Category Archives: soapbox

Wishful Thinking

There seems to be quite a bit of wishful thinking at work with regard to the Smarter Balanced assessments. That aiming for minimum technology requirements and hoping for the best is enough. That we won’t need to buy anything more than we already have. That the state will find the money to pay for it all plus 4% growth plus fully fund the teacher leadership system (no need to prioritize spending, we can have it all!). That somehow, we can pretend that it’s all benefits and no costs, and in any case, it’s worth it (whatever it ends up being).


The experience in other states is that the move to statewide online assessments is a massive (and expensive!) undertaking, with many opportunities for things–large and small–to go wrong, even with the best planning.

In the next post I plan to address assessment technology issues experienced by other states (followed by a post on time and costs to administer the assessments). You can answer for yourselves whether Iowa is engaging in the best planning for a move to statewide online assessments.

Of course I’m not immune to wishful thinking myself. Surely legislators, prudent minders of the state budget, won’t vote for schools to pay more for assessments when schools could pay less for an assessment that meets all the minimum legislative requirements and covers all the required subjects. That legislators surely won’t vote to pay more without knowing exactly how much more it will be now and in the future. That legislators won’t knowingly impose unfunded mandates on our schools. And that somehow this decision on statewide assessments will be about assessments and not political sausage-making.

*Inspired by Math with Bad Drawings. I think we can all agree that Education in Iowa should stay away from both analogies and bad drawings from now on.

Online Learning

During the debate over HF 204, an act relating to open enrollment of students in online learning programs [virtual academies], on the House floor, Representative Staed tweeted:

Apparently he hasn’t heard that the future of teaching and learning is online.

Question: at what point of ed tech integration is there essentially no real difference between attending a brick and mortar school and a virtual academy? When all students are working through individualized computer-based, 21st century versions of WHIMP instead of participating in teacher-led, whole-group instruction? When a student in Iowa is more likely to be discussing a book with a student in Australia than with any of the other human beings sharing a physical space with him, because, 21st century?

I am completely aware that I am a broken record on the subject, but why can’t we aim for Montessori for all (or at least for all who want it) instead? Where kids are actually interacting with real, physical objects, and the human beings sharing space with them, rather than interacting with screens all day?

Century Labeling

I appreciate Superintendent Carver’s cheerful enthusiasm, as well as his cheerful morning Twitter greetings, so this post isn’t meant to single him out. This just happens to have caught my eye–and my ire too, I suppose–yesterday morning:

It seems century labels are only used as shorthand to denote that some things are woefully outmoded (19th and 20th century) and other things are of obvious modern goodness (21st century).

I can’t get all that worked up about whether kids get tested on 13th century arithmetic on 21st century tablets (using 19th century QWERTY keyboards and 19th century standardized spelling) or using pencil and paper answer sheets (which will be scored using 21st century computers) except for the fact that those 21st century computer-based tests aren’t all that much different than the familiar multiple-choice bubble tests, just much more expensive.

For my children, I’ll gladly stick with the 20th century testing on the right to leave time and money for, say, 16th century instructional programs like these:

And I’ll happily support local control that allows Superintendent Carver’s district to make a different choice.

Six Percent

With the legislative session underway, it is time for our annual supplemental state aid (SSA–formerly known as allowable growth) debate. Governor Branstad has proposed 1.25 percent and 2.45 percent increases for the next two years, others are calling for a six percent increase.

A reader asks, has allowable growth ever been set at six percent? The Legislative Services Agency has the answer for us.

Before we get to that, a few notes. First, with split government,negotiations are to be expected; these are just opening bargaining positions. Second, it is important to remember that the teacher leadership system is being funded at about $100 million this upcoming year and $150 million the following year. If the funds earmarked for TLC were shifted to SSA, SSA could be set at about three times the Governor’s proposal (closer to four percent) for FY2016 and more than twice the Governor’s proposal (close to six percent) for FY2017.

If I thought that I could start a Twitter meme, I might try this one: My district cut ______________, but at least we will have hundreds of teacher-leaders. #6percent #iaedfuture

My district cut elementary orchestra, but at least we will have hundreds of teacher-leaders. #6percent #iaedfuture

My district cut German language, but at least we will have hundreds of teacher-leaders. #6percent #iaedfuture

My district cut keyboarding and general music, but at least we will have hundreds of teacher-leaders. #6percent #iaedfuture

Or maybe: My district cut elementary orchestra, but at least my kid will have more time for computer-based standardized testing. #iaedfuture

But I digress. The answer from the Legislative Services Agency is that in the modern era of allowable growth, it has never been set higher than 4.21 percent.

Allowable growth was adopted in 1992, so I’m using that as the start date of the modern era of allowable growth. Here are the numbers from fiscal years 1992-2015:

  • FY 1992    4.21%
  • FY1993     4.15%
  • FY1994     2.10%
  • FY1995     2.85%
  • FY1996     3.50%
  • FY1997     3.30%
  • FY1998     3.50%
  • FY1999     3.50%
  • FY2000     3.00%
  • FY2001     4.00%
  • FY2002     4.00%
  • FY2003     1.00%
  • FY2004     2.00%
  • FY2005     2.00%
  • FY2006     4.00%
  • FY2007     4.00%
  • FY2008     4.00%
  • FY2009     4.00%
  • FY2010     4.00%
  • FY2011     2.00%
  • FY2012     0.00%
  • FY2013     2.00%
  • FY2014     2.00%
  • FY2015     4.00%
  • FY2016*   1.25%
  • FY2017*   2.45%

*As proposed by the Governor.

The Legislative Services Agency historical allowable growth summary provides data back to FY1973 (and also dollar amounts, if that is of interest). Allowable growth exceeded six percent in fiscal years 1975 to 1981 (a period of high inflation), and again in fiscal years 1983, 1984, and 1991.


I am finding #snowdaychat to be a bit depressing to the extent that they are discussing ideas for having kids stay busy with school work when winter weather requires a day off from school.

A day without school work does not necessarily mean a day without learning or a day without value (kids need to relax/take breaks from work too). For all of the talk about personalized learning and empowering students, what is wrong with allowing kids the freedom to choose their own ways to get through a snow day? And to make those choices without having to document them for school officials?

Kindergarten (and Career) Readiness Rat Race

I am conflicted about the push for universal preschool. My kids had a terrific experience with Montessori preschool, however, it seems unlikely that universal Montessori preschool is in the offing and I find it difficult to disagree with the sentiment Chris expresses here:

I can’t say that I remember much from my Kindergarten days beyond Elmer’s paste and safety scissors, but it was hardly an academic pressure cooker. So the concern about Kindergarten readiness has me wondering, just how ready could kids really need to be for the first year of formal schooling (beyond the obvious of having had a fifth birthday prior to September 15 of the year)?

A local district website offers some clues to Kindergarten expectations. There are the Iowa Core standards for Kindergarten language arts and mathematics and the district Student Learning Standards for Kindergarten language arts, mathematics, and social studies.

Once you get past the bizarre Kindergarten employability skills–honestly, would we really be all that less “globally competitive” if Iowa five-year-olds spent their Kindergarten days learning to share, take turns, stand in line, and stay on task rather than learning to “use different perspectives to increase innovation and the quality of work”, “use interpersonal skills to influence and guide others to a goal,” “use time efficiently to manage workload”, and “deliver quality job performance on time”?–it isn’t at all clear to me that kids should require much in the way of preparation to meet expectations by the end of their Kindergarten year.

The language arts standards are a bit unhelpful in some places. Note to standards writers: it doesn’t really illuminate anything to say that Kindergarten students are expected to be able to read “Kindergarten level” books or know and apply “grade-level” phonics.

In any case, most of the expectations seem pretty reasonable, though I can’t tell exactly how high the decoding expectations are. So, I suppose there is some possibility that expectations for decoding skills are higher than they used to be.

Interestingly, it just now strikes me that there are no expectations that children will learn to write their names, learn about colors, or develop any particular motor skills (cutting with scissors, holding pencils correctly for writing)–I hope I just missed them.

Again with mathematics, the standards look pretty reasonable: count to 100 by ones and by tens; write numbers from 0 to 20; compare groups of objects (greater than, less than, equal to); add and subtract within ten, with fluency expected for addition and subtraction within five; understand that the numbers 11-19 are made up of ten and some number of units; measuring and comparing objects (longer/shorter, heavier/lighter); sorting objects; and some knowledge of 2-D and 3-D shapes.

My working hypothesis is that there isn’t so much a problem of absolute readiness as there is a problem with relative readiness. Some kids arrive the first day of Kindergarten with all or many of these expectations mastered, while others have not. I suppose we could try to resolve that problem by making mastery of the Kindergarten curriculum, in a preschool setting, a prerequisite of “Kindergarten readiness”–though what the purpose of Kindergarten would be at that point, I couldn’t guess. Alternatively, I suppose we could place children prepared to benefit from first grade work in first grade, quit comparing the rest of them to each other, and stop putting increasingly higher economic competitiveness academic expectations on younger and younger children.

Bullying and Public Comment

There has been a fair bit of discussion lately, some of it heated, about proposed changes to the school board meeting public comment policy around here. (See also great discussion from Nick Johnson–including a reminder about the purposes of school board meetings–and from Mary Murphy).

I am interested in the comments I have seen in support of the policy change that seem to focus largely on the comfort of listeners, particularly listeners who are also potential speakers. Some sample Facebook comments:

Moderation is necessary and it is important to ensure an atmosphere that is free of bullying at board meeting to make sure all voices are heard.

Whether its catcalls or thunderous applause, it comes down to attempts to intimidate people with opposing views, and its gotten steadily worse over the past year.

As it happens, I think that if you are not reading Ken White over at Popehat, particularly on free speech and bullying, you are missing out. So, if you are still wondering why some people might object to at least some parts of the proposed public comment policy, I am going to link to two posts that I think are particularly good, arguably relevant, and absolutely worth clicking the links to read in full:

Ken White on what “bullying” means and doesn’t mean:

But not everything is bullying, unless we’re going to stretch that word to mean any expression we don’t like, any social pressure we disagree with, any sharp attack on a person or position. I don’t believe that fighting against social and political and legal positions we don’t like is bullying. I don’t believe that challenging and questioning and criticizing claims or stances or doctrines is bullying. I don’t believe that ridicule or satire or rough language directed at people who choose to enter a debate is (usually) bullying.

Ken White goes on to suggest we use different words for people who go too far in public debates (and seriously, click on the link and read the whole post):

Is there scary behavior we should condemn in the realm of political and social advocacy? Sure. There are some deal-breakingly-crazy stalkers out there who mindlessly pursue people who disagree with them. But a better term for them might be “crazy stalkers,” not “bullies.”

I approve of protecting the weak from the strong. I approve of calling out people who pick on strangers who are minding their own business and who didn’t enter a debate. But I don’t like the unprincipled overuse of “bullying” for several reasons. I don’t like it because it shifts focus from issues to personalities. I don’t like it because it changes our focus from substance to quarrels over substance. I don’t like it because I think it encourages the trend of feckless, unconstitutional speech codes, and encourages the state to apply those codes too broadly. (Links in original removed.)

In another post (also absolutely worth reading in full), Ken White criticizes equating criticism with bullying, among other things:

All of this silly rhetoric is itself free speech, of course. But it’s not harmless speech. It’s pernicious. Conflating speech and violence encourages citizens to think that speech should be controlled like violence. That’s not a abstract danger. It’s real.