Sunday, October 25, 2015

October 27 board agenda

I’d love to use this blog as a way to hear some thoughts about issues that appear on our board agenda. The agenda for this coming week’s meeting is here. Among other things, we will be discussing:

The bell schedule. The district changed the bell schedule this year, extending the elementary school day and adjusting the daily start and end times for all students. I was against the change and, especially given some of the unintended consequences we have experienced (for example, with bus schedules), am strongly inclined to revisit it. My fellow director Lori Roetlin, who also wants to revisit the issue, has written a letter explaining her thoughts about how we should move forward with the issue. What are your thoughts?

The possibility of buying into ThoughtExchange, an online platform for gathering and aggregating public input on school issues. I have some initial thoughts about this issue that I’ll try to post separately. You can read about ThoughtExchange (or at least see advertisements for it) by clicking on the links and PDFs here. The service would cost $170,000 over five years. Your thoughts on ThoughtExchange?

The preliminary report about this year’s class sizes. You can read the report here. I’ve heard a lot of concern about our class sizes this year. Chime in if you have thoughts on the issue.

You may find something else in the agenda that catches your eye. Feel free to post a comment.

UPDATE, 10-29:  Thanks, everyone, for the terrific comments.  I’ve had less time the past couple of days to respond individually—as will inevitably happen here—but I always read the comments and I really value the input.  At our Tuesday night meeting, we voted unanimously to adopt Director Lori Roetlin’s proposal to set up a task force to examine the bell schedule and make recommendations.  The proposal is designed to get the process going soon there will be plenty of time to get input from the community before any decision gets made.

We also heard a presentation from the ThoughtExchange vendor and discussed the service at some length, but we did not vote on it.  Some of my fellow board members are very supportive of the proposal, while others want more information about alternatives, while others (including me) are pretty skeptical, so the discussion will continue at a future meeting.

The board president summarized our clarification of the threat protocol that occurred at last week’s work session, and the issue will go to board committees for further discussion.  The class size report focused (as I would have expected) on the shortage of supplemental state aid and on the district’s choices about how to put available funding to the best use.


pooter said...

I'm convinced that Thought Exchange is a frivolous expense for which they are overcharging by an astronomical amount. It is relatively simple these days to use a variety of web-based services to collect opinions and perform surveys at low to no-cost for the services and programs.

iclocal said...

I agree with Pooter on the Thought Exchange. It is a frivolous expense.

Regarding the bell schedule, I feel that it should be flipped so the secondary students start later and the elementary kids would start earlier based on the information that Lori provided.

Anonymous said...

Everybody is talking about-mostly mocking-the "threat" policy the board passed at the last meeting. I assume the board intends to revisit it? Curious to know your thoughts on the policy as it stands, the manner in which was enacted, and how it should be changed. I would suggest it is not a good idea to draft policy on the fly, in the heat of the moment, and this seems to bear that out.

Chris said...

Anonymous — Well, I think you hit the nail on the head about drafting policy on the fly. I can tell you that I didn’t walk away from that meeting thinking that anyone on the board wanted school-wide emails to go out (and the police to be called) every time a second grader threatened to hit another second grader. I thought that we were trying to change the *time* at which a threat would be reported—when it is received, rather than after it is investigated and substantiated—but not that we were trying to lower the bar on the *type* of threat that would be reported, and that the administration would draft a definition of “threat” for purposes of triggering the reporting.

The administration left with a very different impression, though, and there’s no question that the board should have been more careful about the words it used. We just need to make sure in the future that misunderstandings get clarified during the meeting, because once the meeting is over, there is no way for the board to communicate as a group until the next scheduled board meeting (because of the open meetings law). That’s one more reason to be careful about drafting policy on the fly.

Fortunately, we had a work session scheduled for last Tuesday. Though we can’t actually vote or enact policy at a work session, it did provide an opportunity for the administration to get a better sense of where the board was coming from.

I do think we were trying to address a real issue in light of the alleged threat that occurred at West High the previous week. The fact is, we don’t have a clear policy on when serious threats should be made public or referred to the police—and that’s not the fault of the West High administrators. So I do think it’s a good idea for the board to make it clear that when there is a very serious threat, the school administration should not be expected to handle it on its own, and the community needs to know sooner rather than later.

But yes, I was kicking myself all that week for my part in allowing that misunderstanding to occur. For a week, I’m afraid we sent a message to kids that we really did not want to send.

Chris said...

iclocal -- Thanks for the comment. On the bell schedule, part of me wants to play it safe and just return to the bell schedule we had last year (since we at least know that we can pull that schedule off without busing problems like the ones we've been having). But I think having a task force generate possibilities is a great idea, and it's also a great idea to set the process in motion now, so there is ample time to think it through and get suggestions and reactions from the public before we make any decisions.

Eliot said...

I'd hate to see the school board fall for yet another vendor's latest gimmicky software. Every education conference I've ever been to has folks out flogging one of these platforms that "leverages the principles of crowd sourcing, interest-based negotiation and experiential education" in order to "surface deep insights for decision leaders" while "creating robust data and detailed analysis"(I'm quoting the ThoughtExchange website here, but the language is interchangeable).

Cost isn't the only issue. You have to learn how to use the platform, and no matter how intuitive it turns out to be, that's a turnoff. (I seem to remember reading some invite a few years ago from ICCSD about needing to create an account in order to comment on the new boundary proposals, I was like, "nope!")

Is someone going to have to make the platform work with the rest of the ICCSD's software? That can raise compatibility issues and will require staff time.

And then will anything come of the results? Because sometimes data is collected and then it just sits, and everyone realizes the platform wasn't a turnkey, magic solution machine -- that it didn't solve the underlying problem of actually effecting change. That requires actual work.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the response about the threat policy. To my eye this seemed like an initial overreaction by parents, which took on a life of its own through social media. I was hoping the board would put the breaks on it through calm reason, but easier said than done I suppose. Even assuming the policy has been clarified to eliminate elementary school shoving matches, I'm still not clear what a teacher or administrator is supposed to do with a serious but "unsubstantiated" threat. Absurd rumors are not an infrequent occurrence in a population of several thousand adolescents in junior high and high school. If every such rumor results in a robo-call to parents, please allow parents to opt out.

I applaud your willingness to share your thoughts on this blog by the way. I wish more public officials would do the same.

Chris said...

Anonymous—It’s definitely a harder question than we at first realized. There’s no way around relying on the judgment of school staff and administrators about what crosses the line into the kind of serious threat that people would rightfully want to know about. I do think it makes sense to try to give some policy guidance to let staff and administrators know what we’re after. Part of it, I think, should involve making sure that the initial assessment occurs relatively quickly. But we’ll never be able to draft a set of rules that are so clear about how to handle every possible situation that school staff will never have to use their judgment, and we shouldn’t try to.

Thanks about the blog, by the way. I’m worried that my ability to post (and even more, my ability to respond to comments) may vary greatly from week to week because of the time commitment, but I’m hoping that the blog will still be useful on balance.

Chris said...

Eliot -- Thanks for the comment. I hope I'll be able to post some of my own thoughts about ThoughtExchange soon.

Anonymous said...

"There’s no way around relying on the judgment of school staff and administrators about what crosses the line into the kind of serious threat that people would rightfully want to know about."

I think this is right; inevitable really. The problem, as I see it, is that the Board seemed to be saying that school staff should NOT use their judgment. All unsubstantiated threats (now SERIOUS unsubstantiated threats) MUST be reported to the police (and parents, simultaneously?), so the police can investigate and decide if it's a legitimate threat. Based on my survey of teachers and parents, this is how the policy is currently understood on the ground. And if there is doubt, most will report it to police. Like the old saw, "Nobody gets fired for hiring IBM," most public employees will err on the side of calling in a report. The requirement that a report be "immediate" is also a topic of confusion. If a teacher over hears a serious, unsubstantiated threat in the classroom, are they to leave the classroom and call it in on their cell phone? Anyway, the Board recognized the policy would need to be fleshed out and clarified. Hoping that happens sooner rather than later as there is significant anxiety about this.

Chris said...

Anonymous -- Yes, I think what you wrote describes the initial reaction that the administration had to what we did. I think the discussion at the work session clarified things at least enough to put a stop to the emails and calls to police about minor threats. The topic is on the agenda again for tomorrow night’s meeting, and I agree that we’re going to have to be particularly careful about our wording and that just adding the word “serious” is not going to be clarification enough.

The issue strikes me as a pretty good example of some of the inherent difficulties of board governance. I think the basic Carver governance system makes a lot of sense: the board is supposed to use policy to set goals and to set boundaries on what the administration can do in pursuit of those goals. When the board feels that certain actions should be out of bounds, it’s supposed to make those limitations clear through the policies it sets. Setting limitations shouldn’t be seen as a rebuke to the administration, but rather as the board’s effort to make its expectations clear so the administration doesn’t have to guess about what they are.

A clear policy also to some extent takes the heat off the staff and administration; as long as they’re acting within the boundaries of the policy, people’s concerns are better directed at the board, which writes the policy. The problem, though, is that the board can act only through words, and there is a limit to what you can do with the words of a policy to address all the possible situations that might arise.

Still, I do think this series of events has raised a legitimate concern that the current approach of the district may not be in sync with what the board (or the broader community) wants—or that there is no widely understood current approach—so I do think it makes sense for the board to use its policy-making authority to try to better state what it wants from the administration. The devil, as usual, will be in the details.

Thanks again for the comments—this exchange is helping me think through the issue.

TB said...

Thanks for doing this blog and for your thoughtful work on the board. Regarding the bell schedule; I think we need to take a step back and figure out what our priorities are. I think the reason for the change was so we could count hours, rather than days in order to avoid making up snow days, right? The results include elementary kids in school for 30 minutes longer which (from what I understand) has been added to their lunch and recess. Also, the secondary school day has been shortened, resulting in some courses limiting what they can teach. (Mr. Burkle teaching AP Gov at City let us know at back-to-school night that he used to include the topic Comparative but can not with the shortened time. So he offers it as something the students can learn on their own if they feel like it.) I imagine other courses had to adjust as well. Perhaps there are other reasons that drove this change, like it costs less to not make up snow days? But as it stands, as a district our priority is we do not want to make up snow days and want school to end in May. And that priority outweighs including a little extra depth in JH and HS classes like AP Gov and also outweighs getting elementary kids home/to after school programs sooner. Which is fine, if that is what our district feels is most important. To me, unless we just can not afford to go back to the old bell schedule, it seems like a weird trade off.

iclocal said...

I was curious as to why students only have 175 days now instead of 180? It makes some sense at the elementary level since their day is now longer. But it seems like at the secondary level they have lost five days of instruction since the day is not any longer. Why does the district value more instructional time at the elementary level than the secondary? It does not seem fair to the secondary students.

Amy Charles said...

Are we going to talk about this nebulous policy of having ICCSD staff make "threat assessments" for calling the cops on children, particularly when the cops already have a highly strained relationship with communities of color here? I will point out that ICCSD only recently had a Title IX violation, and I believe there's an equity report out from a few years ago...oh, here it is.


Right, police referrals and suspensions already heavily overrepresent kids of color.

I would like to see ICCSD and ICPD, in conjunction with community groups come to some consensus about and write up a plan for how we are going to do this equitably, without catching vulnerable families up in high-stakes bias-based "regrettable mistakes". Doing this ad-hoc is not a good idea.

Thanks, Chris.

Chris said...

iclocal -- You're right that that's the effect of the new bell schedule. In fact, since snow days will ordinarily not be made up, it may turn out that the gain in hours for elementary students will not be as great as expected. I don't want to speak for the people who made the decision, but my guess is that, to the extent the new bell schedule sacrifices hours for older students in favor of hours for younger students, it was at least partly driven by pressure from the state (for example, through third-grade retention rules) to raise elementary school test scores. I'm not saying I agree that it makes sense to think of student achievement that way (i.e., more minutes = more learning) -- just saying that I think that state pressure probably played a role in the change.

Chris said...

Amy -- Yes, our week-long detour into calling the police for minor threats has been an unfortunate setback for the work that was being done to reduce disproportionate minority contact with law enforcement. Anything we do going forward has to be very conscious of that work and that issue.

iclocal said...

Class size seems way too large at the secondary level. Maybe the board should consider lowering its recommended class size for secondary? It seems like the district office feels comfortable going over in some classes, so knowing that they will likely do that maybe the class size should be set with that in mind? Is it 27 now? I can't remember. Maybe 24 would be a better number? I can't imagine being a secondary teacher with 150-180 students and having that much to grade. I know the district office will say they can't afford to lower class size or they don't have space for more classes. To this I suggest the district could save money by going to semesters, and possibly not offering as many electives to save money. The space factor could maybe be fixed as the FMP is being done? I know as a parent I would rather my child would be in a smaller class than to have more course options.

Charlie Eastham said...


Hope these exchanges are helpful. As you know I am a member of the district's Equity Advisory Committee but I am commenting only as an individual.

My comment is simply that the Board needs to get into the habit of assessing policies and practices in light of the equity goals in the District's and Board's strategic plans and especially of the District's Comprehensive Equity Plan. I suspect the Equity Advisory Committee would be most willing to provide analysis and recommendations for specific issues, such as changing methods for parent and student communication or for assessing student achievement and associated possible faster and more detailed reporting of results.

Charlie Eastham

Chris said...

TB -- Thanks for the comment. I agree that we need to think about how the bell schedule reflects our priorities. I don't think we can even start to do that, though, until we get a much fuller sense in advance of the costs and benefits of any particular change to the schedule. This year's change has just had too many unintended consequences; we need to do a better job of vetting the alternatives.

Chris said...

Charlie -- Thanks. I agree completely that we need to get into that habit.

Chris said...

iclocal – Thanks for the comment. Cost is definitely the limiting factor in bringing down class sizes. There’s no question that the state squeeze on supplemental aid is forcing us to make no-win tradeoffs. Personally, for example, I would rather have had more money for the general fund—and thus for bringing down class sizes—than have that same money earmarked for a teacher leadership program. (And to the extent that we wanted a teacher leadership program, we could always have used the general fund that way anyway.) But the state decided to make that choice for us. It’s on the verge of making another such choice for us—forcing us to greatly increase the amount we spend on standardized testing, which will mean that much less money available for bringing class sizes down. We can advocate against it, but in the end we don’t decide it.

Anyway, we can’t avoid dealing with it. I don’t have too many preconceptions about how we might address the class size issue within the limited range of options we have, so I appreciate hearing your ideas about it.

iclocal said...

Regarding electives and saving money I just wanted to explain what I meant by that. It seems in the math and science areas there are quite a few electives. For example for chemistry, a student could take Basic Chemistry, Chemistry, Chemistry Honors or AP Chemistry. Same deal with the Biology classes. I understand needing different paths for students but that many seems like a little much. They math department has even more paths for a student to be on. I am in no way advocating for few classes at the junior high level which seems to be at the bare minimum. But I do think this is something to be looked at the high school level.
Sports is another area which could be looked at to save money.
Also, the board could look at the long term making the system K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 to save money. That could be a big money saver, but I also realize that would mess up the FMP.

Amy Charles said...

thanks, Chris, and I'll second what Charlie said.

Chris said...

Mary Murphy chimes in with some thoughts about ThoughtExchange here.

arial said...

I think ThoughtExchange gives the appearance of the district seeking input without actually getting opinions from a more varied population than would comment via other avenues. It also costs too much for what is offered. My opinion is definitely no to ThoughtExchange.

I don't like the current bell schedule. It goes too late in the afternoon for my kindergartener and our whole family feels like there just isn't much time in the afternoon/evening now. Also, the board info says kids eat lunch as late at 12:30, but my 6th grader doesn't go to lunch until 12:45, that is probably something that could be shifted at the building level without changing the bell schedule though. I think elementary teachers who coach secondary sports is another problem to look at with the current schedule. I don't like that we gave up 5 days (or more if there are snow days) for 30 minutes more every day, I think that goes against what we know about the best ways for kids to learn over time.

Mandy Athy said...

Although I thought I would dislike the secondary schedule, it works for us. I no longer have an elementary student however, the later start and late afternoon release would have played hell with our son. My high school aged daughter is not home from athletic practice until after 7 pm and often has homework after that. I would hate to see her day extend much later.

Anonymous said...

Has the administration provided information on trends where actual enrollment numbers have exceeded projected enrollment numbers at schools or in areas? Are there trends where certain schools or areas tend to add more than the average number of students over the course of the year? This information should be considered when planning.

Anonymous said...

A few thoughts regarding school size/class size and class composition:
(1) If the district stopped all within district transfers/if children went to their assigned schools, how would this affect school size, class sizes, and school composition specifically with regard to variables of interest like FRL? This could be an interesting, and revealing addition to the Enrollment report due to be released in March 2016 and could help guide redistricting decisions coming up soon.
(2) It is known that about 100 or more kids are added to classrooms at the elementary level most years after school has started. Do some schools tend to get more of these new students while other schools might have a tendency to lose students? If so, this should be a factor in deciding teacher allotments per building so a 6th grade class that starts out the school year with... say 31-33 students... but could be predicted to increase to 33-35 students by March would hopefully be given priority to start the school year off with another classroom to avoid that class size of 35 students for a significant portion of the school year. On the other hand, a school that has a historical tendency to lose students during the year might be more likely to start off the school year with a class of 31-33 students since they would be more likely to end up with fewer students later in the year.
(3) I do not believe that redistricting and offering transfers to Van Allen for Garner families will be enough to alleviate the significant overcrowding in the North Liberty elementary schools for the next 4 years until capacity additions will hopefully be finished - assuming the bond passes (big assumption).

Bell Schedule Comments:
(1) I strongly feel that the high schools should have the later start time and the elementary schools the earlier start time. Educational research strongly supports this! Athletics... only affects a few and the district is here first to provide students with an education to prepare them for a successful and rewarding life after public education. Additionally, elementary kids getting on/off buses so late in the day leaves very little time for anything other than dinner, reading, bath and bedtime especially for Grades K-2. Also, parents are more likely to be available to supervise getting on the bus if it's dark out in the early AM hours but are less likely to be home to supervise getting off the bus at 4:30-4:45 when it's getting dark out because many are still at work. So it is safer to get on a bus when it is dark in the morning than when it is dark in the afternoon.

(2) I am disappointed that the additional minutes are really not going towards further/better instructional time as was indicated would be the case earlier this spring. It appears to be going to longer lunch time (good - unless your kid doesn't get to start lunch now until 12:55) and more recess time. Very little increase in actual instructional time from what I'm hearing...

(3) It is educationally better for kids to have more instructional days, not less. I am not a fan of 175 days instead of 180. Three complete months off from school will lead to a lot of learning loss that takes time to rebuild when school resumes for children that do not continue to engage in some kind of educational activities over those long three summer months.

Amy Charles said...

Thought exchange: No, this is crazy, spending that kind of money when there are so many ways of talking for free. If you want to be superduper organized about it, and you're dying to spend money, I can't see how even a "here he comes, boys!" software box should cost the district more than $5-10K. Which is still ludicrous, award it to some kid as a college scholarship instead if you must give away money.

Floating free of agenda: The jr-hi homework craziness just really needs to stop. First, I have no intention of crawling into my kid's underwear to see what she gets on all her assignments, what they are, etc. Second, I'm about to start responding to the nights of 2 hours' homework by turning off the damn lights and taking the backpack and books away. It's not turning her brilliant, the homework load. We're not sitting around having conversations about Spinoza. (If we were, it'd be because I was talking at her in the car about Spinoza, not because of her schoolwork.) What it is doing is turning her into a pre-atherosclerotic grind and a sleep-deprived adolescent. It's also not hard to prevent this kind of thing. It requires having teachers either work together to determine who gets a crack at the kids on what days or limit the homework to half an hour in any given subject, with no more than two subjects' work expected per night. If this is about ICCSD test fears, terrific, tell me so and I'll withdraw the kid from test-taking.