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.