Over the last few weeks there have been many great discussions stemming from the Iowa Education Summit and the School Administrators of Iowa Conference. Many of the discussions resonated with the educators and administrators of Iowa. The following are my “takeaways” from the discussions.

1) There are many great things being done for students in Iowa schools; however, we can always improve.

2) The world is rapidly changing and because of this, educators, lawmakers, and administrators tend to feel they must change programs at the same rate.

3) We know that we can’t prepare students for a certain future but we can develop certain skills that will prepare them for an uncertain future. We can nurture student creativity, develop communication skills, and develop higher-order thinking skills.

4) SIMPLIFY! Multi-tasking is a myth. We need to focus on the practices that will have the greatest impact on student learning. In other words: narrow our focus and implement to a deeper level.

Ideas for a narrowed focus:

1) Teaching for Learner Differences

We know that students learn differently, so we need to prepare for different students. If we can accomplish this, it will have an enormous impact on learning.

2) Assessment for Learning

We know that if teachers assess students more frequently than only once at the end of a unit, it will allow teachers to restructure instruction. If teachers assess more frequently then they will be able to use the differentiated strategies for students more effectively.

3) Teaching for Understanding

We know that instruction needs to be developed around higher-order thinking skills. If we have the ability to cater to learner differences, and have the ability to assess what students need, we will be able to challenge students more.

4) Technology

Technology can’t do this alone. If we give students computers they won’t magically develop the skills needed for a 21st Century work environment; however, tech tools can help teachers develop the first three practices mentioned above.

5) Professional Development of Interest

Teachers need time to develop skills that they feel are burning issues for them. It’s like the 20% idea for Google employees. If teachers are given time to focus on what they feel is vital, school morale will improve as well as instruction.


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Thoughts on Education Reform

Thanks to Twitter, I had the opportunity to read an excerpt from Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform.  The Iowa Department of Education Director, Jason Glass, tweeted  about the paper and was interested in hearing thoughts on the subject.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, is an outline of what the most successful countries (in education) are doing.  The author, Marc Tucker, answers the following question: “What would the education policies and practices of the United States be if they were based on the policies and practices of the countries that now lead the world in student performance?” (Tucker, 1)  If the reader of this article has a stake in education, this is a compelling question. As Ken Burns says (and I’m paraphrasing), we are all invested in our own education.  If this is true, then why do we not see a more ardent push toward education reform?  You can read the entire excerpt here: Standing-on-the-Shoulders-of-Giants-An-American-Agenda-for-Education-Reform.  I would recommend reading the excerpt; however, pages 40-43 are a summary of Tucker’s findings.

Benchmark the Education Systems of the Top-Performing Countries

– Make sure you know what the leaders are trying to achieve, the extent to which they achieve it and how they do on common measures

– Conduct careful research on the policies and practices of the best- performing nations to understand how they get the results they get  (40).

Tucker suggests something that seems to be obvious: find successful education systems and emulate their practices.  We do this as teachers, coaches, parents, etc.  We find what works and we repeat it.  In fact, we really can learn important truths about education in both successful and failing schools in America, but we need a systemic example of education. This is where observing successful countries can help the U.S.

Design for Quality

– Get your goals clear, and get public and professional consensus on them 

• Define a limited number of gateways [exit exams] — not more than the end of basic education, end of lower secondary and end of upper secondary (matched up to college entrance and work-ready requirements)

• Create logically ordered curriculum frameworks (topics for each year for each subject) for the basic education sequence

• Create curriculum (broad guidelines, not lesson plans) for each school level leading up to the gateway exams (the level of detail at which this is done should be inversely related to the quality of your teachers)

• Create exams for each gateway, based on standards and curricula

• Train teachers to teach those curricula well to students from many different backgrounds (40-41).

Again, the ideas presented seem obvious: clear goals, logical and universal curriculum, training teachers to differentiate, etc, yet this is not what we are doing.  The common core standards will help give teachers a sequenced set of guidelines for what students should know at a particular grade-level.  We also know that we must differentiate but this doesn’t always happen.  There are two major reasons for this: unclear vision set by the state education departments and local district leadership and a lack of accountability/coaching by leadership. Tucker lists clear goals as an important part of education.  All educators would agree with this; however, I can honestly say I don’t know what the vision for Iowa education is.  I know what I want/expect, but do we have a message as a state? If this message is clear, we must do a better job.

Tucker’s point about gateway tests is intriguing to me.  We test students every year to compare their scores to the previous class.  We then determine annual yearly progress on this.  Does this make sense?  Do these tests reflect our common core standards? Do they reflect what we feel will measure a students ability to enter college or the workforce? The gateways Tucker discusses do.  Students take high-stakes test that attempt to measure if they are prepared for university studies or the workforce.  How they create the tests is a novel idea: the tests for the work-force are created by the state in collaboration with the people that will employ the students or if the student is going to a university; the university helps create the test based on the schools curriculum.  Hmmm… that’s weird, why would the test align with the schools curriculum and the skills needed for certain jobs.  This makes too much sense.  One caveat, the countries that use this method basically use the gateway as the determining factor for acceptance.  I do believe that we need to have multiple data points for learning, but the gateway tests surpass our yearly testing, comparing different students to outdated questions (how many students use an atlas? They have Google Maps).

Develop a world-class teaching force

• Raise standards for entry into teacher education to internationally benchmarked levels, including standards for general intelligence, level of mastery of subject matter content and ability to relate to young people, with rigorous selection processes

• Move teacher education out of second and third tier institutions and into the major research universities

• Insist that teachers of all subjects at all levels have a depth and breadth of mastery of the subjects they will teach comparable at the bachelors degree level to that of the people who will go on to graduate education in those fields

• Design the teacher preparation program on a clinical model, with plenty of clinical experience under the constant supervision of master teachers in real settings

• Raise the criteria for teacher licensure to internationally benchmarked levels and never, under any circumstances, waive the licensure standards in the face of a teacher shortage

• Make sure compensation for beginning teachers is and remains comparable to compensation for the other non-feminized professions; add the amounts necessary to attract capable teachers to hardship locations, and specialties in shortage; tie amounts to steps on the career ladders (see below)

• Provide for an induction period for new teachers of at least a year in which they are supervised by master teachers who are released from full time teaching for this purpose

– Explore the development of approaches to instruction that would enable the state to get world-class results with larger class sizes. Class size is important because it is the fundamental driver of teacher cost and teacher cost is the fundamental driver of the cost of the entire system. Japan has shown how it is possible to increase class size and increase student performance at the same time. Perhaps that method would work in the United States, perhaps not. It is important to find out and, if it does not work or work as well, to make as much progress on this front as possible.

I do agree with his point about class size.  If instruction is poor then a small class will still receive poor instruction.  In other words, instruction practices are more important than class size.  Though I agreed with this point, I have points of contention with his view on teachers, especially the second bullet:  Move teacher education out of second and third tier institutions and into the major research universities.  Tucker discusses the lack of talented educators in America.  What bothers me about this idea, is not that he is wrong.  We do have educators that might be in education for the wrong reasons, but I believe that most educators are what Peter Senge says about cynics: “Scratch the surface of most cynics and you find a frustrated idealist — someone who made the mistake of converting his ideals into expectations.” Teachers can easily be worn down by our current system: lack of mentoring, instructional strategies, etc.

We need to accept that we do have teachers on every point on the spectrum and that we need to help them in instruction, coach them, and if they don’t improve then it is time to move on. But to simply say that only certain universities (second bullet) will  and should be able to produce educators seems counter to what America values.  A great parallel to this is our students, what if only certain high schools were capable of developing college ready students?  What if some of the students didn’t have the skills?  Could we simply ignore them and move on?  This is what we are doing to our teachers.

A summary of my thoughts on On the Shoulders of Giants:

– The state education departments must create a clear vision for education.  They then must communicate this vision to their school districts.

– If we know collaboration and certain instructional practices work, then why do we have the choice of pursuing different types of professional development.  The state could go one step further and suggest certain types of programs (example: if formative assessment is important, give schools a clear expectation and example of what this looks like. Instead schools spend thousands of dollars on different formative assessment workshops and programs).  In fact, the process for creating  professional development programs for proven instructional strategies should be decided by preschool through grade 12 leaders (teachers and administrators), university leaders, and state leaders.

–  Gateway exams are a better alternative to our yearly standardized tests.  We need multiple tracks for students to demonstrate learning.

– Tucker discusses merit pay.  I remember my first year of teaching.  I thought that all of my students would want to read classic literature because, to me, it was interesting.  The reality was that I had students that were struggling readers.  Looking back, I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been.  I needed more support and instructional strategies to help my students.  Merit pay cannot be tied to standardized testing unless we have a gateway test.  Instead, it must be tied to furthering education.  If I didn’t have the instructional strategies, the incentive for more money would not solve the problem alone.  I would still need the strategies to help my students.  Teachers want to be better, sometimes they just don’t know how.  Educators would be more apt to listen to merit pay ideas if the perception of merit pay wasn’t so closely linked to inadequate testing models.  Instead, merit pay must have ties to furthering education and taking on leadership roles.

– Tucker talks about leverage points, one leverage point we seem to miss is that of parents.  We have a tendency to talk about schools failing, but how about parents failing. Why not have a state-wide program to get parents involved more?  I understand this can easily be used as an excuse, and I am not using it as one.  I also understand that the world is more complex for parents and teachers today.  However, this doesn’t mean that we simply shrug our shoulders about parents.  Instead it needs to be a state and local initiative for parents.  We have many parents that are involved, and I see the profound impact it has on students (the greatest impact possible).  For the parents that take the time to communicate with the school, teachers, and their child, thank you.

Tucker has many great points about education reform.  I recommend doing your own research and commenting on what you think is important.


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Google Forms in Education

Google Forms

Though Google Docs has permeated through education over the last five years, Google Forms is still relatively new to most educators. Forms can be used by students, teachers, administrators, and other staff members.  Before giving examples of how educators can use Google Forms, it is important to give a brief introduction.

Google Forms is essentially a survey tool; however, it can be used for assessment.  Forms gives you the chance to ask the following types of questions: short answer, paragraph answer, multiple-choice, checkboxes, list, grid, and scale.


There are many ways that teachers can use Google Forms, from assessments to polling student interest on certain topics (Google Moderator will do something similar).  The most powerful use for a teacher is the opportunity to create a formative assessment.  Imagine an English class where students have just finished discussing John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The teacher could have a Google Form to create a “check-in” and “check-out” at the beginning and end of the class period.  Students would rate their understanding of the concept on a scale from 1-5.

An example form:

Teachers could then evaluate the general feelings with the specific answers students gave to decide on the next step in instruction.

Over the next week I will create multiple posts concerning Google Forms.  Topics will include: Principal feedback using the six administrative standards, student use of Google Forms, and more lesson examples.


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Criteria for Technology Tools

This week my school had a volunteer professional development session on Google Apps, Diigo, and other Web 2.0 applications. We had an interesting discussion about which tools administrators expected teachers to use, and what tools teachers were most comfortable with. This made me think about my own criteria for technology adoption.

Criteria: When reviewing new tech, consider the following:

1) Will it help students learn or is it a way to keep students occupied? John Wooden once said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” 

2) Do we have something that already does this? If so, is it more efficient?

3) Does it allow for collaboration?

4) Is it easy to use?

5) Is it affordable?

What other criteria are necessary? Comments?

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The Technology Buffet Line and Samuel Jackson

Technology tools for the classroom are basically the food selection at an all-you-can-eat buffet line: there’s an endless selection and everything looks good. But all buffet goers are not created equal. You are most likely one of the following:

The Sneeze Guard Inspector:

1) The Sneeze Guard Inspector is the person that pays the $12-20 and doesn’t eat much. He or she observes the food from the safety of the guard.  Admiring all of the great tools…I mean food, but has enough will power to only have one plate.  This is okay because this person experiences the buffet without the feeling of being full (or in the case of overloading with tech applications, brain melt).  The inspector also knows that since he or she will only go through the line once, that they must pick the very best of the selection.  However, this person still spent $12-20 and probably didn’t get his or her money’s worth.

The Samuel Jackson: 

2) Have you ever wondered why Samuel L. Jackson seems to be in every movie since Jurassic Park…No seriously:  The Samuel Jackson’s of the buffet world are willing to try anything, but in the end do not finish with a “go to” food.  In other words: this person tries many foods but doesn’t have a favorite. Disclaimer: this is not a disparagement of Mr. Jackson, in fact I’ll say it, Snakes on a Plane is the single greatest American cinematic achievement…ever.

The I Will Eat Until My Heart Stops Only to Have it Restarted to Eat Again Person:

3). The IWEUMHSOHREAP (that’s not much easier) is the type that thinks he or she has entered a competition by paying $12-20. That somehow the restaurant has insulted the very nature of humanity and it is solely his or her responsibility to defend it. The fervor and passion of the IWEUMHSOHREAP are inspiring; however, remember “the house always wins.”

The Mutt:

4) This person is a mix between the Sneeze Guard and Samuel Jackson: they know what they like but every once and awhile he or she adds to the plate.


Every school has each type and it’s okay to be each one.  Just some advice:

Sneeze Guard: Come out of your shell some.  It’s okay to try new things.

Samuel Jackson: Great job trying new things but try to master a few things (you were great in Pulp Fiction but what was Deep Blue Sea all about).

Heart-stoppers: I love the passion but take a step back sometimes or….


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