School visits reveal determination, hard work
I completed my final school visit of the 2015-16 school year last month. My travels took me to 56 school districts, all nine area education agencies, seven community colleges, two Catholic schools and the Meskwaki Settlement School. These visits told a story of challenge, change and opportunity.
I appreciated all of the district and school leaders, teachers, board members and students who spoke plainly and directly about the challenges they faced. Some challenges were largely out of their control; funding, declining enrollment, and a student population with a growing diversity of needs ranging from language acquisition to mental health support were all frequent topics of conversation.
Other challenges were internal: creating a climate and culture in which both adults and students thrive, providing students access to rigorous curriculum and instruction across all grade levels and subjects, and ensuring all students are prepared to succeed after high school. Almost all leaders I spoke with took ownership over where they were falling short and clearly articulated specific ways in which they needed to improve to meet the needs of their students.
Owning our challenges is important. We can’t sugarcoat the facts. Too many students in our state complete elementary school lacking the foundational skills necessary to access more challenging coursework. By the time they enter middle and high school, they’ve started to actively disengage and encounter courses in which they see limited connections to the real world and few opportunities to tailor their learning to their interests. When this pattern occurs, students leave school early or they graduate under-prepared for further education or the workforce.
Acknowledging these challenges is not an indictment of our teachers, leaders or policy makers. By clearly articulating where we’re falling short we can develop a strategy and actions to ensure all students are successful.
This improvement process has led to a time of rapid change in our schools. Schools are implementing new standards and curriculum, tracking and using data in different ways, integrating technology into instruction, and creating leadership roles aligned to their vision and goals.
The reaction to these changes varies. In some schools I visited, teachers and administrators were overwhelmed, in others they were energized and in some schools folks were just plain tired. But nowhere was there an attitude of wanting to give up or give in.
Schools are consistently seizing opportunities to improve student achievement. At the May State Board of Education meeting, Van Meter Community School District described a coherent approach to personalized learning that incorporated competency-based education, teacher leadership, 1:1 technology, and a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS). Van Meter is just one of many examples of districts that are taking advantage of both statewide and homegrown efforts to ensure better outcomes for all students.
Opportunity for improvement is in abundance in Iowa. This month, the Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC) will launch an Intensive Summer Reading Program study in more than 45 school districts across the state. We will learn a lot from this work and look forward to the IRRC sharing those learnings with Iowa’s education community. In addition, the Department of Education will begin the implementation of House File 2392, which will dramatically improve the quality of Career and Technical Education (CTE) in Iowa.
As I reflect on the challenges, changes and opportunities both behind and ahead for our state, I feel reassured that our education system is heading in the right direction. I’ve met countless teams and individuals committed to improvement. I’m thankful for the efforts of all Iowa educators and look forward to the work ahead.
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