A new academic journey

This year will mark my eleventh in education, fifth as a school administrator.  I have spent five of the past ten years simultaneously completing graduate coursework and a working full-time job.  This summer, I embarked on yet another academic journey: I completed the first semester of an Ed.D. program.  I couldn't be happier with my decision to enroll at the University of West Georgia (UWG).  Before I share a little bit about the coursework so far, I thought it might be helpful to explain why a doctorate and why UWG's school improvement program.

Why an Ed.D.?
When I completed my first graduate program at a research one institution in 2009, my advisor took me aside less than an hour after oral comps and asked me if I'd ever considered continuing on for a Ph.D.  At the time, I was a math teacher and was looking forward to an increase in pay due to the newly acquired degree in curriculum and instructional technology, so it should come as no surprise that a possible assistantship covering tuition and a small stipend did not appear to add up!  I couldn't see myself giving up a full-time job and going back to school full-time for three to five years.  Neither could my wife...and that was before we had our son.  When I went back to graduate school a second time for administration while continuing to work full-time, it was with the idea of the coursework being one last cognitive hurrah.  At the time, attaining a terminal degree felt like a distant and dreamy aspiration.

Fast forward to about a year ago, only one year after finishing the second program.  I was at a meeting with a number of other central office administrators.  In conversation with a fellow curriculum director, I learned about his journey: masters degree in education and additional coursework in administration (sound familiar?).  He shared about transferring some of his additional coursework into the doctoral program at one of our state universities while still maintaining a full-time job.  It seemed to good to be true, so over the next several months, I contacted department chairs and several trusted faculty friends.  They all confirmed a doctoral degree would require a great amount of persistence, but it would not be uncommon to transfer in a few post-masters hours, as long as I did it now to meet credit recency requirements.  All of a sudden, a terminal degree came back into the picture.  I was told it would be a challenge to prioritize time, make it work financially, and persevere through a dissertation, but that it could be done.  Could I finally act on this distant and dreamy aspiration of researching an writing about a narrow topic in the field of education while working full-time?  Thankfully, my lovely wife supported me fully moving forward, knowing the cost would only increase in the future and our time together as a family would be impacted to a smaller degree now when compared to the years ahead of us.

Why the University of West Georgia?
I eagerly updated my resume, requested letters of recommendation and completed the application for summer/fall 2014 admission consideration.  To make a long story short, I decided to apply at one of the three Iowa public universities, but then, the harsh Iowa winter of 2013-14 hit.  We had a fair amount of snowfall and record low temperatures. Driving over sixty miles each way at least once per week for class was out of the picture.  Around the same time, I learned about the University of West Georgia's Ed.D. in school improvement through Google searchers.  It seemed too good to be true:

  • NCATE accredited public brick-and-mortar university
  • program with over ten face-to-face cohorts and three hybrid cohorts preceding me
  • hybrid coursework primarily completed online from home with several spring/summer visits to campus in Carrollton, Georgia
  • interdisciplinary school improvement focus marrying my curriculum and educational leadership coursework and experience
  • ...and let's be real, in-state tuition for out-of-state students enrolling in the program (cheaper than in-state Iowa tuition) didn't hurt either.

Earlier this summer, the on-campus orientation was a fantastic opportunity to meet several UWG faculty members, the twenty-three other cohort members and see the campus from which I plan to earn a final degree.  I had no idea nearly one hundred applicants were interested in our twenty-four cohort slots.  I also learned UWG is a vibrant, growing and well-respected institution within the University System of Georgia.  Lord willing, I will complete the coursework and dissertation in three years, so that I can walk across the stage in April 2017.  I have no idea if additional academic reading will spur additional blogging topics or if time split between family, work and graduate courses will even allow for it.  This "in between semesters" feeling of free time to think and read at leisure surely won't last long. :) 

The new journey has started! 

Reflecting on four years in the district office

Four years ago, I made the transition from high school math teacher to district administrator.  It was bittersweet, because I felt energized teaching high school students, very much enjoyed interacting with my co-workers, but at the same time felt like I couldn't pass up an opportunity in the same district to possibly have an even bigger impact on students.

I am now enrolled in my second graduate program in four years.  (More about that in a future post)  As I reflect on the past four years in the district office, one statement from a book I recently finished entitled, The Human Side of Change: Reform, Resistance, and the Real-Life Problems of Innovation comes to mind:

"The most dramatic change in moving from a staff position into a [formal] leadership role is the loss of peers" (Evans, 1996, p. 151)
While I continue to enjoy quality relationships with teachers in my district, the distance between us has naturally widened.  I now have responsibilities beyond classroom walls.  Rather than working with twenty-five students at a time on a daily basis, I am charged with helping nearly one hundred adults that I can only gather together several times per year, see, feel, understand, share, and implement a common vision.  I don't think I realized how close I became with the other high school math teachers during the three minute hallway conversations in between classes, spontaneous after school meetings and carpooling to the annual state math teachers conference.  There were three or four of us in the math department, depending on the year.  I thought we worked well together.  Looking at the team now, I think they're even tighter as a team!  The teacher who replaced me is wise beyond her years as an educator, so I feel really good about leaving a group of educators who have improved since my departure.

Don't get me wrong.  I enjoy working with my current administrative team and I couldn't imagine starting my beyond-the-classroom career with a better group.  We are fortunate enough to meet together on a nearly weekly basis for several hours.  While our roles all include positional authority, three of them are charged with leading buildings, one the entire district and me...well, I wear quite a few hats (mentoring and induction lead, professional learning coordinator, special education director, technology director, Title 1 director, gifted education director, curriculum director, etc.) that often overlap with the rest of the team.  While I feel a definite part of the team, I do not have a "hallway discussion" confidant anymore.  As Evans (1996) suggested, it has been a dramatic change.

This year, I am interested in connecting even more with district administrators in similar roles.  Here are a few action items I plan to pursue during the 2014-15 school year.  In no particular order...

  • Continue attending the quarterly area curriculum director meetings (Develop existing relationships and strengthen new ones)
  • Seek out a leadership role in the area special education director meetings (Deeper learning in this area.  Consider finding an informal mentor)
  • Spend several hours observing and reflecting with district administrators in a similar role around Iowa.  (Establish a more formal learning community, face-to-face or virtual)
  • Pursue central office academic literature describing validated practices of central office administrators. 
I welcome your accountability and look forward to posting a few updates along the way.  

Standards-Based Grading, student information systems and supplementary gradebooks

I am a district administrator in a mid-size Iowa school district that uses a standards-based grading philosophy.  A number of years ago, I wrote about PowerSchool as a student information system and grade book as a teacher in the context of standards-based grading.   Since that time, teachers in the district across all disciplines and grade levels have started to use standards-based grading.  This system change has introduced a new set of questions about student information systems and grade books that I will attempt to describe in the following paragraphs.

In our elementary building, we have been communicating student learning through a standards-based report card for the past twenty or so years.  No letter grades are assigned.  We use an E (exceeding), P (proficient), D (developing) and AC (area of concern) scale for each student target.

Teachers communicate with parents individually throughout the school year through Friday Folders, phone calls, emails and parent/teacher conferences.  For a variety of reasons, we do not use a student information system for the purpose of communicating student learning.

In our middle school and high school, we transitioned to a standards-based grading philosophy system-wide several years ago.  Prior to this change, we had asked our parents to sign-up for daily or weekly email progress reports and emphasized a need to look for assignments in which their student may not have turned in.  The grades reported online could be viewed as a timeline of activities and events written in ink.  Parents may have asked teachers questions such as...
  • What can my daughter do to raise her grade?
  • Will there be any extra credit available in this class?
  • Can my son turn in his missing Civil War project for partial credit?
  • Is there any way my child can re-do the Chapter 3 Project?
Today, our grade books report students' current level of learning.  In other words information is written in pencil using a new metaphor: a barometer or thermometer sharing where a student's strengths and weaknesses currently are in the content area.  We encourage our parents to ask questions such as...
  • When is the next opportunity to reassess on [standard]?
  • When was the last time my student was assessed on [standard]?
  • What practice opportunities are available for my son to practice [standard]?
  • What standards does my daughter still need to learn?
We use a 4, 3.5, 3, 2, 1 scale with accompanying narratives listed below.
Standards are converted to letter grades in each course.  For example, if there were ten standards in a grading period and a student earned 4's on all of the standards except for one in which she earned a 3, the final grade would be 39/40 = 97.5% translated into an "A" using 90, 80, 70, 60 cutoffs.   A subset of our teachers would prefer not to average the standards into a final letter grade, because it may give off a "points chasing" aura for some students in the midst of a system that is designed to focus on learning.  Aside from several pilots, our system continues to use this final grade conversion method, because it plays well with our student information system's grade book.  

Supplementary grade books
In addition to contacting our student information system *vendor to share our concern, a committee of teachers was charged with looking into solutions, including by not limited to alternative grade books.  Several criteria for a successful grade book have been suggested by the committee:
  • visually appealing way for students and parents to easily identify students' current strengths and weaknesses;
  • ability to sync with student information system (class rosters, course names, current grades) on a daily basis, so that teachers do not have to duplicate data entry, keep up with schedule changes, etc;
  • and most importantly, alternative ways to convert standards into a final grade, calculated by the grade book.
Before grade book vendors start emailing or leaving comments on this post, we have looked at a number of your products already, however none of them have met our expectations(!).  The purpose of this post is not to throw these vendors under the bus, but instead to lament on the complex relationship between standards-based grading, student information systems and supplementary grade books.  In other words, it is not as easy as it sounds to come up with a solution that simultaneously meets our teacher, student, parent, district and *Department of Education needs.  

Looking back, I am very happy the stakeholders in my district have not let perfect get in the way of progress.  We still have work to do in the way we communicate student learning, however we're not sure if any supplementary grade books currently available are the solution.  

*You may be wondering why we do not switch student information systems (SiS).  In Iowa, we are required to submit a myriad of data to the Department of Education three times each year.  This data comes from a student information system extract.  Currently, three SiS are supported by the Iowa Department of Education.  In conversation with districts who use the other two, I have confirmed a similar grade book feature set, therefore switching SiS would not be a significant improvement.  

June 2014: One of the most exciting months ever for Iowa educators?

*Dr. Tom Guskey is coming to Des Moines (Thank you, Drake University!)
Target audience? K-12 educators and administrators
When? June 18, 2014
Cost? $150
As educators align instruction and assessments with the Common Core standards for student learning, most find they also must change their grading policies and revise their report card. Learn how to develop new standards-based grading policies and practices that are better for ALL students, gain the support of parents, and don’t create excessive work for teachers.

**The Iowa Competency Based Education Conference is returning to Des Moines (Thank you, Iowa ASCD!)
Target audience? K-12 educators and administrators, higher education
When? June 23-24, 2014
Cost? $250 for Iowa ASCD members and $295 for non-members of Iowa ASCD.
Come learn how students can learn and demonstrate competencies which will endure throughout time. CBE provides a strong framework for teachers and administrators to understand the Iowa Core and ensure students are college, career, and citizenship ready.

Among the featured speakers include Rose Colby, author of Off the Clock and Tom Vander Ark, author of Getting Smart.  Several Iowans will be joining the conversation and sharing their expertise, including the pilot schools of the CBE collaborative.

***A few Iowa practitioners are leading a two-day standards-based grading workshop in Cedar Rapids (Thank you, Grant Wood AEA!)
Target audience? Secondary teachers and administrators (pre-service students and faculty welcome)
When? June 30 and July 1, 2014
Cost? $80 or $160, depending on credit
This course will highlight grading and assessment practices described in contemporary educational literature. Beliefs about assessment, homework and grading will be challenged and refined as they relate to the Iowa Core Curriculum characteristic of effective instruction, assessment for learning. Participants will learn how to grade based on state standards.

Will June 2014 be one of the most exciting months ever for Iowa educators? 

*Dr. Guskey might be the godfather of standards-based grading, if there ever was one.
**For what it's worth, I believe there are distinct similarities and differences between standards-based grading and competency-based education.
***It's a shameless plug: I am one of those two guys.  I hope you'll consider attending the other two events, but I think we'll be involving participants in a hefty dose of standards-based grading at the classroom level.  It's the cheapest option and in my opinion, the biggest bang for your buck.

When a student forgets a pencil...

About five years ago, I had a really impromptu conversation with a fellow teacher from down the hall.  I asked her how she handles students who forget or do not have a pencil with them when they come to class.  After this conversation, I asked a number of other teachers how they handle the same situation.  Some were pretty black and white:

"I will ask them to borrow one from a friend."
"I will let them go back to their locker, but only three times each quarter."
Other teachers were less stringent in their responses:
"It depends if it is the first time or a repeat offender."
"I have a collection of brand new and used pencils in a drawer.  Students can borrow them anytime."
Still others saw the pencil conversation through a different lens.  For several, the answer was a lesson in economics.
"I want students to understand the need to come prepared, so I have them for sale in my room."
I was reminded of the economics of forgetting a pencil when I recently visited a school over an hour's drive from home.  I couldn't help but take a picture of it with my phone:

As a teacher, I'm pretty sure I tried all of these ideas at one time or another.  For some reason, this classroom scenario has stuck with me for a number of years.  It brings up a number of other questions (in no particular order):
  1. What does the way a teacher handles students who forget pencils, say about his/her educational philosophy?
  2. What does the way an administrator handles adults who do not come prepared to meetings or professional learning, say about his/her educational philosophy?
  3. Is the way a forgetful administrator or teacher expects to be treated similar to the way he/she treats staff and students in the pencil context described above?
  4. How would you want the teacher of your children to handle the "I forgot my pencil" scenario?
I think I have many more questions than answers right now.