Education reform: Legislators must make way for new ideas

A student works on an assignment in a
A student works on an assignment in a "flipped" classroom at Prairie Point School in Cedar Rapids in April 2013. (image taken from KCRG-TV9 video)

When legislators struggle just to pass modest education reform proposals, transforming our public school system can seem an impossible goal. And it would be if we asked lawmakers to devise a perfect plan to remake every Iowa school into a lean, mean, 21st Century learning machine.

That plan doesn’t exist, for starters. More important, it’s the wrong approach.

Smart experts already are developing new ways of teaching that fit the needs and strengths of Iowa students. Legislators’ role is to make room for those good ideas, whenever possible, and to get out of the way when they can’t.

A recent Gazette article about algebra teachers in the College Community School District provides a perfect example. There, teachers are making more efficient use of class time by flip-flopping the traditional routine of lecture and take-home assignments. Students watch taped lectures at home and work on assignments during class. Teachers are there to offer one-on-one assistance; students can work together, rather than struggle through problems alone.

The flip-flop gives students more support in class and more flexibility in learning the material at home. Students can watch videos again, or even watch a different teacher’s explanation, until they understand the lesson. The idea came from teachers who heard about peers using “Flipped Classrooms” at other schools.

Today’s editorial provides another example: Competency-based education, which holds students responsible for mastering core concepts, not just for sitting in a classroom chair. In competency-based classrooms, teachers clearly outline what students need to know in order to pass the course. Students must demonstrate they understand the concepts — all of them — before moving on.

No more copying homework or cramming for tests. No more accepting a “D” on one test or assignment, hoping to do better on the next one. No more sitting around, daydreaming, waiting for classmates to catch up.

Last spring, I talked with students and teachers at Solon High School, where a handful of teachers were experimenting with the approach. “It really makes students own their own learning,” Solon High School Principal Nathan Wear told me back then. Students said they were more motivated; that class seemed more relevant.

It’s ideas such as these that will truly transform our schools.

They’ll come from classrooms, they’ll spread the same way a cute cat video does on YouTube — legislators don’t need to make it happen. They can’t.

“For (our parents) it was a mechanical process they had to learn ... but it’s a different society now. We need to connect things,” a Solon student told me a year ago. She was talking about her competency-based classroom, but she might as well have been talking about system-wide approaches to reform.

Legislators should remember her words as they head into conference to hash out a bill. Our schools don’t need them to provide all the answers; they need resources and room so new ideas can thrive.Comments: (319) 339-3154;

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