Today the Iowa Department of Education (DE) released a report on achievement levels in Iowa compared to other states. The report also focuses heavily on closing the significant achievement gaps that exist in our state. Here are some very quick reactions that I have to the report…

  1. The emphasis on better meeting the learning needs of traditionally-underserved student populations is absolutely necessary. Educationally and otherwise, we often have neglected students of color, students in poverty, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities.
  2. It’s hard to argue with proposed educational solutions that are focused on instruction, proven effective, and scalable, but I think that there is an accompanying, unstated concern: How should we think about educational initiatives that need to occur but don’t have ‘significant bodies of evidence’ behind them yet? For example, we live in a digital world and we know that students need to be fluent with the technologically-transformed information spaces of our time. And yet the peer-reviewed research to support this move isn’t there yet. It’s just sort of common sense: all we have to do is look around and realize that this is a need. Given the lack of ‘research,’ however, does that mean we don’t do it?
  3. I wish that the report’s initial framing of the issues focused on the substantial changes that are occurring in the ways that we learn, citizenship needs in an increasingly-complex democracy, and other concerns related to life success beyond just economy/workforce issues. The latter are definitely important, but preparing future employees is not schools’ primary societal function.
  4. Raybake01If we’re going to work on raising scores and closing achievement gaps, let’s do our best to focus on assessments that matter. Right now we seem to be concerned mostly about average scores on assessments of primarily lower-level thinking. It’s also worth noting that our own National Research Council has found that decades of test-based incentives have done nothing to improve student learning outcomes. In fact, high school exit exams as configured in many states actually decrease graduation rates without concurrent increases in achievement.
  5. Despite the sturm und drang around Iowa’s NAEP scores, we must recognize that there are no objective criteria and/or research-based evidence behind the cut scores for the different NAEP proficiency levels. The cut scores are set by committee and thus are inherently political. The NAEP benchmarks have been vociferously criticized by the National Academy of Sciences, the Government Accounting Office, the National Academy of Education, and many, many others. The designers of NAEP freely admit that the cut scores and levels are arbitrary.
  6. Is our concern merely about raising Iowa students’ academic performance levels or is it necessary that we also BEAT OTHER STATES AND NATIONS? The rhetoric that’s flying around about Iowa ‘slipping to the middle of the pack’ seems very concerned about the latter. It’s also worth noting that most of the countries to which we negatively compare Iowa also wouldn’t do very well on NAEP.
  7. ‘Rapid iteration,’ ‘living in perpetual beta,’ and other ideas related to quickly trying things, getting feedback to see if they worked, and adjusting course accordingly are all extremely important, particularly in a rapidly-changing world. As such, Response to Intervention (RTI) is a great process, particularly if feedback loops are short in time. But the RTI process also traditionally has been deeply rooted in notions of low-level cognitive work. Terms like ‘progress monitoring’ and ‘data-based decision-making’ are typically employed by educators in service of factual recall and procedural knowledge regurgitation. Turning those ideas toward higher-order thinking outcomes is going to be a lot of work in most school systems.
  8. We need to be careful that we don’t turn ‘fidelity of implementation’ and ‘best practices’ into cookie-cutter instructional recipes and/or scripted lessons (as has occurred in many districts across the country). The report says that we need to ‘eliminate variability in instruction.’ I understand the sentiment behind that phrase but we need to be very wary of simplistic, stupid solutions to this issue.
  9. The underlying premise of the report (and its accompanying policy proposals that we’ll see in the near future) is that education is a system amenable to fairly mechanistic solutions: put in place the right inputs, processes, and feedback loops and we’ll get the desired outcomes. Classic systems theory stuff. Learning and teaching are inherently messy domains, however, that often defeat externally-imposed procedures and expectations. As other nations show, we can improve student learning outcomes with thoughtful, purposeful changes, but we should be prepared for a lot of messiness along the way.
  10. There’s a difference between ‘differentiation’ (as proposed in the report’s description of RTI) and ‘personalization’: see McClaskey & Bray’s chart on this. Differentiation is good, but a move away from primarily teacher-directed learning environments also is needed.

Final thoughts

Will teacher quality initiatives, the Iowa Core, and better deployment of RTI improve student learning outcomes in Iowa? Probably, at least somewhat. Are we going to see massive shifts in student learning outcomes in Iowa as a result of these? Probably not. These are school-focused interventions promulgated by the state department of education, and they’re all likely to have some positive impact. But they’re not enough. The research is very clear that roughly 80% of student learning outcomes is a result of NON-school factors. If we’re truly concerned as Iowa citizens and policymakers about improving student learning outcomes and closing achievement gaps, we’ll pay attention to the 80%, not just the 20%, just as most other ‘higher-performing’ nations have done. That means looking beyond the Department of Education for solutions.

Take some time to read over the report. What are your reactions?