Lessons Learned from TLC

A group of elementary school kids sitting on school steps

The beginning of a new school year seems a good time to take stock of past accomplishments in Iowa education and to look at what might be looming on the horizon as well. Too often we allow ourselves to be sucked up into the whirlwind of the day-to-day that keeps us from not only celebrating our accomplishments, but from identifying how those accomplishments might be applied to new opportunities that lie ahead. When we take the time to dissect what has worked for us in the past, we can often apply those important lessons to new challenges.

Let me point to an initiative that I believe has been a significant success in both its implementation and impact and that is the Teacher Leadership and Compensation program, more commonly known as TLC. I know that local districts certainly had to move quickly to implement this ambitious program and that the process required a lot of hard work, but when one steps back and looks at the scope of this undertaking and reflects on what has been accomplished in three short years, I would consider it an unprecedented success. Why has it been a success in my opinion? Here are some reasons.

First, the initiative was funded. Yes, I realize that state supplemental aid has fallen during the last three year period (and that’s a topic for another time), but the fact remains that the 150 million dollars that our legislature invested in this program was sufficient to bring all of Iowa’s school districts on board. That’s an important lesson and clearly illustrates the power of a funded program versus an unfunded one.

The second reason for the success of TLC is that a critical mass of stakeholders were able to see it as the right work. TLC not only brought new resources to the table but it did so for the purposes of increasing teacher voices in professional learning and building teacher self-efficacy and ownership. The quality of the collaboration and coaching going on in Iowa school districts today is unprecedented and is only going to get better. Communities of practice are growing. Teachers and administrators are working together and learning from one another. Practices are improving, educators are growing, and students are benefiting as a result.

Another factor in the successful implementation of TLC is that it has been supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders, who immediately put a strong focus on what local schools and communities were going to need. The DE was tasked with operationalizing a program unprecedented in its ambition and scope and, to its credit, the department immediately engaged school and AEA leaders to answer one very important question. That question was, “What are schools going to need to be successful in this endeavor?” The question wasn’t, “What do we have the capacity to provide?” The customer’s needs were made paramount from the beginning.

Finally, the most important lesson I think we have learned from TLC implementation is that we can achieve greater equity of services to all of Iowa’s students and educators through increased cooperation and regionalization. By placing a focus on what all districts would need first and only then creating the state networks necessary to meet those needs, Iowa’s education system was able to create and facilitate collaborative entities that were united more by common need than by district size or geographic location. The importance of this development, in my opinion, cannot be overstated. The differences in district and AEA capacity that have resulted from Iowa’s continued demographic shift towards urbanization have never been more equitably addressed than have they been through through the development of TLC’s support system. Every district in Iowa regardless of size or zip code had access to quality technical assistance in developing its TLC plan. Every district in Iowa now has access to quality training and support in the coaching model or models of its choice. Through increased collaboration within and across regions, every district now stands on equal footing when it comes to access to quality support. It’s not perfect, just like TLC isn’t perfect. Nothing ever is. However, it is clearly the most efficient and equitable support system that has been developed for a new education initiative in Iowa to date. That’s a big deal.

A Message to AEA Staff

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to sit in on a couple meetings where our staff were doing their typical problem solving and planning for the coming weeks. They talked about several different students and I don’t plan to go into the details of the specific challenges that those students and their families will be facing over the coming months here, but what I can say is that I have never been more impressed with the level of collective commitment and professionalism than with what I observed Friday morning. It was a Wow! moment for me and it gave me a huge sense of humility and pride at the same time. I don’t get to sit in on these types of meetings often and what really impressed me was how routinely our people were tackling such significant challenges. It was (literally) just another day at the office and yet I thought to myself how lucky our kids and families are to have this group of professionals so persistently engaged in paving the way for them to experience success in the coming months and years. I also thought to myself, “if our people weren’t doing this work here and now, where would these kids and families be?”

I think we can sometimes get desensitized to the importance of our work when we get so immersed in the tyranny of the urgent. Challenges and deadlines loom, kids and teachers need support right now, and progress often comes in amounts too small to appreciate at any given moment. But I can tell you this: As someone who isn’t involved in the day to day challenges of meeting the needs of specific students and families, what you are routinely doing is powerful and life changing and I am so proud to be just a small part of it. You and your AEA colleagues across Iowa are making differences that NO ONE else can make. What I listened to Friday morning were conversations no doubt considered quite pedestrian by those who were having them and, yet, the results of that dialogue will impact the lives of these kids and families forever. Wow! I can’t think of another profession where anyone is doing more for the long range benefit of our kids, families, and society. What you are doing so routinely is giving kids a future they would likely not have without you. Don’t ever let anyone minimize that. I won’t. Thank you for your hard work and professionalism and please know that I have tremendous respect for what you do every day. Have a great year!

Why I Believe “WIG” Work is the Right Work

Over the past year, many GPAEA educators have been involved in piloting implementation plans based on the work of Sean Covey, Chris McChesney and Jim Huling, whose book, The Four Disciplines of Execution, (commonly known as 4DX) espouses a team-based approach to goal setting and execution strategy. You may have been involved in our first foray into this work, or at least heard some of your colleagues talking about their “WIG” plans. WIG stands for wildly important goal and it is a goal that is selected by a team of often job-alike professionals and then used to guide strategic implementation over a given period of time. Next year, we will be promoting this approach to a larger audience of GPAEA staff, so I want to take some time at the end of this first year to further explain why I think this work is so powerful and important.

The main reason I have been supportive of this work is that it allows for an organization to embrace accountability and build positive culture at the same time. Too often accountability is viewed as being in competition with positive work culture and it doesn’t need to be so. WIG plans build accountability because they are data driven and focused on moving a specific data point or specific data set. Team members identify a positive outcome they want to achieve and the specific steps they plan to implement and measure in order to meet that outcome. The outcome is referred to as a lag measure; the action steps or inputs are referred to as lead measures. By monitoring inputs, the team can later look at outcomes in order to see if what they are doing is actually impacting that desired outcome. In this way, each team is actually involved in its own action research project, analyzing implementation and monitoring outcomes. WIG plans build positive culture because they are selected by the members of the team and are not imposed by management, the Department of Education, or any other external force. When teams select a WIG, they are saying as professionals, “This is what we think is important and this is what we want to do to collectively make a positive impact.” The goal needs to be specific and not overwhelming, so not only is the focus area of the goal up to the team, but so is the frequency and intensity of any action steps (or lead indicators) that may be called for in the plan. In this way, the process is designed to increase collaboration around work already being done and not intended to add a new layer of work. Teams engaged in a WIG plan need to be given the time to collaborate around that work, but the process is designed to be quick and efficient. Educators in Iowa have been engaged in Individual Professional Development Plans now for many years, but those PDP’s were too often imposed, done as a formality, or done in isolation. This process allows professionals to engage in common work and learn together about how their craft and professional practice are making a difference.

Another reason I believe in 4DX is that it better helps us understand our antecedents and when educators understand how their behaviors are making a difference it increases our sense of self-efficacy. Too often in today’s world we are hearing from those who would like to have us believe that we aren’t making a difference or that our tasks are futile, when in fact, we know that isn’t true. Unfortunately, we are often so busy responding to immediate demands that we don’t fully understand just how we are making a difference. 4DX allows teams to measure not only outcomes but the specific actions that are making a positive impact on those outcomes. We don’t make widgets; our work is infinitely more important than that. Our problem is we often fail to zero in on goals and strategies specific enough to show our impact. We need to be more like the people who do make widgets and who celebrate when a data point moves in the right direction even if the change isn’t huge. As an example, this year we had a team choose to work with a newer special education teacher who was wanting some assistance. The team decided to have a member visit with the teacher twice a month about diagnostic data and then model in the classroom two other times a month. By spending a few minutes with that teacher four times a month (lead indicator) they saw 70% of that teacher’s students meeting trendline by the end of the year (lag indicator). My point here is that even if 60% had been making trendline prior to the coaching (and I’m guessing that wasn’t the case), the lag measure improved. That team can now point to their efforts and the corresponding outcomes and say, “here is just one way we made a difference”. Now that plan can be repeated where needed, but more importantly it can be celebrated. We need to be proud of all gains large or small and celebrate them for the world changing things they are. One more teacher feels supported. One more kid feels empowered. Becoming proficient is fine and good, but it’s not why we do what we do. One teacher at a time, one kid at a time. Aren’t you glad you aren’t in the widget business?

What makes the above example particularly relevant is that the process worked for everyone. The team decided what impact they were striving for. It wasn’t huge in scope. It didn’t create a new set of initiatives or work patterns (beyond tracking the inputs and spending a small amount of time monitoring the plan). It was manageable, requiring a monthly check-in after a regional Friday meeting. The team decided what supports or inputs they thought could impact the outcome. The teacher gained confidence. Some kids gained self-esteem. And so what if the lag measure or outcome hadn’t been as positive as hoped? Then the team would still have learned something and would have been better equipped to take on its next challenge, which brings up another important point. This process is not evaluative. That cannot be overstated. 4DX is a process that needs to be owned by the team. It needs to be a mechanism to increase professional learning and to drive continuos improvement, but it needs to be owned by the members of the team. The only role management should have in the process is to help people learn the terminology and skills and to make sure that people have the time to engage in the work.

I continue to be excited about this approach to professional growth and learning. I hope each of you has the chance to engage in it in the future. I believe you will find it rewarding. It will honor your professionalism, strengthen your workplace relationships, and most importantly, drive positive outcomes for teachers and kids in a way you will celebrate. As always, thanks for all you do and have a great Summer.

Let’s Recognize the Impact of Poverty as Iowa Reauthorizes ESSA

I would like to draw the attention of state policy makers and educators to a commentary written by Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguero, Paul Reville, and Joshua Starr in this week’s Education Week. This illustrious group of educators, from Duke, UCLA, Harvard and Phi Delta Kappa are co-chairs of a national campaign to advance policies that combine poverty-mitigation strategies with community engagement. The campaign is called Broader, Bolder Approach to Education and it is a campaign that anyone who is interested in supporting the social, emotional, and health needs of all children should be following.

The commentary celebrates the trend in education policy that is increasingly recognizing the stresses related to student poverty and the impact those stresses can have on academic outcomes. I think most of us in education leadership in the early 2000’s were enamored with the no excuses movement, which seemed to place the entire onus for student learning on teacher quality, because we all believed and continue to believe that a quality classroom teacher was and is a critical variable in driving positive academic outcomes for students. The problem with the no excuses movement, though, was that it diminished our ability to really analyze and mitigate those barriers to teaching and learning that were and continue to be a direct result of poverty and/or trauma. Ten years ago if one brought up poverty as a mitigating factor in student achievement, he or she was labelled an excuse maker. I now believe we have a unique opportunity to have it both ways in Iowa as we undergo the ESSA re-authorization process.

We know that quality instruction drives student learning, but a focus on instruction alone over the past ten years has not produced widespread academic gains in schools challenged by significant poverty. Sure, there have been bright spots (usually as a result of increased resource allocation, and almost always as a result of an outstanding principal and strong teacher leadership). The problem has been that policy development has lagged in bringing the resource side of the reform equation to scale while, at the same time, placing unprecedented emphasis on the high-stakes, accountability, no-excuses side. This has resulted in wide-spread blame and shame and a renewed interest in various choice agendas that so far haven’t worked to any scale and have largely led to more segregation and increased challenges for high poverty schools.

I would advocate for two things as we move forward with ESSA re-authorization. The first is that we recognize that, especially in Iowa, poverty is not just an urban issue. Many of Iowa’s poorest areas are rural and most are in Southern Iowa. We need to recognize that our high-needs schools are not always going to have extensive diversity beyond their high poverty levels. There are growing numbers of minority students in our rural areas, but not in all of our rural areas, many of which are economically depressed. Certainly, our large urban schools need to be supported as they deal with unprecedented diversity, but that should not be done at the expense of the many smaller districts that are dealing with significant poverty challenges. The second thing I would advocate for in re-authorization is that we recognize the research that clearly shows what works for kids in poverty, such as expanded nutrition programs, early childhood programs, and adequate access to both medical and mental health services. We need to make sure that the need for these accommodations for children in poverty are at least being recognized by our policy makers. I commend Iowa for addressing the need for universal preschool and the USDA has improved the ability of poor families to access better nutrition in recent years, but access to pediatric and mental health services in rural Iowa is at a crisis point in many areas. Addressing these barriers will be a huge challenge for our state, but it will also lead to improved student outcomes and long-term economic viability for rural Iowa. More importantly, it can be done if enough people insist on it. Let’s start addressing the needs of the whole child and of every child. Learning about the Broader,Bolder Approach to Education coalition might be a good place to start. Check out http://www.boldapproach.org and this weeks commentary at…


The inconvenient truth is that money matters

I have been kicking around my thoughts on the legislative session over the past few weeks as I have been preparing to write my last piece for our final edition of Cornerstone. I was discouraged by the late cuts to the AEA system and the 2.25% figure for state supplemental aid that eventually made it way through the legislature. What concerned me most was the growing narrative that schools and AEAs have enough money; that they are somehow inefficient and cannot be trusted to keep new money away from greedy teacher unions. I have heard that our organizations are inefficient and top-heavy, and that the professionals in our systems are self-serving and overpaid. I have heard that revenues are down and that education is receiving a bigger piece of the state budget pie than ever before. I have stood at legislative get-togethers and in the capitol rotunda and countered each of these arguments, but to no avail. That’s when I was reminded of a quote that says something to the effect, “Never underestimate the inability of a person to understand your position when his livelihood depends on his not understanding it.” I’m not sure who said it first and I certainly don’t claim it for my own, but that quote pretty well sums up my legislative advocacy experience over recent years. I am also hearing the popular narrative, “even after we have thrown all this money at our failing schools, they continue to underperform.” While that narrative may be convenient for some, it is simply not true. The truth is we have hardworking, committed professionals in our teaching and administrative ranks who are not overpaid. The truth is that “due to continued lack of adequate, reliable and equitable funding coupled with unrealistic mandates, Iowa’s public schools, the very epitome of the American dream, are in serious jeopardy. (Finch, 2016)”

While Iowa has steadily fallen in its ranking among states in its financial support for education and while our average wages have declined even while our student diversity has increased at unprecedented rates, our overall achievement has, at worst, been flat. The inconvenient truth for those that perpetuate the “you just can’t throw money” narrative is that money does make a difference and that, for kids in poverty, who don’t get much academic stimulation beyond the hours of the school day, it makes a big difference. The other inconvenient truth in today’s Iowa is that the kids who most need our resources are often least likely to look like most of us. They are often not native Iowans and certainly don’t come from the stable home environments that most of us grew up in. Educating these types of kids to levels that will prevent their becoming a burden to tax payers is an expensive proposition, but it’s cheaper in the long run than the alternative. So what do we do? Do we find the resources we need to truly bring every kid in Iowa to some level of proficiency and meaningful career opportunities? Or, do we continue to shrink the pie and tell ourselves we’ve been throwing money at this problem too long. The truth is, not a lot of money has been thrown at education in recent years, by Iowa’s historical standards anyway. I just hope this isn’t going to be the new norm in Iowa. The next time somebody tells you we have been throwing money at Iowa schools and getting nothing in return for too long I hope you will join me in respectfully standing up to them and letting them know that you reject that narrative. It’s a convenient narrative, it’s just not true.

I want to thank Lew Finch of the Urban Education Network for his May 10 editorial in the Des Moines Register about supporting public schools in Iowa… his editorial should be read by all of Iowa’s education advocates. It can be found here.

What is Real 21st Century Learning?

I feel a bit conspicuous admitting that I am still trying to figure out what it means to be a 21st century learner, now that I find myself over 15% through the 21st century. 21st century learning can be a nebulous term. I have heard different groups of people use it to refer to a variety of different things. I have heard it equated to technology integration in the classroom, career technical education, project based learning, problem based learning, community based learning, collaborative learning, and personalized learning. I’ve heard it’s the 4 c’s, the 3 p’s, universal constructs, and cross-cutting concepts. Perhaps it’s no wonder that I find myself a bit confused about the future of learning from time to time. It’s a complex topic to be sure, but here are some truths that I hope will help you better understand what we mean when we talk about 21st century.

21st century learning is not simply having access to the latest technology in the classroom. Technology can be a powerful tool. Well used, it can incentivize kids to collaborate and communicate instantaneously, allowing them to build personalized learning networks and to take their passions to the real world. Too often, however, a classroom device is still just a way to save a trip to the library. Kids don’t need faster access to more content; they need an opportunity to apply their passions to real world problems.

21st century learning has to be not only student centered, but student led. Good teachers know that it’s important to build relevance into learning, but the very best teachers know that students need to be in charge of their own learning. They know how to design challenges that take sustained effort over a long period of time and that put kids in the driver’s seat when it comes to identifying and solving significant, relevant problems. They understand how to apply standards, competencies, and assessment to project based learning. This is an area that will continue to require extensive professional development for teachers, because it is not how we were taught to teach. A lot of that professional development is ongoing in the work of the instructional shifts in the core and conceptual shifts in the next generation science standards. Teachers will need a firm foundation in gradual release, authentic assessment, and instructional design if they are to increase student ownership of learning.

Because it builds on student passions, good 21st century learning is fully integrated. It is thematic and interdepartmental. A focus needs to be placed less on essential content and more on the skills and competencies necessary for collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity (there are those 4 c’s again!). Real world projects don’t seem to fall into the traditional departments of math, science etc. For that reason, we need to identify problems that exist in our different communities and begin looking at those as opportunities to stimulate authentic learning first, before we identify which standards are going to be learned (notice I say learned, not necessarily taught). For a great example of this I highly recommend the film, “Most Likely to Succeed”. It is about High Tech High in San Diego, California and illustrates 21st century learning at its best. You can learn more about the film at http://www.mltsfilm.org.

Finally, it takes a village to support 21st century learning. There are certainly some real world problems that can be found inside a classroom or school building, but many of the most compelling challenges exist out in the real world. These are the types of problems that our businesses and government entities work to solve every day. We need to reach out to our business communities and encourage them to engage with schools to help us create learning opportunities for kids who are anxious to contribute to their communities. This isn’t only great education, it’s good business. We are already seeing this happen in many areas of our state, most notably in Cedar Rapids, where Iowa Big has so successfully created the types school/business partnerships that are changing kids’ lives. I strongly encourage anyone interested in learning more about student led and project based learning to visit iowabig.org. Businesses small and large are not only letting kids inside their doors, they are inviting them to contribute. Kids are solving problems, serving communities and changing the world. That’s what authentic 21st century learning can look like. Businesses are not only generating student interest in the careers that will sustain them in the coming years. They are also fanning the flames of student passion. We need to reach out to them and ask them what kids can do for them. When educators start a conversation with “what can our students be doing for you?” we establish a more symbiotic school/business partnership than when we lead with “will you do this for us?”

Let’s continue to invest in technology, but let’s also continue to learn about how kids learn best. Let’s help teachers develop the skills necessary to relinquish some ownership and empower students to take true ownership of their learning. Let’s develop the relationships in our communities that will help everyone see that learning opportunities are everywhere and not just found in our schoolhouses between the hours of 8 and 4.

Why 21st Century Classrooms?

21C Postcard_Page_1

We invite you to attend our open house for GPAEA’s second 21C Classroom on Monday, February 22 from 3 – 7 PM at 2814 N. Court St, Ottumwa, IA.

21C stands for 21st century and this new classroom will be in our Ottumwa center. Our first 21C classroom in Burlington has been open now for over a year and the agency has also assisted a few local school districts in developing 21st century classrooms of their own. We have invested in the latest modular furnishings, display technology, and instructional management systems, resulting in rooms that are stimulating, inviting, and fun. Upon first glance, some cynics among us might question why we would invest our resources into designing and equipping a room that appears to be an expensive collection of modern furniture and high tech screens. “Why” is always the most important question and I would like to answer that question here.

As we began collecting data on how technology was being used in our area, a pattern emerged. Districts were creating unprecedented student access to technology via their multiple one-to-one initiatives, but instruction was not changing as a result. Because we were able to collect data via the Brightbytes CASE framework (CASE stands for classroom, access, skills, and environment), we were able to see that, with few exceptions, student access to technology in school and at home was growing at an exponential rate. Our data collected on how that technology was impacting instruction, however, seemed to indicate that even with the large financial investment our districts were making in technology, instruction was not changing. This was often corroborated by what we observed during technology audits and during our instructional rounds work. Students were using more technology, but to engage in low rigor, individualized work. They were engaging in tasks very similar to those they would have engaged in prior to having personalized access to a computer or tablet. Collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity were not increasing. We call collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity the 4 c’s and they make up four of the six universal constructs essential for 21st century learning in the Iowa Core. Again, through our work using Brightbytes data, we were seeing little to no correlation between increased student access to one-to-one technology and an increase in any of these four constructs.

It is our intention to utilize these spaces to create a better setting for professional learning, one that will facilitate the creation of the universal constructs needed to challenge the 21st century learner. We believe 21c can help this cause in a couple of key ways. The first thing one often realizes upon entering the room is that it has multiple display screens in distinct collaboration areas, but there are no computers. The room is intended to facilitate not just productive group work and problem based critical thining, but also real publication and the sharing of new thinking. Another often noticed feature to 21C is that there is no front or back to the room, no traditional teacher space or student space, no rows or cubicles. Students will work on real problems in real time using a common platform in a collaborative fashion. By designing problem based tasks that assess rigorous standards and require students to use the four c’s, teachers will be able to begin designing lessons that shift the cognitive load for learning from the teacher to the student and that engage students in real world relevance. The room also lends itself to expanding the physical limits of learning out into the real world. Students and teachers can connect with experts, writers, or other groups of teachers and students to create personalized learning networks that would have no physical boundaries.

I have seen outstanding productive group work taking place around a table and chairs and a white board, so by no means am I asserting that schools need to invest in expensive rooms with multiple displays before teachers can design student centered lessons that require the 4 c’s to solve a real-world problem. However, I do believe that the new instructional spaces that are now emerging are the future of education and it’s not because they are full of fun things with which to play. It’s because they are designed to facilitate authentic learning, learning that is highly social and requires communication and critical thinking. What you see in the modern 21st century classroom looks much more like the 21st century work place and much less like the 20th century classroom. If you walk into the typical fortune 500 company setting today you are as likely to see collaborative work stations not unlike those found in 21c as you are to see a large collection of cubicles, each housing an individual worker. Today’s employees work in teams and are involved in ongoing collaborative problem solving. They don’t work in rows anymore.

I hope you can attend our open house and please don’t hesitate to contact us about using our rooms. They are here for our districts to use. Watch also for new PD offerings in 21st century learning.

Learn more at http://classroom21c.weebly.com/