Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Peterson Family Thanksgiving Blues Jam

It has been years since we have had Thanksgiving dinner with my family.  As it turns out, my brother and his wife flew into town this week by surprise for the holiday.  Here is a glimpse into what happens when the Peterson boys get together:

I am thankful for my family.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

U-Turn: Ogden School District's Bold Plan For Improvement

I was invited by the new Superintendent of the Ogden School District, Brad Smith, to walk classrooms with him this past week.  In the invitation, it stated his goal was to personally visit every every classroom in the district within the next several months.

I accepted the invitation and we met to walk through Dee School.  To be honest, I was unexcited about the visit because my children attended Dee a couple years ago and I was very familiar with its challenges.  Dee School, as of 2010, was the lowest ranked school in Utah.  The population is economically challenged and also diverse. The complexion of the school is approximately 20% Caucasian, 75% Hispanic, and 5% Miscellaneous.  English as a second language has been a big challenge for the school.  

When our children attended, we loved our children's teachers.  However, it seemed that much of the school was in a defensive posture.  Students struggled for survival and academic achievement in a system that was awkwardly equipped to meet their needs.  Our children's experience at Dee ended when they ultimately tested into Ogden School District's Advanced Learning Academy before transferring to  Ogden Preparatory Academy, a Public Charter School.

I met Superintendent Smith at the school and the first thing that impressed me was the new Principal.  Mrs. Sondra Jolovich-Motes was transferred from Ogden High School to oversee the transformation of Dee School.  I was impressed with her focus, drive, and knowledge.  As we walked the school, which has a very awkward cylindrical floor plan, it became apparent very quickly that it was not the same school that our children had attended.  First, the class sizes were reduced to 19 per teacher.  Secondly, the ESL students were getting almost 30 minutes a session with the Imagine Learning program which is highly reputed for its ability to accelerate English skills in ESL students.

Most importantly, however, was the dramatic change that has been made in the way that teachers address student's skill sets.  The school is partnering with the University of Virginia on a system for accelerating student achievement.  The concept involves testing the students for specific skills and identifying weak spots.  Each student then has an action plan created based on the skills they need.  The teachers identify what is needed for the class as a whole based off the individual assessments and teach based on that.  Lesson plans are changed weekly as student's progress is measured and reported.

The objective of the School District is to use this smart approach to propel Dee from last place to the top of the rankings for schools with similar socio-economic traits.  The goals are big but the School District has taken bold action to achieve them.  We will find out in May how the program has helped students and the school at large.  Let's wish Ogden School District well and congratulate them on adapting to meet the needs of the students.  I look forward to May's report. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Moving Cheese: Creating Competition In Utah's Education System

In 1998, Spencer Johnson published the book "Who Moved My Cheese?"  The book is a motivational message about adapting to survive in life that is constantly changing.  The gist of the title refers to the mice that are found in a laboratory maze looking for their cheese.  If the cheese is kept in one place in the same maze, the mice will quickly be able to find it each time they are placed in the maze.  However, if the cheese is moved, the known path to the cheese changes and must be learned anew. 

The crux of the book was that as people, when our "cheese" is moved, we have the choice of how to react.  We can cheerfully adapt and find new ways to the cheese.  Or, we can pout, sulk, and carry on with a doom and gloom attitude.  Sometimes, we find ourselves somewhere between the two.

I refer to this book because of an experience I had recently with some of my colleagues discussing education.  We recently had an opportunity to meet with the stakeholders and parents involved is several Weber County Public Charter Schools.  During this discussion we were able to address some of the issues challenging Public Charter Schools.  However, the most poignant comments were regarding the purpose of Public Charter Schools existence.

In essence, my colleagues who were present at the meeting view Public Charter Schools as a competitive force in the marketplace of education.  Historically, according to my colleagues, efforts to reform the traditional public education system have been too difficult to achieve in a significant way.  Much of this has to do with a giant existing bureaucracy that consumes half of our state budget.  So, rather that try to change the traditional public school system from within, the Legislature has chosen to support a path that creates forces outside of the traditional system to spur competition between the two.  Thus, the Legislature has "moved the cheese" of the entire public education system. (Note: This is not the same as the press' regular accusations of the Legislature "cutting the cheese".  Different issue.)

A most recent example of how this competitive force works is through a recently passed bill that supports online education.  SB65 allowed tax credits to be paid to vendors providing online classes.  Although the legislation will be refined this year, it has had a curious effect already.  Some, traditional school districts are looking to provide their own online classes in order to capture those tax credits.  This is the exact intent of the legislation.

The Public Charter School system provides additional opportunities for learning and does so in specific niches.  The Traditional Public School system provides a valuable service to the community as well.  Let's hope that innovation and improvement continue in both spheres as we work to take Utah's students beyond proficiency and toward excellency.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On-Line Education: Putting Taxpayers Underwater?

I had an opportunity to visit with the administration of the Weber School District and discuss some of the issues facing public schools from a Weber County perspective.

One of the topics of discussion was the implementation of SB65 which was proposed last year to allow Utah students to enroll with on-line education providers.  One of the consequences of the bill was that it provided a taxpayer subsidized credit to any online provider which now appears to be in the amount of $731 per credit.

Unfortunately, it also appears that the legislation provided few mechanisms for providing adequate accountability from those providers receiving taxpayer dollars. 

The school district cited two areas of improvement to SB 65 that it felt would better achieve the goals of the legislation while also providing some checks to misuse:

1.  Reduce the Dollar Amount Allotted Per Credit

The statutory Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU) is a formula used to determine how many taxpayer dollars are allocated per student to a public school.  In 2011, this number was $2,816.  Under SB 65, as it currently stands, on-line providers will be given $1,462 for providing classes for just two credits.  That is nearly half of the WPU allotted to a public school over the year.  In 2016 when students are allowed to take up to six credits, the total amount will be $4,386...nearly twice WPU.  It appears that this type of program, if on-line classes are to become more prominent in the education of Utah students, will begin to weigh heavily on the public coffers, jeopardize its viability, and make the program unsustainable.

A solution to this dilemma would be to reduce the subsidy to the on-line provider to an amount in line with other privately available courses.  For example, BYU's Independent study courses cost betwen $48 and $126 per credit.

2.  Allocate Funds to Districts to Also Develop On-Line Courses

Given the taxpayer investment that already exists in local school districts, it may be appropriate to allow local districts to develop their own on-line course material which can dovetail with the new higher standards of the Common Core Curriculum and provide students with an alternative means of study but with material that can be adapted to be compatible with current curriculum.  Also, having district level on-line credits would also allow for better accountability in testing.  By following testing protocols found in many universities, dishonesty in academic achievement (i.e. when mom or dad do the student's on-line work) can be removed from the learning experience. 

In essence, it appears that SB 65 has produced a few unintended consequences.  This is not surprising as almost all new legislation does this.  Hence, it may be wise for the legislature to look at amending the statute to address some of these concerns.  I look forward to the debate and seeing what we can do to make the on-line learning experience more productive and more cost-effective.