Iowa Legislature making another attempt at education reform

Teacher pay, promotion key elements of proposals

Mike Wiser
Published: January 13 2013 | 5:30 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 9:58 am in
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DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad will again this session attempt to push a wide-ranging education reform package through a politically divided Statehouse, this time offering higher pay and different career paths for teachers.

Stung by the Legislature’s rejection of many of his reform proposals in 2012, the governor has handled this bill differently from the one put forth last year.

Policy recommendations have come from task forces, which were put in place by last year’s reform bill, rather than the Governor’s Office.

That contrasts with last session, when he presented a bill after holding a statewide summit in 2011 that was followed by a series of white papers and community meetings that outlined the plans and their costs. Branstad offered a 156-page education reform package, but lawmakers passed a 26-page bill.

Now his top education officials say it’s unlikely the governor will get into specifics before Tuesday’s Condition of the State address to the Legislature.

And it remains to be seen how closely he’ll adhere to the recommendations that came from five of the six task forces that met over the summer. The sixth report on competency-based instruction isn’t due until November.

TEACHER PAY

Branstad has said the centerpiece of the new education bill is a $150 million revamp of how teachers are paid and promoted. The task force on teacher leadership and compensation recommended moving the starting salary for Iowa teachers to a range of $40,000 to $45,000 over the next three years. That’s up from the current $28,000 to $35,000 range.

The task force also recommended bonuses for teachers in hard-to-fill subjects such as math, science and special education and a five-tiered career path: initial, career, model, mentor and lead teachers.

The theory is that raising teacher pay at the outset would attract more people to the profession. Likewise, increasing teacher salaries based on the level of responsibility they take on would retain some teachers who might otherwise move out of the classroom for administration spots or out of the profession altogether.

“Higher pay attracts better people,” said Jeff Orvis, a mathematics and computer programming teacher at Waverly-Shell Rock High School. “But (the theory is) also sort of a slap in the face, like saying, ‘I’m not working hard, but now I’ll work harder for more pay.’?”

Orvis is skeptical of the idea that math, science and special education teachers should make more than teachers of other subjects.

“It can be divisive inside your faculty,” he said.

Tom Downs, executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards, said the association supports raising teacher pay with the qualification that “there are a lot of unanswered questions.”

“I’ve seen reports that it will cost $150 million to implement this plan, and I’ve seen $170 million,” Downs said. “Everyone is concerned about local property taxes.”

Research on whether higher pay leads to better student test scores remains mixed. A University of Chicago study released in August 2012, for example, showed that offering pay bonuses to teachers resulted in students gaining as much as a 10 percentile increase in their standardized test scores. Conversely, a three-year study conducted by Vanderbilt University released in 2010 concluded there was “no overall effect on student achievement” despite bonuses that ranged from $5,000 to $15,000.

“I think money could be better spent to expand the teaching pool,” Orvis said. “Some may not like me saying that, but classroom size is probably more important.”

OTHER PROPOSALS

It seems unlikely the governor will call for a longer school year for all children despite saying it was one of the themes that emerged during his 2011 education town hall visits.

There’s the cost of extending the calendar, which the Iowa Department of Education pegged at $14.5 million for every extra day statewide. There’s also a task force report that recommended extending the school day for some students through before- and after-school programs as opposed to mandatory extra class time.

“We’re already aggressively seeking partnerships with our local businesses, especially at the high school level,” said Waterloo Superintendent Gary Norris, who served on the task force.

He said motivated students seeking opportunities through such things as job shadowing at a local business and extra instruction time for struggling students would be a better use of resources than expanding the day for all.

New evaluations for teachers and administrators likely will be part of the governor’s package, based on the recommendations of the task forces. Until Branstad releases details of what he wants — for example, how much will teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores — it’s difficult to say how it will play out in the Legislature.

Speaking at business luncheon last week, Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass said he wants the new evaluations to be “something very broad-based that standardized assessments can be part of it, but they also (can be) larger portfolios of student outcomes that show where students were performing at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year.”

Task force recommendations for preschool evaluations, however, aren’t likely to cause much consternation among educators, if any at all.

“I think it’s something we have been lacking in,” said Joyce Vermeer, an early childhood consultant with the Northwest Area Education Agency in Sioux City, who served as a member of the task force on early childhood education.

The group recommended adoption of an online assessment test for all preschoolers called the GOLD online assessment system. Vermeer said it’s already in use in about 80 percent of the state’s school districts but making it mandatory statewide would help ensure all students are on similar academic footing when they enter kindergarten.

Branstad said he’ll also push for more access to online courses for students, and he’s considering a program of tuition forgiveness for students who take certain majors in college. Details on those points also are expected to be forthcoming.

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