By Joy Pullmann
Iowa’s governor has just provided a prime example of an education policy other states might pursue in looking beyond No Child Left Behind’s notorious failures and cover-ups. On Oct. 3, Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, announced his initial reform “blueprint” for a state that in 1992 led the nation in academic achievement but has since slipped to the middle of the pack.
Branstad’s administration has caught what a wave of new studies demonstrates: The nation’s top school systems rate at best mediocre internationally, though U.S. workers increasingly must compete globally.
Branstad has called for “systemic” reform. The first reform item entails attracting and retaining the best teachers and principals. Central to this is a tiered teaching system in which new teachers and principals must meet higher bars to enter the field but will receive greater starting pay and intensive mentoring. Current teaching pay schedules reward “butt in seat” time rather than excellent track records. A shift to performance-related pay is proposed. It also shifts inflexible teaching contracts to “at-will” agreements typical in the private sector.
The second reform element would raise Iowa’s education standards and revise state assessments to fit them. It requires exit tests for core high school subjects such as U.S. history and algebra, and it ends social promotion for third-graders. Branstad’s plan also uses student test scores to measure how specific teachers affect each child’s education.
The blueprint’s third component is innovation — establishing competitive grants for pilot programs and waiving state requirements for districts that want to try something different that might work better. It also would encourage creation of charter schools by sending them the same per-pupil funding as traditional public schools, establish a state network for online learning, and grant academic credit to students who demonstrate competency rather than merely putting in seat time.
All these ideas have surfaced in recent policy studies. Branstad’s approach is unique, however, both for his intent to implement as many as possible and for the low-key public relations sell he has taken. It appears Branstad has learned from the slash-and-burn circus in neighboring Wisconsin and from Iowa’s stalemate in the last legislative session: Getting anything significant out of his statehouse will require delicacy. Let’s hope his cautiousness is a result of cleverness, not cowardice.
Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org