As an undergraduate English major I used a reading strategy to annotate complex texts based on what made sense, or “clicked” for me, and what caused a disconnect, or a “clunk” in my thinking. What follows are my clicks and clunks as I read the Blueprint for Iowa’s Education Transformation, One Unshakable Vision: World-Class Schools for Iowa.
Click: Our approach has to be focused, sustained, and systemic. We’ve come as far as we can with isolated pockets of innovation and narrow, disconnected efforts at change. The kind of transformation we need will require the momentum of all of us working to address every aspect of our system simultaneously.
Clunk: The goals outlined on page 13 of the Blueprint seem largely steeped in where we’ve been, rather than where we need to go. Our goals need to be inspirational and provocative to change mindsets and spark serious action. We should look at our goals and think, “We can’t get there from here.” Unfortunately, I think we could get to many of these goals by tinkering with the current system. Not good enough.
Great Teachers and Great Principals
Click: No one can argue against the importance of teacher and leader quality. I support evaluation systems that depend on specific, frequent, and wide feedback. I particularly appreciate the acknowledgement that effective teaching and leadership is more than test scores and finite skills. There is an art to great teaching and great leadership—an “it” factor. We know it when we see it. I hope we can find a way to capture this.
Clunk: We have to run away as fast as we can from the “blame and shame” environment we’ve been working in. Evaluation and growth has to occur in a safe and supportive environment if our goal is having great teachers in every classroom. Though I’m sure there are a few out there, I’ve never yet met a teacher who has bad intentions. I can’t help but question how the peer evaluation aspects of the proposal impact the safe and supportive, growth-focused culture I see as non-negotiable.
Clunk: Required collaboration time. While, I’m an advocate of teacher collaboration, I just get a little uneasy when we start to talk about required collaboration. Collaboration is a culture, not a meeting. On the other hand, I do appreciate the air cover such a statement provides for those of us exchanging student instructional time for teacher collaboration time.
Click: The four-tier teacher system. I purposely left the word compensation out of there. I really don’t have an opinion on the compensation parts of the Blueprint—it’s not in my wheelhouse. Others will certainly pick up my slack here. Contrary to some of the concerns I’ve heard about the Mentor and Master Teacher tiers, I don’t see this as pulling great teachers out of classrooms. I see this as a way to keep great teachers in classrooms. Currently, the only real option for upward progress for great teachers is into administrative roles that take them completely out of classrooms. I may have chosen to stay in my classroom if I had a chance to be a Mentor or Master Teacher.
Click: Layoffs based on performance, certification, student and school needs rather than seniority. I’m not even sure I have to provide an explanation for this. Student needs should always trump adult needs. That sometimes leads to harsh realities, but those harsh realities should be faced by adults, not children.
High Expectations and Fair Measures
Click: The overall focus of this section on a systemic approach to alignment as an ongoing process to ensure our intended, enacted, and assess curricula support learning for every single student just makes my heart happy. This alone, if done well, has the potential to be transformational.
Clunk: The proposal to “design a rigorous ‘model’ curriculum by July 2013 that can be used as a starting point for schools and teachers” (p. 8). Did I suddenly switch documents and land on 2005 Senate File 245? Someone please tell me how this is different than the Model Core Curriculum created as a result of that mandate.
Click: Standards for art, music, and world languages. Yep, they’re important too. We need to continue expanding beyond our narrow focus on reading, math, and science. This is a great start.
Click: The many improvements to assessments and data systems. I appreciate the inclusion of formative and summative assessments, more responsive assessment methods, and improved alignment of assessments.
Clunk: My one caution in regards to assessment is that we must be careful to keep the measures in their appropriate place. We can’t let the measures become our goals. I see some hints of this when I look at the goals specified on page 13. Our goals must always be focused on student learning and development.
Clunk: ACT as the definition of college and career readiness. I have absolutely no problem with requiring all students to be assessed for college and career readiness. My issue is with the assumption that ACT is that assessment. I’ve seen all the research that shows that success on the ACT is a strong indicator of success in college, but I think there’s an assumption we need to challenge here. Specifically, we need to challenge the traditional learning environment of many institutions of higher education. I would offer that a collaborative conversation among K-12, higher education, and business and industry representatives could inform a more appropriate assessment designed to measure a focused set of skills and dispositions, rather than content.
Click: The entire New Accountability Section. I particularly like the underlying sentiment of trust with verification, as well as the Whole Child focus. I know some poo-poo the notion of measuring well-being, engagement, and hope, but I would argue (standing on Maslow’s firm footing) that without these needs being met, children cannot learn at their highest potential.
Clunk: Earned Autonomy. As someone who spent myriad hours of my life last year preparing for an accreditation site visit, I hesitate to say this, but we gained a lot from our site visit. It’s a remarkable opportunity for introspection and feedback, which leads to purposeful growth. If the official visits go away, I would hope a feedback mechanism would remain.
Clunk: Much of the third grade literacy proposals. While I wholeheartedly support the strong stance on the importance of early literacy, I have some concerns. I see the requirement to adopt a reading program as much inferior to quality implementation of a professional learning community that is engaged in constant, real-time alignment among the intended, enacted, and assessed curricula. When I read about the Iowa Center for Literacy Education, I can’t help but think of all the lessons we have (or should have) learned from the What Works Clearinghouse. Please don’t enact that debacle in our state. Finally, the notion of third grade retention is steeped in a factory model mindset. Let’s instead work to actually create and enact a competency-based system for learning.
A Spirit of Innovation
Click: “We need to pour fuel on Iowa’s spirit of innovation” (p. 11). I love the recognition that there is something smoldering in our state. Let’s figure out how to grow, scale, and multiply existing innovations while continuing to try new things.
Clunk: The competitive Innovation Acceleration Fund. I do understand the logic behind this. I am not anti-competition. I just worry about the unintended consequences of competition in the context of innovation. Our need to innovate is too high stakes to make it an issue of haves and have nots. Our ability to innovate at the rate we need to innovate will be dependent on our ability to collaborate—learning from the successes and failures of each other. Competition stifles collaboration.
Click: The charter school language. I know this will be a controversial area, but it looks like charters would be playing by the same rules and with the same resources as school districts. I support innovation that benefits students in whatever form we can get it. One thing I would like to see added is a responsibility for charter schools that are determined to be excellent to share what works with the rest of the state. Our goal should not be to create islands of excellence, but rather to leverage—by whatever means necessary—rapid innovation that can be scaled for all kids.
Click: I appreciate the support for online learning, ending the factory model of education, and parent and community engagement networks. Absolutely. Of course we need to do these things.
Clunk: We get two pages on innovation, three on learning, and a little over four on teachers and leaders. There is significantly more detail fleshed out in the first two sections of the blueprint. I’d like to see some more depth in the section on innovation. It seems superficial to me at this point, and that speaks an implicit message about importance.
If I had the choice to either sign on to this Blueprint today or walk away from it completely, I would sign on in a heartbeat. I can work with this. The intent and the spirit are right on. Certainly, there’s significant work to do in defining and operationalizing the details, but the right work is never easy. My biggest fear is that we let our small differences distract us from the major things we can all agree on.