Tech in HSE Schools: The Feedback Cycle

Technology is tough. Securing technology is even tougher, but when the technology is used by kids, it is important for technology to not only work, but to work in a way that eliminates unnecessary risks.

One of the biggest concerns about is use of technology in schools is around the potential for kids to be exposed to bad things. The other concern that is raised centers on putting expensive technology into the hands of little kids. One of the first questions I asked when the concept of having elementary kids in our schools use computers (iPads), was related to the idea of having 5 and 6 year olds responsible for getting a device to and from school.

Four years later, when the program was ready to roll out to the elementary schools, a new set of parents stepped up and asked the same questions. Fortunately, the school administration listened and made changes that didn’t require the younger kids to bring the devices back and forth to school.

Even looking beyond the youngest kids, technology is tough. It has problems. Most people are not tech-savvy experts that can address electronic issues. Additionally, if you give a kid something, then generally speaking, you can expect at some point it will be broken. That goes for computers such as iPads as well.

So when a school puts 21,000+ devices in place, it is safe to expect there will be issues. The question becomes, how can the issues be reduced or alleviated?

Communication and Open Standards

First is to open up communication so that you get the community helping to identify issues. In our community we have numerous people representing every facet of technology. Those people have insights that can help alleviate problems before they happen as well as insights that can help resolve issues in hours instead of months. The school system has to be ready to asking for help from the community early and often. This would prevent things such as the new projection system in the high school from sitting for well over a year without being used because the technology changed before it was even used. In fact, this is a case where the community had suggested open standards be used, but the decision was made to go with a proprietary solution. (Can we say, “We told you so”?)

As a result of community push-back, one of the efforts put forth by the school administration more recently was to set up Technology Committees to help provide feedback. These committees have started meeting and will continue to meet over the coming months. The initial meetings were less about technology and more focused on teaching methods, so the jury is still out on whether these will truly help open two way communication that will lead to technology improvements. I’m a member of one of these committees, so I’ll be sharing related thoughts in  future posts.

Understanding the Individual Issues

Additionally, it is critical that with that awareness, that there is an understanding of the individual issues happening to each student. If feedback isn’t collected, then how can you know what is truly happening? While many issues are seen within the schools, because technology is being brought home, many issues are not seen. As such, it is critical for the school system to do everything they can to make sure they are aware of what is happening beyond their own walls.

There is no automated means that I’m currently aware of within the school system to report issues that people have with their student computers or the schools technology. There is, however, an independent group that has created a means for collecting feedback. You can access the form for reporting a problem at the following link:

HSE Parents Voice iPad Issue Reporting Tool

This tool has not been available for very long, but it has already started collecting data. I recently talked with the group running the collection app about the data, and am glad to see that they’ve shared the initial results. You can review their initial findings at the following link:

Parents Voice iPad Findings Initial Report

This is just their early results. Because this has been in use at the beginning of the school year, it would be expected that the issues will be higher. The initial findings are indicating that issues and concerns are spread across a variety of areas, so it will be interesting to see what they learn over time. As kids and parents use the devices more, will issues go down or will they increase? Only time will tell.

In Summary

Technology is a tool to be used to help with teaching. Just like a pencil can have its lead broken, technology also breaks. Just like it is better to buy a standard pencil so you know you’ll be able to find a sharper that works, it is also good to use technology that follows standards. The way you reduce the issues is by understanding what issues have happened in the past. By collecting data and feedback, hopefully our schools will evolve the technology used to what is most practical and appropriate for the learning objectives. Until then, groups like HSE Parents Voice and many of the HSE parents (including myself) will keep providing the feedback to try to make it better.

Teacher Retention at HSE Schools

WRTV 6 did a story on teacher retention in Indiana schools today. They indicated that 18% of the teachers and administrators left their school in a single year. That puts the retention on average at 82%. With over 12,426 educators, that is a large turnover.

You might think that HSE Schools are immune to this turnover; however, you’d be wrong. We have teachers leaving regularly as well, which is why I’ve raised it as an issue while running for a school board position. While some turn over is expected as a result of retiring or other reasons, there are also those teachers that state they are leaving for reasons such as being tired of “teaching to tests” or the teacher who feels they are not being heard. Some also leave to make more money in other districts.

It was reported that 8.5% of teachers in Indiana left for reasons other than retirement. Before saying 8.5% doesn’t seem bad, that’s over 1,000 educators in Indiana.

You can find the reasons that WRTV 6 found by reading their article at:

http://www.theindychannel.com/longform/call-6-thousands-of-indiana-teachers-leaving-the-classroom

There are a few things that are concerning in the story. This includes the comment that Indiana schools are not tracking why educators are leaving. This is a topic I’m sure will be addressed by the administration as it would be mind boggling to think this isn’t being tracked.

Glenda Ritz’s comment about taking the issue to the General Assembly seems extremely odd.  Why would you not simply tell the school administrators to start tracking why teachers are leaving so you can work to retain those that remain? Any administrator deserving of the role should already be tracking or aware of this. If it takes getting a group of politicians to tell you it is okay to do a basic management function, then we have a bigger task ahead of us if we want to fix issues in our schools. Furthermore, creating a panel to review the causes is great, but if that panel fails to ask any of the other 12,400+ educators questions, then the last work that should be used to describe the effectiveness is “proactive”.

On the positive, discussions around teacher pay as well as on how teacher evaluations are done makes a lot of sense. These are topics that do need to be addressed at the state and district level.

The article actually includes retention rates for Indiana schools. I’ve not verified the data with what our administration, but I’ll assume that RTV6 has verified this. Here are numbers for some of the HSE Schools for 2014-15. Note that our average from these schools is 81%, just under the state average of 82%.  Nine of the schools scored below the state average.

School Name

Retained

Total Retention Rate
571 Brooks School Elementary 45 57 79%
572 Cumberland Road Elem School 25 34 74%
573 Durbin Elementary School 19 25 76%
574 Fall Creek Elementary School 34 40 85%
575 Fall Creek Intermediate School 43 65 66%
576 Fishers Elementary School 27 27 100%
577 Fishers High School 141 157 90%
578 Fishers Junior High School 54 67 81%
580 Geist Elementary School 35 42 83%
581 Hamilton SE Int and Jr High Sch 31 67 46%
582 Hamilton Southeastern HS 133 162 82%
583 Harrison Parkway Elementary School 33 35 94%
584 Hoosier Road Elementary School 37 42 88%
585 Lantern Road Elementary School 29 32 91%
586 New Britton Elementary School 30 36 83%
587 Riverside Intermediate School 52 60 87%
588 Riverside Junior High 60 71 85%
589 Sand Creek Elementary 32 46 70%
590 Sand Creek Intermediate School 54 64 84%
591 Thorpe Creek Elementary 36 45 80%
950 1174 81%

 

Clearly there is work to be done in the area of retaining good teachers.

Live Streaming the HSE School Board Meetings

One of the ways I find that I differ from the other candidates is that I haven’t waited to see if I get elected before trying to address issues that are important. I have been attending board meetings, asking questions, and pushing for change well before my name was filed to run for a school board position.

Simply put, the issues don’t wait for elections.

This year alone, HSE has had a referendum discussed, a roll-out of the iPads in the elementary schools, two bonds approved (totally around $15.5 million above and beyond the referendum and state money), issues with technology, changes to school policies and handbooks, continued loss of good teachers, and a multitude of other topics. In the case of the ten million dollar bond passed earlier this year, I was one of the few people to stand and ask a question about its purpose. Similarly, in this last school board meeting, I was the only candidate that was not an incumbent to raise a question about the spending. I’ve asked the administrators, school tech lead, and board members questions on other topics as well. These range from discussions on why open standard tech wasn’t used to why there was a push to eliminate paper magazine subscriptions in the elementary schools.

On topic I’ve questioned has come up a few times by other candidates. This is the topic of live streaming HSE School Board meetings.

In early July, I created a page on Facebook specifically for streaming the HSE school board meetings. While board meetings are “meetings in public”, out of consideration, I asked Dr. Bourff if I could live stream and record the meetings. I stated that I would take care of the recording, streaming, and any editing with the target media source being a live stream on a Facebook page. There would be no need for any effort by the school board or administration.

The idea of streaming the meetings is not a new one, and one that it was clear Dr. Bourff had already considered. As such, Dr. Bourff was able to provide insights toward the downside of streaming school board meetings.

By filming a meeting, there was a real concern that the level of discussion by members of the board could decrease. With a camera rolling, it would be clear that their questions and words were being caught on film. Statements that were made could be viewed differently than they intended. This could diminish discussions, and thus negatively impact results. For example, a board member might choose to avoid asking for clarification so they wouldn’t seem to lack knowledge on a topic. Because it is critical to keep the discussion free flowing among the board members, having to worry about a rolling camera could be a detriment. Having been to a large number of board meetings as an audience member, there have been a few meetings where the limited knowledge around technology was hard to watch. Had the board members been recorded, it truly could have not reflected the best on a couple of them.

Live streaming also has the potential to cause grandstanding by members of the community. While this sounds easy to control, I have facilitated a number of live online events as well as meet-ups. As such, I understand how grandstanding is actually a very serious concern.

The opposite of grandstanding is also an issue. A number of people have attended board meetings to present on topics that were sensitive, and yet very valid concerns. In a few of these cases, I do believe that the presenters might have avoided making their comments if they knew it was being recorded and streamed live.

There are other issues with streaming as well.

The reality is, school board meetings are held in public. As such, there is nothing that prevents a person from streaming the events now. Live streaming has become so simple that nearly anyone can do it with a smartphone and a Facebook account.

At this time, I have not pushed to stream the board meetings even though they are open to the public. There are two core reasons for this. First is to respect Dr. Bourff’s request to not cause the disruption in the board meetings. Second, and more importantly, not enough people have indicated they care or would watch a live stream. While streaming sounds like a great idea, when Dr. Bourff streamed an event earlier this year related to the referendum, the engagement was also extremely low. Having experience with live chats and streamed events online has often shown the same results.

While there are people that would watch the stream or an on-demand versions of the board meetings, the level of active interest just isn’t there to justify pushing against Dr. Bourff’s statements at this time. I’ve raised the topic, and over time will bring it forward again whether elected or not. I believe that recordings will eventually happen, but until there is real proactive demand by the community with a real commitment to view, I find that my own attention and time are better spent on topics such as spending, academics, and the well-being of our students.

Things That Make HSE Schools Better: The HSE Foundation

The Hamilton Southeastern Schools Foundation (HSSF) supports the schools here in my hometown of Fishers. The foundation makes it possible for teachers to get grants to do special projects as well as provides a number of other services and scholarships. While local PTOs, such as the one I am a part of at Riverside Intermediate, are also providing the opportunity for teachers to get grants, the HSSF has the ability to support bigger initiatives than we can do.

This week the HSSF has posted an infographic and video on what they have been able to do this past year. Rather than rehash the details here in my blog, I’ve simply included the video.

The HSSF and their activities are one of the many things that help make HSE schools among the top in the state and in the country.

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The HSE Referendum: Love it or Hate it, There is Only One Way to Vote

If I’ve already paid for something, then it is unfair to ask me to pay for it again.

With the HSE referendums, those of us in the HSE school district are being asked to pay for many of the basic elements of our kids’ educations a second time. We are being asked to contribute more money when we’ve already contributed well above average. It was stated that there is a belief that HSE families live in gold plated houses and drive in luxury cars. Unfortunately that is not even close to being true. I’ve been told that the Indiana legislators believe it is fair to have HSE families contribute an above average amount to the school system and then receive less than enough money to pay their own teachers. While some people in the Fishers area might be able to dig in and pay yet again, there are many that simply can’t. They are living paycheck to paycheck just like many others in the state.

A Bit on Referendums

The issue around referendums starts with the standard state allocations, allocations decided upon by state legislators.

Let’s be clear, the HSE school system doesn’t need to get an allocation proportional to what the HSE (Fishers area) community has contributed. Nobody is asking for that even though many would consider that fair in a capitalistic society. Rather, HSE simply needs an equal allocation.

The state allocation is made up of base foundation and complexity grant numbers. This total mount would currently equate to an average of $5,877 per student if distributed equally. HSE currently gets around $5,176 per student, where some of the other communities are getting over $7,000. That’s nearly a $2,000 per student difference. Just a few hundred dollars can equate to millions when totaled.

If the state legislators would simply give an equal allocation of funds, the $5877 per student, then HSE would not need to create a referendum. The roughly $700 difference per student would cover the gap needed to pay for the things being requested.

Consider what is being asked for with this request of an equal distribution. It is not an allocation of money to be spent on extravagant features. Rather most of this money would go to core educational and administrative costs.

For example, HSE currently ranks among the lowest in what it pays its teachers. When you look at teachers with experience, the pay gap for teachers in HSE quickly increases to as much as $10,000. HSE teachers don’t make $10,000 more, but rather $10,000 less. The same is true with the pay for substitute teachers. Schools like IPS have the funds to pay as much as 15% higher for substitute teachers. I don’t have numbers for the class sizes of schools within the districts getting the highest allocations, but my understanding is that the average class sizes are also smaller.

beginning salaries  "top

The HSE Referendum: Paying Twice

The HSE Referendum is asking HSE families that have contributed above average amounts to the state fund to pay yet again to fix the above issues that were mentioned along with a few others. Alternatively, a simple adjustment to giving HSE an equal amount of the allocations would resolve the gap and allow the school system to come closer to the wages and class sizes of these other districts. Rather than paying again, we simply need the legislators to fix the allocations.

How do you get legislators to fix the allocation? The initial thought would be to vote “no” to the referendum to make a point to the state and to the school board. After all, it’s the suburbs that provide the draw to get businesses to come to Indiana. Voting “no” to the referendum would be a first step to force a change. The second step would be to vote against any legislator that isn’t supporting our school systems. This includes our own district’s.

Unfortunately, the school board and the state have put HSE schools into a tough position. The ramifications of what could happen during the time it takes to force changes could (would) negatively impact the operations of the schools. The result would potentially result in a very negative impact on our kids. The risk of that damage outweighs the short term gain of forcing the politicians to make the needed changes. The end result is that we have to vote ‘Yes’ to the referendum, but we don’t have to vote yes to keep the current legislators that aren’t supporting our district.

Why the Yes Vote on the HSE Referendum?

When it comes to the Hamilton Southeastern School’s referendum, I was not happy when I saw that the approach to creating it was not “what do we need money for” but rather “what can we ask or tell our community we want in order to get a referendum passed.” This was the common discussion at a few HSE School Board meetings last year. Topics such as moving book fees into referendum or shifting pay-to-play fees for sports were the things tossed into the early discussion by the school board. Also included were reducing class sizes and increasing teacher salaries, but those topics didn’t get any more attention than parental fees. In fact, those topics were considered a bit taboo since they were promised with the last referendum and then didn’t happen.

In the end, the referendum does include things that are important for the school system. This includes money for increasing salaries for our teachers (which as I mentioned are among the lower salaries in Indiana), as well as for hiring over 40 new teaching positions. These new teachers would drop average class sizes by about 2 students. That is not much and raises other issues, but it is still a move in the right direction.

adjusted class sizes

The referendum that would be approved would have a majority of the money (around $2.3 million) going to hiring or to fixing teacher salaries. There is also an allocation to bring in assistant principals in the elementary schools to provide needed administrative help. Other suggested allocations for the revenue would include nearly a million dollars to hire World Language Teachers and provide academic and mental health counseling. There are a couple of line items to also increase supply budgets and a mere $100,000 is allocated to reduce participation fees. The increased supply budget would hopefully eliminate the need for the schools to continue rationing paper near the end of the semesters.

referendum recommendations

As you can see by the Referendum Recommendations in the figure, most of these requests are important. Most of these expenses are to simply help our schools do what they need to do to educate our kids and keep our districts at the level they need to be to keep our communities strong and to draw others to our community. We can’t continue to have our experienced teachers leaving because they can get $5,000 to $10,000 more in nearby districts. At a minimum, we should be able to pay equal rates to other Indiana schools.

Why We Can’t Wait

Your thought might be that we could vote “No” and simply hold tight another year or two while we force the hands of the school board and the state legislators. We could put off hiring these new positions for a year while making a point by voting down the referendum.

Unfortunately, the school board has taking an all-or-none approach to asking for more money. Worse, HSE schools has a current referendum that is expiring. A 10 cent 7-year referendum was done in 2009 will end. While this existing referendum has added roughly $330 per student with the intent to reduce class sizes and fix salaries, we know that this did not happen. Rather, that referendum ended up being redirected to pay things like maintenance personnel, maintenance supplies and utility bills. In short, it pays for the daily operation of our schools.

current referendum

The renewal of this ten cent referendum has been combined with the asking for an additional .1275 cents. If we don’t pass the new referendum, we not only won’t get money to fund the new initiatives such as adding new teachers, but we also lose money that was paying for maintenance and utilities. The annual money coming in from the 2009 referendum goes away if it the new referendum doesn’t pass.

The net result of the new referendum not passing is that the school district will lose about $7 million from its budget. The stated impact of this loss is that instead of hiring the new positions in 2016-17, HSE would instead be dropping around 50 positions next fall (this year). It was also stated that another 50 positions would likely need to be eliminated in 2017-18. The net result of losing around 100 positions would be felt in class sizes and in other areas. With many classes already stretched, the impact could be catastrophic not only on the class sizes but on the toll it would take on teachers, both those that are let go and those that remain. The ripple would be a huge impact to our families as well.

But it doesn’t end there…

What is worse, is that once this referendum is put in place, we will most likely be put into a similar position in 7 years. At that time, we will need to vote to keep the .2275 fees or face laying off up to 140 positions. If we don’t get the state legislation to fix the allocations, then referendums will keep increasing until we break the district.

In Conclusion

The belief is that people living in Hamilton County can afford to pay twice. While there are many that can afford to pay more, not everyone can. There are several people who commented to the school board at the listening tour that they struggle to find the money to pay the fees for the kids. Many families in HSE are living paycheck to paycheck. They simply don’t have the funds to cover the cost.

It is our legislators that put the HSE school board and parents into this position. By adjusting the state allocations to be more even, they could resolve the difference between what is needed by HSE. It would be interesting to vote “no” and see what business like IKEA think of the results. But unfortunately, we can’t take that risk with our school system and our kids’ educations. While I can’t risk voting no for the HSE referendum, I can vote no to re-electing our local legislators who didn’t help keep us out of this position.

More iSTEP Craziness: The Wired Keyboard Conundrum

At the December 14th Hamilton Southeastern (HSE) School Board meeting which covers Fishers, Indiana, the topic of technology was discussed a few times. One area covered was the replacement of the equipment in the HSE school computer labs. This included replacing all of the computers, which are extremely old. While replacing old computers sounds like a great idea, it should be noted that within the HSE, all students are going to be expected to have their own computing device. In most cases, the kid are going with an iPad since the standard for kids in kindergarten through eight is an iPad 2 or higher.

The question I raised at the school board meeting was simply, why does the school system need to invest upwards of a million dollars to replace computers in a lab when every student already has a computer they are required to bring to school every day.

The responses to this question included some silly statements (in my opinion). The odd responses included “for students to be able to learn to use Windows”, “for students to learn keyboarding”, or “so students can print”. These all point to issues with having chosen the iPad as the default school device. Rather than focusing on these, I’m going to focus on the comment that was the most interesting as it related once again to the topic of ISTEP standardized testing.

It was stated that a change might be coming that will require the ISTEP to be taken on a system with a keyboard that is wired to the computer system. When asked if Bluetooth keyboards would work, the response was that the keyboard would have to be wired. My assumption is that the requirement for wired keyboards centers on the security of Bluetooth, or more appropriately, the lack of strong security. The belief is that the computers in the labs would be the only place this is possible since iPads don’t have the ability to directly connect a keyboard . While this sounds like a valid justification for refurbishing the labs, there is a huge, obvious issue raised.

The ISTEP testing is very regulated. As such, it is taken within certain time frames so that cheating is less likely to occur. Even being regulated, due to the number of kids taking the test in a short period of time at a school, additional computers beyond what are in the computer lab are used. In many schools the devices kids’ devices are used. In many of the elementary school, the additional iPads are used to supplement the computer lab’s systems.

Because the computing devices in kindergarten through eight grade are iPads, there are no wired keyboards and thus, this new requirement would force the testing into the computer lab. What happens when you take an average elementary school with 4 to 5 classrooms for each of 5 grades (kindergarten through fourth) and try to take a computerized test when you have only one computer lab? In essence, this means one class taking the test at a time. With twenty to twenty-five classes, if you assume a short 2 hour test and a 7 hour school day, this means that a single test will take well over a week. We know the ISTEP is longer than 2 hours and that transitions between classes takes time. As such, the actual time needed in the lab quickly becomes an issue.

I’m not sure of the reason for requiring a hard-wired keyboard. If a physical keyboard is going to be needed to take the ISTEP, then the solution is not to try to run every class through a lab. A better solution would be to change the default device from a tablet with a phone-level operating system to a notebook or two-in-one type system that already includes a keyboard but gives the abilities of a touch tablet system as well.

The possible change to the ISTEP is just one more reason why iPads continue to be a poor choice for a technology solution in most of the school grade levels. If the change to requiring a keyboard for the ISTEP happens, then the solution is not to spend a million dollars upgrading the computer lab, but rather to quickly get away from a student computing device that doesn’t even support the ability to use a wired keyboard.