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/


Celebrating the New Year

The new year is upon us and, I believe, it’s an ideal time for reflection and celebration. I hope you won’t mind my sharing a few observations from 2015 that I believe are worthy of celebration. Here goes:

Graduation rates across the state are increasing– Given Iowa’s funding challenges and demographic shifts over the past decade, the fact that Iowa posted the highest high school graduation rate in the country this year is truly a cause for celebration. More locally, our area high schools have nearly universally increased completion rates now for several years. The reasons for this growth are myriad, but I attribute much of the growth to a renewed emphasis on collaborative instructional leadership and the increased use of data teams and professional learning communities. Let’s not forget, though, that these systemic changes are, at the end of the day, the result of a great deal of individual hard work and a collective commitment to seeing every child succeed. Teachers, counselors, and administrators in our area high schools should feel proud for the work they are doing. It’s working.

Teacher leadership models are working – Iowa’s TLC program continues to make progress in its implementation and results. Next year, all of our area school districts will be participating in the program and we have already learned a great deal from the successes of the first two cohorts of districts implementing TLC to date. Cultures are being impacted. Roles are becoming more clear. Collaborative coaching models are increasing teacher engagement and instruction is continually improving. Again, this is a result of a great deal of hard work and leadership and it is certainly a cause for celebration.

Iowa’s emphasis on Early Literacy is Paying Dividends – Iowa’s early warning system hasn’t come without some of the initial challenges common to major initiatives, but those challenges are subsiding and student performance on the state reading screeners is largely improving. Elementary teachers and PLC’s are mobilizing around student data more frequently and more effectively than ever before and we are beginning to see the results of that work. Many schools still aren’t where they want to be, particularly with the intensive summer reading requirement looming in 2017, but I believe the necessary systems and commitments are in place to generate continued increases in reading proficiency going forward. This has been challenging work on a variety of fronts, but it’s working and that’s cause for celebration. Sometimes, we get so caught up in our day-to-day challenges that we don’t take the time to look back and see how far we’ve come. It’s a big ship, but we can see it turning.

Those are just three things that came to mind for me when reflecting on progress made in 2015. I’m sure every school district, school, or individual educator can identify many other causes for celebration and I hope you will take the time to do just that. Take a look back at the challenges that you have overcome and congratulate one another on the hard work that has gone into making so many victories possible. Sure, we need to remember that the new year is also the traditional season for setting new resolutions and committing ourselves to new challenges. Graduation rates are higher than ever, but we still have too many kids who don’t meet important post-secondary milestones after graduating. Teacher leadership models are working, but those models require hard work and often new learning. Even though our early literacy efforts are working, we continue to see increasing numbers of young children coming to school not ready to learn due to family dysfunction or poor mental health. There is no shortage of challenges from which to choose our next new set of resolutions, but first let’s celebrate.

Today, with the short days of Winter upon us, let’s make it more important to remind one another that our work is important and that we are winning, than to focus immediately on our next set of challenges. Our work to date hasn’t been easy; nothing worth accomplishing ever is. But it’s been important work and it’s been getting done! Before you focus on the hills ahead, look back and enjoy the view. There will always be a new hill to climb. Happy New Year and thank you for your commitment to meeting the needs of Iowa’s children and families.

Celebrating Iowa Schools in 2015-2016

It’s an exciting time of year, as our children return to our nation’s schools.  It’s a season steeped in optimism and possibility and one that always renews my faith in society.  Students, parents and teachers across Iowa are once again greeting a new year and a new set of opportunities with enthusiasm, laughter, and resolve.  Noted author William Faulkner once said that he believed “that man would not only endure, he would prevail” and the first day of school is a ritual that captures my spirit in a way that convinces me that Mr. Faulkner was right.

This isn’t to say that our education system hasn’t had its challenges in recent years.  Contentious fights for adequate funding, well orchestrated and well-funded national campaigns intended to create doubt about our nation’s public schools, an ongoing obsession with high stakes testing, and continued reliance on accountability systems shown to be ineffective in producing desired results, have all combined to create a strong sense of doubt about the future of our nation’s school system.

With all this going on, then, how do we control our message and successfully advocate for our Iowa schools?  I have a few thoughts.  The first, and most powerful thing I believe we have to remember is that our families like and support their local schools.  This has always been true in Iowa and continues to be confirmed nationally, as the most recent Gallup poll once again shows that, while people tend to be skeptical about our national education system, they like and support school systems with which they are most familiar, that being their own school system.  For that reason, we need to not be shy about getting local parents and families to help us advocate for our schools.

The next thing we need to do is better advocate for pro-education outcomes in our legislative process by challenging the arguments we encounter that are based more on anecdote than data.  We too often allow ourselves to be painted with a broad brush and we often don’t arm ourselves with the data that shows that our schools are actually performing well in many, many areas.  This Summer, I read a book that every education advocate should read.  It is titled “50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, The Real Crisis in Education“.  Written by David Berliner and Gene Glass, the book is well researched and uses data to dispel many of the misconceptions currently held about our nation’s schools.  While this book hasn’t completely healed me from endorsing some reform movements in education, it has challenged some of my previously held beliefs and reminded me that anecdotes aren’t data.  It’s a  must read.

Finally, this year let’s advocate with both passion and respect.  After this year’s veto of one-time funding, many were tempted to respond in anger and, while our stakes are high, we have to remember to stay the course with respect.  This has been a challenge as many in Iowa politics have publicly asserted we can’t be trusted stewards of public dollars.  The best way to counter that assertion is to respectfully point to the real data.  Our international rankings aren’t where we would like them to be, and they never were.   Since “A Nation At Risk” came out in 1985, we have dominated the world in the production of intellectual capitol.  Our international rankings haven’t changed.  Education takes up the largest part of our states budget, and it always has.  We spend more on education than we used to, but when compared to other states we have fallen significantly while building up the largest unspent reserve in Iowa history.  People aren’t clamoring to open enroll into the cheapest school districts, nor move to the states that spend the least on education.  We need to be respectful of those we engage, but we need to be unapologetic about sharing the facts and celebrating our successes!

So, this year, be proud of who you are and of what you do and remember to speak up for Iowa education with passion, reason, and respect.