What would be the best way to use state money to improve educational outcomes for Wyoming’s children? I asked that question of Rae Lynn Job, Ellbogen Foundation board member and former state legislator with 34 years of experience in the public schools, and Mauro Diaz, a National Board Certified Teacher and recent selectee for the New York City Teaching Fellows program who is presently teaching life sciences at Dean Morgan Middle School in Casper. Though their approaches differ, both urge Wyoming policy makers to look at Wyoming’s educational challenges more creatively — to encourage innovation, to take bold risks. While neither advocates “budget busting” expenditures to accomplish those ends, they both see funding needs in teacher development and in school infrastructure. With regard to teacher development, Diaz would prefer a less “top down” model for improvement and more teacher autonomy to drive their own professional development and fashion their own career paths. Rae Lynn Job, while committed to development, emphasizes student centered initiatives in early childhood development, a stronger commitment to infrastructure investment and the encouragement of more public/private partnerships particularly with existing Wyoming foundations. Historically, our legislature has demonstrated strong support for education, but student test results and outcomes have been, for many, disappointing. Here, then, is a timely topic and here are stimulating suggestions that should generate discussion. Let the ideas flow. We need them. — Pete

By Mauro Diaz
— September 30, 2014

The Wyoming Legislature has made education a priority and the state’s spending on education reflects that commitment. Income from the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund (PMTF) is what makes Wyoming’s commitment in education possible. From an educator’s point of view, I believe it is important that the PMTF remain protected to maintain stability in education funding. This stability will provide Wyoming a competitive edge in recruiting and retaining its best teachers.

As Sen. Charles Scott pointed out in an essay he wrote for this forum, the PMTF “promises to be our long-term financial anchor.” Realizing Wyoming prominence in education is going to take a long-term view. Though Samuel Western is on to something in his article, “Take a Risk: How to create a society that matches its scenery.” It is time to start introducing creative risk into the Wyoming (education) template.

Mauro Diaz

We all want to see a return on education investment through improved graduation rates and increased standardized test scores, two common indicators of the health of our education system.

Unfortunately, legislators have not seen results that match their expectations, spurring some reform efforts.

In 2012, the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act was passed in attempt to utilize data from standardized test scores, to look for successes around the state, and to try to spread best practices. This legislation is intended eventually to tie individual student performance to teachers of record, providing assistance to teachers who are not growing their students, as measured by standardized tests.

One of the goals of this legislation is for Wyoming to become a national education leader, which I believe we can with investment in some creative endeavors. Now is the time to take some creative risks in how schools are organized and in establishing teacher career pathways that begin with pre-service training and continue through to retirement. Can Wyoming see past the traditional education model and spending formula to fund some creative ventures that, though risky, could move the needle?

Unfortunately, the Accountability Act continues to reinforce the top-down model of how schools are organized. The power of decision making for our students continues to reside at the top, with the state and districts making decisions about what is an effective teacher and how we determine and set goals for student learning. This model is detrimental to the important relationship between the teacher, student, and parent. What occurs in the classroom is messy and complex.

As we have always known, teaching is work that is difficult to manage and improve from the district office or the state capitol. Doing so creates a cynical environment in schools where

teachers are waiting for the latest reform effort to displace their current work that was instigated by the last reform effort. The top-down model assumes we are creating widgets, but teaching cannot be easily standardized. Teaching, like other professions, is about developing the skills to build relationships and trust.

It is time for Wyoming teachers to take the lead and drive the discussion and effort to make teaching a true profession. After all, it is practitioners that create their professions, not

governments. Medicine, law, engineering, and accounting are disciplines that provide examples of what it requires to have a professional model. The Wyoming legislature holding individual teachers accountable does nothing for building a community of professionals that acquire and share knowledge. It must be educators holding each other accountable. Giving teachers autonomy to drive their own profession and development is how to achieve valuable and persistent improvement within a school.

The creative investment

Wyoming currently spends about $10 million a year for professional development of teachers around the state. It is mandated that districts provide 10 days of professional development each school year. However, it is not teacher-driven and most teachers will tell you that the professional development provided by their district does not meet their individual needs. It is one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t matter if you are a teacher with 25 years of experience or a second year teacher. You will get the same professional development. This is where a creative investment needs to be made.

We need the creation of a new institution in Wyoming: a K-12 center for teachers to evaluate, improve, and share their practical knowledge learned from classroom experience. It would be a supportive institution for teachers to develop their own research, practice and communication structure that address the challenges of teaching in a rural state. There is a lot of innovation occurring around the country that teachers in Wyoming can learn from and make their own, fitting the needs of their students. Wyoming teachers can also teach the country a thing or two about teaching and learning.

If Wyoming legislators believe we can be a national education leader, then let it begin with Wyoming teachers becoming national leaders in driving their own professional development. Teachers cannot continue to be dependent on curriculum and strategy “experts.” We can make decisions for ourselves that are informed by our relationships with students, parents, and the community in which we teach. Putting political expediency aside, this relationship can also guide our decisions about standards. Development of a K-12 center as a resource for teachers throughout the state to utilize according to their own individual needs (professional development) is where Wyoming should invest.

Where else should Wyoming risk investment?

We need the creation of a career pathway for teaching. We need to institute at the school-building level an organized method to develop teachers as they progress through their career. Advancement from one milestone to another should be measured by analyzing student achievement data, classroom observations, and feedback from peers, students and parents surveys. Likewise, achieving milestones should be recognized with increased responsibility within a school and more professional growth opportunities.

A teacher’s career pathway and analysis of their teaching should begin during pre-service training. Because the interaction between teacher and students is complicated, pre-service training needs to provide more a comprehensive, clinical practice where pre-service teachers are observing classrooms starting the first semester of their freshman year. This experience will help pre-service teachers decide if teaching is right for them, the best fit for their personality, and the style of teaching in which they are most effective.

Creation of ‘teaching schools’ in Wyoming, where the staff is qualified and highly trained to mentor prospective teachers will provide more robust preparation. Like medical residents in

Read the companion piece for this Pete Simpson Forum: Wyoming’s focus should be on the future, not the past

“teaching hospitals,” a coordinated effort is required to keep a close eye on teachers as they move from residency to accomplished practice. Transition from our current model of student teaching to creation of teaching schools will require an investment in intellectual capital and finances.

Changing Wyoming education will not only take the legislature’s fiscal commitment, but the boldness to envision teaching differently, as a true profession, and risk investing our dollars creatively.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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  1. I appreciate all the great ideas about improving teacher training, but the big piece missing from the discussion of public education in Wyoming is the larger context in which it operates. The focus on investments in educational infrastructure, the arcane debates about curricula and teacher certification, the metrics of proficiency, SAT scores, and graduation rates are attempts at patching a leaky vessel, at building better bilge pumps to keep the ship afloat, as long as our fundamental commitment to education is so thin.

    Kids aren’t stupid. And they are paying far more attention to all the nuances of the world around them, particularly in their first years of life, than we give them credit for. They hear the contempt in the grown-ups voices for “those college professors” and “those scientists”. They don’t understand the details, but they get the drift of the rhetoric about “brainwashing our children” and the “liberal agenda” of public education. Up to age 18, a kid spends less than 15% of their waking hours in school. That leaves 85% of the time soaking up the culture around them, regardless of how carefully tuned the formal educational program is.

    Sure they hear our professions of “our children are our most precious resource” and “education is the key to success”, and learn to recite on demand, “Wyoming – the Equality State”. The better students can even throw in the state bird and flower. But they also grow up keenly aware of the gap between what folks say and what folks really believe, and become nimble in negotiating – internally and externally – the contradictions.

    “A comprehensive, well-sequenced coordination of curriculum” vs. “federal overreach!” Modern science standards vs. fealty to the coal industry. “The Equality State” vs. opposition to equal pay and court rulings on marriage equality. “Free speech and academic freedom” vs. legislation as petty as art censorship. When their homes are filled with political invective against “the government”, what are they to make of dad’s admonition to “respect your teacher”?

    Research on why certain minorities have been consistently more successful with respect to educational attainment than others makes no reference to differences in curriculum, teacher training, class size, or school funding. It all comes down to cultural factors – the attitudes inherited (starting at a very early age) from parents and peers. These are families and cultures that clearly value education, not as an abstract notion to which we give lip service and money, but as an ever-present priority in how daily activities are structured, how performance is evaluated, and how respect and admiration are bestowed on community leaders.

    The expectation that educational attainment can be forcibly improved by what we do with the 15% of their time in school is a chimera that absolves us of looking harder at what our children learn from us, all the other adults in their world.