Friday, November 21, 2014

The Value of Debate

I am a competitive person, and a first-generation college student. I grew up in a small town in Texas where sports are all encompassing, and I was no exception to this trend. As a young person, I thought the only value in academics was what it could do for me: get me a good job, keep my parents and teachers happy, and so on.

For me, that only changed because of academic debate. I was initially drawn to academic debate because it spoke to my competitiveness. I liked winning debates as much as I liked winning athletic competitions. I enjoyed developing new argumentative strategies as much as liked successfully executing a trick play in football. I relished the thrill of the clever argument as much as hitting a 3-pointer.

In order to win arguments, I had to become a better critical thinker and researcher. I had to respond quickly, accurately, and efficiently to arguments. I had to do in-depth research on a topic to anticipate every possible objection so that I was ready to defend my view against those objections. Because I had to defend perspectives other than my own, I learned to see issues from multiple viewpoints. I became comfortable with people disagreeing strongly with my views and positions. I often had strongly held opinions that were fundamentally reoriented by the unforced force of the better argument. I learned how to debate about facts and figures, but also about differences in values and ethics.

As I repeatedly engaged in these processes in over 300 intercollegiate debate rounds and later coached my college team and a high school debate team, these academic features became second nature to me. They formed me and my approach to academics. Academics were no longer merely a means to a good job, a way to keep my teachers happy, or even for winning a debate. Rather, it was part of what it means to be a life-long learner and a citizen. That's why I think debate is perhaps one of the most valuable activities for people of all ages. Other practices can develop those traits, but debate is what did it for me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Enrollment Numbers for 2014: What do they mean?

The Press-Citizen is reporting that enrollment numbers for the ICCSD have been released. I've not seen the district's report on those numbers, but I do have last's year's projection (here) and the projection from two years ago (here).

I'm still processing what the numbers mean, but here are some preliminary thoughts:

First, the initial projections from two years ago are closer to what we actually have compared to last year's projection. The totals seem to align relatively well with the moderate projection from two years ago.

Second, the difference between what actually occurred and what was projected was primarily because a number of schools saw a decline in total enrollment from the 2012-2013 school year till now. The projections from two years ago only projected one of our schools (Kirkwood) to have a slightly declining enrollment. Interestingly, it had some of the most explosive growth of the two-year period.

Third, I think it is probably more helpful to compare the projected numbers from two years ago to the present numbers rather than the numbers from last year to the numbers this year. Otherwise, you could have had explosive growth last year (like we had at Kirkwood) that isn't properly accounted for in the decline.

Fourth, it is interesting to see which schools are meeting or exceeding the rather high projected growth compared to those that did not see much growth.

UPDATE: As as a result of some careful inquiries, I discovered that I made a mistake in my spreadsheet calculations. I had originally intended to "curve" the projection based on the overall decline. However, I curved the result the wrong way, and a reader pointed that out to me. I have since decided that it is somewhat misleading to curve the data, and revised the data. The percentage change (positive or negative) is calculated with the following equation: [1 - (the projected enrollment from the Spring 2013 Dejong Richter report / Actual enrollment figures from 2014-2015 school year)]. One of the wonderful benefits of presenting information publicly is that mistakes can be caught. I appreciate that greatly, and please let me know if I make a mistake about in judgment, values, or data!

For my money, I'd say that being within 2.5% of the projection is pretty accurate, and I'd call anything in that range "about right."

A change greater than 2.5% but less than 10% seems significant.

A change greater than 10% seems rather dramatic.

With those percentages in mind, we had 6 elementary schools that were projected about right, and West and Tate Highs were projected about right.

Only 5 elementary schools saw a significant or dramatic increase over their projections: Twain (the only dramatic increase, very dramatic!), and Borlaug, Kirkwood, Van Allen, and Wickham. Borlaug, Van Allen, and Wickham occur on top of pretty large projected growth.

However, lest someone think that the growth in North Liberty and north Coralville is greatly out of step with the projections, you can see that it is not:

The remaining 8 elementary schools, and the 3 junior highs saw a significant or dramatic decrease with Hoover, Lincoln, Lucas, and Mann (all dramatic by my categorization) showing the greatest percentage declines.

My evaluation of the information:

What are the likely reasons why that might be?

Could Hoover be declining because of its pending closure, or is it because of SINA changes (or perhaps both)? Might the prospect of redistricting have had an impact on Lincoln and Coralville Central? Are escalating FRL rates having an effect at Mann and Lucas respectively? Is the soon-to-be-completed Alexander Elementary School driving growth in what is currently in the Twain area? Or are the Twain, Wood, and Kirkwood areas just the only place where housing is available for low-income families?

If these figures are reflective of trends rather than a one-year aberration, should we rethink the locations of certain expansions in the Facilities Master Plan? Do Longfellow and Mann need expansions in addition to their renovations (that is, they should definitely be renovated with building updates and AC, but must we add seats at those schools?)?

It still seems as if the north Coralville and North Liberty areas are growing about as expected. Penn was the only school in that area that wasn't "about right" and considering the entire area collectively, they are about what was projected two years ago.

I will need to hear more about the assumptions made in the budget blueprint last year to evaluate how much these figures, if they are a trend, will have an effect on the budget.

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? What do we need to think about in relation to this new information?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Trend for In-School Assessments

One of the interesting and positive results (there are many negative results, though!) of how the ICCSD has responded to No Child Left Behind is a more concentrated focus on student learning for all of our students. Many of our teachers in targeted schools have regular meetings with a group of their fellow teachers and other staff in order to find the best way to reach all their students, to identify specific skills that will be measured among the many that are being taught, and to bounce ideas off of the colleagues. This practice has allowed teachers to quickly see results of their efforts, to determine whether students with barriers to education are, in fact, learning, and to make adjustments on the fly. These all seems to be a very good, and show that good outcomes can come from bad policies.

As I reflected on this fact for these schools, I was struck by the sense that this broad-based individualized approach to assessment at these schools seems to make standardized assessments superfluous at these schools. If the teachers are measuring each student individually on a regular basis, and they are using that information to more effectively teach students; then it seems that standardized assessments that are summative, that take a long time to get results, that have little impact on what actually takes place in the classroom (except for that week of testing) are doing very little that isn't already occurring in a much more useful format in the approach used in targeted schools in the ICCSD.

This good outcome is a testament to the quality of our teachers, and also to administrators who are willing to protect our schools from the excesses of certain state and federal policies so that we can better reach all of our students. They'd brought about a good outcome from a bad policy, and it's important for us to continue supporting those practices that move us closer to the goal of making all of our students life-long learners.