Director Wise: Fifty more visits, five new lessons
I have visited roughly 50 school districts in each of my three years as director of the Iowa Department of Education. These visits are the best part of my job. They allow me to connect the dots between policy and practice and to identify ways in which the Department can better support schools in providing excellent educational opportunities.
Like many educators, I find that the end of a school year provides the opportunity for reflection. Following my first year as director, I reflected on the challenges and opportunities facing our schools, all of which are still true two years later. Last year, I shared five lessons I learned in my school visits. This year, I’m adding five new understandings to the mix.
Career and technical education (CTE) is for all students.
Earlier this year, the Department published articles on how CTE programs are preparing students for post-secondary success and helping build Iowa’s talent pipeline for the careers of today and tomorrow. As was noted in these articles, CTE programs prepare students for a wide range of careers, including agriculture, business, computer science, advanced manufacturing, engineering, health care, and culinary arts. I have observed powerful examples of each of these this year, including students building a house in Carlisle, operating a school-based restaurant in West Bend-Mallard (I recommend the strawberry bruschetta!), and creating businesses like Rocket Manufacturing in Rock Valley and Big Cat Industries in Logan-Magnolia. These programs shatter the myth of vocational education programs tracking academically challenged students into low-quality classes. Today’s CTE programs in Iowa offer high-quality learning opportunities for all students.
Delivering a well-rounded education is critical in preparing students for post-secondary success Iowa’s recently approved Every Student Succeeds Act plan emphasizes the importance of a well-rounded education. This isn’t just lip-service to disciplines and activities that were often overshadowed during the days of No Child Left Behind. As I’ve visited schools and attended events around the state, I’m constantly reminded of the important role the arts and extra-curricular activities play in preparing students for post-secondary success. As a member of the Iowa High School Athletic Association Board, I attended state tournaments in soccer, baseball, football, wrestling, basketball and track and witnessed individual and team performances that created indelible memories for students and instilled lessons like the importance of integrity and perseverance. I also watched outstanding fine arts performances like the Des Moines Roosevelt High School Bridges2Harmony group at a Martin Luther King Day event and the student-directed “Friday Night Lights” production at Waukee High School. These opportunities help students develop learning and leadership skills that will last a lifetime.
Iowa’s statewide focus on early literacy is making a positive impact in every elementary school.
In 2012, Iowa enacted legislation that elevated the importance of early childhood literacy. Schools responded by implementing an early warning system to identify and support students at-risk of not becoming proficient readers, strengthening the literacy instruction provided to all students, monitoring student progress, and communicating with families. This approach has been universal in all of the schools I’ve visited. As I’ve mentioned before, the share of students who met or surpassed the state benchmark on a screening assessment increased three percentage points in 2016-17, following a four percentage point gain in 2015-16. As we await data from the 2017-18 school year, I’m confident the efforts I see in schools will continue to move us in the right direction.
Small, rural schools can provide big opportunities
I have visited many schools where the number of square miles covered nearly approaches the number of students served. Rural districts often face acute challenges of declining enrollment, recruiting teachers and administrators, and accessing services. While these issues can lead to district reorganizations, they can also spark partnerships and creativity that provide students great learning experiences. For example, students in a web design/introduction to programming course in Kingsley-Pierson demonstrated their technology skills in an interview with me, Edgewood-Colesburg teachers and administrators described the dozens of work-based learning and internship opportunities they’ve created for their students, and the small West Central school district highlighted that in the past four years, 22 students have earned degrees from the local community college at the same time they earned their high school diploma.
Student voice is a key component of school improvement.
Giving students more ownership over their learning and providing them with authentic opportunities to shape the future of their schools is critical in increasing student engagement and in improving student learning. In addition to the student-driven CTE projects I mentioned, I saw students play an active role in the strategic planning and continuous improvement process in the Pella Community School District and I met with student leadership groups in the Ar-We-Va, Eastern Allamakee, and Decorah school districts. In each of these schools, and in many others, students were considered active participants in ensuring their education met their current and future needs. As this school year draws to a close, I again want to send a sincere thank you to all teachers, administrators, school boards and community members for all you do to continually strengthen the quality of education your students receive. I wish you all a summer filled with rest and reflection.