Changing the Conversation

I had an outstanding “last day of summer” yesterday: boating with friends, enjoying the sun, making wood-fired pizzas outside. I wish I had thought to take some pictures. I say “last day of summer” because tomorrow I leave for my first residency semester for my Masters of Music Education program at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago. While at this Wednesday Night Boat Party, I had very interesting discussions with my friends and host’s parents about how education is changing in Iowa and around the country, particularly in regards to funding. I have been operating in a world where I am surrounded by people that either agree with or are diametrically opposed to my thoughts on educational funding. It was a good experience to get to converse with people whose thoughts are in the middle of the issue and whose stakes are different than my own.

My friend and colleague, Pat Kearney, has written quite a bit about the conversation (or lack thereof) that has been going on about educational funding in Iowa. His most recent post talks about our purpose as educators. As Pat describes it:

We come to our profession knowing that we want to do what is best for young people. How we get there isn’t simple and there is room for lots of conversation…

Our purpose will be to engage students.  Our purpose will be to set rigorous standards for our students.  Our purpose will be to make our schools safe and welcoming for our students.  When we view education from that lens it makes the decisions easier…

The public policy debate about education will continue.  As long as everyone is honest about their agendas the debate will only make our schools stronger.  I believe Iowans are speaking pretty loudly and pretty clearly about what they want.  Keep talking, keep sharing, keep asking everyone (educators included) to be honest about what we really want.  That will be good for Iowa and if everyone’s purpose is to make Iowa’s schools better for our students we will be able to hold our heads high as we elevate the debate beyond dollars and cents.

He also references an editorial by Wisconsin governor and presidential hopeful Scott Walker published by the Des Moines Register. I disagree greatly with Governor Walker’s policies and his interpretation of their “success”, but at least he is honest about his vision for education in his state.

In Iowa, our governor is calling for our schools to be the best schools in the nation, yet he proposed to a rate of growth for state funding (1.25%) well below the rate of inflation we’re seeing in education (3%). Iowa Republican legislators claim to be working for education by giving us the “first piece of the pie” when setting the budget, yet refused to budge from the governor’s proposed rate, leaving us 513 days and counting behind when they were to pass this legislation.

While they don’t come right out and say it, the actions of our Republican legislators appear to be moving in similar directions as Wisconsin or Kansas. As Pat referenced in an open letter to these legislators, 80% of expected revenue growth for 2016 has already been given away to finance a commercial property-tax rollback. We would be willing to bet these legislators are having private discussions about teacher unions, vouchers, and charter schools.

Are these the kinds of conversations we should be having? Our school district focuses on answering four main questions in our teaching:

  1. What do we want our students to know/be able to do?
  2. How will we know what they have learned?
  3. How will we respond if they have/have not learned?
  4. How do we communicate student learning?

I think stakeholders in Iowa need to be answering similar questions. These stakeholders include our governor and legislators, but they also include teachers, administrators, students, and community members. Iowa needs to have the conversation:

These will undoubtedly raise other questions:

  • Are charter schools/vouchers successful at achieving these goals?
  • Are teacher unions preventing us from achieving these goals?
  • Is teacher pay attracting educators who can achieve these goals?
  • What do we do with teachers that are not achieving these goals?
  • How much is this going to cost? How are we going to pay for it?

As an educator, I can honestly tell you that I am ready for the potential responses to those questions. If a voucher system or a charter school can do a better job of helping our students be the “best in the nation,” then we need to have that conversation. If teacher unions are getting in the way of student learning, then we need to have that conversation. If teachers are getting paid to much for the amount of work they do, we need to have that conversation. If our current evaluation system is not ensuring student success, we need to have that conversation. If educating Iowa students costs more than the state can afford or is willing to spend, we need to have that conversation.

Let’s be honest and upfront with one another in this conversation. No more “there is not enough money” or “we can not spend more than we take in.” While those statements may be true, there is a much bigger conversation to have. Let’s have it.

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