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Blog: Tuesday, April 1, 2014

21st Century Learning

There's been lots of dialogue about aligning curriculum to Common Core standards and getting students ready for new state assessments. Not everyone understands exactly what this means or how the new standards compare to prior expectations but even fewer understand what it means when we add the term "21st Century skills" to the conversation.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (www.p12.org) has developed a framework for understanding what skills and knowledge are necessary for success in the 21st century. Core subjects identified include (no surprise): English, reading or language arts, world languages, arts, mathematics, economics, science, geography, history, government and civics . In addition to these subjects, the Partnership advocates for schools to ensure higher order thinking in these core subjects and in using 21st century interdisciplinary themes, such as global awareness; financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy; civic literacy; health literacy; and environmental literacy. Finally, the Partnership promotes attention on overarching skills including life and career skills; critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity; and information, media, and technology skills.

Educators have a choice to either get excited about the possibilities this framework enables or get overwhelmed by the expectations it assumes. I like to focus on the possiilities. Global awareness, in particular, is an area that has been the subject of conversation here in Leicester. Global awareness need not be confined to a high school course on global studies. We live, side-by-side, with a variety of people who have emigrated to this country at various times and who bring with them foods and traditions that enrich our state and country. People living in other countries as well influence our lives through politics, world events, the economy, and other means. Our understanding of these cultures can be influenced through television and movies and with travel, if we are lucky, but should also be influenced by what is learned in school.

We have recently established a relationship with the Cambridge Institute for International Education (CIIE). The goal of The Cambridge Institute is to increase the international profile of American educational institutions and to promote cultural exchange by cultivating relationships among youth in countries, including China. CIIE has worked with over 200 schools in 40 states to create meaningful and sustainable international programs as well as to bring students to high schools across the United States. As a result of this partnership, Tracey Hippert, the new high school principal, will be traveling to China with CIIE on April 13th to establish a relationsip with a school in China. This school will be named our sister school, serving to help develop opportunities to share culture and communication between students in China and in Leicester. A blog of Tracey's experience will be available on the middle school website later this month. We will also be opening our doors to a small group of high school students from China who are interested in studying in the United States. While the opportunity for our students to study in China is not a possibility without any knowledge of the language, short travel experiences may be a possibility in the near future. More importantly, this work will enable an increased global understanding among Leicester students at no additional cost to Leicester taxpayers.

Finding creative ways to strengthen our students' 21st Century skills in a way that is financially responsible is necessary to focus on our mission and ensure that we achieve our vision for Leicester Schools.

Mission - Challenging students to develop skills, knowledge, and character to become contributing citizens

Vision - Recognized by the community as its greatest asset, the Leicester Schools engage every child in rigorous and student-centered learning in a safe and technology-rich environment


Posted by Judy Paolucci|0 comments

Blog: Thursday, March 6, 2014

FY15 Budget Narrative

This month's blog entry is a condensed version of the FY15 budget summary. The entire budget package will be available on the finance link at left by March 13th.

In order to achieve our vision for Leicester schools, Recognized by the community as its greatest asset, the Leicester Schools engage every child in rigorous and student-centered learning in a safe and technology-rich environment, we must not only attend to further curriculum development and instructional improvements, invest in facilities maintenance, and improve our students’ access to technology through building our technology infrastructure and replacing outdated equipment, but also do all this in the most efficient and economical manner. The development of the 2014-15 budget was done with extra care and provides for a level of funding for our schools that ensures a sound instructional program for Leicester’s most valuable resource – its students – while also being fiscally responsible to the taxpayers. This budget narrative summarizes the current school needs and goals and how various resources combine to meet those needs and goals. It also provides some information about history that contributes to an understanding of the climate in which this budget was developed.

Leicester educators accomplish much with per pupil costs that are significantly below state and regional averages. The implementation of the new math program has increased the level of rigor for students in grades K-5, while Writers’ Workshop continues to infuse an excitement for writing. Programs throughout the district, including the Memorial School Student Council, are positively impacting the culture of our schools. Through partnerships with the Massachusetts Math and Science Initiative, Becker College, the Leicester Police Department and through other means, we have added innovative and rigorous high school course offerings. Approximately 94% of Leicester graduates continue their education at 4- or 2- year colleges while their peers choose military and other vocational/trade options. Curriculum development work, designed to align instruction to the more rigorous Common Core State Standards, is in full swing. Initiatives to bring global connections to the high school and to develop a K-12 STEM strategic plan have recently begun to further enhance our schools’ reputations.

The last five years have been marked by a loss of programs, including middle school world languages, yet we have begun to bring these programs back, even with a staffing plan that includes fewer teachers. The proposed FY15 budget includes a .5 FTE world languages teacher for our middle school so that we can roll in Spanish I, Part I for our 7th graders. Spanish I, Part II, will be added for 8th graders the following year. Our high school principal has been charged with scheduling classes for next year with an eye toward releasing one teacher, on a part-time basis, from course assignments so that this person can serve as a technology integrationist to improve the use technology at the high school. Both efforts contribute toward meeting goals established through our strategic planning process. Specific alignment of budget items to strategic planning goals are provided in the table that is included with the complete budget narrative.

While “challenging students to develop skills, knowledge, and character to become contributing citizens” remains our primary mission, such a mission can only be addressed in facilities that are safe and structured for 21st century learning. Our school facilities have considerable, unmet, capital improvement needs. Technology infrastructure does not currently allow for effective use of technology for instruction and collaboration. We hope to secure funding for an engineering and capacity study that will prioritize capital maintenance and possibly plan for a consolidation of school facilities that will enable yearly savings.

As resources dwindle, additional state and federal mandates, increasing student needs, and aging school facilities resulted in increasing needs. Over the past few years the school community has responded to these pressures through staff reductions and by identifying areas that may be considered for reduction that would not result in a detriment to our instructional program. Finding such cost saving measures has become increasingly difficult, as economic recovery has yet to be realized. Over the past 5 years, the town voted school appropriation has not increased to the same extent as the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a common measure of economic growth. A summary of the last 6 years of our school appropriation is provided in Table 2.

FY

CPI *

School Appropriation

% increase

FY09

3.8

$16,088,929

-3.59%

FY10

-0.4

$16,088,929

0.00%

FY11

1.6

$15,662,949

-2.65%

FY12

3.2

$15,349,690

-2.00%

FY13

2.1

$15,846,852

3.24%

FY14

1.4

$15,783,772

-0.40%

TABLE 2.

* Percent change from annual average to annual average for the year ending in December in that fiscal year. For FY09 it is the percent change from the annual average of 2007 to 2008.

II. FY15 Budget Development Process

This year, every budget line has been scrutinized. Members of the administrative team have worked incredibly hard to prepare this budget, listing specific, anticipated expenditures for each budget line. The value for our projected increase in expenditures maintains class sizes to acceptable limits and considers some support for programs and staff that address key strategic planning goals. The increase in requested school appropriation for FY15 above FY14 is 2.5%. It is important to note that this does not translate into the same value for an increase in total expenditures for our district since our other funding sources, including our federal entitlement grants, are expected to either remain level funded or decrease.

The preliminary budget will be considered by the School Committee at the March 11th School Committee meeting, reviewed by the Advisory Committee at its March 19th meeting, and modified, if needed, based on additional information as well as the input by the Advisory Committee. The School Committee will have one additional budget hearing providing any modifications to the budget on April 8th. Budget recommendations are made to the community at the Town Meeting, scheduled for May 6, 2014, and the community votes on both the school and municipal budgets.

III. Budget Summary

The FY15 proposed budget includes a $394,594 increase from the FY14 appropriation. Significant “budget drivers,” in addition to salaries, include vocational tuition (a total of $845,000), special education tuition (a total of $1,992,452), regular transportation (a total of $637,555), and special education transportation (a total of $587,406). This year we also filled a number of positions that we kept vacant during FY14 to offset cuts that had to be made after the failed 2 ½ override. Reinstating the facilities director, high school music teacher, and curriculum director (who was serving as both the curriculum director and the interim high school principal) were necessities.

Local appropriation itself is offset by the state’s Chapter 70 aid to schools as well as through Medicaid reimbursement. For Leicester, Chapter 70 is anticipated to be $9,534,162 in FY15 (a 0.43% increase from FY14). Additionally, the budget for our local appropriation accounts for the majority but not the entirety of school spending. For example, special education programming requires over $5 million in expenditures. Nearly 20% of these costs are covered by funds outside of the local appropriation.

In addition to the $16,178,400 proposed allocation, the schools’ FY15 needs will be met through federal and state grants as well as revolving funds. Specific, targeted needs have been identified for each of the revolving funds and an accounting sheet for each fund is included in the budget binder, provided to each School Committee member, prepared for the March 11thSchool Committee meeting and available on our finance page (by March 13th). Our plan for most revolving account expenditures is to budget to expend the anticipated FY14 balance in FY15. Funds generated during FY15 will be applied to FY16 needs.

For FY15 we are anticipating expending $50,000 from the transportation fund for transportation needs, $600,000 from Circuit Breaker for special education tuitions, $53,000 from athletic fund for athletic program needs, and $485,000 from School Choice ($160k for vocational tuitions, $70k for technology infrastructure, $60k for food services, and $195k for athletics).

Due to the many state and federal mandates required of schools as well as the different funds contributing to the school budget, developing a common understanding of the school budget is difficult, at best. In addition to the budget presentation on March 11th, a budget workshop was held on February 27th and a budget hearing will be held on April 8th. All meetings are held in the high school media center.

If you have any suggestions or questions about the budget process or the budget itself, do not hesitate to contact me or any School Committee member.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 11:58 AM|0 comments

Blog: Sunday, February 2, 2014

Opportunity to Learn

Whether it is management books or education books, professional texts are written each year not to teach us something we don't already know, but to remind us of what we should be doing to perform well in our chosen field. Goodwin and Hubbell's The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, is a new professional text available through ASCD (www.ascd.org). Each of the 12 touchstones is not new but all are worthy reminders to all involved in education.


The first chapter of the book is titled, "I use standards to guide every learning opportunity." If everyone connected to schools (parents, teachers, administrators and students) could only read one paragraph from the entire chapter, I would choose the fifth paragraph of this chapter, which reads, in part: "... the school-level variable most strongly correlated with higher student achievement is a factor called "opportunity to learn" - the extent to which a school (1) clearly articulates its curriculum, (2) monitors whether the curriculum is actually taught, and (3) aligns its curriculum with assessments of student achievement (Marzano, 2000)."

Developing a clearly articulated curriculum is a goal of Leicester Schools this year. Each teacher has been engaged with writing curriculum maps for the courses they teach. The curriculum development team collects and reviews maps, which are then posted on our curriculum page. Teachers have been meeting by subject areas to make modifications that ensure that concepts are aligned across grade levels.

We are also looking at the assessments currently in place both for the purpose of ensuring that the written curriculum is taught and for identifying DDMs (District Determined Measures) that will be used to gauge teacher effectiveness. Common student assessments provide teachers with opportunities for rich dialogue about student learning and effective instructional practices.

This work is substantial, especially if one remembers that teachers’ time is primarily spent on designing and delivering instruction to the students they serve. Carving out time for curriculum and assessment development is not easy and we do appreciate the four release days that are in the school calendar for this purpose.

Of course, the development and application a clearly articulated curriculum and common assessments can only be good if the curriculum and assessments are of high quality. Ensuring that curriculum is based upon our state frameworks, which are Common Core aligned, ensures as well that we are have high expectations for our students. Students “usually rise to meet our expectations” (p. 7).

Our role as school and district administrators is not simply about policing classroom instruction to assess whether or not teachers are teaching the articulated curriculum and are focused on high standards, but instead is about providing teachers with clear expectations for their work and the professional development and time they need to be successful. To be sure, though, frequent classroom observations help us to see if all are interpreting standards in the same way. I visit classrooms each week and know that teachers can sometimes feel under the microscope, but I look more closely at the focus of lessons, the engagement of student, the quality of instructional materials, and the routines established in their classrooms than in what specifically the teacher is doing at each moment in time.

While some may interpret standards-based education as a one-size-fits-all, bland approach to instruction, Goodwin and Hubbell remind us that “when everyone gets on the same page about what’s important for students to learn (i.e. standards), teachers can devote their time and energies not to figuring out what material to teach but, instead, to determining how to teach that material in a way that engages and enlightens students and, when possible—accelerates their learning” (p. 14). We want this to be the focus of teachers’ work in Leicester.

Goodwin, B. & Hubbell, E. R. (2013). The 12 touchstones of good teaching: A checklist for staying focused every day. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 9:48 AM|1 comment

Blog: Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Grit

The start of each new year brings a renewed sense of hope for a better economy, good health, school success, and other positive outcomes, as well as a temptation for bloggers to either reflect on the past year or on resolutions for the new year. Inspiration for this blog entry, however, comes not from the time of year but instead from a movie and a journal article, which I happened to be enjoying in tandem.

After hours of overindulgence marking the celebration of Christmas with family and being oversaturated with both holiday music and movies, I sat down to Bagger Vance with my son and husband and concurrently cleaned out the pile of magazines on the coffee table. There among the L.L. Bean catalogs and Cooking Light magazines was the September issue of Educational Leadership – an issue I had neglected to read this past fall. The issue’s theme was “resilience and learning” and an article by Deborah Perkins-Gough on “The Significance of Grit” caught my eye.

Perkins-Gough defines “grit” as a personal quality of an individual to work hard, despite obstacles. I call this “stick-to-it-iveness.” It is this quality that enables success both in the classroom and in life. The author reports on Angela Duckworth’s research, which involved the use of a scale to measure grit. Items contributing to the scale included those about response to failure or adversity, being a hard worker, and having consistent interests over a long time. A surprise finding of this research is that often, grit and talent can be inversely related.

This finding actually makes sense to me. I often see students who pick up the material quickly spend less time with studying. Unless they are consistently challenged, this contributes to a lower likelihood of developing grit. It may also be the reason my husband plays better golf when he plays with better golfers.

Perkins-Gough also claims, “people who can set long-term goals and stick to them have a leg up on success in school and life.” Recognizing that one can’t succeed if one moves from one unrelated endeavor to another, Duckworth herself chose to inventory her own talents then establish a long-term goal for her career.

Looking up every once in a while to maintain some attention on the movie, I soon saw the relationship between the article and the plot of Bagger Vance. The story depicts a golfing talent, Rannulph Junah, who, at a young age, exhibited a talent for golf. Many thought he would one day be a successful professional golfer, but the advent of World War I interrupted his path to success. Returning from the war a broken man, Junah drifted from job to job rather than returning to his previous life. Years later, challenged to return to the game, a mysterious caddy, Bagger Vance, coaches him to regain the grit he once had.

Consider the dialogue from the movie:

"Rannulph Junuh: I can win Adele... I can beat both of 'em... Look into my eyes and tell me what you see...
Adele Invergordon [love interest of Junah]: Determination... Pure determination...
Rannulph Junuh: Panic, Adele... Pure panic... I'm eight strokes behind two of the greatest golfers in the sport, they've never blown a lead in their lives and I'm gonna win... Ya know why?
Adele Invergordon: Panic?
Rannulph Junuh: That's right...

"Bagger Vance [main character, Junah’s caddy]: You wanna quit Mr. Junuh? You know you can just go ahead and creep off somewhere I'll tell folk you took sick... Truth be told, ain't nobody gonna really object... In fact, they'd probably be happy as bugs in a bake shop to see you pack up and go home...
Rannulph Junuh: You know I can't quit
Bagger Vance: I know... Just makin sure you know it too...

The idea that a mentor or teacher can contribute to one’s development of grit is as important as the belief that a mentor or teacher can contribution to one’s development of talent or learning. Perkins-Gough makes a connection to the research of Carol Dweck on mind-sets. Dweck posits that having a growth mindset – a belief that abilities are developed, rather than inherited, is of utmost importance. Perkins-Gough states, “the attitude ‘I can get better if I try harder’ should help make you a tenacious, determined, hard-working person.

Teachers and parents alike must serve our children as Bagger Vance served Rannulph Junah. If we communicate that success will come with practicing things who can’t yet do and that this work will not be easy, students will stick with the work. Building character is as important as building intellect. More often than not, observers walking into classrooms should witness students engaged in a difficult, exerting, struggle with content. If we also both model and teach long-term goal setting, our students will have a path toward success.

References:

Perkins-Gough, D. (2013). The significance of grit: A conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 14-20.

Legend of Bagger Vance quotes available 1-1-2014 at http://www.great-quotes.com/quotes/movie/The+Legend+of+Bagger+Vance

The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000). Movie directed by Rob ert Redford based on the 1995 book by Steven Pressfield. DreamWorks, 20th Century Fox, Allied Filmakers.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 2:58 PM|0 comments

Blog: Monday, December 2, 2013

Assessments for Learning

There’s been a philosophical swing in recent years in the educational community (perhaps little known by state and federal legislators) that has shifted the purpose of assessments from assessment of learning to assessment for learning. Richard Stiggins has been writing about assessment for over 20 years, arguing that to improve student achievement we must pay more attention to classroom assessments and the use of such assessments for instructional decision-making. Over ten years ago Stiggins, in an article in Kappan (2002, PDK), warned us of the increasingly inappropriate focus on standardized testing at the expense of quality classroom assessments.

When assessments, such as the MCAS tests, are used for judging schools, efforts are focused on ensuring that the standardized assessments are valid and reliable. It takes months for such tests to be processed and by the time teachers get access to their students’ results, the students have moved to the next grade. Contrastingly, classroom assessments, though not standardized from school to school or teacher to teacher, can be used to make instructional decisions to improve student learning since they can be quick, in the moment, and focused on concepts recently taught. We call assessments used for making instructional decisions “formative” while assessments used for final judgments about student learning “summative. As Stake (2004) puts it, “when the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative, when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.” Despite their value, however, schools are putting little efforts into improving teachers’ assessment practices that improve student learning since all our time and resources are spent on designing assessment systems for use on everything BUT student learning.

While teachers and parents in Massachusetts are thoroughly familiar with the use of standardized tests to judge schools, we now are putting our efforts into designing assessments that will be used to judge teachers. To be sure, no one can argue that results matter; well-designed lessons and good instructional approaches are not enough. On the other hand, using assessments for teacher evaluation means that we must focus on reliability, validity, and standardization, rather than on usefulness for student learning.

The new Massachusetts Evaluation System requires the use of DDMs – District Determined Measures – as a measure of teacher effectiveness. Upon first glance, it sounds pretty reasonable. If the students of one 2nd grade teacher all improve in reading fluency and comprehension while few of another teacher's students meet their learning goals, the first teacher should be deemed more effective than the second. When you think, however, of the many types of teachers making up a school system – from primary school teachers to art teachers to chemistry teachers – you realize that there’s no one measure that can be used for all. The next question becomes, how do you ensure fairness?

Since DDMs are “district-determined,” the next questions are: how do you ensure fairness among all 487 Massachusetts districts? How do you substantiate the amount of time and resources each of these districts must apply to developing their own evaluation system? and What student-centered and school improvement initiatives are districts putting aside in order to focus on DDM development?

The DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) does advocate using assessments that are classroom-based. If we already had common assessments in place, this would still be a challenge but for most of our grades and subjects, this is not the case. To develop common assessments focused exclusively on student learning is, itself, difficult enough, but to also develop such assessments with an eye toward using them for teacher evaluation adds another layer of difficulty. Still, we need not reinvent the wheel. The Race to the Top (RTTT) districts have developed over 100 model units that include Curriculum Embedded Performance Assessments (CEPAs) that can be used as DDMs. Additionally, DESE has partnered with WestEd, a national research agency, to identify example District-Determined Measures (DDMs) districts may choose to use. These examples are available through the DESE website.

So that you don’t think I’m not taking my own advice about being open to change, note that Leicester’s application of other portions of the new Massachusetts evaluation system has been outstanding and well received. Teachers and administrators alike have embraced the more frequent observations and feedback resulting from our new evaluation system and, in fact, the DESE’s district review team made a note of how well we are doing with this implementation. My resistance stems from knowing that much effort will now need to be made to develop this DDM system at the expense of other efforts that would have a more direct effect on student learning. We know what needs to be done here in Leicester to improve our schools but instead must focus our time and resources on achieving compliance with state regulations.

That being said, what we hope to do is to begin with an understanding that the focus in Leicester should be on using assessments for instructional improvements. If we can focus on developing DDMs that will add value to our students’ learning, our efforts will be fruitful. If, instead, we concentrate simply on how fair, how equitable, and how valid the assessments will be for teacher evaluation, we will expend much effort for little gain. If you are a teacher reading this you may, initially, disagree with this emphasis, but let me share a little understood fact about the Massachusetts Evaluation system: although it does require a student assessment component, this component does not alter the overall result of a teacher’s evaluation. First, we must use student data to decide on an educator’s impact on student learning: low impact, moderate impact or high impact, but let’s instead label this “evidence suggests low impact, evidence suggests moderate impact, and evidence suggests high impact” since no measure can absolutely determine impact. Second, we must determine the educator’s performance rating: “exemplary,” “proficient,” “needs improvement,” or “unsatisfactory,” using observations and achievement of goals. Once done, the student impact rating only has an effect on the evaluation consequences if the teacher is exemplary or proficient. If low student impact, the teacher must create a 1-year self-directed growth plan but with moderate or high student impact, the teacher need only create a 2-year self-directed growth plan. For teachers rated as needs improvement or unsatisfactory, the type of growth plan is not dependent on student impact – not one bit. (see page 29 of this DESE document).

I don’t believe there’s one educator in Leicester who’ll focus solely on what type of plan they need to create after an evaluation. Instead, most would be devastated by student data that indicates a low impact, regardless of what the effect will be. This contributes to my resistence - assessments should be made to help teachers self-reflect and self-correct, rather than causing angst. Also, while I don’t want to suggest that this rating is entirely unimportant, I do want to emphasize that the rating itself can only be said to be suggested by evidence, rather than absolute, no matter how good a job we do in the development of our DDMs.

We have established an evaluation team that will develop a plan to identify DDMs for Leicester. This team, consisting of Deb Burak, Sherry O'Leary, Joanne Bernier, Margaret Westerlind, Marilyn Tencza, and Melissa Provost (alt. Kathy Pelley) met on Tuesday, November 26th, and will meet again in January. Our goal is to not simply come into compliance but instead ensure that DDMs contribute to self-reflection, continual improvement, and student learning.

The December 3rd 1/2 PD day will focus on the new PARCC assessments (to eventually replace the MCAS) as well as information about the DDMs. While the timeline for compliance with this requirement has been pushed to the 2015-16 school year, successful implementation requires piloting the use of a few DDMs this year, expanding to next year, then actually applying the DDMs to the evaluation system the following year. Our eventual success will mean that each educator in Leicester feels that the use of DDMs for their evaluation is fair and that they find their use valuable to their growth as teachers. We hope, as well, that parents will find the use of DDMs to contribute to student growth and school improvement.

Stake, R. cited in Earl, L. 2004. Assessment as learning: Using classroom achievement to maximize student learning. Experts in Assessment. Corwin Press Inc. Thousand Oaks, California.

Stiggins, R. 2002. Assessment crisis: The absence of assessment for learning. Phi Delta Kappa. Available online: http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0206sti.htm.

Posted by Judy Paolucci

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