Iowa’s education chief said Friday efforts to improve student achievement with “finite” state resources likely will require tradeoffs that may mean increasing class sizes in K-12 schools to boost compensation and leadership roles for teachers that have been part of successful reforms in other states and countries.
Jason Glass, director of the state Department of Education, said he was not advocating “dramatic” increases in class sizes, but he noted that adding one or two students per classroom could make possible more teacher collaboration, professional development and compensation increases that could “revolutionize” the profession by producing beneficial results without negatively affecting children.
“There is a tradeoff that we have to make at every point. A small increase in class size can translate to a large increase in salary opportunities for teachers,” he told reporters during a break in Friday’s meeting of the state’s Task Force on Teacher Leadership and Compensation.
“Clearly, there is evidence to support that lower class sizes lead to better student achievements. The question is are we willing to invest the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to get the class size low enough that it has an impact and what do we give up in exchange for that large expenditure?” he said. “Everything’s a trade-off and so the high-performing systems around the world have been willing to make a small trade in class size in exchange for all the things that money can be used for.”
Glass made the comments following a presentation by leaders of an Eagle County school district in Colorado – where he served until 2009 — that implemented a teacher advancement program including performance-based pay provisions with positive results for a student population made up of white and Hispanic students. The district’s policy evolution included small class-size increases and considerable staff attrition that school district superintendent Sandra Snyder said was due in part to factors unrelated to their innovative changes.
The Eagle County approach was one of a number of models that task force members are studying as they work to craft recommendations by October on ways Iowa can move forward strategically in the areas of teacher leadership roles and compensation issues. The task force proposals to Gov. Terry Branstad, the Legislature and state education officials will be incorporated in education reforms to be considered during the 2013 legislative session.
Glass stressed that the task force is sorting through details and has not settled on any specific proposals. He also noted that the reform effort Branstad has championed since starting his fifth gubernatorial term in January 2011 envisions a 10-year transformation process.
The state education director said the centerpiece of the administration’s 2013 legislative agenda will be some form of a teacher leadership structure supported by a redesigned compensation system that “looks at raising base pay, creating teacher leadership roles, addressing labor-market issues in areas such as high-needs subject areas or teaching in high-poverty schools.”
“I think we’re a long way from figuring out exactly how to do this. But I think the advice we heard today was just to begin the work and be willing to learn, adapt and improve as you got along. That is what we hope is accomplished in the next session.”
Task force member Mike May, a retired educator and former state legislator who now serves on the state Board of Education, said he was excited by the prospects of improving Iowa’s education system and believed the public would be supportive of reform efforts aimed at bolstering student achievement results.
“I’m very optimistic about what we can accomplish if the Legislature will work together with the governor to move us forward,” he said. “I think courage is the word that needs to be at the heart of the dialogue. We have to have the courage to make the changes and the decisions that we have to make to move education forward. It’s not going to be easy.”
Task force member Tammy Wawro of Cedar Rapids, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said there were hurdles in Iowa to implementing changes made in Colorado because teachers in many of Iowa’s 348 school districts currently are provided adequate time for collaboration that the Eagle County approach envisioned. She also was concerned about the possibility of increasing class sizes in Iowa.
“Class size definitely does matter,” she said. “If you have a high-quality teacher with a manageable class size where children can have individual instruction, you’ve got rock-star things happening. That does concern me and it should concern parents.”