Defining Quality Service and Identifying Learning Gaps Through Core Competencies

Throughout our agency, job-alike work groups are in the process of defining quality service through the development of core competency documents.  Each group, whether it be reading consultant, special education core team member etc., is in the process of defining what the core competencies should be for any person who is performing that task.  Groups are currently in various stages of this process.  For some of you, this may be the first time you have heard about this activity.  Some others have already spent some significant time on the activity.  (Our regional directors were the first job-alike group to engage this work.)  In either case, I thought it was time to share with the entire agency my perceptions on the purpose of the activity and why I think it is so important.

The purpose of this activity is two-fold.  The first and most important purpose is to build a common and collaborative definition of quality service in every service area.  Effective organizations have well-defined measures of quality and use those routinely to reflect and grow.  All professional organizations have quality standards and that’s good, particularly for preparation and evaluation purposes.  There is power, however, in bringing people together internally so they can talk about what quality work looks like “here”.  This not only creates better ownership of the local definition of quality, but also requires people to wrestle for consensus as they strive to define quality service.  In service agencies, we are working with many school districts that often do business differently.  By developing core competencies, we better unite around key essential functions and ultimately provide more consistent service across a diverse landscape of multiple school districts.

Once consensus is reached and core competencies are developed, they can be used for their second purpose which is to assist in identifying needs for new learning.  To best illustrate this purpose I use the example of a new person being hired to do Job X at our agency.  We already have job descriptions and more general evaluation standards, but how does this new employee go about the business of learning what it means in our agency to be good at Job X?  How have the people in my organization defined quality service and performance in Job X?  Our core competency documents should help answer those questions.  We know that all people encounter a learning curve when they assume new duties and it is expected that a certain amount of professional development will be necessary for new people to grow toward higher levels of performance.  (This holds true for experienced professionals as well.  If you find someone in education whose job today looks the way it did 10 years ago, please drop me a line.  The fact that some people are doing the same work today that they were doing 10 years ago is a problem and a topic for another day).  What professional development opportunities, then, need to be offered to our staff so that we can assure that each staff member is able to perform the core competencies for his or her job category?  Not all professionals have the same learning gaps and we need a way to organize and prioritize our internal learning opportunities.  Core competency documents should be for us to identify learning gaps and customize our professional development and coaching experiences.

So, that is my answer to ever recurring question that every educator has heard a million times.  “Why do we have to do this?”  By spending time developing these documents in job alike groups, we get to share our craft, define quality, and target new learning opportunities.  I hope the exercise helps you celebrate your colleagues and your profession.  Thanks everyone for taking the time to do this important activity.

Strategic Plan Update

Like local school districts, each AEA in Iowa undergoes an accreditation process every five years and Great Prairie AEA will be completing that process in the coming weeks.  The process actually takes two years to complete, with the first year consisting of the preparing for and conducting of the formal site visit.  Many of our local districts were instrumental in helping us with the site visit phase last year, providing teachers, administrators, and parents for our focus group interviews.  This year, we have been using the results of that accreditation report, as well as multiple other data sources, to produce our Comprehensive Improvement Plan or CIP.  This is an exciting and critical time for the agency because the CIP charts our course for the coming years.  It is our strategic plan, the plan that will guide us as we endeavor to support and lead Iowa’s education community.

The Process – This year, we have been working as an agency on the planning phase or CIP phase of the process. The first step in the CIP phase of accreditation is to inventory all current AEA services.  After this comprehensive inventory of services, we look at a number of data sources from within and outside the agency:  We review the contents of both AEA and local district accreditation reports.  We analyze the student achievement data and CSIP goals of all of our districts.  We also analyze the qualitative and quantitative data from the AEA satisfaction surveys taken annually by educators in the region.  Finally, we look at the current educational context in the state by reviewing the priorities stated in the AEA Compact http://bit.ly/1mHvlW4 and by reviewing recent state and federal legislation that either is impacting or will be impacting our local school districts.  From this needs assessment and analysis phase, two guiding documents are developed.  The first is the actual 5-year action plan that establishes our actions and priorities going forward.  The second and equally important document is the professional development plan that will map out the  internal (AEA) and external (LEA) learning that will need to take place in order for us to execute our plan and to successfully support our districts.

Here is what we are learning from the process.  We know from student achievement data, satisfaction survey data, and leadership interview data that districts want us to continue to provide quality direct services that allow students with special needs to access a free and appropriate education.  This need is particularly acute for districts as they work with students who are experiencing difficulty in the areas of reading and behavior.  We are already responding to this by making sure that every LEA building is served by one special education core team member specializing in reading and one specializing in challenging behavior.  We are continuing to provide half of our core team members ongoing training in methods for providing specially designed instruction in literacy and the other half in best practices for intervening with students who exhibit challenging behavior.  We will also continue to provide the full array of direct services to students that we currently offer, such as speech, physical, and occupational therapy.  These have been and will remain core services for our agency.

Another area of concentration for our agency going forward will be to support the continued implementation of the Iowa Core.  This means that we will need to continue to support teachers and school leaders as they learn more about the shifts involved in teaching to the Iowa Core in reading, math, and science.  We will need to stay abreast of best practices in characteristics of effective instruction, as well as understanding and teaching to the Iowa Core Standards. Developing high quality, aligned  assessments for those standards is the third piece of supporting implementation of the Iowa Core.  We will continue to support investigations work with the standards and assessments, effective instructional models, and observational protocols.  Supporting the Iowa Core has implications for both special education and instructional services staff as we will need to support the development of extended benchmarks and alternate assessment in addition to the work we do with general education teachers in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  This will have implications for the work we do with both teachers and leaders.

One of the key responsibilities for the agency going forward will be to support districts as they strive to meet new requirements for early literacy in response to last year’s legislation http://bit.ly/N3D28U calling for Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) formerly known as response to intervention (RTI and yes we do love new acronyms because we have such a critical shortage of them in the education business).  This is an area we are emphasizing, in part because there are so many implications for new learning and because the stakes are so high.  MTSS impacts everything from core and specially designed instruction to professional learning communities and data teams.  We will need to better support schools as they collect data with new screeners and diagnostic assessments.  We will not only need to support schools in collecting data, but also in using that data to develop appropriate interventions and effective extended learning programs.  The complexity of meeting district needs in this area is particularly compounded in the area of literacy where we see such a wide variance of programs and philosophies across our region.  One of our single biggest challenges going forward is to assure that all GPAEA literacy consultants in both special education and instructional services can effectively meet the general and special education literacy needs of any district regardless of that district’s approach to core literacy instruction.  This will no doubt be a significant piece or our internal learning plan.

Another key action area in our strategic plan will be to support districts as they implement the Teacher Leadership Compensation program, also know as the Teacher Leadership Supplement or TLS http://bit.ly/1cQou67 .  As districts begin to establish new roles and responsibilities for teacher leaders, there will be an increased need for skill development in areas like instructional coaching and observational protocols.  Perhaps even more critical to the success of TLS though may be the larger cultural shift that schools and districts must make as they begin to distribute leadership responsibilities traditionally reserved for administrators out into the larger organization.  School leaders will need to utilize collaborative protocols like those found in professional learning communities or data teams as the professional development process increasingly becomes more formative in nature.  Teacher leaders who already possess a strong set of instructional skills will need to be able to observe the instruction and student work of others for the purposes of identifying instructional strengths and weaknesses.  This will require districts to have a well articulated instructional continuum that can be used as a framework instructional coaching.  Leaders will need the types of coaching skills that encourage growth and reflection in others.  Some districts already have coaching models and even full-time release coaches, but most do not.  This all has huge implications for the future learning of both AEA and LEA educators.

Certainly our action plan and professional development plans will address much more than what I have chosen to include here.  What I have included in this blog are the big pieces that I see creating the general framework for our initiatives.  We feel that it is important for our core services to respond to district needs and the current context in Iowa.  These are ever-changing times and it will be necessary for us to review and realign these plans annually in order to keep up with those changes.  Even this Spring we will still be receiving feedback on the contents of the plan from our GPAEA Advisory Committee.  Our GPAEA Board of Directors will also be giving feedback before they ultimately approve the plan later this Spring.  We have many new and exciting challenges ahead.  We always welcome feedback to our proposed priorities.  If you would like to share your feedback, you can comment here on WordPress or contact me at jon.sheldahl@gpaea.org.

2014 Presents Opportunities for Meaningful School Reform in Iowa

During 2014, Iowa educators will begin working with two key pieces of education reform policy for the first time.  Districts representing roughly one-third of Iowa’s public school students will begin developing new teacher leadership roles and re-examining teacher development models as they begin to implement the Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) program.  Those districts will be receiving the Teacher Leadership Supplement (TLS) which was authorized during the last legislative session by HF215.  At the same time, all Iowa districts will begin planning to meet the new demands for literacy instruction found in chapter 62.  These require local districts to screen all students for potential reading problems beginning in kindergarten and to provide research based interventions and progress monitoring for all students experiencing difficulty in the area of reading.  Districts will be required to provide extended learning programs and consider retention for all students not proficient in reading by the end of 3rd grade.   Both of these new developments have the potential to substantially improve student learning outcomes in Iowa.  Unfortunately, they also have the potential to do for student learning what so many reform efforts have done before, which is little or nothing.  How can we assure that these reforms will result in real change and improved student learning?  Here are a few thoughts.

1) Continue to fund these initiatives at a level that is in addition to reasonable allowable growth.  Iowa’s policy makers deserve credit for putting additional funds behind these priorities.  Districts participating in the Teacher Leadership Supplement will receive over $300 per student to pay for the program, an amount that represents roughly a 5% increase in per pupil state aid.  If this comes at the expense of further limitations on allowable growth or other categorical revenue streams, however, return on this investment will be diminished.  Already there exists an inequity between schools that will need to spend part of the TLS to reach the salary minimum of $33,000/year and those that already exceed that minimum.  In recent years, Iowa has dropped from having the 8th highest investment in public education to 37th.  During that period, the state has become increasingly diverse both socioeconomically and culturally and, yet, achievement has remained relatively constant.  The Teacher Leadership Supplement is one of the most significant and exciting developments in public education in Iowa in years, but it won’t drive real reform if it becomes a substitute for consistent allowable growth over time in a state that has already fallen behind most other states in funding for education.

2) Account for the impacts of poverty and language as reform initiatives go forward. Policy makers have allocated eight million dollars to improve early literacy education in Iowa.  This is commendable, but assumes that the cost of providing interventions and extended learning opportunities in one community will be the same as those in another when we know that communities and schools vary greatly.  I know that it has become somewhat unfashionable to say so, but language and poverty continue to be the strongest indicators of school readiness and school performance.  All students can learn, but not when funding and time are the constants.  For that reason I support the growing call for our legislature to revisit Iowa’s school foundation formula.  Iowa has taken huge steps toward addressing poverty and equity by supporting universal pre-school, but we still have a long way to go if we want to make learning a constant.  Kids in poverty are more likely to show up for school less ready to learn and more likely to need instructional interventions and extended learning opportunities.  I don’t for a moment minimize the importance of quality teaching, but we know from research that kids in poverty need both better and more instruction.  That requires differentiated resources for kids and schools in poverty.

3) Hold us accountable for results.  If early literacy is a high priority for schools in Iowa, and I believe that it is, let’s align accreditation standards for Iowa’s schools and AEAs to reflect that priority.  Districts and AEAs should be measured and accredited in part based on how well they support early literacy interventions and multi-tiered systems of support.  Similarly, if teacher leadership is to become the pathway to improved instruction in Iowa’s schools, let’s make sure that districts and AEAs are supporting that work by providing all teachers with quality professional learning experiences that support teacher development.  Teacher leadership holds tremendous potential for building the professional capital that will put every Iowa school on a path of continuous improvement, but only if districts and AEAs implement clear, research based instructional models and collectively define what good teaching is and what it looks like.  There is plenty of room for local control when it comes to implementing the TLC program, but there also exists an extensive body of research on what works instructionally when it comes to improving student outcomes.  This could also become an explicit standard to which districts and AEAs should be held accountable during the accreditation process.

In summary, we need to work together to make sure that these two reforms are well funded and then measured.  If we do those two things, we have an excellent chance to change the course of education in Iowa.  Have a great 2014.  It’s an exciting time to be working in education.

The New Paradigm of Adaptive Teacher Leadership

I recently heard a radio interview with Ron Heifetz, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, in which he talked about organizational leadership practices in America. For three decades, he has taught organizational leadership at Harvard and has found that leaders and aspiring leaders always come to him with the same basic question:  “How can I get people to follow me?”  Heifetz shared that he is never surprised by this question because it reflects the dominant view of organizational leadership in America today.  That dominant view operates from the premise that says, “I am the leader and I have the answer.  I just need to be able to better sell that answer to the stakeholders in my organization”.  The problem with that approach to problem solving, Heifetz claims, is that it only works with certain types of problems and those typically aren’t the biggest problems facing an organization.

Heifetz developed the theory of adaptive leadership prior to publishing his book Leadership Without Easy Answers in 1994.  Most recently, he and his colleagues published The Practice of Adaptive Leadership in 2009. His theory posits that the challenges facing all organizations can be placed into two general categories.  The first category of problem facing today’s organization is the technical problem.  Technical problems are problems that are clearly defined and have a known solution.  The typical leadership response to a technical problem is to establish the authority within the organization to ensure that everyone implements the known solution.  There is no need to find an alternative solution to a technical problem because there are no proven alternatives.  The focus is on quality control and adherence to protocol.  The problem and the solution have both been clearly defined and the leadership focus is placed on the authoritative framework necessary to see that all stakeholders are doing the right work.  A former medical doctor, Heifetz equates a technical problem to one where the leader acts like a surgeon.  The surgeon (leader) says, “You have a problem and I have the solution.  You don’t have to worry because I know what to do.”

The other and more common challenge category facing organizations today is the adaptive problem.  An adaptive problem is often a changing problem and one that requires new learning before it can be solved or even clearly defined.  Adaptive leadership recognizes the importance of new learning across the entire organization.  Stakeholders at all levels are involved in the learning that leads to the definition and solution of the problem.  The adaptive problem is one in which people (stakeholders) are both part of the problem and part of the solution.  For that reason, the adaptive leader recognizes that, before the problem is identified and solved, there will not only be a lot of new learning at multiple levels across the organization, there will also be a need for stakeholders to change beliefs and practices in response to that learning.  Heifetz uses a medical analogy to describe the adaptive problem also, but in this case he compares it to the psychiatrist who says, “You have a problem and it is my job to help you build the capacity to solve your problem.”  Stakeholders have to be invested in defining the problem so they know what to do in response.  It becomes the function of leadership then to consistently engage people with the problem and mobilize them around it.  The solutions come from the group.

The single biggest cause of failure in today’s organization is the misidentifying of adaptive problems as technical ones.  Successful organizations embed stakeholders in the work of problem identification and problem solving and manage that process within a set of organizational parameters, but without a predetermined outcome.  Leaders manage the process that stakeholders use to engage in this problem solving work, but they don’t prescribe the solution.  Less successful organizations often rely on a small faction of leadership to identify and define a problem and then prescribe a solution to stakeholders who are then expected to respond accordingly.  This technical, more traditional approach to leadership is appropriate for technical problems where the solution is known, but not for the more adaptive types of problems that require large amounts of new learning and changes in adult behavior.

So, what does this mean for educational organizations?  We know that our challenges primarily relate to improving student outcomes, but which of our challenges are adaptive and which are technical?  Is our problem already defined and is a “best practice” solution already apparent?  Or, are some real challenges yet to be clearly defined and is there still a lot of learning to be done in order to define and address those challenges?  How we answer these questions is critical.  The leadership response to a technical problem in education is typically teacher training , but does that always equate to teacher learning?  We know that changes in behavior are a function of new and collective learning, not necessarily more individual training.  A common leadership function in dealing with instruction as a technical problem is the walk-through observation, but is that walk-through process designed to engage teachers in new learning, or is it a quality control measure intended to measure the implementation of a solution that came from someone else.  Are teachers being given adequate time to collaborate around common instructional challenges so they can adapt to new and better strategies, or is professional development time dominated by “sit and get” time in which teachers are learning a new strategy from an external expert.

I believe that positive school cultures are the product of leadership teams that have learned how to balance the importance of addressing both technical and adaptive problems.  We ignore the research and educational experts at our own peril.  Certainly, teachers need to develop teaching strategies that are research based and known to be effective in solving known problems.  I think of these strategies as making up a tool box from which a skilled teacher can pull the right tool for the right job.  Beyond this technical approach to teaching, though, lies an adaptive approach that requires collective wisdom and new learning.  Positive school cultures make time for this work as well.  Professional learning communities are given the time and tools necessary to study new problems and try new strategies.  There is an accountability to improved results but it is an internally imposed accountability and teachers are trusted to collaborate and learn together.  When systems rely purely on prescriptive approaches to teaching and do not build adult learning systems that value collaboration time and peer learning, they relegate all problems to the technical realm and miss out on the art and magic that can result when teachers are given time and tools to engage in real adaptive learning and problem solving.  Technical leadership creates compliance, but adaptive leadership builds trust and ownership.  As we build new systems of teacher leadership in Iowa, we should strive to create that trust and ownership.

“The Secret Solution” to Developing Effective School Leadership

At a recent superintendents’ meeting, we had the pleasure of hearing a guest speaker who is also a colleague and author.  Sam Miller, superintendent of the Solon, Iowa School District, recently co-authored a book on educational leadership with Todd Whitaker and Ryan Donlan, a professor and associate professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University.  The book is entitled The Secret Solution and it follows one principal’s journey as he learns to balance the demands of building positive school culture with the challenges inherent in holding people accountable to high levels of performance.  It is a parable that holds some outstanding lessons for school leaders.  I recommend the book highly to anyone who is charged with school leadership or has the responsibility of coaching school leaders.  It is a quick read and a story that captures the very essence of decision making that leads to effective leadership.  When reflecting on the contents of this book, I am reminded of the old leadership axiom that says, “Good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions”.  I wish I had read The Secret Solution when I was new to the principalship or superintendency.  I could have spared myself the pain, embarrassment and sleepless night or two that can occur when one is forced to reflect on a bad or tough decision.  All reflective leaders ultimately have to learn some things the hard way, but this book allows the new or aspiring leader to learn some great lessons vicariously and that is a gift to anyone who will accept it.

Sam has a simple, but powerful theory on effective leadership that comes from his own experience leading schools and coaching other school leaders.  He looks at leadership behavior in four quadrants built around two axes.  The vertical axis represents the continuum of negative to positive school culture.  The horizontal axis is the continuum of low to high accountability.  Through encounters with stereotypical colleagues and common leadership situations, the story’s protagonist grows from being the “hibernator” who nurtures neither positive culture nor accountability to the “leader” quadrant where he learns to both build positive culture and instill high accountability.  Along the way, he goes through the “glad-hander” quadrant, typified by positive culture, but low accountability, and the “thumb” quadrant where he focuses on accountability but with low attention to building relationships.  All honest leaders will acknowledge that they have exhibited the behaviors of the hibernator, the glad-handing buddy, or the thumb at various times in their careers, but not all leaders grow to the point where they can honestly say they consistently operate out of the leader quadrant, where positive culture and high expectations intersect.  This book follows one leader who successfully navigates that path.  While a parable and a work of fiction, the story’s situations and characters are very real and likely to be encountered by any practicing leader.  How the protagonist deals with these situations has differing impacts on different groups in the organization.  Ultimately, the principal learns to hold everyone accountable while simultaneously building positive school culture.

This book would make a great choice for a book study for any administrative or leadership team willing to reflect on leadership practice.  It encourages the type of authentic growth that comes with honest reflection and transparency.  It’s often difficult to initiate honest conversations about leadership strengths and failings.  This book will help facilitate those conversations and could help build camaraderie and a culture of growth at the same time. It’s certainly worth a read.

Characteristics of the System Trump Picking the Right Model When it Comes to Student Learning

In his Book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “The organizations that are the most successful are the ones where the system is the star.  The talent myth assumes that people make organizations smart.  More often than not, it’s the other way around”.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than in school organizations that build social capital through teacher collaboration in the forms of data teams or professional learning communities.  Data teams and professional learning communities (PLC’s) are common terms used interchangeably in our area, but some districts also use terms like instructional improvement teams or teacher learning teams.  All of these terms describe a collaborative process that involves teachers in professional learning and instructional decision-making.

What separates schools that have continued to make consistent achievement gains in recent years from those that have plateaued or declined?  According to recent research out of the University of Pittsburgh by Dr. Carrie Leana et al, the difference is in no small part the extent to which schools are deliberately facilitating strong teacher relationships as they build professional development plans.  Instead of focusing purely on human capital by relying on individual teachers to “get smarter” through receiving more professional development around some new set of strategies, they structure professional development time and protocols in a way that also lets the system be the star.  They recognize that teacher relationships are an asset to professional learning.  They still use professional development to build individual human capital, but they also recognize the power embedded in teacher relationships that develop during collaborative problem solving.

Ten years after Iowa’s state-wide implementation of Reading First and the Iowa Professional Development Model, too many schools and school districts in Iowa continue to struggle to meet rising proficiency standards in reading and math.  Granted, in recent years, overall math and reading proficiency have improved considerably across the state and that can be attributed to Iowa’s professional development model and its focus on implementation of quality instructional strategies.  The problem is that, when it comes to gains in achievement, the low fruit is gone and not only are the scores in many systems stagnating, they are actually going down in some cases.  Why is that?

Relying on the talents of individual teachers to make organizations successful is a time-honored paradigm in education.  It has driven professional development models for decades and has fueled a reform movement that places a very high priority on holding individual teachers accountable for individual student growth.  Research is clear that the quality of the classroom teacher is a key variable in impacting student achievement. Certainly student characteristic variables correlate highly to achievement as well (poverty, language acquisition etc), but of all the variables impacting student achievement, the only one of significant effect size that is under the direct influence of educators and education systems is the quantity and quality of academically engaged time and that’s teaching. We can’t fix poverty, but we can increase our capacity to effectively educate kids who live in poverty.  This isn’t news to anyone, I realize, and I think all sides of the current reform argument acknowledge that there is no substitute for great teaching.  The question is what does it take to bring great teaching to scale across a school or school system?

For several years now we have seen school improvement models that basically go like this:  1) Bring in an outside model or expert.  Whether it be a private vendor with a new textbook series or a new instructional model or methodology with its origins in a university, the Department of Education or the AEA, schools have consistently looked to new programs or models to impact achievement.  Let me be very clear here.  None of these things is bad.  Programs and models are vitally important when it comes to articulating an organization’s definition of quality and giving teachers a common framework within which to work.  The next step is usually 2) Use walk through observations and student assessments to assure individual accountability.  Once teachers are trained in the next new thing, it has become the primary goal of leadership to find out “who is implementing?”.  Administrators, often with teacher leaders and consultants, conduct walk throughs to observe for implementation and determine needs for future professional development.  While individual teachers are observed, students are assessed (often 3 times per year) to determine which students are making adequate progress.  Again, none of this is bad.  It is important to frequently monitor student progress and it is equally important to see what types of teaching behaviors are producing significant amounts of growth in the classroom.  Finally, we get to 3) Identify lower performing teachers and support accordingly.  This can take the form of more or repeated professional development for everyone or identifying teachers who may need intensive assistance.  Again, none of this is necessarily bad, even though too much of this “jump higher/try harder” approach can be damaging to a system’s culture over time.

What’s missing in the model above is any deliberate effort to build social capital.  All efforts in this type of system focus on the individual.  Good professional development can indeed make teachers better, but there is little evidence that focusing purely on new learning and measuring implementation in isolated classrooms will result in significant student gains.  On the contrary, when professional development is at least in part decentralized and placed more frequently in the hands of teachers working as a learning community, the density of the teacher relationships and the overall skill level of the group increases at a rate much faster than when learning is focused on the individual teacher alone.  The research shows that this collaborative model benefits the skill level of all teachers, but it particularly benefits that of the new or marginally effective teacher.  The research also shows that, particularly when dealing with profound student characteristics like high poverty, a conscious effort must be made to develop both individual human capital and collective social capital in order to overcome such at-risk student characteristics.  Teachers need to frequently interact around problem solving or decision-making protocols before they can truly grow in their capacity to make good teaching decisions.  When all instructional decisions are made centrally and teachers are evaluated purely on how well the decisions of others get implemented at the classroom level, they may comply with the expectation, but they will not take ownership of the result.  This is sometimes called “malicious compliance”.  In the past I called this the “tell me what you want me to do” model and it not only fails to build social capital around the teaching profession, it discourages teacher ownership of student results.

So what does it take to bring great teaching to scale?  It takes schools working to build both human and social capital.  It means giving teachers the tools and protocols they need to work together effectively and then giving them the time to practice those skills.  It means trusting teachers more to identify and solve instructional problems.  It means using quality screening assessments in order to have the early warning system necessary to initiate the work.  Iowa’s new focus on Response to Intervention and teacher leadership development are perfectly suited to create the educational context in which to make this transition.  So, as you participate in or plan your professional development during the coming year, ask yourself, “How can I take advantage of teacher expertise and horizontal relationships as I wade into my new learning?”  We hear a lot in Iowa about the “right” or “best” method for teaching all kids X, Y or Z.  We have no shortage of vendors or gurus with the answer to our achievement problems.  Here’s what the research shows, though.  How you set up the adult learning system and whether or not you utilize teacher-to-teacher relationships to build social capital in that system will have a greater impact on student learning than which expert or model you ultimately choose to follow.

Thank You from the Board and Administration

Just last week, the Iowa Department of Education sent out its accreditation report on GPAEA.  You can view the report in its entirety here GPAEA 2013 Accreditation Report.  The GPAEA Board of Directors had a chance to study the report during our July retreat at the Fairfield Convention Center and, during that analysis, one thing became very evident.  That is that we owe a big thank you not only to all of those who put in extra time and effort to prepare for the accreditation visit, but to every member of the GPAEA team.  The contents of the report were very positive overall and reflected an organization that is committed to providing quality services to students, families, and schools.  The accreditation team found the agency to be meeting all standards and also noted multiple strengths within each standard.  There were no incidents of non-compliance.  Given the complex nature of our work and the degree to which our practices are rapidly changing in this reform driven era, it is impressive that so many LEA and AEA professionals revealed such a high level of commitment to achieving positive outcomes for students throughout the accreditation process.

Second order change brings a unique set of challenges and frustrations and no organization has seen more second order change over the past 5 years than has GPAEA.  This year we will be experiencing new changes in our practice as we transition to two-person service teams and begin the scale-up of consistent RTI practices (more on that in a subsequent blog).  What is evident in our accreditation report is that through hard work and collaboration, we are meeting these new challenges.  Certainly, the report isn’t perfect.  Many excellent recommendations can be found under each of the standards.  Some of those recommendations will result in even more change in our professional practice.  Others will be carefully considered and not implemented.  What we do with the recommendations in the report will be determined as we work together in the coming months.

So, thank you from the board of directors and administration for all of your hard work and for your commitment to the students, families and educators of Southeast Iowa.  Your efforts are appreciated.  More importantly, our collective efforts are beginning to show results.  Your talent and hard work are appreciated.  Thank you and have a great 2013-2014 school year!