Interesting times for those involved in education

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: February 22 2013 | 9:05 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 11:48 am in
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By Mason City Globe Gazette

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We live in interesting times in education — and much like the Chinese curse, “interesting times” has connotations both exciting and apprehensive.

At the state and federal level there is a growing emphasis on boosting performance by students, and that logically requires a boost in performance by educators — teachers and administrators — as well as involvement by parents and investments in technology and facilities.

In his State of the Union speech recently, President Obama called for initiatives aimed at the extremes of the education spectrum, for high quality preschool to be available to all children and for a potential restructuring of the federal aid system for college students.

In Iowa the Legislature is tackling the second year of Gov. Terry Branstad’s ideas on education reform. After a freshman year where only a sliver of the governor’s proposals were adopted, Branstad and his Department of Education have shifted in their sophomore year to a focus on teachers.

If approved, the proposals could mean more money, more training and more responsibility for teachers, but also more accountability.

Changes are occurring or being considered at the local level as well. Driven by concerns both over budgets and performance, school districts are looking at ways to share resources, combine programs and use new ideas and new technology.

Clear Lake and Mason City are looking at the New Tech Network model as a possibility for shared programming among area schools.

New Tech Network is an approach that uses project-based learning, emphasizing active, hands-on engagement of students with a curriculum that addresses real-life issues and attempts to find real-life solutions. There are currently no New Tech Network schools in Iowa, but there are more than 100 across the United States.

Several Clear Lake school staff traveled to the Sioux Falls (S.D.) New Tech High School recently. Mason City teachers have also traveled to New Tech schools for observation. One possibility — just in the “think about it” stage now — would be to establish a New Tech High School in the former Sunset School in Clear Lake as a magnet to draw 100 to 200 students from surrounding school districts.

Such integrated learning within the community is an exciting opportunity. President Obama mentioned taking college credits while in high school, and the Career Link program offered through North Iowa Area Community College and area high schools has been using that model for many years, working with area businesses.

Teachers who viewed the New Tech Network were excited about the possibilities of such a program in this area, but agreed that approach would not work best for all students. Likewise some students take advantage of Career Link and other don’t.

Perhaps that’s the biggest change accelerating in education — better fitting the teaching methods to students’ individual needs. Some students do best in a traditional setting, others might thrive under a New Tech or some other approach. Others blossom under the individualized approach offered through alternative high schools.

Figuring out the best way to reach individual students and then figuring out how to accomplish that with available resources is the challenge. Interesting times, indeed.

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