Sunday, September 9, 2012

Susan Judkins, Democrat, House District 43

You have prepared an interesting list of questions. My answers are based on my experience as a parent, service as a school board member in Indianola (I now live in Clive and am running in HD43, which includes the Polk County portion of Clive, Windsor Heights, and northern West Des Moines), school-related volunteer work, reading on school-related topics, and many recent conversations with educators and administrators. Thank you for all you are doing to encourage conversation about education, which has proven to be the #1 issue in my district as I have talked with voters over the past months. - Susan Judkins

1. Opting out of testing. Many parents are concerned that important educational values are being sacrificed because of the use of high-stakes standardized testing to evaluate kids, schools, and educators. Would you support legislation to permit parents to opt their children out of such testing without repercussions?

A: NO - While I agree that we should stop using standardized testing as a primary means of evaluating teachers and comparing schools, I believe that tests such as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (grades K-8) and the Iowa Tests of Educational Development (grades 9-12) are important evaluation tools and their value would erode if the tests became optional. There is great value for students in learning to take a battery of tests; it is something that they will likely experience throughout their lives starting with college entrance exams or vocational testing and later with licensure requirements for numerous careers. I do realize that many parents worry that the tests will discourage their child if they score lower than their peers. However, I think it would help if more parents learned to utilize the test results as an indicator of interest and aptitude. My younger daughter scored lower overall than her sister, but her good scores in math and science allowed me to encourage her to pursue those areas. Today, she is in the second year of residency after receiving her MD from the Carver College of Medicine at the U of I. Regarding use of the exams to evaluate schools and teachers, I believe their value is too heavily weighted and there are insufficient mechanisms to account for societal impacts such as poverty, demographics and transience. Even in my suburban district, there are many families moving in and out which can impact benchmarking based on the tests.

As Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This is a reason that standardized tests should only be a portion of the evaluation process for any student, their teacher, their school and their district. I remember hearing in the late 90's from Ted Stilwell, who at the time was director of the Iowa Department of Education, that the single greatest indicator of a student's future success was not their grades, not their test scores, but the level of difficulty of classes they chose to take. I was able to use this information to influence my daughters' class choices and would say that it proved to be successful for them as they are now in professional careers. I also took this information to the Indianola School Board, where we discussed the fact that students and their parents thought they should be focused upon gradepoint as they prepared for college, many times avoiding advanced classes where they might not be guaranteed a high grade. After much input from faculty and the community, we implemented a "weighted grades" program that allowed a higher point value for certain classes, including Advanced Placement (AP) classes. It worked -- enrollment in those classes expanded immediately. I thank Ted Stilwell for that encouragement, and would like to see us focusing on rigor as part of the conversation about education reform today.

2. Cuts in lunch and recess. In our district, the time devoted to recess has been reduced, and the elementary school students get only fifteen minutes or less to eat lunch. District officials attribute those changes directly to state pressure to teach more material and maximize “instructional minutes.” (See posts here and here.) What, if anything, should the state do to remedy the situation?

A: I too have been very surprised to hear of compacted lunch and recess schedules, but don't have a good answer on the role that the state should play here beyond leading a discussion on the best possible uses of time in a school day and school year. I explore this further in the response to #4 below.

3. Local control. Because of state and federal regulation, individual communities now have relatively little control over the educational policies that govern their schools, and many parents feel that they have little to no say over what goes on in their kids’ schools. Do you think that local school districts should have more control over educational policy? If so, in what specific ways?

A: I think it is good to regulate educational policies to ensure that all students have access to a reasonable level of educational programming no matter where they attend school. I realize that for years, Iowans valued their schools' independence in curriculum planning. As rural schools declined in enrollment, however, it became more difficult to ensure their students were receiving appropriate instruction to prepare them for college or careers. It was a factor in our family's choice to move from a small rural district to a larger, urban one. On another note, the standardization of educational requirements has enabled some cost savings across districts that previously spent significantly more funds in developing independent curricula. Lastly, I would try to discourage parents from feeling that they have "little to no say over what goes on in their kids' schools." Teachers and administrators say they want those conversations with parents, and also welcome it when parents ask how they can provide reinforcement for, and supplements to, their child's education from home.

4. More school? Should state law require all kids to spend more time in school – either by lengthening the school day, extending the school year, or both? (See this post.)

A: I think questions about how time is spent in a school day, and what school calendar would best foster student learning, should be the primary focus of any conversation about education reform. Early reform discussion focused too heavily on teacher evaluation, in my opinion, and I hope we will now move to the important issue of how to best use education time. I expect there will be a lot of discussion and argument about this topic, including how to pay for any changes. I can't pretend to be an expert or to have the answers, but I'll provide a bit of insight from my own experience.

I served on the school board in Indianola, which for years has offered a calendar alternative in one of the elementary schools, described as follows:

Irving Elementary runs on an alternative calendar, also called Year Round Education. Classes start in mid-July and end with the rest of the students in Indianola who are on the traditional calendar. The students have classes for nine weeks and then have a three-week break. The students at Irving have the option of taking classes for an additional 20 days during the breaks. These breaks are called intersessions. They may attend morning only, afternoon only, all day, or not at all. They also may attend for one or both weeks during these times. Everyone in the program has two common weeks of vacation. Breaks are scheduled to coincide with the traditional calendar whenever possible.

A lot of research has been done over the years to evaluate the effectiveness of this program which can inform the current conversation, and it would be better to review current data on this and other year round schools (see the 2006 article for a discussion than for me to describe what we knew eleven years ago when my tenure on the school board ended. I can say that families who opted into the Year Round program were very pleased with it and the progress their students made while participating in the program. My daughters were in middle school by the time we moved to Indianola, so our family did not personally experience the Year Round program -- but I would have chosen it if I'd had the option.

Recently, new ISU President Steven Leath told my Rotary club that the demographic group that is failing to meet their potential among students is white males. He didn't offer an explanation. But it offered an opportunity to reflect upon my conversation with Sheng Peng from China, for whom my family served as a local contact wile he was attending Drake University. Sheng recently graduated with high honors, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, and is now attending graduate school at George Washington University. He had a very strong study ethic. I remember picking him up one Christmas Eve to drive to my parents' home in Vinton for the holiday. I asked what he'd been doing that day, and he said he'd been reading up on calculus so he'd be prepared for a class that began after the break. That prompted conversation about his schooling in China. One thing that really struck me was the length of their school day, which began at mid-morning and ran until a lengthy lunch break (most students went home for this) then ran until a dinner break (again the students would return home) and the students had the option of returning in the evening for study and tutoring. He said there is such a competitive sense that education is the ticket to a better future that most students opted to return for the tutoring, which could last until 10 PM. There were many factors that interest me about this schedule, including the time allowed for interfacing with families at meal time and the commitment of teachers to stay involved in their students lives until up to 10 PM. There are many reasons that a schedule like this would be difficult in Iowa's schools, but I've seen firsthand what can be fostered in a student....

5. PBIS. The state Department of Education wants to require all school districts to implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a program that uses material rewards to train kids to reflexively obey school rules. (See posts here and here.) Do you support requiring all school districts to use PBIS?

A: I support programming that encourages positive behavior. While I have no experience with the PBIS program, I have volunteered with the Character Counts program and believe it has had a very positive impact in schools. Student behavior is an issue that has come up a lot as I have been knocking on doors throughout the spring and summer, ranging from parents whose children have been bullied to teachers talking about how disciplinary issues can distract from teaching time. Just yesterday, a teacher told me about a little girl who joined her class who is so polite that she worries about how the other students will accept her. To me, these stories beg for inclusion of a positive behavioral program in schools -- too many students are just not getting this training at home. But, based on review of your blog posts, it appears that implementation of the programs varies in effectiveness among schools. That could use some focus.

6. Class size. Do you agree with our state Director of Education that we should tolerate larger class sizes in exchange for programs designed to “improve educator effectiveness”?

A: NO - I realize there is data indicating that class size is not a dominant factor in student success. We also need to think about what it does to the teacher when size is increased. The best teachers will continue to try to give the same feedback to students on class assignments, but it can prove to be too much. This was the case with my friend Barbara Mack, a journalism professor who recently passed away at the age of 59. I'm not saying that the extra work of her increasing class size killed her. But I will say that it caused her to be ready to leave the teaching career that she loved. The number of students attending a lecture is not the issue; it's the interface that students have with that instructor, the personalized instruction that makes the greatest impact on any student's growth. This should not be overlooked.

7. No Child Left Behind. Have No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top done more harm than good, or vice versa? Should Iowa opt out of No Child Left Behind, even if it means forgoing federal funds?

A: I believe the mandates of the No Child Left Behind program have done more harm than good. The Race to the Top program is a competitive grant opportunity that supports innovative efforts for education improvement. Although funds are involved with both, a mandate is far different than a funding opportunity. I do believe the state should opt out of No Child Left Behind, Here's a good article on the status of that:

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