New director focuses on empowering others
A love of history inspired Ryan Wise to become an educator. But it was his first class of students who convinced him he’d made the right career move.
Wise was a young history teacher from the Midwest heading up a classroom of 11th graders in one of the most high-poverty, low-performing high schools in Mississippi. Together, they built a relationship based on high expectations and mutual respect.
“They defied every expectation that I think people would assume of them, given that they were in a low-performing school in a low-performing state,” said Wise, of Des Moines. “This was an anchor experience that set it for me, that truly all kids can achieve at high levels and all kids deserve to get an excellent education.”
That philosophy shaped Wise’s teaching and education leadership roles at the state, national and international levels. And, he said, it will guide his leadership as director of the Iowa Department of Education. Gov. Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds named Wise, 39, to the post on June 30.
Wise taught in rural and urban schools in Mississippi and Nebraska before moving to his home state of South Dakota to launch and lead Teach for America on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations. Wise also worked to eliminate educational inequity around the world as one of the pioneering staff members of Teach for All, a global network of entrepreneurs.
Wise came to Iowa in 2012 to facilitate a state task force whose work laid the foundation for the Iowa Teacher Leadership and Compensation System, which was adopted by the Iowa Legislature in 2013. That work formed the basis for his doctoral capstone, as well as his role with the Iowa Department of Education.
As deputy director, Wise has managed the development and delivery of the teacher leadership system, known throughout the education system by its acronym, “TLC.” It is the most ambitious teacher leadership system in the nation.
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. He built important relationships statewide as the primary liaison to the State Board of Education and as a member of several state boards and commissions, including the Iowa High School Athletic Association.
Wise views good leadership as creating conditions under which others can do their best work. TLC furthered this belief because the system empowers local schools to set a vision and teacher leaders to motivate and mentor their counterparts. The fact that a quarter of teachers in TLC school buildings are elevated into coaching or mentor roles “should not diminish the work of teachers walking into the classroom each day and lifting up every child,” he said. “I’ve never lost the view that teaching itself is an act of leadership.”
Wise said Iowa is well-positioned to build on its foundation of educational excellence. The state has the highest graduation rate in the country, dedicated teachers and administrators, invested communities, and a slate of bold education initiatives, including TLC, early literacy, and an ongoing review of Iowa’s state standards.
Iowa also has its share of educational challenges. One in four third-grade students is not proficient in reading, according to state test results. The state faces gaps in performance at each grade level, particularly among students from low-income backgrounds and students whose first language is not English.
“There are a number of bright spots that we as a state should be very proud of, and we are blazing a new and bold path that will be a model for other states,” Wise said. “At the same time, we need to continue to work as a state on how we best address our challenges to ensure all kids have a bright future ahead of them.”
Wise credits his work with children in the South, tribal leaders in South Dakota, an international network of entrepreneurs, and his Iowa TLC work with preparing him to implement systemic work in a way that respects a community’s local context and diversity.
Being a father of two elementary-age sons in the Des Moines Public Schools is a daily reminder of the big job that Iowa teachers and schools have, Wise said.
“Kids come in from all different places, and for me, it’s really about helping to build and sustain an education system in Iowa that meets the needs of all learners, whether they moved here from Somalia, like one of my son’s classmates, or whether they’re from Iowa and have college-educated parents,” he said.
“Whatever their needs are and whatever their backgrounds, it’s about ensuring that teachers and schools are prepared to help them.”