Monday, February 28, 2011

Education Finances

Education finances are a tricky thing.  I don't claim to be an expert in the field, but as the Liberal leadership campaign came to a close, it is time to wonder what will happen with public educational in British Columbia as a result of the new Liberal Party leader. The new leader of the Liberal Party, and Premier of the province, Christy Clark has had a tumultuous relationship with teachers in the past and has pledged to re-examine the funding formulas.  As to what exactly this means, I am not sure.  Over the past few years as education finances debates continue in BC with the Liberals, the cost of public education continues to rise.  There are costs to move forward and there are additional costs just to maintain status quo.

Trying to have a 21st century school is trying.  Districts are struggling with bandwidth, and our district is no exception.  At this point I am not even talking about the additional hardware necessary.  There is no point in adding hardware if the system cannot handle what we currently have.  From my understanding BC was one of the first to have Internet in the schools, meaning that the problem is that BC was one of the first to have Internet in the schools and needs to seriously upgrade the infrastructure.  Our Provincial Learning Network is outdated and maxed out.  In order to deal with this problem our district has had to examine different possibilities.  It was mentioned in an article that for the Coquitlam School District "middle-of-the-road option that costs less than putting fibre at every school site but would still require a one-time $2.5-million investment plus $290,000 a year, or $785,000 annually to lease fibre over 20 years and the tools for five years."  

The district can either wait for additional funding to deal with this or take it on by itself.  To the best of my knowledge there is no additional funding coming.  That means that just to be able to have a manageable system the district needs to come up with nearly $3,ooo,ooo.  I just do not understand how the reigning provincial party can be talking about 21st century schools without providing the money necessary for the required infrastructure to make it possible.

Another finance piece that has confused me is how money is taken away.  Over the past few years taxes have been added, green initiatives have been put forth and schools have been footing the bill.  Perhaps it is just me, but I fail to understand why it makes sense to give schools $ and then take them back.  Here are a couple of examples.  This year, School District 43 will pay $232,000 to Pacific Carbon Trust to offset its energy, fuel and paper consumption but will get no money back for innovative projects, such as composting or recycling, that are cutting waste and dealing with climate change.  The second example is last year districts were saving money for required major renovations and yet had the money taken away because it was deemed to not be necessary because it had not been spent.  Since when is it prudent to spend your annual budget when you are not sure what renovations or major work might be necessary. 

These renovations would have replaced old and outdated boilers and made the schools heating systems more efficient, provide better air quality and make the schools "greener".  Better air quality, I would think, would result in fewer people being sick, another cost.  The great part of the Carbon taxes is that the money taken back was money school districts were going to use to make renovations and alterations that would have allowed the school districts to become more carbon neutral and now have to pay the Carbon tax because they were not compliant with the Green Goals.  To me it does not make sense to essentially fine a school district $232,000 because of a law that was enacted by the provincial party and then not giving the funding to the schools to make the necessary changes. 

Budget times are always interesting as districts have many difficult decisions to make.  It would be nice if there were not additional cost pressures added, but perhaps that is not reality.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

My struggles with the FSAs

Earlier this week I was sitting in the computer lab watching the students complete the grade 4 numeracy portion of the FSA  (Foundation Skills Assessment - British Columbia's standardized tests for grade 4 and 7). There were many thoughts going through my head during this time.  I had looked at the rankings that the Fraser Institute published and saw that my school had jumped significantly in the standings.  I knew that we would be moving up from where we were last year, our focus has been on writing for the past few years.  We have enjoyed some rich professional development, had great discussions, found different ways to emphasize and promote writing in the school and continued to work with different writing programs.  These have all lead to improvements.  I do believe that the students have improved in writing because of these changes, but that does not tell the whole story.

Our results are directly impacted by the number of eligible students who write the different tests and the number of students who have been excused from writing it for a variety of reasons including parental request that their child not write the tests.  If a number of very strong students are excused from writing the test, our results will drop, conversely if the number of students excused from writing are struggling learners our results will rise.  If there is not a flu bug running through the school around that time then the results go up, if there are a few kids who families all go on vacation at that time our results could drop.  There are so many external factors that impact the results of the test beyond the teaching that if they fall in your favour as they mostly did last year, the result is a rise in the rankings, if they do not, as was the case two years ago and this year, they will drop.

To give you some insight as to how it works I will include a brief description.  We received the package a few weeks earlier and I decided to wait to start.  Over the past few years the system has had problems where students will be kicked out of the electronic portion and have to log back in.  For some students this would happen 3-4 times over the course of the time they were working on one portion of the test.  This caused a lot of stress and caused some to panic and become very anxious, worried that they would have to start again.  (I cannot even begin to imagine what would be going through a high school student's mind when writing a provincial test and this happens!).  I hoped that by waiting there would be fewer students using it at the same time, thereby reducing the possibilities of crashes.

During the couple of weeks leading up to us starting I had some conversations with other schools, people on my soccer team and elsewhere discussing the FSAs.  A couple of friends with students at schools outside of our district were telling me that the kids had been practicing the tests for a couple of weeks and were a bundle of nerves because they were told how important these tests are and that they had to do well to represent the school.  One of my colleagues was telling me that she had 3 different parents come to her and ask whether or not their child should be writing the test because they were worried that their kids would not be successful because of their IEPs (individual education plans) and would therefore bring the school results down.  She told the parents that it was their choice, but that they should not be excluding their children for that reason.  Would all principals have said the same thing?  At our school all students write the test unless we are concerned about the impact that this could have on the student, and we do not spend any time practicing.

I had a few parents come to me a little before we were going to start wondering why we had not started our tests when when some of the neighbouring schools had.  I explained my rationale and they felt that it made sense.  One then asked me if we all received the tests at the same time and I let her know that I believed that to be the case.  The next questions caught me off guard as it was not something that had entered my mind.  If you held onto the tests for a couple of weeks, is there anything stopping schools from practicing with the actual tests before starting?  Could they all do a rough draft and then copy the good draft into the booklet?  If they were not all doing the electronic portion at the same time, would it be possible for a class to begin the reading portion and then copy the stories, print them and be able to go over them with the other students to prepare them for the questions?  When I answered that hypothetically speaking this was possible she was stunned.  How was this standardized?  In order for it to be standardized should all the kids in the province be doing the tests at the same time, or at the very least, all of the kids in the same school at the same time?

There are other factors that concern me as to how the data is used.  Two years ago our school received additional staffing partly due to the fact that we had a larger number of students with learning challenges than we normally had.  That year, when the students were writing the FSAs, the flu went through the school and some got sick, 1 missed a lot of time from school so I decided to not have that student finish the FSA. Result, not meeting expectations in all areas.  2 students went on vacation part way through the test, result, 2 students not meeting expectations.  2 students broke down in tears because they were frustrated so we took the tests away, result, 2 students not meeting expectations.  I believe that 4 of those 5 students would have fully met expectations.  I had two students who would not be writing the tests for a couple of reasons and I used their identifications to show the students to log on.  Result- 2 more students not meeting expectations because I had logged them in and answered 1 question but did not click on submit thinking the results would not show, this was a boneheaded moment which I did not repeat.  When you have a cohort group of about 50 kids and 7 are not meeting expectations for reasons other than the results of the test itself is one thing that a school can address and explain to its community, when an outside agency is ignorant of what happens in the schools and publishes results is another.

Four years ago we had the exact same number of identified gifted students as student with learning challenges two years ago.  The school went from double digit number of students who were gifted to double digits with learning difficulties.  The cohort was completely different and something outside the control of the school.  The result was a huge drop in the number of students not meeting expectations.  I go over the results with the parents, give them the numbers as well as some background information.  I am able to explain why we have gone up or down.  Our community is aware of our context, an outside agency examining and working with the data is not.  When a school has their test data compromised because their electronic results have gone into an Internet abyss and suddenly 10 students results are automatically not meeting expectations and those results are published, the public perception of the school can be compromised.

From my vantage point, the FSAs can provide useful information for a staff to look at and plan our school goals.  We can use it as a measuring stick to chart our progress, knowing our context.  This is not shirking responsibility.  I still stand in front of our parents and share the data and listen to concerns that they may have.  My concern is that when a non-informed group that ignores or does not care about the contextual situations that can arise in schools, and publishes results that are challenged statistically it impacts the perception of the school.  Why are schools punished because H1N1 hit their schools hard one year?  Why are schools punished for not practicing for the tests for weeks and choosing to focus on the curriculum and using the FSAs as a snapshot as they were intended to?  Why are schools punished because the cohorts each year can be significantly different from year to year and give a false increase or decrease in the students' perceived success?  The number of students writing is also compromised, based on parent willingness to have their children write the tests.  There are some schools where only 30% of the eligible kids are actually writing the test.

If everybody is not writing the test at the same time, in the same way, under the same conditions, with the same number of kids in a room writing it together, with the same preparation, with ALL students writing the test regardless of abilities, with one large group of independent markers marking all of the tests in the same way and removing the possibilities of possible manipulation of the testing situations, intentionally or accidentally, the test is no longer standardized even if all of the questions are the same.  There are just too many outside factors possible to make this testing equitable.  Let schools use the information for the way that it was intended and not let outside agencies compromise the validity of a non-standardized standardized test.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Twitter Effect and Standards Based Reporting

What has started off as a few innocuous questions is gaining huge momentum.  Who knew that responding to a tweet could have a potentially large impact on an entire district?  A simple twitter conversation around eliminating letter grades led to me sending an email to an assistant superintendent which then led to a conversation in person between the 3 main participants of that conversation.  From there it grew to a potential committee of about 9 schools, which then led to an email to the 70 some odd schools in the district to which about another dozen or so schools have responded that they are interested in taking this on.

I have to admit that I am borderline freaking out right now because I thought this might be a small group.  I was wrong.  My assistant superintendent is lining up potential facilitators, using connections to bring in some amazing people and looking for a way to get this project subsidized.  My superintendent is sending me references for material that I should be looking at.  We had our district volleyball tournament and teachers are coming up to me and telling me how excited they are to be a part of this.  I am stoked, but also quietly shaking in my boots.

I guess we are going to have to call this the "Twitter Effect" rather than the "Butterfly Effect".  If someone tweets in Coquitlam, BC, what can happen? Now I guess I get to the point of my post.  Help!!!!!  I had the opportunity to virtually take part in the Educon session Standards Based Grading: Is it fair? by Kristen Swanson and Mike Ritzius.  I loved the presentation and the conversations that I could overhear, but I really enjoyed the virtual chat that I was able to take part in.  Through that chat I was given 4 great resources as a starting point:

  1. The Journey of SBG

  2. Why do we grade the way we do? A Simulation

  3. To grade, or not to grade: that is the question!

I am going to put together a quick google doc to try and collect as much information and resources on standard based grading/assessment.  Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated!  Please find the document here:

Standards Based Reporting

Thanks for any help, ideas or suggestions that you can offer.