Iowa wants to fail 3rd graders (and other thoughts on the Governor’s Education Blueprint)

Over the past month I’ve been reading and thinking about the new Education Blueprint proposed by the Iowa Governor and the Iowa Department of Education (DE) as well as various reactions to that document. If you haven’t yet read Trace Pickering’s insightful (and also lengthy) response to the Blueprint, be sure to do so. Another important read is school change guru Michael Fullan’s recent paper, Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform.

Here are some additional thoughts of my own. These are not all-encompassing – I have additional questions and concerns – but they do constitute a few important issues that caught my attention. I’m also intentionally not commenting on topics for which I’m fairly ambivalent (e.g., charter schools) or don’t know enough (e.g., teacher salary schedules and compensation tiers) and instead will leave those to others who care or know more than I do.

Failing 3rd graders fails our 3rd graders

I’ll pick the low-hanging fruit first. Failing 3rd graders who can’t pass some reading assessment is a really, really bad idea. It doesn’t matter how many safeguards and second chances there are and I understand why the policy is being proposed (both educationally and politically). The bottom line is that, regardless of the ‘social promotion’ rhetoric and whatever gut intuition parents or policymakers may have, the research evidence is overwhelmingly unidirectional that in-grade retention does far more harm than good. Desired test score increases often never materialize and, even if they do, they usually don’t persist past a few years. One of the stronger and consistent findings in educational research is that, in the long run, in-grade retention is at best a long-term wash score-wise and the resultant negative impact on students’ psyches and their likelihood to graduate is horrific. The Governor and DE don’t get to advocate for research-driven practices in other parts of the Blueprint but ignore that requirement here.


We can visualize a box that represents the day-to-day occurrences within a classroom or other learning environment. That box is the most important aspect of schooling: if what students and teachers do on a daily basis in their learning-teaching interactions doesn’t change substantially, all hope of achieving ‘world class schools’ in Iowa vanishes. WE LEARN WHAT WE DO. There are a variety of inputs (e.g., standards, curricula, teacher quality, funding and resources, school structures, technology infrastructure, laws and policies) that hopefully impact what occurs inside the box. We also look at what comes out of the box (e.g., student knowledge, skills, and dispositions) to see if what we wanted to happen actually did happen. This is a classic Input-Process-Output systems model (that hopefully is accompanied by a recursive feedback loop that informs the system).


There are 85 main bullet points, or action ideas, in the Blueprint. As you can see in my annotated version of the Blueprint, I tried to place each action idea into one of three categories: Input, Process, or Output (coded I, P, & O in the document). You are welcome to disagree with my categorizations (and I admit I struggled with some of them), but the evidence is quite stark that the Blueprint is overwhelmingly focused on inputs and outputs and gives very little attention to the day-to-day learning and teaching processes that occur between students and teachers.


This is unsurprising. This is traditional school reform stuff:

We’ll change some inputs; let’s try better teachers and higher standards. Oh, and we’ll also change some structures around. How about reallocating some monies, reorganizing traditional schools a bit, and allowing for charter and online schools? On the back end, we’ll assess like crazy by changing our tests or using new and/or additional ones.

In the end, we change only a little and, if we’re lucky, we see a little change in results. This is the way most states do it, but it’s neither the only way nor the required way. Where in the Blueprint is the recognition that we need to do something DIFFERENT in our classrooms? Where’s the acknowledgment, for example, that we need to invest heavily in teachers’ ability to facilitate learning environments that foster higher-order thinking skills (an increasing necessity these days)? Where’s extensive language about better facilitating student engagement in their courses? There’s virtually nothing about students’ interest in what they’re supposedly learning. There’s nary a bullet point about student hands-on or applied or problem-based learning or authentic intellectual work (a great program already being piloted by DE, by the way). To the extent that PBL and AIW and similar issues are addressed at all, the Blueprint does so indirectly; all hopes lie with effective implementation of the Iowa/Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessments. Instead of just holding educators ‘accountable’ on the front and back ends of the process, how about directly investing in them so that they actually can be successful? The overwhelming emphasis of the Blueprint is on accountability rather than capacity-building. Go ahead and do a search in the Blueprint for the terms training or professional development or capacity; you won’t find anything. If DE and the Governor are truly serious about ‘world class schooling’ in Iowa, they should be focusing heavily on the Process box – the day-to-day learning and teaching processes occurring in classrooms all across the state – and right now they’re not.

Low-level testing

Much of the Governor’s education concerns appear to be driven by NAEP scores and proficiency levels, despite the fact that most of the items are predominantly factual recall and low-level procedural knowledge AND despite the fact that the designers of NAEP freely admit that the level designations are arbitrary AND despite the fact that the American Institutes of Research notes that most of the nations to which we are comparing Iowa also wouldn’t score well on NAEP. If we want our students to be gaining higher- rather than lower-order thinking skills, end-of-course assessments appear to offer us nothing better. So there’s a lot of new and/or additional testing in the Blueprint that’s focused on stuff you can easily find using Google – or that can be done cheaper by people elsewhere in the world – instead of on the skills and capacities necessary to really foster a world-class citizenry and workforce. We’re not talking about assessments like the College and Work Readiness Assessment or what they do in Singapore. Again, when it comes to higher-order thinking skills, there’s virtually no proposed investment in the Blueprint for the instructional side and all of our hopes rest on the Smarter Balanced assessments, for which right now we have no idea what they will look like and no idea how they will operate. The Blueprint essentially validates and tweaks and expands current testing schemes, despite significant warnings to the contrary from our very own National Research Council.

Digital, global world. Analog, local schools.

It’s a globally-connected world out there, but the Blueprint primarily focuses on globalization as an economic force to which we must respond, not a societal / learning / citizenship issue to which we should attend for mutual benefit and empowerment. The Blueprint also says that Iowa students and graduates need to be internationally competitive but most of what it proposes is vastly different from what other countries are doing to achieve better results. The Blueprint contains no significant investment in teacher capacity-building, no emphasis on early childhood education, no amelioration of the impacts of family and neighborhood poverty on learning, and no recognition of the importance of strategic foreign language learning (particularly at younger ages), just to name a few.

It’s also a digital world out there, but you wouldn’t know it given the lack of emphasis placed on technology in the Blueprint. For example, only nominal attention is paid to online learning, despite the fact that it’s booming nationwide and despite Iowa’s meager offerings compared to other states. Even though Iowa ranks abysmally low when it comes to Internet speed and access, there’s nothing regarding the importance of universal statewide broadband Internet access for both educational and economic development purposes. Most damning, there’s absolutely no recognition of the power and potential of digital technologies to transform learning, teaching, and schooling, despite the rapid and radical reshaping of every other information-oriented societal sector by digital tools and the Web. In the world of the Blueprint, it’s as if computers and the Internet essentially didn’t exist. Go ahead and do a search in the Blueprint for the terms Internet or digital or technology; the omissions are quite alarming, actually. There’s one meager shout-out to the rapid growth in 1:1 laptop initiatives across the state, but no support for giving every Iowa child a powerful digital learning device, for providing technology integration assistance for educators, for upgrading woeful infrastructures, for rethinking policies, or for anything else of substance when it comes to educational technology. It’s 2011. Personal computers have been around for three decades and the Internet has been around for at least a dozen years for most of us. Digital technologies are transforming how Iowans and the world connect, collaborate, and LEARN; this omission is both sad and shameful.

A lost opportunity

There are a few things that I’m glad the Blueprint included. Although there is only a single bullet point referencing competency-based (rather than age-based) student progression, if done well that one thing alone has the potential to significantly and positively reshape much of how we do education in Iowa. I also like the willingness to invest in district-level innovation and to give districts some flexibility. The proof of most of this, like everything else, will depend on the legislative language and the resources committed.

As I think about the Blueprint as a whole (and we are encouraged by the document to treat it as ‘a set of changes designed to work together’), it feels like a lost opportunity. The Governor and DE had the chance to dream big and swing for the fences. They had the chance to propose impactful, sweeping changes to the current system. They had the chance to create learning and teaching environments that prepare students for the next 50 years rather than the last 50 and to educate the public as to why those changes are necessary. The Blueprint rhetoric is right but the action items fall far short. I don’t know if it’s a lack of knowledge or vision or courage that’s holding them back, and of course there are political considerations with all of this. But the result is a a tweak of the current system, a tinkering at the edges rather than a rethinking of the core. Perhaps it’s foolish of me to wish for more.

I welcome all feedback. Thanks.

20 Responses to “Iowa wants to fail 3rd graders (and other thoughts on the Governor’s Education Blueprint)”

  1. Excellent analysis, as always. I’ve wavered on the blueprint myself – first skeptical, then encouraged, now disappointed – for essentially the same reasons you mentioned. The I-P-O paradigm is particularly aggravating because, as you point out, very few reform efforts have concentrated on the actions that constitute “schooling”. Ironically, these are the same types of actions over which teachers have the most control and which have been repeatedly demonstrated to impact student achievement.

    I’m still optimistic about the possibility of reforming teacher evaluations for the same reasons. Our current model is a reflection of an outdated, teacher-driven classroom. If we change our expectations of what we expect teachers to be doing, it’s far more likely to have an impact on how they operate the classroom. Unfortunately, most of the proposals seem to be promoting some iteration of value-added evaluations which, again, shifts the focus back to outcomes over processes.

  2. Thanks for the post. I have been lurking on your blogs, eager to see if there was something about the Blueprint that I was overlooking or giving an unfair read. Nope. It all reads the same: policy makers should talk to teachers, administrators, teacher prep faculty, and others who make schooling work in this state before (not after) they push out their latest reform package. I’ll pass this onto my colleagues in teacher prep programs in the state. We need to start advocating for more process…and more respect for the development and implementation of innovation by teachers.

  3. You express yourself well here, and I largely agree with your critique of the blueprint.

    My main question is, where is the evidence that giving each student a digital learning device facilitates the higher-level thinking, or hands-on, problem-based learning you are after? Is there any proven benefit to 1:1 laptop programs?

    I wouldn’t want my kids to spend hours during the school day glued to individual computer screens. I want them doing hands-on projects and frequently working with a partner or in small groups.

    • I believe Scott’s claim (with which I happen to agree) is that test performance isn’t the way that success should be measured. This of course begs the question as to how you measure “benefit.” The answer is that nobody seems to know.

      School is broken. Our only goals seem to be something that you can easily measure (NAEP scores, college attendance), and as long as our goals are a bunch of statistics, school will be broken.

      I don’t agree with Scott that laptops/technology are the answer, but I don’t think that anybody can figure out what might bring success if we don’t first know the goal of K-12 school past learning to read and do arithmetic.

      • Just to clarify, I don’t think technology is THE answer. But it better be a significant part of the answer given the world we currently and will live in. Real-world knowledge work is done primarily with computers. School-world knowledge work is done primarily with paper and pen/pencil. There’s a huge disconnect there that needs reconciliation if schools are to claim relevancy to kids’ future.

        Here’s our recent 1:1 research brief:

        Giving technology to kids doesn’t cause magical results to occur. We still have to reform what we ask and expect of kids too. I think I emphasized that pretty strongly in the main post above…

        • Just wondering, what is “real world knowledge work”?

          I know that many people use computers when doing their jobs, but that’s not the same as saying that people need computers to learn how to do their jobs. I think most people learn to do their jobs by reading and practicing. Reading may or may not be done on a computer – it doesn’t much matter, the words are the same. Practice may or may not take place using a computer.

          But, really, how is the computer fundamental in learning how to do a job, rather than being a tool used in a job? If you’ve got a paper on such things, I’d be interested in reading.

  4. Scott,
    Glad to see you throw in your two cents on the blueprint. I think the I-P-O analysis is a particularly strong one and not one that I had read in relation to the blueprint before. I also am concerned about the emphasis on testing. I am not convinced that further testing, without a clear connection to what we want kids to know and be able to do, is effective. As you mentioned, if the NAEP is not testing what we really want our kids to know and be able to do, measuring ourselves against it is ineffective at best, and dangerously misplaced at worst. I would like to have seen suggested measures of engagement (like the Instructional Practices Inventory) in the plan. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Scott,

    As you know, I too am very frustrated with the lack of vision in the “Unshakable Vision.” Doing more of the same and calling it something different will not lead to transformational changes in schools. In fact, I would argue that there is greater chance for putting a stronger hold on the traditional school system by using this plan as the blue print for change. It really is disappointing. I was cautiously supportive and maybe a little naive until I read the Blueprint from 1991- After reading this, I became a skeptic. At least in 1991, there was a clearer plan for providing technology, eliminating grade levels, and providing professional development to improve instruction.

    I appreciate your visual with the input and outputs. It helps clarify the weakness of the plan. I agree that we may have lost a great opportunity to truly make some changes in education.

    Desmoinesdem-there is research that would support 1:1 environments improving learning of students, but I think you missed Scott’s point. The world has changed, and schools have not. Students need access to the best tools to provide the best opportunities for learning. It is about problem-based learning with hands on projects in collaborative environments. It is just those types of activities can take place with partners throughout the world in a 1:1. In a school without technology, you are limited to the partner(s) in your class.

    Scott- Would love to see a blueprint designed with you, Trace, Bridgette, and some others leading the design. Can you make that happen? 🙂

    • Deron,

      I think you’ve hit on the nail on the head. At what point is education reform going to be initiated by educators? Instead, we continue to react to the political/economic/social forces of the day. Everyone else is more than willing to tell us what we need to be doing, but until we put together a plan/vision that best serves children through contemporary systems, we will be stuck in a ‘react mode’ that changes little.

      “Never underestimate the power of a small, dedicated group of people to change the world; indeed, that is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

      • If you watch John Merrow’s “The Hardest Job In America”, you’ll see that this is nothing new. We have for years been trying to do a better job in the schools by tinkering with programs and pedagogy. Both educators (I’ll throw ed professors in here) and politicians have made their share of attempts that have made little real difference.

        I do applaud Scott’s effort to change the paradigm, though I think it’s too focused on technology and not focused enough on structural change. If you really think school (especially after 4th or 5th grade) needs a kick in the pants, take a look at what Roger Schank proposes.

        We need to stop telling kids what they need and let them tell us what they are interested in.

    • Deron, are you telling me that students in 1:1 laptop schools are doing collaborative projects with students in other schools or even other countries? I have not heard of that happening.

      I have read about students playing glorified computer games, like shooting at alien ships labeled with numbers while allegedly learning math. Meanwhile, I see how my kids have learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide using old-fashioned Montessori materials, and they understand the concepts behind these operations way better than I did as an elementary school student.

      Plenty of public health research warns against excessive screen time for kids. Before we throw a lot of money at a 1:1 model, I want to see solid evidence that there are educational benefits to having students (especially elementary school age) spend more time looking at a computer screen during school hours. Surely there must be other ways to introduce problem-based learning in the classroom.

      • The laptop studies that I have seen don’t say much one way or the other, but this is education, and most education studies don’t say much. Teeny samples, biased researchers, lack of good controls and unclear hypotheses are the norm in education research, so be sure to look for yourself before you bite on any result from an education study.

  6. I am going to hold back a bit on critiquing the Blueprint…still thinking. I’m looking at the big picture. With any change, there are going to be bumps that we do not agree with, yet to get to improvement and to eventually grow, it is a risk-taking process. Collins recent book, “How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In” can teach us a few lessons.

  7. Thank You for the analysis! It is very hard, as our State and Nation jump blindly onto the “band wagon” of reform, to reason with leaders that this Vision for Change does not focus our resources on the necessary educational components to truly affect student achievement.

    I whole heartedly agree with Deron, we must focus our resources on engaging our students in the classroom with High Order Thinking Skills. This engagement MUST have students doing research based learning or problem based learning with the tools that students need to be successful in the real world.

  8. Great post on the Blueprint and some if its deficiencies. I’ve come to expect nothing less than a thought provoking and well articulated reflection on education issues surrounding us today. I think you are right that the Blueprint feels like a missed opportunity. Your I-P-O visual highlights the fact that we aren’t adequately addressing the part of the system that can use most change. While the teacher-leader roles appear to be on hold for now, I think that was one of the areas where some change in the way teachers perform in their classrooms could happen, but not how it was currently proposed.

    While you didn’t talk about teacher-leader roles and pay, I’m going to. I actually like the idea of having my peers involved in my evaluation. I think being able to have a discussion with other teachers in the building about what everyone sees as effective teaching has the potential to improve the quality of teaching and could even help identify building/district wide professional development needs. However, I have a problem tying teacher pay to a position classification. If a teacher is put into a teacher-leader role, yes their responsibilities should change, but I don’t think it is necessary to compensate them more. According to the Blueprint, teacher-leaders would have reduced teaching loads, but increased evaluative/coaching duties, as well as some additional time in the summer, so I’m unsure why there is a need to pay them more (except for time put in beyond the normal teacher contracted days in the summer) beyond the fact that they may be deemed the most effective teachers in the building. To me, this sends the message that even if you are effective, you still might not be rewarded for your efforts. I’d much rather see a system that rewards ALL teachers for their effectiveness as measured by their performance, which is evaluated as objectively as possible by both peers and administrators. Limiting teacher promotions is only going to put up walls and reduce collaboration.

    The pay system aside, I do think having an increase peer review process for teachers can contribute to the “process” part of the system that has been overlooked by the DE and Governor. But it is only part. There has to be a larger focus and support for changes in the classroom. Maintaining a current educational system based on low-level thinking is not going to help our students in a global economy where they will be expected to think critically and to solve problems.

  9. I agree with Scott’s analysis especially the I-P-O evaluation. I think that if we truly want conversation about educational reform we ought to stop talking about teachers and students and start engaging them in the conversation. I believe there is much to gain from embracing conceptual teaching and learning which can include both project-based and problem-based learning. It certainly supports the Characteristics of Effective Instruction of the Iowa Core, specifically Student-Centered Classrooms, and goes a long way to operationalize the Universal Constructs of the Iowa Core. Neither the CEIs or the Constructs are ever discussed by the state yet they have tremendous potential for changing what happens in classrooms for all students.

  10. John M. Weidner, Sr. Reply November 17, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    I said this in a earlier post to Scott’s blog when this first came out a few months back: I am very glad my daughter is in her last year in the Iowa education system. I concur with Scott’s statement:

    We’ll change some inputs; let’s try better teachers and higher standards. Oh, and we’ll also change some structures around. How about reallocating some monies, reorganizing traditional schools a bit, and allowing for charter and online schools? On the back end, we’ll assess like crazy by changing our tests or using new and/or additional ones.

    All that has happened is that the couch was moved from one wall to the other. I feel bad by saying this because I know many of my former colleagues worked on this program and all of them are very caring, concerned educators. But politics and politicians have once again entered the educational realm. These two do not mix well at all. Never have, never will.

  11. As the parent of two high school students, it is so refreshing to read Dr. McLeod’s analysis of the Iowa blueprint. The emperor is indeed naked and it’s about time someone called him out.

    I’m not a professional teacher, but I’ve read the blueprint thoroughly, attended a town hall meeting, sent my comments to Governor Branstad, and watched Director Glass react defensively to the criticism and skepticism leveled at his plan on Twitter. I am convinced this blueprint was not the brainchild of state leaders who care deeply about the children of Iowa, but is instead, a game of follow the corporate reform leader. It makes me sick.

    My daughter will graduate from high school next May and she cannot wait to get out. By all accounts, she is a model student — 4.3 GPA, ACT of 34, many AP classes, college credit while still in high school, etc. But the truth is — she hates school.

    She hates the sameness of every day when she spends eight 45 minute chunks of time listening to a lecture or watching a video, taking notes, memorizing at home and later spitting back out the trivia she had remembered. Nothing she does at school excites her, causes her to feel driven to explore more, or encourages her to engage at a deeper level.

    She has been tested and tested until she can ace a standardized test with her eyes shut. She finds school pointless, and it is, and all she can do is hang on until graduation when she can stop playing the school game and get on with life.

    School shouldn’t be like this. It shouldn’t be something to be endured or suffered through. It shouldn’t be a contest to see who can accumulate the most points or participate in the most extra curricular activities. And it shouldn’t be filled with endless tests that provide schools with a bunch of data but do nothing to help kids.

    The school system is broken, but it can be fixed if we listen to Dr. McLeod. If we listen to Gov. Branstad and Mr. Glass, it won’t only remain broken, but will ultimately implode.

    Focus on improving what happens between kids and teachers in the classroom every single day and for God’s sake, pay attention to the kids and what they are passionate about. Give students real work that makes a difference in the world. Show them how adults work in the community. Let them have a voice in their education. And stop testing the snot out of them.

    My kids, your kids, and the kids of Iowa deserve a better school system. But it won’t get better if we don’t improve the one thing that matters most – what goes on between students and teachers in the classroom every single day.

  12. Thanks for the post Scott. Real, meaningful exchange is happening out there every day, and this is a great way to contribute. I agree with many of your points, and caution anyone who does not know Scott’s work to stay away from “black and white” interpretation of what he is writing here.

    Desmoinesdem…first, if you have not heard of students in 1:1 environments doing collaborative projects with students in other cities, states and countries, then you are not paying attention at all. There are innumerable examples of phenomenal learning happening out there and you only need to look upstairs from Deron’s office to find a few of those collaborations. ’nuff said.

    There are many people who believe they much pick one side or the other of this debate. I believe that everyone needs to put down their pre-conceived notions of what “needs to happen” and come to the table. In order for true reform to happen the system needs to be completely re-designed. Don’t get me wrong, there are truly excellent educators out there in significant numbers, and there are many very intelligent and creative “policy-makers” that have great ideas about change.

    The problem right now is that nothing about what is on the table is truly TRANSFORMATIVE. We are trying to change the system without re-inventing the “machine” that created that system from scratch. That is a scary concept, no doubt, but if true transformative change is what we want then truly transformative thinking and action is what is required.

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