True Partners in Education

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Dr. Jon Sheldahl, Chief Administrator, jon.sheldahl@gpaea.org

For most of its nearly 40 year history, Iowa’s area education agencies have focused on the mission that was prescribed by the original legislation that created those agencies in 1974.  The Iowa AEA’s were created to assure that every student, regardless of zip code, family income, or disability would get access to a free and appropriate public education.  The agencies were to organize around three different divisions, special education, education services, and media.  Until recently, agencies performed those functions with little need for adapting to changing education landscape.  Special education services assured that students were protected by the procedural safeguards that assured access to a free and appropriate public education.  Education services consultants planned and implemented teacher and administrator training workshops and attempted to respond to the professional development needs that were presented by local school districts.  Media services created distribution systems that pooled resources so that all districts had access to expanded collections of educational materials.  These were the functions for which AEAs were created and, over the years, each agency became quite proficient at performing those functions.  Nowhere in that original legislation did it say that AEAs were to be charged with improving student achievement.  My how times have changed.

AEAs today have suddenly found themselves being asked to perform a very different function and it is causing us to stretch and grow in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a few short years ago.  No longer can we be satisfied with assuring that students and educators have access to the services they need to provide a free and appropriate education.  We now share a collective responsibility with the districts we serve to see that all children are learning at high levels.  Like local school districts, our mission has become less about access and more about outcomes.  Just as it is no longer acceptable for school districts to say, “We teach it, it’s the kid’s responsibility to learn it,” it is also no longer acceptable for AEA’s to say, “We provide the services, it’s up to someone else to see that those services translate into high levels of student learning.”  This is a paradigm shift that is causing some pain, but it is growing pain and that’s a good thing.

So how can AEAs and local districts grow together in a way that allows us to all take responsibility for student learning?  The first and most important thing we must all do is share in the moral imperative of student learning.  We have a moral responsibility to put faces on the data and work together to make sure that all students get the instructional interventions and learning supports they need to successfully transition into adulthood.  That is OUR responsibility no matter who our employer is.  The second thing we must all do is to recognize that it is the adults in the system who have to change before the kids change.  For many years, we have focused on fixing kids in the system.  It’s misguided effort.  Learning is much more a result of the instructional task that is designed than it is a function of student ability.  AEA and LEA educators need to work together to design quality tasks for students and then to specially design further interventions for students who do not perform proficiently during core instruction.  Finally, we can all work together to improve how we collect and use data in the classroom.  All of us need to be quicker and more efficient users of not only student performance data, but teacher data as well.  We can help one another measure what it is that the adults in the system are really doing (not what we say we are doing, because those are often two different things).

If we are going to meet the charge that has been set before us, we can no longer take an “it’s not my job” stance toward owning student outcomes.  I challenged AEA staff on opening day to “be where the learning is” and that’s in the buildings and in the classrooms.  AEA’s are as exposed to external accountability for student learning as is any local school district.  We are all partners in education regardless of who signs our paycheck.  Let’s grow together this year and truly team up to meet the needs of all kids.  Have a great year!

One thought on “True Partners in Education

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