Identifying common challenges, finding solutions
As I’ve frequently mentioned, the best part of my job is visiting schools and classrooms across Iowa each week. It’s inspiring to see success in our schools, from the impact of teacher leadership on instruction to the continuous refinement and improvement in the approach to early literacy instruction.
Perhaps most important, these school visits provide the opportunity to hear about the challenges schools face and to work collaboratively to craft solutions. Three issues have surfaced in almost every school visit I’ve had this year: finding and keeping great teachers, meeting the increasing mental health needs of students, and developing efficient and effective ways to provide high-quality career and technical education.
Administrators, particularly those in rural areas, frequently share the challenges they face in recruiting and retaining teachers, especially in high-demand areas like math and science, special education, and career and technical education. Accordingly, we are supporting several efforts to address this issue.
The Department is working collaboratively with both legislators and the education community to identify barriers to entering the profession and to lower those barriers while still maintaining rigorous entry standards. A good example of this is the effort to modify the testing requirements for educator preparation program completion and teacher licensure. If passed into law, these modifications will keep testing in place, but will provide additional flexibility to the Department in setting appropriate passing scores for the exams as well as flexibility for local school districts in hiring candidates who have not yet achieved the minimum score but have met all other program requirements.
The Department is also engaging in several efforts to ensure that teaching is viewed as a respected profession with the opportunity for growth and advancement as well helping to support new teachers so that they continue to stay in the profession. Recently, the Department and the Commission on Educator Leadership and Compensation released an annual report, which includes context on the Teacher Leadership and Compensation system, evaluation data, and some great school district examples of the impact of TLC on the teaching profession. This report highlights the unique opportunities Iowa teachers have to grow and develop throughout their career.
In addition, the Department is also supporting the fourth annual Emerging Educators Academy at Simpson College. The intent of this conference is to focus on beginning teachers to provide support, connections and strategies to retain them in the profession. The target audience is first through third year teachers and pre-service teachers as well as those educators that work most closely with them.
The most challenging issue schools face is meeting the growing mental health needs of many students. I have talked to too many teachers and principals who have lost students to suicide. This loss tears at the fabric of a school community. As a state, we can and must do more to ensure that we meet the needs of all students and that schools and families avoid the tragedies that can come from untreated mental health issues.
This year, I’ve had the opportunity to co-chair the Children’s Mental Health System State Board with Iowa Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven. The Board’s focus is on the development and implementation of a Children’s Mental Health System to improve children’s well-being, build healthy and resilient students, and coordinate care for those in need. I’m proud of the initial work of this board, which resulted in a clear and thoughtful strategic plan. This plan was the result of many meetings of the board combined with input from statewide listening sessions. I am hopeful that this plan will form the basis of legislation this session that will support schools in meeting student mental health needs.
In addition to the policy proposals of the board, Governor Reynolds is also prioritizing children’s mental health. She has proposed $3 million for the Department of Education to work with partners to train educators to detect potential mental health issues in students and to determine appropriate follow-up interventions and support.
Finally, I hear regularly about the challenges and opportunities schools face in developing high-quality career and technical education (CTE) programs. This year, the Department launched a statewide CTE program approval process based on a set of indicators, which set high, yet attainable, expectations for CTE programs. With the help of the Regional Planning Partnerships (RPPs), every CTE program must go through a self-study process, develop action plans, create priorities, and implement them over a five- year period.
One of the challenges I’ve heard is that this can be a time-intensive process for teachers and administrators. I truly understand and appreciate this concern. Now is an opportune time for the Department to reflect on the process and make improvements. Accordingly, we will identify ways to enhance the process and make it more efficient, including:
- Implementing a review of the program approval process and tool, including a voluntary survey to individuals who completed the program approval process this past year.
- Convening, in late spring or early summer, a committee of secondary CTE teachers, administrators, and RPP leaders to review the current program approval process and tool.
- Using the feedback from the survey and focused discussions to identify changes to the program approval process going forward.
The Department is committed to working with school districts and the RPPs to identify strategies to provide consistent support and assistance to programs going through the process. The aim is to ensure equitable access to high-quality secondary CTE programs for all students in support of Future Ready Iowa.
As always, thank you for all you do to address these challenges locally and to enlist the Department of Education as a partner in your efforts.
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