BRSU Information Systems: Student Data Systems

This is the first in a series of presentations for school board members on various BRSU data systems. This presentation reviews the purpose and implementation of the district’s student information system Schoolmaster, and the district’s local data warehouse Tyler Pulse. This presentation was followed by live demonstrations of both systems using live data.

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Research Paper on Ethics, Educational Leadership and Policy Governance

Here is a research paper I am presenting this spring at the annual conference of the Eastern Educational Research Association in Sarasota, FL and the New England Educational Research Organization in Portsmouth, NH.  I was pleased this paper was selected for presentation at both conferences by peer-review.

The topic comes from a part of my dissertation research that explored the experience of four Vermont superintendents using Policy Governance.  This paper focuses on a series of ethical dilemmas that surfaced as part of this research.

 

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Report of the Superintendent of Schools, 2014

We fully implemented our model to personalize student learning in the 2013-2014 school year. This model includes Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) for students, NWEA MAP testing, and school board monitoring reports. Student PLPs were implemented as part of student-led parent conferences. NWEA MAP testing was administered three times during the year. This test is a computer-based test that measures student abilities in reading and math. Three school board monitoring reports were published based on NWEA MAP test results. An additional monitoring report was completed to give the boards an indication of student learning in the policy areas of Dispositions Towards Learning and Civic Ethics. This monitoring report was done in a single presentation and included examples from all of our schools. This presentation can be viewed online at http://goo.gl/3jBMSI.

We implemented a new system to improve the transparency and efficiency of our school board governance processes. This system can be found online at http://brsu.iqm2.com. This system gives community members the ability to search school board meeting agendas and minutes. Community members can also register on the website and subscribe to any board or committee in order to be notified when new meetings are posted or to receive meeting agendas through email.

The BRSU Board continued its work on achieving the mandatory centralization aspects of the Act 153 and Act 156. The Board concluded it was not more cost effective to centralization student bus transportation so it requested a waiver from the Agency of Education. The Agency awarded the BRSU a waiver from this requirement for one year. The Board intends to pursue another waiver this year since the underlying conditions that justified the initial waiver still exist. Basically, BRSU districts do not have intersecting bus routes which feed into a common middle school or high school so some of the conditions that make the centralization of student transportation work from an effectiveness standpoint in other districts do not exist in the BRSU.

The BRSU Board designed a task force process to examine how best to centralize special education services. Unlike transportation services, Vermont law explicitly requires this centralization to occur by making all special educators supervisory union employees. The BRSU Board approved a FY2016 budget which includes centralized special education costs. This new budget structure has significantly changed the portrayal of special education costs in local budgets with most of these costs now being organized into a series of local assessments paid to the BRSU. The actual implementation of centralized special education services is tentatively scheduled to begin on July 1, 2015, but this is contingent on employment concerns being resolved through the collective bargaining process.

A common theme to the BRSU approach to centralization of educational services has been logical thinking: where it has made sense to centralize we have done so aggressively. At the same time, we have not centralized services when centralization was determined to be more expensive or perceived to be less effective. We were challenged to maintain a disposition towards logical analysis when H.883 was passed by the Vermont House last year. Although this legislation did not become law and was a fairly legitimate response to the larger demographic, efficiency and equity challenges across Vermont’s system of public education, I feel it is important for our system to do its own due diligence on these issues in order to position our organization to be successful based on our specific local and regional circumstances. For example, in spite of the general decline in the number of pupils state wide, four of our six schools have had significant increases in enrollments over the last two years.

Thank you for your continued support of our schools. I continued to be heartened by the willingness of so many in our communities to support the future success of our children by investing in the high quality educational programs of our schools.

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Rightsizing Vermont’s School Governance System

I consider myself a reasonable person, so I knew at some point I would be weighing in on the proposed bill on school district governance reform in Vermont. I wasn’t exactly sure when I would do so, but I have been waiting for a sign that the time was right. I thought I was close when I observed progressive educator Bill Mathis and libertarian John McClaughry to be on the same side of the issue. The piece in the Rutland Herald entitled, “Attack on Democracy” almost had me there, but it was Marty Strange’s, “The Reality of Consolidation” which pushed me over the edge.

Mr. Strange compares Vermont to West Virginia, Nebraska, Maine, and Arkansas. Really? Nothing which has occurred in these other states is on the same scale to what is being proposed in Vermont. From a national perspective, what is being considered in Vermont could be characterized as taking micro school districts and forming them into small districts. I often correspond with other superintendents from around the country on school district governance. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Other Superintendent: “Dan, school district consolidation is bad.

Me: “My school system of 2,200 students is governed 12 boards and 54 school board members, and my smallest district has 29 students and does not operate a school.”

Other Superintendent: “Oh. That’s crazy. You guys have a problem.”

Mr. Strange cites research on West Virginia. “In West Virginia, thousands of kids spend over two hours on the bus each school day.” In Vermont, this would mean the kids in Canaan would have to be bused back and forth to Lyndonville every day. The frost heaves alone would make this impractical. On the other hand, school district consolidation might actually improve the efficiency of our school transportation since many of our students spend hours on half empty school buses each day driving through other districts and past other schools in order to attend a school in their own district. Mr. Strange also cites the economic impact of district consolidation. “West Virginia spends more of its education dollar on transportation than any other state.” If school district consolidation is related to cost, Mr. Strange should have mentioned West Virginia spends about $5,000 less per student than Vermont. Actually, all of the states mentioned by Mr. Strange spend considerably less per student than Vermont.

I admire Mr. Strange’s work and the work of the Rural School and Community Trust, but I question whether or not he read the outline of the proposed school governance bill before writing his op-ed. The proposed bill is not about school bus transportation, closing small schools, the end of school choice or even an “Attack on Democracy.” The bill is aimed at addressing a long standing issue in Vermont: the overly complex structure of our public education delivery system. Mr. Strange is correct in that research should be used to guide public policy since there are valuable lessons to be learned from other states, but in the end, we need to find a Vermont solution to a Vermont problem. And yes, I think we have a school district governance problem in Vermont – denial is not a river in Egypt.

The problem in Vermont is twofold: 1) unequal educational opportunity for Vermont students, and 2) our high costs. School district governance has to be part of the solution, but I think it is more about “rightsizing” our governance structure rather than “consolidating” it.

Rightsizing means:

  • Looking for regional solutions – what makes sense in Essex County is not necessarily going to make sense in Chittenden County. The proposed bill includes a “Design Team” to take into account these regional variations. More importantly, the bill would give locals the opportunity to articulate a governance solution themselves albeit with the understanding that the goal is a Pre-K to grade 12 cohesive system and that the state will act to form up newly configured districts if a local solution is not achieved in a given time frame;
  • Ensuring the new districts (larger yes, but “Mega” no) have a better chance to achieve greater efficiency. We know from research (Baker) that single districts between about 1,200 and 4,000 students are the most efficient;
  • Maintaining local input commensurate to the number of students in the district. Vermont’s ratio of school boards to students (1 board per 282 students) is the lowest in the country and unfortunately correlates well to our very high spending per student; and
  • Creating integrated systems of school improvement by modernizing curriculum development, professional development, and assessment systems to better leverage the networked expertise of our teachers across school district boundaries so student learning opportunities are not limited by a student’s town of residence or the walls of a single school building.

I applaud the House Education Committee and our other political leaders for taking on the issue of school district governance reform. I think the conversation around this issue is an important one and hopefully not coming too late. Vermonters should engage in the conversation objectively and be prepared to shape the process so a Vermont solution can be found to a Vermont problem.

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NWEA MAP and the Assessment of Student Learning

After 18 months of pilot implementation, we have begun full implementation of the NWEA MAP assessment. The MAP assessment is a computer-based adaptive assessment which describes what students are ready to learn next in reading, writing, and mathematics. The MAP assessment is administered three times a year for all students in grades K-8. See the BRSU Local Assessment Plan for a description of the NWEA MAP as well as the other assessments administered to students.

Why Implement the NWEA MAP?
1) Transition to Personalized Learning
Our district, like many districts around the world, is attempting to reconcile the new ability to personalize learning for students with an industrial model of schooling. We felt it was necessary to have a valid external measure of student learning in place while we made this transition to a personalized learning system. We believe NWEA MAP supports personalized learning by measuring student growth on an equal increment scale irrespective of assigned student grade levels. It also provides data to students and teachers in a format which readily supports student goal setting, a key component for personalizing learning for students.

2) Support Continuous Organizational Improvement
We assess student learning to help answer the fundamental question from our Ends policies, “how are students doing,” and to then decide next steps in the learning process. Efficient and effective assessment data are able to function at three organizational levels: the instructional level, the administrative level, and the policy level. At the instructional level, assessment data provide teachers with formative data. Formative data give teachers immediate feedback on student learning in order for them to modify instructional approaches and to design programs for remediation or acceleration. At the administrative level, assessment data help evaluate instructional systems such as professional development and curriculum development. At the policy level, assessment data provide assurance to board members that district Ends for student learning are being met. The NWEA MAP assessment was selected because it is a single assessment which can satisfy the assessment data needs of the organization at all of these levels.

3) Increase the Validity, Reliability, and Efficiency of Assessment
Time is our most precious instructional resource. When instruction is interrupted for the purpose of assessment, we need to ensure the interruption is worth it. Unfortunately, we have developed several assessments in Vermont which are very time consuming but which do not necessarily provide us with results that can justify the loss in instructional time.

One such assessment is the PNOA, or Primary Number and Operation Assessment, which can take a classroom teacher up to 45 minutes to administer one-on-one to each student. Although the PNOA can provide a teacher with useful formative data, it takes considerable time away from regular instruction to administer. The PNOA is an example of an assessment which is “expensive” in terms of instructional time, relatively complex to administer (each teacher needs training to administer the assessment in order to obtain valid results), and relatively unreliable in terms of obtaining consistent data across a system due to its relatively low level of inter-rater reliability. The PNOA is representative of several assessment approaches in Vermont education which have become “best practice” due to their sophistication rather than their validity or reliability.

In the enclosed article by Tim Shanahan, the author discusses this phenomena where the most sophisticated tool can become to be considered the best tool in a profession. He makes the comparison between the medical profession and education. Following this analogy, the PNOA might considered to be a CAT scan and the NWEA MAP a chest x-ray because the PNOA is delivered in an artisanal manner, one student at a time, whereas the NWEA MAP is
administered to many students at the same time using computers. In fact, if one were to
compare the instructional-level data produced by these two assessments, it is clear the NWEA MAP is the CAT scan and the PNOA is the x-ray, and a relatively unreliable one at that since the PNOA can not compare to the superior validity and reliability of the NWEA MAP.

It is our expectation that some of our Vermont formative assessments such as the PNOA will be abandoned in favor of using NWEA MAP and thereby free up instructional time. These
decisions will need to be made through an understanding of the value of the assessment data relative to the impact on instructional time.

Another key aspect of NWEA MAP efficiency is the facile manner in which it allows for the
collection and organization of assessment data. Since it is a computer-based assessment,
MAP assessment results can obtained immediately after the test, and can be organized based on any number of building-level testing groups. Most of our Vermont local assessments require the manual collection and arrangement of data which further contributes to their delay in producing actionable results.

4) The Political Context of Assessment
The NECAP will be replaced by the SBAC assessment in the near future. This will create a gap in our external assessment data for several years. Like NWEA MAP, the SBAC assessment will be a computer-based adaptive assessment so it should produce results in a more timely
manner. The SBAC has not been finalized, however, and will take a few years to stabilize. This uncertain political context for assessment led us to conclude we needed an external
assessment to bridge the gap between NECAP and SBAC. NWEA MAP is a well established
assessment which should serve us well in this purpose.

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Personalized Learning: A Design Principle of Vermont Education

Here is my keynote presentation for Castleton State College’s Personalizing Learning Institute on July 8, 2013.

Here is the outline for my Cloud-Based Tools session, and here is the outline for my Disciplining Educational Innovation presentation with Jackie Wilson.

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Report of the Superintendent of Schools, 2012

The 2011-2012 school year started with Hurricane Irene. The Hurricane did not damage any of our schools, but many of our families were deeply affected. I want to thank our emergency responders and community volunteers for their work during this emergency. Their assistance enabled our students and families to return to normalcy as soon as possible. Their dedication and support was greatly appreciated, and continues to remind me of why I enjoy living and working in Vermont.

The BRSU Board continued its work in exploring governance change. The Board voted in support of adding the Mountain Towns Regional Education District and the Winhall School District to the BRSU effective July 1, 2013. The Vermont State Board of Education subsequently approved these changes. The BRSU Board hired Dr. Raymond Proulx to perform a Phase I Governance Study of the current BRSU districts to identify options for future governance change. The results of this study will be published in early 2013. The BRSU Board met with the governance consultants assigned to examine the future of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union in Arlington. The results of that work will be made available in June 2013.

Nancy Mark, a former Vermont Elementary Principal of the Year and the long-serving principal of the Mettawee Community School, retired in June 2012. Her contributions to her school, the communities of Pawlet and Rupert, and to the BRSU leadership team were significant. Brooke DeBonis was hired as the next Mettawee principal to replace Mrs. Mark. Ms. DeBonis was an exceptional Mettawee teacher who is well qualified to continue the Mettawee tradition of academic excellence for all students.

After several years of work, a common instructional vision for BRSU schools is emerging. That vision is based on personalized learning and designing instructional systems to better support the aspirations of students. A focus of this work is pointing accountability towards our local school boards, parents, and students, and away from federal systems such as those prescribed by the No Child Left Behind Act. We intend to still use external accountability systems to ensure our students are being educated to the highest standards, but our new accountability systems will allow us to make “just-in-time” adjustments based on student progress, a feature not provided by the current NECAP system. Toward that end, we piloted the Northwest Evaluation Association’s MAP testing in the Spring of 2012. MAP testing will provide normative comparisons of student progress based on large, national samples, while at the same time providing real-time data on how students are progressing using an individual student growth model. BRSU schools fully implemented MAP testing in the Fall of 2012.

The efficiency of MAP testing will allow us to pursue significant changes in our instructional systems in the coming months. A central focus of this work will be the implementation of Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) for students. PLPs will be formulated with student, parent, and teacher input, and will serve to guide the development of curriculum. PLPs will also serve to structure student e-portfolios. E-portfolio templates will be designed by BRSU staff during the 2012-2013 school year. To support the implementation of personalized learning, PLPs and e-portfolios, the BRSU contracted with Dr. David Silvernail of the University of Southern Maine to develop an evaluation system to assist our schools in leveraging all of our organizational systems to implement these significant changes. Dr. Silvernail was the lead investigator for several studies on Maine’s 1:1 computing initiative, and is a very experienced educational researcher and program evaluator.

BRSU’s work in personalizing learning was recognized at the national level when our district was selected as one of twenty districts to participate in a national school reform initiative, “Teaming for Transformation,” sponsored by the US Department of Education, the Consortium for School Networking and North Carolina State University. Much of this work is fairly innovative and based on the fundamental concept that continuous school improvement happens more quickly and more effectively when schools work together. BRSU schools are committed to working together to support our continuous improvement, and we are constantly looking for opportunities to partner with other like-minded districts in Vermont, in other states, and around the world.

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