August 13, 2013 Board Study Session

by Autumn Cook, Alpine Parent Society organizer

If I learned anything at last week’s Alpine School Board Study Session, it’s that study sessions are very interesting! Board meetings can’t hold a candle to study sessions for the amount of interesting information and for getting familiar with the administrators of our school district.

But I took in plenty more than just that observation at last week’s meeting. The agenda covered aspects of the new school “accountability” systems taking hold in Utah: the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System (UCAS), SB 271 – the Grading Schools bill, and the new teacher evaluation system. If I miss or mischaracterize anything in my report, please let me know so I can fix it. This was a lot of information for someone who hasn’t been steeped in these complicated school evaluation schemes, so I’m just giving it my best shot.

The meeting began at 4:00. David Smith, the Director of Research & Evaluation for Alpine School District, went over the UCAS system, the latest in a series of changes to Utah’s accountability system over the past few years.

UCAS has replaced AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) as the program being used for Federal accountability in the state of Utah, and UCAS also incorporates state accountability measures, so both state and Federal accountability can be covered in one system. Mr. Smith showed charts illustrating the point structure for 1.) elementary and middle schools and 2.) high schools. They are slides 5 and 8 of this PowerPoint presentation, which Mr. Smith graciously shared, and also shown below. You will see the use of measures of “growth” and “achievement,” subdivided into two further categories each.

Slide 5
Elementary School Point Structure.pptx

Slide 8
High School Point Structure

Students who are in the “below proficient” category based on the previous year’s assessments are counted as a group of their own. The idea is to increase focus on those low-achieving students, but it seems apparent to me that this feature of the system has a big potential of being very unfair. If a school has a population of 600, and 20 of those are in the below-proficient group, those 20 students will carry half as much weight on the UCAS measure as the other 580 students (in other words, their growth scores will account for 25% of the school’s total points.) Schools will have to work to balance the need to focus on low achievers in order to pass on this measuring system, while still maintaining sufficient continuing attention to the needs of their high achievers.

Further slides show how “growth” and “achievement” scores are calculated. Perhaps it’s just my language-inclined bent, but all the charts, graphs and figures underscore my sense that the popular accountability measures being adopted not just by Utah, but all around the country, are moving us quickly toward an education system that views schools almost as manufacturing plants, where quality control and analysis and resdesign and frequent reporting can create a scientifically-produced, quality-controlled product every time: the successful student. I am of the mind that teaching and education are much more of an art than a science, and these measures will overall harm the quality of education received by students in the public schools.

The 95% participation requirement for each school was confirmed. Mr. Smith said that Utah submitted this figure to the Federal Dept. of Education (USDOE), and the USDOE approved it. I know through personal knowledge that this was part of Utah’s process to get out of parts of the Federal No Child Left Behind requirements. This is concerning to those who support and appreciate their local school, but object for a number of reasons to the new assessments Utah will be using starting this Fall. If the school has less than a 95% rate of participation, it will receive a score of 0. This requirement seems to conflict with the right of a parent to make decisions about her child’s education. No parent wants to see her child’s school penalized for her exercise of conscience! It’s probable that, even with conscientious objectors, no school in Alpine will drop below 95%, but a system that creates the possibility that should it drop below that threshold it would be damaged, is poorly and unfairly designed.

Superintendent Henshaw stated that the District is using these measures “as a tool to increase learning” and not just for data collection. Certainly this is true, but all this accountability to the state system removes accountability from the level where it really matters, where it would really make a difference in students’ lives: accountability to the parents. Although proponents of the new-fangled “accountability” assert that these measure make schools more accountable to parents, that’s just not so. Such a system allows parents to see how the state rates their school, but it doesn’t allow them to get together with their child’s principal and propose a whole new literature section for 5th graders, or arrange for an old-fashioned math class to be taught in each grade, or work with a teacher to arrange for alternate testing for their non-special-needs student who just tests better under a non-conventional set-up, or work with the School Community Council to set different academic standards from every other school in the area.

One more point of interest was Mr. Smith’s discussion of how collaboration among grade-level teachers means that the teachers in the same grade and same school should have scores very close to one another’s. This stood out to me because I once spoke with a teacher who was reprimanded for having students who regularly scored higher on a certain test than the students in the other classes in that grade. When this teacher complained to the District about the reprimand, the teacher was told that the principal had misunderstood. But it seems the principal had not misunderstood – the District expects collaboration to make everyone just about the same, and no one teacher is supposed to stand out. The idea of collaboration – sharing ideas and experiences – is excellent. But I have concerns about how collaboration is shaping up in the education system. No teacher should ever be reprimanded for excelling!

Mr. Smith then talked about SB 271, the bill that requires school grading. The legislature promised that they’d combine this grading system with UCAS, but that hasn’t happened yet, and there’s some frustration about the process. JoDee Sundberg of the School Board confirmed that, and explained that the grading system created by this bill is based on things happening in “other areas,” which a member of the administration stated flat-out is Florida. “Now we’re doing what didn’t work there,” he said. I couldn’t agree more! It’s irritating to see Utah’s teachers and schools, and by extension the parents of Utah students, treated this way.

The Superintendent said that while “we may not like the teacher accountability…we’re trying to put it in practice to benefit students.” This is to be applauded, making lemonade out of lemons. But I would be very pleased to see our District administrators speak more forcefully and publicly against all these changes, even while they implement them as they must under the law. When District leaders don’t speak out, the impression at the legislature is that they’re fine with it.

Next, Elizabeth Wilson, Associate Public Relations Director, gave a presentation on the USOE Model Evaluation System for teachers, which was illustrated by a moderately-complicated chart of interlinked items.

Educator Evaluation - USOE - Presented 8-13-2013

This system also makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t think the scores produced by this system/these systems (the Utah Educational Leadership Standards were also discussed) make teachers any more accountable to the people that matter: parents and students. It makes them more accountable to politicians and bureaucrats. This won’t improve the experience for students. And I can’t imagine it will improve the experience for teachers, who will undergo formative and summative evaluations just like the students. Periodic reviews are helpful to every professional seeking to do a good job, but when the terms of the review are set by bureaucrats in a far-away office, they become far less helpful, and a bit more threatening.

Look through the PowerPoint presentation to see a few things that may peak your interest, including the standard on slide 7 for “#5, Ethical Leadership” that reads, “Personal assumptions, values and beliefs.” How will the state be assessing this aspect of leadership effectiveness? And what assumptions, values and beliefs are considered allowable, approved or encouraged by the state? This standard seems inappropriate to me.

Supt. Henshaw commented about the implementation of the teacher evaluation system that the District is taking it slowly. “We didn’t want to run out there and jump into something that hasn’t been fully developed,” he said. This is one of the best features of our District – they take implementation of new programs as slowly as possible, which is a help to the teachers and students involved.

At the end of the study session they showed a preview of the employee celebration video that has been shown at schools around the District as school gets back in session. It was an inspiring picture of the influence that employees at all levels of the education system can and do have on the students in the District. The meeting adjourned just after 5:30.

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August 13, 2013 Board Meeting Report

As this organization launches and we begin to share reports here, please note that those attending and reporting on meetings are welcomed to include their own personal insights and feelings about what they observe. This should give these reports more flavor and interest than a recounting of minutes. We know that there is a wide variety of views and opinions held by people throughout the Alpine District. All of them are welcome to join this group and add their take on things to the discussion.

Thank you to Lisa Baldwin, who attended the Board Meeting last Tuesday and is providing us with our first full report. 

Alpine School District Board Meeting Notes
August 13, 2013
By Observer, Lisa Baldwin, member of Alpine Parent Society

Agenda Items:

PLEDGE OF ALLIGIANCE

PRAYER:  Brian Halladay

RECOGNITION:  Chris Webster, Classified Employee Association President
Gave a “treat” to board members which was not good because there were ingredients missing.  Compared it to how all our ingredients are important.  She spoke of the importance of transportation employees, lunch ladies, secretarial staff, technology department, warehouse workers, media specialists, maintenance workers, custodial workers.  Without all these “ingredients” it would end up like the bad “treat”.  But with them it turns out great like a good treat which she then gave them (made by Shirley’s bakery!)  The classified employees are dedicated to working hard to make the school year go well.

COMMUNITY COMMENTS:

Dr. Gary Thompson:  Dr. of Clinical Psychology.   I have pasted a copy of his comments below:

August 11th Address To Alpine School District Regarding Common Core Testing & The State’s Recent Passage of SB 175 That Eliminated The Parental Option of Opting Out Their Children From High Stakes, Common Core Achievement Testing:

My name is Doctor Gary Thompson.  Today I do not represent our clinic, but I come to you simply as a father, who happens to have a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Members of the Alpine School district, thank you for allowing me the time to address your esteemed body regarding an issue of import to not only the 70,000 kids in your district, but the remainder of children in the State of Utah, and nationwide.

Yesterday I sent you all, and various members of the press and community, a letter with detailed references.   I will summarize the contents of that letter quickly and concisely.

The issue is simple.  The State of Utah paid a private test developer, American Institute of Research,  $39 million dollars to devise an adaptive, experimental common Core test to measure the understanding of the curriculum and standards you have adopted.

The scope and size of this achievement test endeavor has never been tried before in the history of the State of Utah, or anywhere else in our nation.

As private psychologists, the clinicians in our clinic are required by law and ethics to only administer and interpret academic achievement test that have gone through extensive pilot testing procedures.   We are required by law and ethics to review this pilot test data prior to using it on the children of Utah to ensure that the test is appropriate for the particular child in front of us.  You have been provided a copy of the pilot test data for the main achievement test that we use.

Because of the uniqueness of some children, we must often find more appropriate tests to use for these kids.  When asked by curious parents, we are obligated to show them data level proof that the test we will use on their child is appropriate, fair, and valid.

Failure to adhere to the basic standards of law and professional ethics would result in the Utah State Board of Psychology to immediately shut down the doors of our clinic, and to strip the licenses away from the psychologists who fail to follow this basic common sense rule.

Despite 8 months of pleading on national television, social media blogs, and hours of in person meetings with the Utah State Office of Education (USOE), as well as the Utah State Board of Education, they have refused to provide pilot test data stating that the test designed for our kids is valid, fair, and will measure what it claims to measure.

You all have been provided written documentation of my efforts to have this data either released to the community at large, or promised that the Common Core test being designed will not be used on one child in Utah prior to having this test evaluated by an independent entity separate from the private company paid to design, implement and score this high stakes achievement test.   USOE’s solution of handpicking 15 lay parents to review the contents of this test fall woefully short of what is needed for our children, as well as the concept of transparency.  The parents are obligated to sign “confidentiality agreements.”

I made a passionate plea two weeks ago in front of the Utah State Board of Education begging them to make sure that the private company designing a test that will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Utah children, designs a test that is fair, accurate and sufficiently tested.

The Board responded yesterday by approving a amendment to SB 175 which not only bluntly allows for the collection of personal data associated with this experimental test, but essentially banned parents from exercising their God and law given constitutional right to pull (opt out) their children from this taking this test.

Experts from around the country have long known that, even with high stakes test that have properly tested and validated, that certain groups of children do not perform well on high stakes academic test through no fault of their own.   This group includes African American and Latino Children, gifted children, depressed and anxious children, and children with diagnosed learning disabilities.

Of particular import to this Board is the fact that the State of Utah has the highest rate of Autism diagnoses in the country.   No test, adaptive or otherwise, has ever been designed in the history of mankind that can accurately, and ethically measure the magical depth of cognitions and achievement of this special group of children.

As I speak, I am for the first time in my life, missing a birthday celebration of my beautifully academically gifted 17-year-old daughter who attends public school in Utah.   In addition to being gifted, her mind is wired in a certain way that ensures failure on most standardized academic achievement tests.

I know this as a doctor; I know this as her father.   To force her, and approximately 100,000 other children with learning difference to take an experimental test that was never pilot tested, is quite bluntly, cognitive child abuse.

Please don’t do this my little girl.

She wants to join her mother someday and take over as chief child psychologist of our clinic.   You will effectively close that door if drastic action is not taken today by this Board.

There are 7 elected school Board members here.  Three agree strongly with me….4 of you don’t.   I need to convince one of the four of you to change your mind today.

I need one of you to step up and be a hero for my daughter who is happily celebrating her birthday.

I need one of you to be a hero for the thousands of parents and educators across the country that is also begging for your courage and wisdom.

For and behalf of my children, the children in Alpine School District and every District in the State of Utah, and for children nationwide, I’m asking that one of you switch side, walk over to Wendy Hart, and tell her that you will support signing a resolution today that stating that you will not allow parents to be forced to take an experimental achievement test that has not been proven to work for all children in the State of Utah.

I’m asking you to be the first public school district in the United States of America to send a message to State Education Officials and Lawmakers that you will not allow an unproven test to be designed and administered by a private research company to the children in this District.

I’m all for proper testing and accountability.  I’m all for good standards and curriculum.  I only ask that such is done so fairly, accurately, and in the same ethical and open manner in which my psychologists do for the same kids in your District.

In conclusion, I am asking you as a father, to not allow my beautiful, gifted daughter to be used as a virtual Guinea Pig, for the simple reason of pleasing an over reaching Federal Government, private and powerful special interest testing groups, and State Education Leaders who are exercising their duties recklessly.

I’m begging one of you to be a hero for my daughter today…not next week…but today.

Which one of you wants to send this message and change the course of public school education for decades?  Which one of you will be my hero?  Thank you for your time.      

Lisa’s personal interjection here: 
Interesting note:  The 3 who agreed with Dr. Thompson were looking at him during his speech.  The 4 who are not sympathetic to Common Core opposition were looking down for the majority of his presentation.  Also, the board chairman was reluctant to give the following speaker any time at all since he was from the same clinic as Dr. Thompson.   However, since he was speaking on another point, they allowed him to speak.  They had originally told these two men that Dr. Thompson would have to represent what Cameron Winterton wanted to say as well as his prepared comments…all in the 5 minutes they were giving Dr. Thompson.  It was actually sort of creepy the way the board chairman was trying to avoid giving them as much time to speak as they were originally expecting. 

Cameron Winterton, director of education services of child psychology….
Spoke of how, as a child with OCD and other quirks, he was given wonderful attention from teachers who knew that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to children.  The common core standards are one size fits all and children are being punished if their parents opt to take them out of this testing.

Another interjection by Lisa:
The following four speakers plus the lady named Kira at the end were sent to speak in favor of Common Core. No one told them to combine their comments into 5 minutes, yet they all said the same things.

Melissa Mendenhall, 6th grade teacher:
She is thankful to the board for supporting the standards.  She feels students are more engaged in learning and reading.  Students are better writers. She feels she is a better teacher.  It has helped her meet the needs of each individual student.  The standards are beautifully written.  They focus on process skills.  She read a thank you note from one of her students saying this is the best she has done and the hardest she has worked.  She read other things her students wrote saying what they had learned during the year.  A letter from a parent also thanked her for preparing her child for middle school.

Kathy Larson, teacher at Orem Jr. High:
Thanking the board for common core standards. We are moving into a knowledge economy so as teachers it is our task to prepare them for college and career.  She spoke of benefits of group work, critical thinking, rigor (challenging work), and student initiative, the ability to access information from multiple sources—not just the teacher.  Moving from persuasive (emotion) writing to argument writing (evidence). Orem Jr. High is the only Title I junior high in district and test scores went up last year.

Elaine Holbert, teacher in special education:
Speaking on common core… Described what is in common core in her experience working with physics and math.  Collaboration in math, critical and problem thinking skills.  She thanked the board for the new core and their support in it.

Daniel Potter, English teacher at West Side High School:
He has trained with teachers in the district and collaborated.  They had the similar successes as Orem Jr. High.  He said the core standards have worked well for a student who couldn’t care less about reading and writing.  He also teaches honors students.  He felt the rigor was appropriate for all levels.  He was trained by the district to address all of the levels.

Heather Fry, parent at Rocky Mountain Elementary:
She appreciates the services of all the people involved in educating the children.  She is here to present a concern about ballooning classroom size at Rocky Mountain Elementary.  Many families left for charter schools and when it didn’t work out they came back and the classrooms sizes have increased too much.  35 kids per class.  Heather’s concern is for the kids whose parents aren’t involved and who cannot help their children.  She sees the dismay of the children who are not being served well.  A teacher should be given more than one paraprofessional to help.  She said that there needs to be another teacher added to alleviate the situation.  She is especially addressing the group of 8-10-year-olds.  She is concerned that children are falling through the cracks.

Rachel Williams, parent from Rocky Mountain Elementary:
Third and fourth-graders are being crammed into classes.  The group includes very excitable boys in these classes.  The teachers are very nervous and concerned about the crowded classes—especially with students with special concerns such as ADD—who need extra special attention.  Children have suffered academically and splits are not the solution.  Public schools have to take everyone, so we need to plan for the children by having another teacher hired.  Please consider Rocky Mountain Elementary as one of the places that needs your attention.

Jeanine Reeves, parent from Rocky Mountain Elementary:
She has substituted and has twins in 3rd grade.  Parents are really worried about the large class sizes.  There was always at least one student with very poor reading skills in each class last year.  They are seeking assistance from Jeanie Bates to get another teacher hired…3 full-time 4th grade teachers.

Kira Lubeck (?), teacher:
She was an early implementer of common core and has real enthusiasm for how the standards are the things the universities and business are seeking from graduates. Skills-based leaning is better than knowledge-based.  She gave an example of how she doesn’t remember knowledge from school…she looks it up on the internet to remember.  She said skills are more important to learn…not only to get facts, but also how to use the skills.

MINUTES were APPROVED

CLAIMS FOR JULY were APPROVED

ROUTINE BUSINESS ITEMS were APPROVED

ACTION ITEM:
2015-2016 School Calendar.  This calendar follows the pattern of this year’s calendar except school starts on a Wednesday instead of a Tuesday.  2015-2016 Calendar “A” was approved.

BOARD MEMBERS’ AND SUPERINTENDENT’S INFORMATION ITEMS:

Wendy Hart:  Some of the State Board Members have expressed concern with verbiage which states that state tests “shall” be used for final grades.  Could Alpine change “shall” and also if there are parents who wish to opt out and data issues, this would reflect negatively on student and district statistics.  Also the word “test” is changed to “assessment” and that is of a concern because assessments grade values, not just knowledge.

Paula Hill:  Concerned about the same thing.  The word “shall” is careless.

Jody Sundberg:  Encouraging members to attend the leadership academy.

Debbie Taylor:  She appreciates Wendy’s information and wants to do more research.

Brian Halladay:  Could we discuss Wendy’s point in a study session?

Paula Hill:  It definitely needs to be addressed.

J. Burton:  I’ve seen Scott nod yes, it definitely needs to be discussed.  It will be put on a future study session item.

The board moved into closed session to discuss personnel issues.

Public Meeting ended at 7:00 pm.

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It’s Time to Get Organized

Announcing the formation of the Alpine Parent Society!

The mission of the Alpine Parent Society is to facilitate citizen involvement in the governance of the Alpine School District. The idea is that active citizen involvement and communication improves how government operates. We need more of this in Alpine School District, both to speak in support when they do things that are commendable, and to speak out when the District or Board does things that are objectionable.

Citizens will take turns attending School Board meetings and reporting on those meetings by posting to this blog, where anyone can come and read up on what’s going on with the District and our elected representatives, the School Board. If you are interested in attending just one or two School Board meetings each year and reporting on them, please email Autumn Cook at asdparentsociety@gmail.com.

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