During Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s Education Summit, I was struck by the relatively balanced list of speakers, the diversity of ideas, and the civil tone of those in attendance as they listened to everyone’s points of view. I was also fascinated by the backchannel discussions on Twitter using the hashtag #iaedsummit.
The two speakers who seemed to get the most news coverage were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Arne Duncan, come to find out, has delivered a similar speech to the one he delivered at education summit in many different states, varying statistics and the state’s name to fit the audience. Although it was a pretty canned speech, I appreciate the fact that he called out Iowa on its lackluster performance and need for change. I appreciate that he acknowledged Iowa’s local districts and our state need increased flexibility and less Federal red tape. That’s where the hang-up is for me on Sec. Duncan, though. He reminds me, to some degree, of a TBN televangelist. 90% of what he says is great but it’s the 10% that most don’t really notice that does the most harm. He says he believes in the 10th Amendment, that states need flexibility, and that local authorities respond best to the needs of their children. He then presides over the largest takeover of education policy by the Federal Government in our nation’s history through Race To The Top grants and its foisting of Common Core Standards and other commitments onto states. His rhetoric and his actions aren’t consistent and I’m afraid his “real reformer” street-cred is still more of a rock-star perception than reality. Time will tell. I appreciated much of his speech, however, and was grateful he took the time to come to Iowa.
Governor Christie was a surprise for me. I’ve seen him in other settings on the East Coast in smaller venues with friendlier audiences. At those events I was blown away by his powerful, no-holds-barred, pull-no-punches approach. It’s refreshing. He did something pretty masterful in Iowa on Monday: he adapted to the audience. He didn’t change or apologize for his position on the issue. He didn’t praise anyone he’s never praised before. He simply made a moral argument for change instead of confrontational calling out of his opponents. He argued for an accounting of what all stakeholders agree on. He challenged every party to the education discussion to be willing to start with the things they can agree on. He laid out an excellent case that, whatever Iowa does, it must act quickly and decisively. Our kids that are currently in the system and those just about to enter it don’t have time for political back-and-forth. They need systemic change now.
You can’t help but sit in a room with 1,700 people and start to look at the forest through the trees. Too often, we focus on the 4-6 largest trees that overshadow the rest of the forest and go to them thinking we have “stakeholder input.” The smaller trees are too often missed. And those smaller trees are the innovators, the forgotten, the overlooked, the resourceful, and the most willing to step out and do new things. They are urban public schools successfully trying new things to curb discipline issues. Private providers innovating in virtual learning and attracting great teachers. Homeschoolers exponentially growing their ranks without anyone asking why. They are business leaders who are looking to get into the education sphere but don’t feel welcome because of the political process or teacher certification requirements. Most importantly, they are the average mom or dad who has high hopes for their kid but feels unwelcome or without choice. These are the stakeholders I hope Governor Branstad, the Iowa Department of Education, and Legislators look to for ideas. The typical stakeholders that are the most visible and to whom we usually go to for ideas have the most to lose and will be the most vested in the status quo. Although I believe they will come around and can add tremendous value to the conversation, the typical approach to education policy making just won’t do anymore.
The Iowa Education Summit was good. The hard work, however, is yet to come. I believe that Iowa has all the resources and talent it needs to reform and direct it’s own future in education. We have done this before and can do it again. It will take time. If we empower parents instead of continuously disenfranchising them and if we give local schools all the flexibility in the world to meet the clear and rigorous standards Iowa should adopt, then we’ll see reform that lasts for generations. Only then will we see continuous improvement and increased choice in educational vehicles and options for parents.