Monday, January 7, 2013

Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead

My New Year's Resolution was to blog and tweet again.  This was not easy for me. Of course, being a loud voice never is easy. Bucking the status quo requires difficult, uncomfortable discussions. It opens up conflict.   But this debate on school reform in Iowa needs to move to ACTION  We've been swinging this pendulum of dialogue like an incense thurifer.  Let the smoke clear already--PLEASE.

Will this be the year that LEAs change?  Will PLCs be the magical transformation?  Well, it's a start, but my thought is:  probably not.

Teachers tend to be loyalists, and often look for 20+ year careers in one system.  In return, they care deeply for their local community, but that limits their time searching for that new strategy or learning. They coach, they are on the council, they share their talents at everything affecting the school and the communities to which it is attached. Their children go through the school, and they look at their schools through dual-lenses of parent and professional.  Without them, Iowa would be much poorer; without them, the lack of stability would hurt our schools and our kids.

But in every building, there are a few teachers that take a different path, searching for that best-practice, that new study, that extra tool. These teachers see this as part of their vocation as much as the coach sees teamwork as part of his or her passion.  These are the teachers that inform others of best-practices.  Their classes are different, and you can see it in a five-minute walk through.  They are often the people who cause the consternation for administration.  They challenge others, and they are willing to challenge superiors.  Their pathway is less visible than that of the winning coach, but they are just as important.  They can also be very uncomfortable to those in charge.

Finally, an administration exists, and in my experience at multiple schools they are an either/or proposition. Fitting the 'district profile' may mean that they will not challenge the system, but a new shock to the system often means that well-done programs are cast aside for a new innovation.  No wonder we have such difficulty finding administrators, who are asked to be everything to everyone, and have a difficult time navigating treacherous waters.

This triad tension means that there will always be a difficulty in reform on a local level, because no one stakeholder can fill all the roles needed.  The partners are not equal in power, and it's easy for comfort to triumph innovation.  It focuses us on small changes, but not transformative ones.

Will this be the year the the next layer of bureacracy realizes how complex things are?  Will they be the driver for transformative change?  Probably not.

This triad tension is not much better on a state level, with businesses, reformers, and politicians taking the respective roles of personal loyalist, innovators, and admin.  Just as in the local triad, they mean well, but the two systems are separate, and it is difficult to make reform happen on the state level when policy trumps personalities.  Regional staff, like AEA members or college education professors are often ignored, even though they have the knowledge of best-practice.  The process destroys school spirit and it often paints educators with a broad brush, assuming we are too ignorant, too insular, or too stupid to understand what kids need to succeed.  STEM has been alive in many schools for a long time, but has been discovered by politicans in the last 18 months.  Engagement strategies and relevancy are not new ideas, but yesterday's business summit was a series of speeches and lectures, which do not lead to a true construction of knowledge.

The major initiative that we could consider, CompEd  has transformed from it's earliest painful process (outcomes) to standards and benchmarks, but I don't even see it listed as a priority on the agenda for this year. Sure we need to build, but we continue to speak on a state level as if all stakeholders are at ground zero.

Let's shift the conversation.  Let's look for the transformative change.

As we head into the 2013 Legislative Session, could we please look for the center of both triads?  Jason Glass spoke at the Business Summit today and called for a need for interdependency between business and education.  It's more than that.   As I look at the Branstad 5 point plan, I see much that matters, but if the legislature gets stuck in minutiae, nothing will get done.

Terry Branstad has 5 reform proposals on the table.

  1. Teacher compensation. 
  2. Expansion of online education through Iowa Learning Online.  
  3. Expansion of TEACHIowa.  This is an innocuous thing, since most schools use IAReap, but it won't really harm anything.
  4. Redo diplomas to have seals that indicate career readiness.
  5. Redo teacher and administrative evaluations.

4 and 5 probably need to be addressed, but they seem to be a small part of the picture, and they are focused on system evaluation.

I can get behind proposals 1, 2, and 3.   1 and 3 are concerned with the recruitment and retainment of talented young teachers, which is critical to the future.  2 is concerned with the fact that Iowa is way, way behind in online education, and our students are going to college without needed skills to be successful in their first semester of college. This push for Iowa Learning Online is really the only one that affects students and has the potential  to transform their lives.

Why am I bothered?  Because we are missing the BIG picture here.  We arguing for system evaluation, not system transformation.  Iowa has ok schools, but ok is never good enough.

Can we please focus change on the CENTER of the triad?  Focus on the needs of the stars of the show: the kids.

Transformation 1:  Could we try to fashion the way forward based on skill sets rather than lock-step movement and seat time?  It is time for Competency-based education.

Transformation 2:  Is it possible to look at research as we develop policy focused on mastery of content? Can we build shared professional development as we did with the Communities of Practice project last year?  This also is part of the same rationale for Iowa Learning Online 

Transformation 3:  Can we leave last year's contentious fights on 3rd grade retention, and school start dates?  Focus on meeting the needs of kids using RTI. Develop the common core collaboratively.  Set hours for Iowa schools or set a certain number of days, but then let's move on and develop our teachers. 

I started working with the idea of educational reform when my oldest child was in 1st grade; she's now a college sophomore with a business internship in a STEM-related major. Her youngest sibling is in 3rd grade. How long are we going to do this repetitive dance?  Move already.

Damn the torpedoes.  It's time for full speed ahead to meet the needs of Iowa kids.

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