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This past week I had the chance to visit Harvard and be part of the “Learning from the International Experience” conference. First, what an incredible honor for me to get to meet some real giants in the education policy realm, notably Harvard’s Paul Peterson and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek. The event centered on the release of a new report called “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete” followed by two days of discussion on the condition of education in the United States and, more importantly, what we might learn from high performing countries to improve.
I’d first say that the results of the study aren’t fresh news by any stretch. The argument that the U.S. education system is floundering and puts the country’s economic health at risk goes back to the industrial revolution. The same argument was used again in the Sputnik era, in the 1980′s with the release of “A Nation at Risk”, and even more recently through the “achievement gap” lens of No Child Left Behind in a McKinsey report. One of the authors of the Harvard paper, education scholar Eric Hanushek, has been hammering at this issue for some time.
The U.S. continues to come up mediocre in these rankings but there are certainly some limitations to their utility, as these pure aggregate average score approaches aren’t taking into account poverty, equity, or social considerations. Also, this data is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the U.S. remains the most vibrant and adaptive economy in the world, most of the top universities in the world are in the U.S., it takes the rest of the world combined to equal the number of patents issued in the U.S. in a single year, and there are (by far) more Nobel Prize winners from the U.S. than any other (acknowledgement to Seton Hall’s Chris Tienken for this list of reminders).
These points should be used to counterbalance the discussion, but we would be foolish to ignore the message of the economists and political scientists that given the global nature of this economy compared to any time in our past we absolutely should be investigating the approaches used by the highest performing systems and pulling them into the playbook for American education.
I must admit I was disappointed by the conclusions of some of the economists at the conference that our reaction to this most recent illustration of U.S. educational mediocrity should be centered around “charter schools,” and “performance pay.” Keep in mind, I am an advocate for increased school choice and compensation reform, but I also realize they only take us so far.
While we should broaden these terms and discussions to consider the possibility of how “school choice” and “strategic compensation” could improve the American system, these do not (at least in my review) seem to be the major drivers in building great schools in looking at the highest performing systems. If the aim of this conference was really “Learning from the International Experience” then we would see lessons around clarity on student outcomes and a subsequent alignment of instruction and measurement. We would also see a hyperfocus on improving the quality of the educator workforce through a variety of approaches. Finally, we see systems that try things and make mistakes, but most importantly keep up the work and learning about getting better.
My takeaway was that we need to keep our eyes on the ball here. Improving schools is about teaching and learning coupled with a process of continuous improvement and innovation. To the degree that school choice and compensation figure into a framework on better teaching, learning, and innovation then they absolutely should be part of the discussion.
Any ideas we glean from other countries has to be considered against the culture of the American education system. In the U.S., our system has a heavy flavor of accountability in the form of standardized measures and (increasingly) individual measures of effectiveness. Our focus on accountability is creating what I’d consider an “over-reaction” from some in the education community who fantasize about an end to accountability and measures. I’d venture that this is pure fantasy and this over-reaction discounts that we do have much better performance data about our schools than we have had at any point in the past and this data, though admittedly imperfect, is also useful.
To take the lessons from the international experience and graft it into the American system, our question going forward should be “how do we get the right yin/yang mix of teaching-learning-innovation with accountability?”
The landmark federal education law “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) required states to create (or build up) accountability systems based primarily on student achievement measures. Success or failure on these measures is based on how well schools and districts are moving every subgroup of students toward a state-defined level of “proficiency.” Persistently being labelled a “failure” on this system comes with increasing consequences for schools.
Two distinct camps emerge on accountability. One side presses for ever greater accountability, with some members of this group even hoping that more and more schools “fail” so they can justify any number of policy directives. The play is simple. Perseverate and point to the number of schools failing, then insert whatever policy you want as the panacea because clearly whatever schools are doing isn’t working.
The other camp pushes back against accountability, holding that schools (and those working in them) are performing heroic acts in the face of insurmountable circumstances. This camp even presses a goal of eliminating the use of standardized student achievement measures, or making them so subjective and qualitative as to be of no use for accountability purposes.
Rather than get in the cliche’ and worn-out business of criticizing NCLB, or of buying into another false dichotomy narrative, what if we instead considered what an accountability might look like … or even better, what it should look like.
Consider an accountability system that…
• Used a sophisticated suite of student achievement measures, beyond one test.
• Considered student growth, or improvement, as an equal (or perhaps higher) goal with proficiency.
• Provided actionable and timely student results available to guide instruction.
• Considered several measures of organizational health along with student results, such as fiscal responsibility.
• Considered the concepts of student hope, engagement, and well-being.
• Considered parent satisfaction and partnership.
• Considered staff working conditions.
• Discovered the “bright spots” in those schools that are beating the odds … and shared them as models.
• Provided targeted resources and proven expertise to those schools needing improvement.
• Allowed for “earned autonomy,” where successful schools have little oversight but failing schools are prescribed and directed.
• Required collective accountability and a “transparency of practice” where teaching and leading schools are open to peer critique.
• Empowered and required local professionals to hold each other deeply accountable through a democratic process.
This sort of system I describe would not only better identify the real continuum of performance in schools (as opposed to fail/not fail), but would actually provide information and supports on how all schools might get better. Instead of a system of “blame and shame,” we might instead have a system of “intelligent accountability.”
What an amazing time to get to work in education in Iowa. My wife Sarah and I continue to be provided so many blessings from Iowa. Sarah is very excited about starting the new school year as a teacher with Des Moines Public Schools and I have been so impressed with the leadership of Nancy Sebring for that district.
We come off a recent education summit here in Des Moines last week that I think set the stage for meaningful and lasting improvements for our state.
We can sometimes get caught up in arguments about the current condition of Iowa’s schools and how they might stack up in comparison to the schools here in the past, or how Iowa’s schools stack up against other states, or how our schools stack up against other nations. I will advance that while this comparative exercise is important and constructive, it is fundamentally the pushing on the wrong questions.
The right question we should be asking is “can our schools be better than they are today?” Of course, we know they can.
And if we believe that our schools can be better than they are today the next question is “how good should they be?” Of course, the only answer that this proud tradition of education in Iowa will tolerate is that these schools must be “among the best in the world.”
When you look into the eyes of the kids and the families you serve, all of you know in your hearts there is really no other morally acceptable answer.
So, I would advance that we can probably agree that our schools can be better than they are now, and we can also probably get some general agreement that we want Iowa’s schools to be among the best in the world. Agreement on these two points moves our discussion from one of a defensive posture, focused on what is or what was – to a forward focused posture, focused on what could be.
Our collective ability to undergo this paradigm shift to coming together on a plan to improve Iowa’s schools, right now and as a community, is going to make or break this effort. If we fail in this, what a tremendous opportunity we have collectively lost.
The recent education summit raised a number of interesting policy approaches for Iowa to consider in the years ahead. Note that I said “years” because while we can and must undertake some dramatic changes that can immediately improve our schools, we learn from the highest performing systems in the world that meaningful and lasting improvement takes a focused direction and a deep and lasting commitment.
While the Governor and I are dedicated to opening a real discussion and allowing the free market of ideas to surface the best strategies for Iowa, we certainly have our priorities and we are working with and listening to people all over the state to shape and hone a blueprint for this major remodel of Iowa’s education system and I’d like to share some of the major tenets of our thinking with you today.
Let me preface any “plan” that we might design with the notion that Iowa must move from being a fractured system of schools to being a school system. For too long we have left too much to chance that each individual school district would provide a world class education to each and every student. There is a balance of state and local control that we must find and frankly, capacity needs to grow on both sides of the equation.
I will accept that the Iowa Department of Education hasn’t always been a model partner and too often we have been an impediment to meaningful improvement and change. But we are committed to getting better and I see positive changes across the organization almost daily. The truth is, for Iowa to truly be one of the finest school systems in the world, it’s going to take us all and I am committed to tending to and growing the department of education into a state agency all of you can be proud of.
The blueprint for building a world class school system for Iowa involves three main parts and I will cover them briefly with you, though we expect to issue our formal plan in mid September.
First, Iowa needs a better system of high student expectations and fair measures of those expectations. The work of the Iowa Core and its merger with the Common Core were positive steps in the right direction but we need to finish the job and get to full implementation of the Iowa Core. Every teacher in Iowa should know what their students are expected to learn and how to design curriculum and lessons to those standards. Assessments in Iowa should be aligned to those standards and provide meaningful information that captures both achievement and growth and provide information that is useful and timely for instruction.
And accountability in Iowa should be a broader concept than just results on these assessments and reflect more than just if you live in an affluent or poor zip code. Secretary Duncan has asked states to design meaningful accountability systems that meet the spirit of No Child Left Behind but define accountability and consequences in more realistic and meaningful ways. Iowa should step up to this challenge and engage in the work of designing a new accountability system as part of our efforts around ensuring we have high standards and fair measures.
Second, Iowa must invest heavily in educator quality – making sure we have great teachers and leaders in every school for every kid. We must take on a hyperfocus in this areas that involves considering who we recruit into education, how we prepare them, licensing, initial and ongoing support communities, teacher leadership roles, providing capable and visionary building and district leadership, and we must collectively, openly, and systemically be able to remove the rare rare case of the ineffective educator who does not want to improve.
Finally, Iowa must make innovation an institution and an expectation of our field of education. This may seem counter intuitive, but what I mean by creating an institution of innovation is that new ideas should be welcomed, supported, nurtured, tried, learned from, and taken to scale if they are effective. It’s difficult to think about creating a “system” to support innovation but this is exactly what we must do. As Michael Fullan puts it, the learning must become the work the whole system engages in.
Now, I know I’ve shocked most of you by going this long without talking about compensation. But I simply can’t hold out any longer!
I do not expect anyone else in this room, perhaps in the world, to get as excited about educator compensation as I do and that’s ok! In fact, I know that many would prefer that we just not discuss it at all because of the contention the topic usually raises. But I do need to keep pushing us back to this topic for one simple reason: Its where the money is. I want to be clear that I am in no way talking about paying educators less – we should be paying them more. But we should also be paying them smarter.
We have a terrible history of coming up with great ideas in education and then funding these great ideas with one time money in “pilots.” When the one time funding dries up the great idea dies with it. We also have a history of hanging funding for great ideas on the side of our regular funding. Time and time again we see that when times get tight, funding gets cut, and the great idea goes away.
How many times do we have to go through this exercise before we finally learn?
I will advocate for changing compensation systems to sustainably fund several key reforms most people in this room can probably agree on. Raising base teacher pay, raising new teacher pay, creating teacher leadership roles, creating collaborative time for educators to work together, creating extended day and year programs for students who need it, addressing labor market issues such as shortages of math, science, and special education teachers, and for acknowledging exceptional educators.
On this last point, I have no illusions that performance-pay models will be any sort of panacea to cure education’s problems and I am very aware of the uneven to poor track record of success for “merit pay” models. But take note that I am not talking about some simple “merit pay” approach. I am talking about a revolution in teacher compensation that allows for broader and more systemic changes to be enacted and more importantly … sustained.
The Des Moines public school district was the birthplace of the step and lane pay system that has persisted nearly a century. Iowa should also be the place with the innovative spirit to transform educator compensation – to put in place a strategic compensation approach.
We can’t just keep asking for more and more money to do the same things, just more expensively. While I think we can ask for increased funding if we can really put together a transformative education reform package, we also have to be willing to use the billions of dollars we already have in our system more efficiently and strategically.
In the debates on improving education in this country, international comparisons and the threat of America losing it’s place as the premier nation on this earth have become so commonplace they nearly lose their meaning. I am a student of history and know these threats are not new.
But a detailed study of the history of education in America does not tell a story of a stagnant system that refuses to budge but of a system that has risen up to meet the challenges this country faced. From the birth of this democracy, to the industrial era, through recessions, depressions, and wars and through waves of international competition across decades this nation’s system has risen up to the challenges it faced time and time again.
During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln said “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
These words were meant for a different time and a different context, but they ring true today – at least for me – because today we are challenged with making another wave of major improvements and another wave of competition. It is the responsibility of the educators in this room to have our schools meet this challenge. This is our time to shine, our time to make history.
We shouldn’t fear rise of nations around the world – increasing education, health, and freedom across this planet is not a zero sum game and we can celebrate everyone getting better – but we should fear our own inability to act and counter it with the courage necessary to make bold improvements.
I’d like to close with a sincere thank you for all that you do for your schools, your communities, and your students. I am honored to be among you.
“Democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.”
In education, we often place high value on those things which we can quantify, measure, and analyze using statistical methods. Certainly the most prevalent example of this is the use of the standardized assessments of student achievement that are a ubiquitous part of the American educational system.
While these quantitative measures are important and useful, there are also certainly many things in education (and in life for that matter) for which there are no standardized and quantifiable measures. These things which defy quantification are also things we frequently recognize are incredibly important. Things like the introspective and interpretive value of passionate art and music – like the Edvard Munch painting, or so many of the enduring songs by U2. Also above quantification is the value of the inspiring and uplifting visions of people working together toward a common and important goal – like so many of the images and stories we now hear of the democratic uprisings happening in the Middle East. Perhaps the greatest example is the power of human emotion, relationship, and connection – the apex of these being the complex emotion of love, in all its forms and nuances.
All of these things defy easy quantification, but are certainly of the greatest value.
In education, many of the things that are of the greatest value also defy easy quantification. Take for example the act of teaching. Teaching is perhaps more art than science, and happens in a complex and dynamic environment. While we can certainly identify those things research tells us are ‘best practices’ when it comes to teaching, and even design ‘rubrics’ and scales to evaluate those practices, deciding what is (or what is not) good teaching relies fundamentally on good and old fashioned … human judgement.
Human judgment is fundamentally subjective, contextual, and flawed. It is also incredibly important. Arguably, more important than any quantifiable measure. Rather than trying to mitigate the subjective effects of human judgment by chasing quantitative measures, in many cases we should be embracing the inherently unquantifiable power of human judgment.
A fundamental principle we can apply to using human judgment is balancing it with a democratic process. That is, whenever we need to rely on human judgment to make a decision, we should have more humans doing the judging. Validity and reliability remain critical concepts, but so does creating a democratic process by which we can harness the power of human judgment and mitigate some of the significant power and subjectivity issues.
Consider teacher evaluation. Rather than relying on one person (usually an administrator) to make a subjective human judgment on the quality of teaching, we should involve more people in the act of evaluating and judgment.
As we struggle with how to handle the difficult questions that arise when we really try to evaluate and determine educator effectiveness, capturing the value of human judgment – but balancing it with democracy – is an important principle for us to consider.
Des Moines, IA
Last month I asked Iowans three simple questions about education.
1. What should we stop doing?
2. What should we keep doing?
3. What should we start doing?
I was overwhelmed with the response. On this site alone, I had 100 detailed, thoughtful, and honest responses. In addition, I had 42 emails sent to me answering the questions and met in person with several groups and individuals who gave me their perspectives on these questions.
I have taken the results and drawn my conclusions on what Iowans told me we should stop, keep, and start doing. I’ve put them together in a Prezi Presentation, which I will use in talking to some groups around the state for the next couple of weeks.
For those who won’t have the chance to hear me talk, I’m pasting the link to my Prezi here. While it won’t be quite as detailed without my narration and weird sense of humor, I hope you’ll get my drift.
Please review, and I welcome your comments and continued thoughts.
In closing, thanks so much to everyone who contributed. I can’t think of a better way to have started our conversation about Iowa’s future.
Des Moines, IA
Thanks much to KCRG and Beth Malicki for giving me the chance to speak with my own voice. As many in the public eye know, you give the media 10 minutes on a topic and sometimes they take 5 seconds of that out of context and turn it into the story they want, instead of the message that’s really there.
Beth was just a pro, asking the tough questions that need to be asked, and I appreciate the opportunity to give my answers.
Des Moines, IA