By Quad City Times
By launching Iowa education reform outside of the legislative process, Gov. Terry Branstad gingerly sidestepped conflicts that dominate public education debate, leaving schools mired in paradigms that no longer apply.
Administrators vs. unions.
Ethnicity vs. achievement.
Charters vs. tradition.
Vouchers vs. local districts.
The mercifully short 17-page plan begins by empowering teachers, parents and ultimately students with clear, but broad guidelines that leave tons of room for local innovation. In fact, the plan counts on local innovation to figure out improvements that can be shared statewide.
It clearly states that more — not less — money is needed.
It calls for higher — not lower — salaries for starting teachers.
It sets the bar high, aiming at international standards, not just U.S. rankings.
We believe it properly focuses first on improving the student-teacher interaction, affirming an expectation that excellence will bubble up from classrooms, not be dictated by Des Moines bureaucrats, lawmakers or governors.
Branstad’s plan empowers teachers to take a front-line role in hiring, evaluating and mentoring new teachers. Evaluations in this plan aren’t intended to clean house. The Branstad plan smartly designs them “to show educators specifically where they are and how they can improve.”
That example, and many others in the plan, underscores an expectation of improvement in the future, not retribution for the past.
Here is what we like best, followed by a few concerns.
The plan substitutes career development pay level classifications for the strict seniority methods that now dictate salaries. Teachers would be paid progressively better as apprentices, career teachers, mentors and, finally, masters. Each level provides higher pay with increasing duties, and includes clear opportunities to further supplement salaries by extending the school year, earning advanced degrees and certifications and even offering locally-based performance incentives.
Likewise, any local district layoffs could be determined by student and district needs, not just teacher seniority.
This plan wisely ignores the ideological reform we’ve seen elsewhere aimed at dissolving teacher unions. Teachers won’t get screwed by this reform. We believe it puts them in the driver’s seat.
This reform calls for end-of-course assessments for core subjects, assuring that all graduates meet agreed-upon, statewide standards. Again, the plan emphasizes an expectation of success — “significant remedial help would be provided for students who fail, along with multiple opportunities to retake exams.”
It suggests a high third-grade reading standard so that all students demonstrate sufficient proficiency to excel in later years.
And it would require ACT or SAT college entrance testing for all 11th-graders.
Together, these assessments provide data so students, parents and teachers can elevate individual performance, instead of punishing entire schools. Branstad’s reform plan plainly condemns the uselessness of the current “rigid and unrealistic accountability system required under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which unfairly punishes schools with high poverty rates.”
The reform seeks teaching candidates who have demonstrated “evidence of leadership and perseverance,” in addition to a minimum college grade point average of 3.0. That would seem to attract teachers willing to assume the heightened role – and pay – called for by the governor.
The plan specifically calls for expanding online education by creating a statewide clearinghouse of high quality online courses available to any student in Iowa. Online education is exploding for colleges and private training. Our elementary and high school students should enjoy those benefits as well.
It also enhances credit opportunities for students who demonstrate mastery of a subject without “traditional seat time” in class. It’s a great example of how this reform focuses on outcomes, not processes.
The plan clearly allows taxpayer money to follow students to private charters competing with public schools. But it smartly requires charter schools to assume the same burdens as the public schools. New charter schools must, “accept all students for whom the placement is appropriate, including those with disabilities and living in poverty.” It instills a notion that charters can’t skim the cream from public schools’ crop of students.
The plan also encourages more opportunities to waive Department of Education requirements that allow charter-like innovations in public schools.
Our concerns are quite limited.
— The plan calls for teaching license reciprocity intended to enhance recruitment of out-of-state teachers. Should a plan intended to elevate Iowa schools to the top be anchored to licensing requirements of other states?
— Vague language suggests teaching applicants be evaluated for the “right personality, characteristics and skills… .” Clearly qualifications must be more comprehensive than college GPA. But “right personality” suggests a single standard, when a vibrant, collaborative faculty requires a mix of personalities, characteristics and skills.
— One provision suggests that “value-added” performance measures become part of teachers’ private personnel files, not public records available to parents and taxpayers. This privacy inclusion seemed odd in a document packed with transparency, collaboration and parental involvement.
— One-stop educator recruiting. The plan envisions a singular website for school district job postings. We love the idea of assisting districts, especially rural ones, with finding applicants. We’ve been in the employee recruitment business for more than a century. Dozens of other private firms have joined us. We hate to see taxpayers unnecessarily replicate this work.
Although crafted outside of the legislative process, Iowa’s education reform will require significant legislation to enact. Be assured, lawmakers are hearing from the special interests that elevate ideology over student and parent concerns.
The governor and his staff are launching a series of forums where they need to hear from parents and students. So far, a 1 p.m., Oct. 16 forum at Iowa City West High School is as close as they’ve gotten, but Quad-Citians can expect forums here as well.