.

Where will all the money come from? If the state spends that much more on standardized testing—at the same time that the Governor is pushing tax relief—the funding can only come at the expense of other educational needs. To pay for all this gold-plated testing, the schools will have to make even more cuts like the ones we’re seeing now. Will French go the way of German? Will band and orchestra be cut from elementary school entirely? Will class sizes increase? Will teachers be laid off? What else will we have to sacrifice for the sake of all this testing?

So yes, people should contact their legislators and the Governor. But it’s not enough to ask for more education funding. We should demand that the state let us fund the kind of education we value, instead of imposing its own idea of test-driven education on our schools.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard protest after protest about the cuts to music, foreign language, and other programs. If the state chose not to implement expensive new standardized tests, would there be even a single complaint? How did our schools end up so far from what our community values?


Here’s some additional information that I couldn’t fit into the guest opinion:

There are several reasons to think that the Smarter Balanced Assessments will cost more than the $22.50 per student estimated by the consortium. First, that figure includes only the year-end “summative assessments,” not the optional additional tests the consortium offers, which could add another $5 per student. Second, the cost figures are only estimates; some of the administration and scoring services will have to be purchased from private vendors, who may well charge more than the consortium estimates. Third, paper-and-pencil versions of the test, which could be necessary if the technology is not ready, will cost an additional $10-12 per student.

One reason the Iowa Assessments are relatively inexpensive is that they are produced by the University of Iowa, which provides them to Iowa school districts at cost. Other states pay as much as $15 per student to use Iowa-created tests, but that’s still a significant savings over the cost of the Smarter Balanced tests.


The legislature may well appropriate funds to pay for new standardized tests, though it’s unlikely to cover all the associated expenses. But even if it does, that’s money that it could have used for other (more compelling) educational needs. If the state won’t give us the allowable growth that we need to pay for things like music and language classes, it will be because it has already spent the money on standardized tests.


There has been an interesting back-and-forth between the state Department of Education and the legislature on the Smarter Balanced tests. Under both Governors Culver and Branstad, the Department made a commitment to the Smarter Balanced consortium to adopt the tests. Meanwhile, though, the legislature decided that schools would have to continue using the Iowa Assessments until it decides otherwise. That put the Department in an awkward spot. The Department continued to push for the Smarter Balanced tests, but the legislature decided only that it would settle on some set of Core-aligned tests by 2016-17, and it created a task force to make a recommendation. The task force has not yet issued its report—but its members were all chosen by the Department.

The legislature did decide to triple the number of grades in which tests would be required, starting in 2016-17. The bill to create the assessment task force and to require testing in nine grades received bipartisan support, including the support of every legislator from Johnson County, including Senators Joe Bolkcom, Bob Dvorsky, and Sandra Greiner, and Representatives Dave Jacoby, Bobby Kaufmann, Vicki Lensing, Mary Mascher, and Sally Stutsman.


The federal government, including the Obama Administration, also bears responsibility for this increase in testing. Iowa’s push for increased standardized testing was part of its attempt to receive federal Race to the Top funding, which incentivized exactly that approach. Alas, even though we adopted the Common Core standards and joined the Smarter Balanced consortium, we didn’t get the money.


Education in Iowa recently had a terrific post on just how little we know about Iowa’s readiness to shift to computer-based testing, including a discussion of testing debacles in other states that “ought to be keeping Iowa proponents of Smarter Balanced Assessments up at night.” An excerpt:
[The Department of Education] can’t ask the Iowa Legislature to appropriate funds for tech readiness if they don’t know what is needed, leaving schools to fund needed tech readiness upgrades out of existing school budgets that are already stretched thin. This might be much less of a concern for schools ahead of the curve tech wise, but ought to be a concern nonetheless. Diverting local funds from the classroom or needed facility maintenance or upgrades will hardly make the Common Core and the accompanying standardized assessments more popular.

Of course, there are also non-fiscal objections to the role standardized tests now play in our schools. Here are FairTest’s concerns about the Smarter Balanced Assessments.


Where does the money go? It’s hard to say exactly, because each state will do its own contracting with vendors for Smarter Balanced test administration and scoring.  But you can bet that Pearson stands a good chance of getting those contracts in Iowa.

Needless to say, standardized testing, together with all its associated “educational services,” is a major industry. Pearson’s North American Education division, for example, reported £536 million in operating profit in 2012—the equivalent of about $900 million.

Does anyone think that the Smarter Balanced Assessments—or for that matter, the Common Core standards—would have been adopted on such a wide scale if there weren’t millions of dollars to be made by for-profit testing companies like Pearson?


The same bill that increased the required testing also established a “teacher leadership” program that will take experienced teachers out of the classroom to spend more time mentoring junior teachers; it will begin in 2015. We have yet to see how this program will affect local budgeting decisions: will more programs become expendable, or will class sizes grow, when the most experienced teachers start mentoring other teachers instead of teaching kids? (The legislature did appropriate funds, but again, that could only make less money available for other needs.)


Notice that our district is already using the Iowa Assessments in three times more grades than it’s required to (not to mention all the other standardized tests it gives). Apparently that category of expense didn’t come up when the administration was making budget cuts.


The single best place to go for information about the status of standardized testing in Iowa, and of the Smarter Balanced Assessments in particular, is the Education in Iowa blog. Its posts on Smarter Balanced Assessments are here.


Source note: The current requirement that the Iowa Assessments be given in fourth, eighth, and eleventh grade is in Iowa Code section 256.7(21)(b) and (b)(1). The requirement that testing be given in third through eleventh grades as of 2016 appears in section 256.7(21)(b)(2), which also requires the science assessment.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Should the district keep using Everyday Math?

The district has started up its every-seven-years review of its math curriculum. I know from four years of blogging that there is a good deal of dissatisfaction out there with Everyday Math, the district’s curriculum for elementary school math. I’m no expert on the topic, but my own household’s experience with Everyday Math has not been a particularly positive one. My concerns came down to these four:

First, I thought the Everyday Math curriculum, at least in its current incarnation, sent some mixed messages that were frustrating for the kids. The sense I always got from Everyday Math is that it was designed by people who thought that elementary-age kids just need to be exposed to lots of different math concepts, and that mastery is not important until later. I have some sympathy for that kind of patient approach, but the problem was that the kids felt that they were supposed to have mastered the concepts, and felt frustrated and upset when they hadn’t. There is so much testing all through elementary school; of course if you give kids a math test, they’re going to think you’re expecting them to get the answers right—but often Everyday Math hadn’t equipped them to do so. In the end, the curriculum seemed like neither fish nor fowl: the patiently-cycling-through-concepts was inconsistent with the constantly-testing.

Second, whatever you might think about Everyday Math’s pedagogic philosophy, its materials often seemed needlessly unclear and hard to understand.

Third, because of the first two concerns, I’m afraid Everyday Math creates a lot of bad feelings toward math of the kind that too many people take from their school experience.

Finally, Everyday Math is too reliant on parental help, which raises a serious equity issue. There is a frequent homework, which ought to be unnecessary in elementary school, and many parents feel the need to supplement the Everyday Math program with their own instruction. As a result, kids whose parents can help them end up potentially far ahead of kids whose parents can’t—an advantage that’s compounded by the fact that our system uses math test scores as a criterion for entry into gifted and talented programs and advanced classes in junior high and high school. So it would be a great step forward, in terms of educational equity, if there were a curriculum that enabled kids to learn math in the classroom without as much outside and after-school help.

But I know others have even stronger opinions on the subject. (Feel free to let loose in the comments!) My only point here is: now is the time to speak up. I am hoping (against hope?) that this will be a real review, not just a rubber-stamping of a choice already made, via a committee hand-picked for compliance. The committee should engage in a real debate about people’s concerns about Everyday Math and about potential alternatives. If you have strong feelings on the subject, you should apply to be on the review committee; you can apply using this form. You can also chime in on the email survey that the district is circulating, or by emailing Pam Ehly, the curriculum director, at

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

District materials on planned budget cuts

The district has now posted some material about the planned budget cuts. Also, board member Tuyet Dorau provided me with a copy of the material that the district provided to board members last night, which you can read here. (The handwritten notes in the margins are hers.)

UPDATE: The district has now posted those board materials as well.

Information about the planned ICCSD school budget cuts

UPDATE: Some district materials about the planned cuts are now available. See this post.

At last night’s school board work session, the superintendent presented his plan for addressing the $3.6 million budget shortfall for next year. A friend of mine took the following notes on the superintendent’s plan. There was a lot of information to process, and the note-taker warns that there may be inaccuracies in her notes. Also, these notes reflect only what the superintendent presented at the work session, not what may have been discussed later in the work session or the board meeting that followed it. News coverage of the meeting is here, here, here, and here. When (if?) I see that the district has posted an official account of the plan, I will update this post.

Disclaimer: I took notes as best as I could hear from where I was sitting. Members of the public were not provided copies of the budget handout. My numbers add up to more $3.6 million, so it seems likely that I have made one or more transcription errors. (I’m wondering if the world language/keyboarding/junior high general music cuts are double counted?—part of the course offering reduction savings—but also listed out separately?)

District Budget Adjustment

These are cuts from general fund spending; categorical funds were not included.

No reduction in force is planned, but staff may need to be reassigned.

$95,000 from building allocations for printing and other costs.

$26,000 from non-contractual meals provided to staff.

$10,000 from budget forecasting software.

$80,000 from discretionary busing (to be announced later).

$30,000 from athletics line item and 7th grade football eliminated.

$100,000 from not filling Director of Community Relations position, duties to be reassigned to other staff.

$125,000 from building level retirement (principal?), duties to be reassigned to other staff.

$223,000 from clerical staff, duties to be reassigned between media and office secretaries.

$89,000 from overtime (paid $600,000 in overtime this year to date).

$63,000 from ESC staff, duties to be reassigned.

$45,000 from general education para-educators, hours to be reallocated across the district.

$32,000 from substitute teachers, with a change in rules about substitutes for staff without direct student contact for most of the day.

$44,000 from nurses, adjust and re-prioritize staff responsibilities.

$16,000 from reduction in allowed extended contract days.

$91,000 from trades/crafts/custodians.

$628,000 from adjusting the number of course/section offerings and class size of 24-32 at high school level.

$322,000 from adjusting the number of course/section offerings and class size of 22-30 at junior high school level.

$124,000 from phasing out German language instruction at high school level.

$239,000 from cutting 7th grade world languages, phasing out German language instruction at the junior high school level.

$222,000 from reducing to one Dean of Students at each high school.

$88,000 from high school guidance, re-prioritize assignments.

$59,000 from reducing high school library staffing.

$90,000 from eliminating general music at the junior high school level.

$74,000 from eliminating 7th grade keyboarding as a required class, offering it only as an elective to those students who need it.

Elementary class sizes up to 24 at grades K-2, up to 30 at grades 3-6 (will not meet board aspirational goals).

$440,000 from eliminating 4th grade orchestra program and increasing the size of small groups for small group instruction for 5th-6th grade orchestra and band.

$177,000 from elementary guidance, reallocate current staff to cover retirements.

$88,000 from elementary library programs.

$170,000 from efficiencies in scheduling art, general music, and PE elementary teachers to minimize travel time between schools served.

$177,000 from shifting cost of reading instruction from general fund to Title I funds.

$88,000 from shifting cost of MARS professional development from general fund to categorical funds.

UPDATE: You can compare my friend’s notes with those of Paul Deaton here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Information is power. Who has it?

It looks increasingly like our superintendent won’t inform the school board of his planned budget cuts until tonight—the very night when the board is supposed to vote on the budget. School board members have been as much in the dark as the rest of us about possible cuts.

The board is required by law to submit its budget to the state by April 15. Tonight, April 8, is the last scheduled board meeting before that deadline. The agenda for the meeting includes a proposed budget summary, but the proposal just addresses broad categories of spending: so much for “instruction,” so much for “general administration,” etc. It doesn’t disclose the specific cuts in staff or programs that the budget will necessitate. Without those specifics, the board is in no position to assess whether the money should be allocated differently among those broad categories.

Perhaps for that reason, the board chair (at the superintendent’s suggestion) has scheduled a “work session” immediately before tonight’s meeting. The topic of the work session is “budget discussion.” That’s all the agenda says; it contains no additional information or enclosures. Tonight is awfully late for the board members to receive specific information about planned cuts; they’ll have to act on that information within an hour or two of receiving it.

The district has been aware of the $3.6 million shortfall since at least early January. Shouldn’t the board have been informed sooner about the administration’s planned response?

Coincidentally, the district also has community meetings scheduled this week and later this month as part of its redistricting process. (One was last night.) At these meetings, people will get a chance to respond to draft redistricting maps. I’m glad the district is getting input on draft maps; that will be much more useful than the exercises at the meeting I attended. But rather than release the draft maps in advance, the superintendent plans to unveil them at the meetings. Even the school board members, apparently, will not have advance notice of the drafts. The rationale is that this will “allow the superintendent to explain what decisions and compromises were made.” But the effect will also be to prevent people who are affected by specific changes from knowing about them in time to attend the meetings.

Is it really the job of the superintendent to withhold information from the school board and the public until he sees fit to release it? Does withholding that information benefit the board and the public, or does it just benefit the superintendent?  Who works for whom?

The work session will start at 5:15 tonight at the Educational Services Center.

Related post here.