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Wise Move

Ryan Wise, Ed.L.D.’13, named director of the Iowa Department of Education.

Ryan WisePraised by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad for his exceptional leadership, Ryan Wise was named director of the state’s department of education in June. Wise, who began working with the department as a senior policy fellow during his Ed.L.D. residency, had served as its deputy director since September 2013. Known for his implementation of Iowa’s innovative new Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) System, Wise also oversaw policy, communications, and a statewide expansion of Iowa Learning Online, a state-run program that provides high-quality classes taught by Iowa-licensed teachers. Ed.L.D. Connect spoke with Wise about his experiences in Iowa as he began in his new position.

You first began working with the Iowa Department of Education as an Ed.L.D. resident. What aspects of your Ed.L.D. training have helped you reach this position and will help you succeed in the role?

I entered the Ed.L.D. Program with the goal of one day becoming a chief state school officer. The first year of the program prepared me for many of the challenges and opportunities I would face as a resident in exerting influence without positional power. In my second year in the program, I had the freedom to tailor my learning across HGSE, Harvard Business School, and Harvard Kennedy School to prepare me for this role. And, ultimately, my residency allowed me to build the relationships and understand Iowa in a way that no other graduate program could have done.

You’ve been recognized for your leadership of Iowa’s TLC System, described as the most ambitious teacher leadership system in the nation. Can you tell us what sets it apart?

TLC is unique because of its scope and sustainability. We anticipate that in the 2015–16 school year, all 336 school districts in Iowa will have a local TLC plan that elevates at least 25 percent of the teaching staff in each school to formal leadership roles with additional responsibilities and compensation.

In addition, state funding for the system, more than $150 million per year, will no longer be dependent on an annual appropriation but will be part of the school funding formula. Districts will receive funds, roughly $300 per pupil annually, which can be used to raise the minimum teacher salary, improve entry into the profession for new teachers, fund leadership roles, hire additional teachers, and provide training and support to teachers in leadership roles.

Liliana Polo-McKenna, Ed.L.D.’14, is working with the Iowa State Department of Education on a new leader support program. How did that come about, and what has it been like working with another Ed.L.D. alum?

When a school formally promotes more than a quarter of its teachers to formal leadership positions, the role of the principal naturally changes. This can be a shift from being the single instructional leader to becoming part of a more distributed leadership model. As Iowa developed the TLC system, we realized we needed to create a system of coaching and support for school leaders. The New York City Leadership Academy is assisting us in developing this system, and Liliana is part of the team leading this collaboration. 

I have enjoyed having the opportunity to see Liliana in action in Iowa. While she is a tremendous educator in her own right, knowing that she is an Ed.L.D. alum adds a level of comfort and confidence, as she takes a very similar approach in her relationship building and leadership style as I do in my role. This consistency has strengthened the collaboration and coherence between our organizations. In addition, Liliana is simply a great person, and it has been a fun experience getting to know her in one setting as students, and in another working out in the “real world.”

As you enter your new role, what do you see as the biggest challenge facing Iowa’s schools?

While there are many bright spots in education in Iowa (in addition to the most comprehensive teacher leadership initiative, we also have the highest graduation rate in the country), Iowa’s schools face several challenges. Perhaps the most pressing is that a quarter of the state’s students are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Accordingly, we’ve invested heavily as a state in a comprehensive early literacy initiative. We’ve rolled out a statewide early warning system of assessment that is being used in 97 percent of Iowa’s elementary schools, we’ve helped to develop the Iowa Reading Research Center in partnership with the University of Iowa, and we’re also working collaboratively to ensure there are summer learning opportunities in place to help struggling readers. While the challenge can seem daunting, we believe we can make great progress in the coming years to ensure all Iowa students are prepared to be successful.