The Governor's Special Assistant for Education

Linda Fandel


Draft recommendations on education due by Oct. 1

August 17, 2011

Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds will make draft recommendations for how to give all Iowa students a world-class education by Oct. 1.

The draft recommendations will focus on the three key areas addressed at the Iowa Education Summit in late July: (1) getting a great teacher in every classroom, a great principal in every building, and providing the support they need to do their jobs well; (2) raising academic standards and putting in place strong matching assessments; and (3) innovation that boosts learning.

After the draft recommendations are released, the governor and lt. governor will hold town-hall meetings around Iowa in October and probably November.

Final recommendations will be made before the beginning of the 2012 Legislature.

One question should shape all the discussions leading up to those final recommendations: How can Iowans give their children the best possible education?

Iowa has a great tradition of making education the top priority. Our state has many good schools, so it may be surprising that we slipped in the rankings on national tests from a top peformer in the 1990s toward the middle of the pack today. This happened because other states that adopted more ambitious improvements passed us by.

With a sense of common purpose – and urgency – Iowa can reclaim its first in the nation in education status and make sure our students are globally competitive.

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13 Responses to "Draft recommendations on education due by Oct. 1"

  1. ‘Great’ in the sense of quality (i.e., “really good” or perhaps “better than what we have now”) or ‘great’ in the sense of ‘exceptional’ (rare, unique)? Because the former is much more achievable than the latter. ‘Exceptional’ is exceptional for a reason; this is not Lake Wobegon (where every educator is above average). In every profession, there will be a continuum and there’s a natural curve under which only a certain percentage can ever be deemed to be ‘great.’ Unless we are going to have fewer educators overall (allowing us to dip less deep into the available talent pool), we are going to have a hard time meeting this goal without focusing heavily on talent recruitment, preservice and inservice training, and talent induction/support/retention. Education traditionally has a very poor record of doing these things because they’re quite difficult, time-consuming, and expensive.

    I’ll also note that many current educators are going to be offended that the Governor doesn’t think they’re already ‘great.’ Deming noted that nearly all of the problems that we have with individuals is due to the systems in which they’re embedded. We’re going to have to decide if we are just going to focus on educators (and maybe colleges of education), which will be perceived by many as blaming and shaming, or we also going to recognize (and emphasize) the far greater (and thorny) problem of the systems in which they’re embedded. I hope the latter. Question: how do we know we don’t already have ‘great’ educators who are simply trapped in dysfunctional systems?

    We’re also going to have to decide just how much we care that our state ranking has declined on national tests that emphasize low-level factual recall and procedural knowledge. Personally, I’m much less concerned by this than I am the fact that the overwhelming majority of Iowa schools – even our supposedly best ones – still aren’t adequately focusing on the higher-order thinking skills, technological competencies, intra- and interpersonal competencies, and other skill sets that will make our graduates truly ‘globally competitive.’

    Final thought: If our proposed reforms don’t dramatically change what kids do on a day-to-day basis in the classroom, they’re going to be political theater rather than substantive change initiatives. So we need to think and talk robustly about what we want our kids to be DOING, not just what we want them to be learning. In other words, the HOW is just as important as the WHAT.

    • While I agree with what you’ve said & appreciate the clarity with which you’ve said it, I’d like to add a possible dimension to our thinking. While I don’t believe what you’ve said about systems is meant to be an “excuse”, we both know that “the system” is often used as an excuse. Yet, we both also know many teachers doing awesome things *inspite of* the system. My feeling is that we need change at two levels – systemic & individual. I earnestly believe in critical masses & tipping points. That is, if enough teachers within the system change, the system will change. Clearly, we ought to be system focused, but cannot forget that the system is made up of individuals.

      Just because the system is still modeled after a factory, doesn’t mean I have to model my classroom or my lessons after a factory.

      • Jerrid, I completely agree with your assertion that change must occur at both the individual and systemic level. The problem, at least as I see it, is that the type of systems thinking that we’re talking about is occurring from the top-down while the critical mass effect must work from the bottom-up. When these two forces stand in opposition to each other (ie. What do we test and how often?), the result is neither great nor exceptional. The real challenge is trying to overcome this, and I’m not sure we know how to do that.

  2. First off, I applaud all the efforts at the state level to get serious about transforming education – the conversation and debate is critical and will continue to help mold a positive future for Iowa. My comments aren’t meant to detract or attack – I’m simply concerned that these “new” recommendations are just reformulations of past non-solutions – and I don’t want us to spend years only to be disappointed again.

    Politicians (at every level and in any political situation) live is a world where blaming people for the wicked, interconnected, and systemic problems we face is the accepted norm. It’s the way you get elected, the way you garner support, and it makes the solutions seem oh-so-simple – and its the way the majority of citizens think about problems. While the words “systems” is used like: “we’re taking a systems approach” or “we are talking about system reform” it really still smacks of the implicit assumptions and paradigms that it is a “people” problem. This dyed-in-the-wool belief that people, not systems, are the primary drivers of system performance is a pesky one – there are so many examples where it appears a lone, great person did something fantastic that our perceived experiences won’t let us consider an alternative.

    It seems to be popular to talk about being a systems thinker without truly being one – understanding, designing, and implementing social systems theory and methodology isn’t for the weak-minded or faint of heart – blaming people is easy and yields “obvious” solutions. Until people understand that systems produce exactly what they are designed to produce and the “who” in the system is statistically a difference that makes little difference. (I’m NOT saying highly qualified professionals aren’t important!) we won’t see order-of-magnitude change (which is what a good social systems designer continually shoots for). To borrow from James Carville’s 1992 quote, “It’s the system, stupid!”

    We must make sure that our lead drivers fit well with Fullan’s excellent research on what drivers are most influential in changing our system. If high-level learning for every child is the goal – the function of education – then the structures and processes must reflect that function, as opposed to the current primary function of sort-and-select.

    It is my hope that the recommendations will reflect core systemic changes to align to the new goals of education – redesigning the system which ultimately shapes the humans performing within it. Based on the sheer number of great people I know working earnestly to redesign their systems here in Iowa – our future can’t be anything but bright.

  3. Dr. Gordon K. Dahlby

    It is hoped that educators and their administrators in K-12, university, and colleges will hold activities that can create and post concrete steps and ideas for Iowa to consider for improving education. Student/class multimedia projects and proposals can be posted anywhere and linked to from the website. Maybe student councils/government would take it upon themselves to post a set of ideas.

    Similar contributions can be linked to from here by Board of Education study groups (maybe regional groups) or local business/education forums designed to create community consensus. Meet the teacher night/open houses would be another place to gather for a conversation, especially to gather the hopes and expectations of parents of elementary students and what they as a group would want to provide for feedback.

    It would be a great exercise for graduate students in policy and education fields as well as education undergraduates who might canvas and summarize their peers to bring a clear summary of recent K-12 experiences from the lens of preparation for being successful in college.

    These are, of course, in addition to the voice of the individual.

    Ideas come from everywhere and we should encourage Iowans and those who have emigrated away to contribute to this continuous improvement effort.

    #nobarriers

  4. None of us are happy with our current reality. We don’t like being last or even average. It’s not the Iowa way. And our kids deserve better.
    The key areas to be addressed by the anticipated “blueprint” for world-class education are tough to argue with. Like baseball and apple-pie.
    But political theater or a “blueprint” for change does little to rekindle a commitment to the real business of schools. Learning outcomes improve when teachers have enough time to design and deliver powerful instructional experiences that engage students and from which they learn important things. Adequate time spent engaged in powerful learning experiences results in student learning.
    My fear is that the October 1 recommendations will address neither. And our mission will still lack direction. As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice, “if you don’t know where you are going, it doesn’t matter which way you go”. I hope I’m wrong.
    1) …a great teacher in every classroom, a great principal in every building. Iowa has no shortage of good teachers and principals. We even have a lot of really good ones and a few great ones. But they all work in a system that holds time and instruction as constants. Let’s make sure our plan addresses the barriers to great teaching instead of just telling teachers and training programs to improve.
    2) …raising academic standards and…matching assessments. See #1. Raising the bar doesn’t teach a student anything, nor does the assessment, if the issues of time and instruction are not addressed. The overused metaphor of “weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter” seems to apply, but I won’t mention it.
    3) …innovation that boosts learning. I’m not even sure what this means. Technology? Pay for Performance? Charter schools? If innovations are directed toward increasing student’s exposure (time) to powerful instructional experiences, I’m all for it. If not, they are a waste of time and resources.
    I appreciate that the Governor is interested in maintaining the momentum started during the summit. Iowa needs to rethink many of our basic assumptions about schools and education. This is our chance to get it right…let’s make sure we are asking the right questions.

  5. I really don’t have much to add beyond what Scott McLeod has said, because I believe he states what the real issues are.

    Some things I will add, as a parent, citizen, and educator:

    1. What does our ranking on the NAEP really mean? What research is out there that shows a certain score leads to certain success in life? Does it mean the Governor does not get to sit at the “elite” table of ten at the next Governors meeting? Does it mean companies choose not to set up in Iowa because we rank lower? I really want to know why our ranking is so important that we have to change it. And, is it our goal to change the ranking or change how the students perform?

    2. How do yearly tests impact my child’s learning in the classroom? As an educator, it is my goal to use assessment tools to identify where individual students need help. It is my goal to help the individual student learn to the best of my ability. Does ITBS, ITEDS, NAEP, ACT help the classroom teacher do this? If not, how is it helping the student?

    3. Are the teachers that created these successful students in 1992 still around? If so, what happened? If not, what happened? As Mr. McLeod states, “Question: how do we know we don’t already have ‘great’ educators who are simply trapped in dysfunctional systems?”

    4. We need to harness technologies that allow teachers to monitor, continuously, students’ progress towards learning objectives. Parents and more importantly, students, need to know where they sit in meeting these objectives. I am always appalled as a parent that I only know how my kids are doing by either talking to my child (don’t worry, I do this ;) ) or meeting with the teacher twice a year. Since the kids themselves aren’t told how they are doing, that conversation is useless. There are technologies to alleviate this problem and they need to be adopted.

    5. Because of the exponential growth in data, especially in the STEM fields, I hope to see a movement towards using the data and interpreting the data. It is impossible for the students to know everything there is to know about Biology, but it is possible to give students cognitive skills that will allow them to sift through the information and draw good, valuable conclusions from it. However, we don’t seem to have a system that does that, but hopefully in the future we will.

    6. I personally feel rankings are misleading. In graduate school I had to take a med school course. I was at the bottom of my class. However, I averaged around 80% on my exams. I have also been at the top of a class, but had an average of 60%. Rankings are very misleading.

    I look forward to seeing how we as a state will look at our educational system and look at ways to make it better for the student. When this is done, it will be better for the state.

  6. I agree with many of the sentiments already posted, so I won’t rehash them. Rather, I’ll just second them and urge serious consideration.

    My comments are largely directed at the second key area: “(2) raising academic standards and putting in place strong matching assessments.” I am wholeheartedly an advocate of high standards for each and every learner. I am also an ardent supporter of re-imagined assessments that actually relate in some coherent way to the learnings we profess to be essential.

    My work within my district is largely focused on this area. My caution comes from my daily experiences working with excellent teachers committed to these ideals. We have to be careful not to equate high standards with “more.” In fact, I believe that “more” inevitably leads us to shallow coverage and works in direct opposition to the goals we proclaim. It’s time we get real about which learnings are actually essential and stop adding on to the things important for our past what we believe will be important for our children’s future. It’s time to reduce the number of standards. It’s time to commit to enacting fewer, broad essential concepts and complex sets of skills in deeper and more meaningful ways.

    Secondly, while I applaud the recognition that our current assessment models need an overhaul, I would characterize the large-scale assessment work we’re engaged in as representative of baby steps in the right direction. Our assessment methods are all essentially metrics of standardization, and I believe we can and must do better than standardization. Our factory model will retain its foothold as long as success in accountability systems requires standardization for students.

    I truly believe this can be the dawn of a new era in Iowa’s educational system, but we have to be bold enough and brave enough to take huge leaps outside the system we’ve always known. I have four kids of my own in this system, and they can’t wait for statewide baby steps.

  7. Any successful long term strategies must include family engagement. Teachers need the training required to address issues with parents. Parents need guidance on creating a learning environment outside of the classroom. The larger community, non profit and business sectors should be included in the discussion.

  8. We seem to be at an educational crossroads and are searching for our identity. Who do we want to be as a state? The top performer on a standardized test? A hotbed of innovation? A leader in college/career readiness? A “value-added” state?…One thing that was clear at the conclusion of the Governor’s summit was the widespread (unanimous?) agreement there is a need for change. If we were placed right here, right now, having no knowledge of the past, and only seeing the current educational reality, would we be satisfied that our system is doing what is needed to prepare children for tomorrow? I believe the blueprint is going to answer that question.

    If the answer is “no”, then our efforts must fundamentally change not just the way we think about schools but the way we do schooling. Merely adding new layers of complexity on a tired system will only reinforce the status quo. Change is intractable largely because we seldom let go of the past, even when a better way is right in front of us. Change is primarily a question of will.

    B. Wagoner did an excellent job articulating concerns about assessment, and I too am particularly interested to see how assessment is addressed in the blueprint. The assessment component will be an indication of what we value. College and career readiness? Critical thinking? Problem solving? Meaningful learning? A standardized assessment tool is a likely inevitability (despite a growing consensus that uniformity breeds mediocrity). The question will be whether or not the tool(s) used effectively measures what we value or at the very least serves as a proxy for what we value. Assessment drives so much of what we do and in my opinion will dictate much of the change resulting from the blueprint.

  9. I believe the Educational Reform or Redesign in Iowa should answer one question: How will my child’s classroom be different than the one I attended? More of the same kind of standardized tests, different kinds of teacher pay, and support for charter schools does not ensure that my children will learn or be challenged any differently than I was in the past…

    Some specific suggestions that might:

    1) Mandate 12 month contracts for principals and 11 month contracts for teachers…this time would allow for more in-depth planning and reflection by all.

    2) Implement the Collegiate Work Readiness Assessment as a mandated assessment for all 9th and 12th graders. This is a high school version of the CLA, mentioned in Global Achievement Gap, that has great potential for measuring things that matter for the 21st Century. It might be be the answer but is better than more of the same.

    3) Full resource support for full implementation of the Iowa/Common Core. I think Doug Reeves said it best at the SAI conference in August…full implementation is the key. This is good work and this is the right time. Let us get this fully implemented in every school in Iowa and see the results!!

    4) Good instruction with infusion of technology at all levels…just look at what is happening in some of our districts who are doing project-based learning, conceptual learning, etc…with technology! Students are engaged and excited about learning…not confined to a time and place and more important to a learning style that may or may not fit with most kids.

    5) Respect for the profession by all politicians and talking heads…we have great people working in our schools but they hear more about what is wrong and aren’t encouraged to work to their full potential. I know this will be difficult but if each person did their part to speak positively about their child’s teacher or the principal that has to make tough decisions…it would happen!

    6) Eliminate the Carnegie Unit and adopt a system in which Competencies are mastered as evidence of learning. This is more like the real-world of today and if current school reality was built for the factory system of yesterday then we should be working on the system for today and tomorrow…this would be a big first step.

    7) Engage every citizen in this conversation, following Jamie Vollmer’s new book; Schools Cannot Do It Alone. Unless people have a compelling reason to support change, transformational leaders will continue to get crucified by the parents and community members who don’t understand…Supts will be run out of town for not having school be like it was “when I was a kid” and Board Members will get voted out in sometimes covert write-in campaigns from people who haven’t seen the reason for change.

    Not perfect but ways to get at my child’s classroom being different…that is what is needed as we redesign. We have the chance to finally get this right! Let’s do it!!!

  10. I am concerned that I am not hearing more discussion about professional learning communities at the state level.
    Below is what I recently posted on Jason Glass’s blog which summarizes my main concerns:

    I am in a unique position having had teaching experience in Iowa and Colorado. I grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa. My husband and I lived in Eagle, Colorado for five years, and I taught 6th grade Reading and Language Arts at Gypsum Creek Middle School from 2001-2006. After our first child was born, we felt the tug to return to the Midwest, and I came full circle returning to my hometown where I now teach 8th grade English in the same district I received my K-12 education.

    I have served three years on the district’s Iowa Core Leadership committee. I am on the district’s Professional Learning Community Leadership committee, and now I am the English department chair which means I now have a place on the Building Leadership Team. Being on each of these committees, our focus has been on making the necessary and hard changes to take our schools from good to great.

    Cedar Falls has made a second-order change this school year by giving teachers time to collaborate. It’s the job-embedded professional development time Jason Glass has mentioned. Forming collaborative groups came from the Iowa Core itself. We weren’t sure how to go about doing this, so we learned together by attending a summit in Phoenix put on by the best of the best with regards to PLCS: Richard DuFour and his associates from Solution Tree. This change is HUGE, and we are on such a good path. We have turned the Titanic before the iceberg.

    Our work is guided by Learning By Doing by Richard and Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker and Thomas Many. In our collaborative teams, we are focusing on four questions:
    1) What is it we want our students to learn? (Iowa Core/Common Core)
    2) How will we know if they’ve learned it? (teacher made formative assessments)
    3) What do we do if they haven’t learned it? ( a system of intervention to get help to students that need it within the school day)
    4) What do we do if they already know it? (enrichment, extension opportunities)

    This is my thirteenth year of teaching, and I feel as though we are getting at the right work, the right professional development FINALLY. My fear is that the four-tier career plan Jason Glass has been talking about is going to take us off track. I loved teaching in Eagle County, but I did not love the TAP program. I know it changed after I left in 2006 and the district worked out a lot of the bugs. The master teacher and mentor teacher positions look good on paper, but what happens when your best teachers do not want those positions because it takes away time from their own classrooms? As a mentor or master teacher you are evaluating your peers. It’s one thing for an administrator to evaluate teachers, but in this culture of collaboration we have started, it would be another thing for a teacher to be evaluating another teacher.

    Another concern I have is how Glass has said that teachers want leadership opportunities. Yes we do! However, evaluating my peers is not the type of leadership I want. If I wanted that, I would go back to school for an administration degree. The punch to teacher morale in Eagle County that came as a result of this peer-evaluation is something I never want to experience again. Shared leadership within the professional learning community allows us to learn together, to focus on those four questions I previously listed to improve our teaching so that every student learns at high levels.

    I don’t want to get taken off this good path we are on. We are on the cusp of big change here in Cedar Falls.

    Megann Tresemer
    8th Grade English Teacher/Department Chair
    Holmes Junior High
    Cedar Falls, Iowa

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