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Iowa BIG
Trace Pickering, associate superintendent, Cedar Rapids Community School District

Education reform is often framed as an issue for schools that are failing to meet expectations. Schools where students struggle – because they tend to have fewer resources and bigger challenges – are most often the target for new school models.

But some school districts that arguably have no reason to change are shaking things up, too.

Trace Pickering, associate superintendent of the Cedar Rapids Community School District, founded Iowa BIG, a district program that gives students an alternative to the traditional school day. The district, located about two hours’ drive northeast of Des Moines, is the second largest in Iowa (after Des Moines), with more than 17,000 students. And parents had to be convinced that it was worth trying something new because schools there already had a good reputation. The district’s students score well above the state average on college admissions exams, even though it has more minority students than the state average. Pickering oversees innovation, school improvement and technology in the district.

Education Reimagined, a reform advocacy program that emerged from an unusual coalition of union leaders and reformers, recently highlighted the Cedar Rapids district’s work, and The Hechinger Report spoke with Pickering to learn more about it.

Q: What are you doing in the district with technology, and is that how you “reimagined” education?

A: Our focus has really been on transforming educational models, really a focus on personalized learning. Technology has an important role. I think far too often districts get enamored with the sparkliness of technology and think that technology’s the answer. Technology just enables us to do some of the things that, 20 years ago, we couldn’t have done.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about Iowa BIG? What is it?

“We just feel it’s counterproductive for us to impose, as much as we would love to just for expediency. It backfires on you.”

A: Iowa BIG is our most innovative, transformative program. We basically took all the traditional assumptions about school – about how we spend our time, space, curriculum, assessment – and we just challenged every one of those assumptions. We built a school that’s focused on student passion, authentic projects and community partnerships. Our students earn core academic credit, in the four core areas, by engaging in projects they care about with our community. The role of the teacher changes dramatically, from delivering content to understanding where these projects will go and what the student needs to know next to get there … We don’t have a curriculum because there’s no curriculum in life. You build it as you go. That’s what our teachers have really become adept at – identifying what does this group of students or this particular student need to know next to move their project further.

Q: That sounds like a lot of work for the teacher. You’re writing a different lesson for every student. How do they do it all?

A: Yeah, it looks very different. They’re not really writing lessons so much as we have three teachers for 110 students. The three teachers work together in a way you wouldn’t typically see teachers do. They’re constantly talking about students and projects and where kids need to go. It isn’t like a teacher says, “Oh geez. I need to teach expository writing to this group this week. I need to build a lesson plan.” It’s more like, “These students need to explain exactly what they’re doing and convince others. When I meet with them this week, we’re going to talk about how you write effectively to do that.” … Writing lesson plans and grading papers is all replaced by working with small groups of teenagers, helping them move forward, working with their colleagues to make sure the kids are meeting and exceeding the standards.

Q: If you’re not writing lesson plans or thinking about curriculum or state tests, how are you meeting state test-score goals?

A: We’re only in our third year. They do no better or worse on the state assessment. We don’t have anything conclusive saying, “Oh wait. We could do way better.”

Q: It’s too early in the project to assess this?

A: It is. But we also survey pre- and post-[course], like the Gallup survey that measures growth and well-being and sense of efficacy and ownership of learning. Students at Iowa BIG are dramatically stronger than their traditional high school peers in those areas. They understand what their passions are, they understand how to advocate for themselves, they have a sense of efficacy over, “Hey, I can control my own learning and I can create a future for myself.” For me, those measures far exceed, “Oh, I got 80 percent on this math test.”

Q: What’s been the biggest challenge?

A: In our district we’ve traditionally been very successful in a traditional model. We have lots of kids who do very well. We’re a heavy AP [Advanced Placement] district. Parents like that. They know that that’s a pathway to wherever they want their kids to go. Our biggest challenge is helping teachers and parents to see that these are equally viable options. … A lot of times there’s just this fear, “Oh, you’re telling me I’m doing it wrong.” I’m not saying you’re doing it wrong. It’s just the world has changed. We have to change with it.

Q: Is the entire district a blended and personalized environment?

A: No. We’re a work in progress. We have pockets at all three levels, elementary, middle and high. We’re just slowly trying to grow it and keep it moving forward.

Q: Why did you choose to do it that way rather than, “Okay, tomorrow I’m going to flip a switch and everyone changes?”

A: This kind of change – it’s much more about philosophy and belief than it is technical practice. It’s not a technical change you can say, “Hey, we’re going to change this approach and here’s a new form.” We’ve really learned you can’t force people into a new belief system. You have to show them the way and encourage the heart. Have conversations. We just feel it’s counterproductive for us to impose, as much as we would love to just for expediency. It backfires on you. You’re going to have that teacher [saying], “I don’t understand. I don’t believe this.” They’re going to sabotage it. Whether they purposely do it or just accidentally.

Q: I think everyone – even outside of schools – is like that. If we were involved in developing the idea then we want to see it succeed, right?

A: Yes. We’re just trying to build an army of the willing and show examples of success and have teachers and kids see it. The more examples we have, the easier it gets, because I don’t have to be the messenger. The teachers and the students and the parents can be. We’re betting on the idea that that kind of momentum will continue to grow. I think people in the district know that if they want to be innovative and try something new, we’re going to support them. We’re going to not worry about them making mistakes. That itself can be very freeing to a teacher.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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