Monday, October 28, 2013

New 2013 Illinois School Report Card

The Illinois State Board of Education is unveiling (or perhaps un-masking - given the date) a new format for the School Report Card on October 31, 2013.  The new report card is designed to provide families and stakeholders with a clearer picture of student and school progress.  I am always a supporter of providing as much information as possible, because our public schools are doing amazing things.

I sent out the following letter to families about the new school report card format.  Parts of the letter came straight from the ISBE press release, but parts are specific to USD116.

October 28, 2013 On October 31, 203, the Illinois State Board of Education unveiled a new, simplified, and more consumer-friendly School Report Card that will better inform families, community members, educators, and policy makers about the academic performance, school climate and learning conditions of the public schools in Illinois. The new Illinois report card features:
  •  At-a-glance information about school performance, school climate and learning conditions.
  •  Consumer-friendly data on school awards, special programs of study, advanced coursework and extracurricular programs.
  • Measures of student college and career readiness.
  • Growth measurements that will show both how much progress students make and how schools’ academic results are improving over time.
The new School Report Card will be accessible October 31 at Urbana School District will be posting links to the new Illinois School Report Cards for each of our schools on the district and building websites.  You can access them at
 As always, I encourage you to speak to your child’s teacher and principal if you have any questions about your child’s education.  The mission of Urbana School District #116 is ensure that all learners acquire knowledge, develop skills, and build character to achieve personal greatness and help create a better global society, by providing innovative, comprehensive programs, respecting individual learning styles and cultural differences, and fostering caring and nurturing relationships, while engaging each student, every family and the entire community.
 I look forward to working with you to ensure the success of your child.

ISBE created a new website to promote the new format:   I am looking forward to getting and sharing feedback about the new report cards.  My hope is that they do provide people with a clearer and more understandable picture of the public schools in the state.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

End Polio Now!

I grew up with polio.  No, I didn’t have polio.  I was born after the Salk vaccine was routine practice in the USA.  My dad was a polio survivor, and a physiatrist who devoted his clinic and research to helping “old-polios” as he referred to people who had polio in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  Dr. Richard R. Owen was a strong advocate for strength conditioning for polio patients to combat the effects of “post-polio syndrome.”

My dad’s polio provided him with challenges that he embraced.  With two canes, Kenny Sticks, braces, and a big heart, he explored the outdoors, competed in wheelchair basketball, track, swimming, and Ping-Pong.  Polio never slowed him down.  In fact, it almost always made him stronger.  He was an incredible role model.  He spoke with great reverence for Dr. Salk, Dr. Sabin, and Sister Kenny. He worked at Courage Center and Sister Kenny Institute. 

My dad’s obituary was sub-titled, “He kept fighting polio.  Which he did.  I know that he would be saddened by recent reports that the war refugees of Syria’s war are reporting possible out-breaks of polio.  I also know that he would be thrilled with the continuing efforts of Rotary International with their End Polio Now campaign.  Today, October 24, is World Polio Day. Please join the fight. We really are this close to ending polio! 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mentoring Matters

Tomorrow, June 30, 2013, the community is celebrating the career of one of the influential superintendents in Illinois.  Dr. Preston L. Williams, Jr. is retiring after 35 years as a teacher, coach, administrator, and superintendent.  In each of these roles he positively influenced the lives of students, teachers, family members and members of the larger community.  However, the role that I admire him most for is being a mentor.  He has mentored me since he hired me as a middle school social studies teacher 24 years ago.  I am not the only educational leader who has benefited from his wisdom, advice, and leadership.  Dozens of my colleagues have become outstanding principals, district administrators, and teacher-leaders thanks to Dr. Williams’ encouragement.  The lessons he has taught all of us are invaluable. 

Perhaps the most important lesson Dr. Williams has instilled is the importance of putting students first.  Dr. Williams stayed connected to students through the Champaign-Urbana 1 to 1 Mentoring Program (  He mentored several students from elementary school through graduate school and beyond.  His commitment to his student mentees motivated many other members of the community to become mentors.  Mentoring changes lives, and I am lucky to have had a mentor who is so committed to the idea of mentoring.  Dr. Williams is retiring, but he will always be a mentor and role model for this community.  For that I am forever grateful.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Responsive Instruction (RtI)

            Words matter.  When I hear the phrase, “response to intervention,” I get hung up on the word intervention. Response to Intervention (RtI) refers to a framework for improving instruction.  The term gained notoriety in the re-authorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004), when the concept of RtI was allowed (some might say encouraged or mandated) to be used as an alternative process for identifying students with specific learning disabilities.  I will not go into the components or research behind RtI, but I will recommend reading Fuchs & Fuchs (2006) or Fisher & Frey (2010) for additional background. 
            Back to the word “intervention.”  In an RtI framework, educators use assessment data to help improve education and supports for students.  The word “intervention,” unfortunately, has shaped the implementation of RtI. It is unfortunate, because RtI is often associated with struggling students, and RtI discussions typically revolve around ways of fixing students. Instead, we should be using the assessment data to have discussions about how to change instruction and learning in the regular classroom in order to reduce the number of students who are not meeting benchmarks.  We, as educators, need to shift the focus away from fixing students to fixing our instructional practices to engage more learners and meet their needs in the regular classroom.
            RtI should be about Responsive Instruction that monitors student progress, provides feedback to students, and differentiates in the regular classroom.  Instead of investing in pullout interventionists, schools should be investing in specialists and instructional coaches who “push-in” to classrooms in order to help teachers differentiate instruction, content, and processes for their students. 

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2010). Enhancing RTI: How to ensure success with effective classroom instruction and intervention. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Fuchs, D. and L. S. Fuchs (2006). "Introduction to Response to Intervention: What, why, and how valid is it?" Reading Research Quarterly, 41(1): 93-99.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

RTTT - My personal angst

The following thoughts were shared with the Illinois RTTT Networking Summit on October 24, 2012.  To be honest, I was a little surprised to be asked to address the IL-RTTT districts.  David Osta and Christi Chadwick have heard more than their fair share of criticism, critiques, and concerns from me.  I do respect their leadership in IL-RTTT and  I was honored to talk about Urbana School District #116’s Strategic Plan. 

One thing that I need to explain at the very start is that I detest the name "Race to the Top.” Because the very name implies the creation and replication of larger educational gaps than currently exist.  A “race” to the top implies winners and losers, and to be honest, we are seeing that with funding structures coming from the U.S. Department of Education.  This may seem to be a petty complaint, but in order to understand my critiques, you need to understand the lens through which I view the world.  Through the lens of equity and social justice I see the concept of Race to the Top as not just a disturbing title, but an attack on the purpose of public education in the United States.  Racing to the Top suggests that only the elite schools/ districts/ students/ communities/ will survive, and the rest will be subsumed or replaced with charters or choice or vouchers.  Not only does this mean that educational reforms will increase disparities, but that the reforms will actually create larger disparities than currently exist.  That is not why I became a teacher, that is not why I have become an administrator, and that is not why my own children attend public schools.   Charters, choice, and vouchers have not demonstrated any better educational outcomes for our students than strong public schools.  All of our efforts at reforming education in this country should be focused on improving educational opportunities for all students.

I am also wary of the money trail, and the "evidence" that is cited as the driving force behind the reforms.  Much of the evidence is based on "white papers" that have been written by foundations who have paid for the research, and often are not supported by research coming out of our top academic institutions.  Don't get me wrong, I am all for private foundations and corporations contributing to the success of public education.  I will never discourage Gates and others to invest huge sums of money in educational research, educational reform, or innovative practices.  In fact, I will applaud such philanthropy, and I will work hard to ensure that the students in my district benefit from it; however, I will cry foul if the purpose of the philanthropy is to undermine public education.

Given that context, and given the reality that we are all here [at the RTTT Networking Summit] due to the RTTT IL program, and given the financial reality that 90% of the RTTT districts in the room are not in it for the money, then why I am here?  Why am I here?  Why is my district in RTTT?

Three years ago, my superintendent and BOE started a strategic planning process that took us almost 18 months to complete.  It involved a broad base of stakeholders including parents, students, and community members.  The result was a strategic plan that set our course for the next five years.  It has ambitious goals and objectives, and strategies and action plans that would help us get there.  When RTTT came along there was very little reason for us to even take interest.  However, we did.  We brought together members of association and our administrative team to talk about what it could offer.  What I saw in RTTT was a strong alignment with the objectives and strategies from our strategic plan.  You see, our mission states that we will help our students develop skills, acquire knowledge, and build character to achieve their own personal greatness. To achieve that mission, we committed to increasing the rigor in our curriculum, to provide authentic feedback and student-centered learning, and to differentiate instruction in order to help students achieve their personal goals.  We created a three-year PD plan that moves us from formative assessment through differentiation and Understanding by Design.  We are committed to become a community of learners, and as such, use student data to drive our decisions.  When we started to look at the RTTT Indicators, we found that many of them directly aligned with where we were going with our strategic plan.  That alignment is one of the main reasons I am here. 

Another reason I am here is that I am from a district that prides itself in being committed to student learning.  We have done okay on the ISAT, not so well on the PSAE, but we have been recognized two of the last four years for increasing the percentage of FRL and students of color enrolled in, and successfully passing AP courses.  We offer 19 different AP courses; we are excited about the prospect of creating STEM pathways for our students.  In Urbana, we are surrounded by partners who support us in those efforts. For the past 15 years, Urbana has put ourselves on the front of curriculum and standards-aligned work.  Now that we are in the era of the Common Core State Standards, we want to be at the front again.  Right now, that is why I am here.  However, as I have told David, Christie, and my community, the minute that RTTT diverges from our Strategic Plan, or the minute we feel that we are being asked to move in a direction that is not in the best interest of our students, we will choose our Strategic Plan over RTTT.

I am often asked, what do we get by being part of RTTT? I am always honest in my answer. We don't get money. We do get quite a bit of extra work. Right now, I can't say we get a lot, except that we get to be part of the discussion.  We want to be part of the discussion about how technology will shape instruction and student assessment.  We want to be part of the discussion about meaningful parent engagement. We want to be part of the discussion about teacher evaluation. To be honest, I would much rather be an active participant in the discussion of RTTT and PERA implementation than to be someone sitting on the sidelines. We want to be leaders in doing what is best for our students, families and community.