Brad Buck is an Iowan.
In August, when Gov. Terry Branstad announced that Buck would be the new director of the Iowa Department of Education, area educators in part praised the selection because Buck is not only a product of Iowa schools but has spent his career in the state’s school districts.
“I think being from Iowa helps me understand why we behave and interact the way we do,” Buck said. “Iowans like Iowa solutions.”
His more than two decades as an Iowa educator – a career that includes stops in the Ankeny, Hudson, North Mahaska and Waukee community school districts doing everything from teaching middle-school science to serving in various administrative roles – have provided Buck with a deep bench of contacts to rely on in his new role, which he began in September.
Buck’s background – a 1987 graduate of Cedar Rapids’ Jefferson High School who said he can still sing his junior high school’s fight song – distinguishes him from his polarizing predecessor Jason Glass.
“I feel he got unfairly characterized at times,” Buck said. “I think there was a chunk of the school population that never accepted him because he wasn’t an Iowan.”
There needs to be a “positive tension” between the department and school districts, Buck said, striking a balance between rulemaking and allowing school boards the freedom for that most famous of Iowa educational concepts: “local control.”
Buck praised the state’s residents for their Iowa Nice, and the Cedar Rapids native – his parents still live in the city – exhibits the quality himself.
“He’s very approachable … A very nice person, very complimentary, very appreciative,” said Kathy Petosa, Buck’s administrative assistant and a 45-year employee of the Iowa Department of Education. “He’s just very accessible and easy to talk with … He’s just a very nice person.”
Despite that affable nature, Buck isn’t averse to challenging his colleagues. The many perspectives he has – as a father of six, most recently former superintendent of the Saydel Community School District, a science teacher and now the state’s top education official – allow him to truly empathize with his many constituents, Buck said, and that hasn’t always made things easy.
Having worked in districts of various sizes, both rural and suburban, has allowed him to see how one rule plays out in different school settings and the care department officials have to take in conveying regulations to administrators.
“I think it has and will frustrate folks here,” Buck said.
Education is having a great moment right now, the director said, and that’s why he applied for the position following Glass’ departure.
“I think there’s a lot of things at play right now, that if they fall together well, we can really move the needle on student achievement,” Buck said.
In recent years, the narrative around Iowa’s education system has been “how the mighty have fallen,” or rather how a national leader in student learning sank to the middle of the pack. Under Glass, the department repeated this chorus. Buck said he understands that reasoning but takes issue with the content.
“The challenge in the messaging is, I believe Jason was in the need of making the case for change,” Buck said. “I think the data would say we’re as good as we’ve ever been but, unfortunately, we haven’t improved as much as some of these other states.”
Buck sees his plan to boost student learning as a triangle composed of teacher quality via recommendations from the state’s Task Force on Teacher Leadership and Compensation, personalized learning and the Iowa Core curriculum.
Another priority for Buck is getting teachers to embrace Response to Intervention, a framework focused on monitoring student achievement and then tailoring instruction and class activities to their needs, which Buck called “key” for personalized learning.
It’s not just about doing more. Buck used a metaphor, of education reform as a buffet line, to make the point that educators need to “give permission to stop doing (some) things.”
“When do we get the discerning moment where we say, ‘Maybe I don’t need that fourth piece of cake,’” said Buck, who characterized his outlook as optimistic.
What is the reform equivalent of that extra dessert? Well, it depends.
“I think that’s going to be a local context question,” said Buck, walking the tightrope between statewide regulations and that precious local control. “I’m not sure the department would be able to define that for districts.”
Buck has already made his Des Moines office his own, decorating the space with KISS and Minnesota Vikings memorabilia as well as a sign – a gift from the Saydel school board – that reads: “The Buck stops here,” and he plans to occupy it for “several years.”
When the time comes for him to step down, Buck envisions the average Iowa classroom looking markedly different than it does now and embodying that commitment to personalized learning.
“I perceive that it will be some kind of hybridized experience,” Buck said for secondary-aged learners, speaking of the system in which students do some learning outside of the classroom and don’t necessarily come to class each day. “A heavier focus on internships, externships and real world experiences … I see the walls of schools just opening up.”