Reform must support innovation

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: January 18 2013 | 12:01 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:15 am in
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By The Gazette Editorial Board

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Gov. Terry Branstad was right when he said in his Condition of the State address this week that the middle of the pack in education is not good enough for Iowa’s kids.

The governor’s instincts on the need for change are sound. He deserves praise for driving a Statehouse debate on improving Iowa’s schools. And many of the ideas he proposed this week have merit.

Boosting beginning teacher pay is a good idea that could make the profession more appealing to talented young people. We see promise in creating a much more collaborative leadership and compensation structure for teachers, creating model, mentor and lead teacher positions that would offer assistance and training to peers. Reducing the teaching load on first-year teachers, with the goal of more time for training and mentoring, makes sense. Expanding the Teach Iowa program, which reduces loan debt for new teachers who commit to jobs in shortage areas, is a good idea.

We’re intrigued by efforts to strengthen teacher evaluations, including a student achievement components, but there will be a lengthy planning process before we know exactly what those evaluations will look like. We’re also interested in Branstad’s plan to certify Iowa students as “college-and-career ready.”

We also need to learn more before we pass judgment on the governor’s plan for remaking the current state school aid formula into a 100-percent, state-funded system. We’re concerned that his plan is driven more by a desire to reduce taxes than improve education.

Overall, some good ideas. The governor calls them “transformational.” We, respectfully, disagree.

Most of the reforms advocated by Branstad could alter and improve the way Iowa schools currently teach our children. However, we don’t think they will transform.

We see transformation as a far more dramatic process, one that remakes public schools to fit the needs of children growing up in the 21st Century, not during the Industrial Revolution. That means scrapping traditions and structures. It means re-imagining how public schools should function.

We believe that’s more likely to happen in a local classroom, building or district, and then spread to others. We’re less confident that it can come from the Statehouse, where powerful constituencies and political realities make real transformation very difficult. We’ve seen many top-down reform efforts, but precious little transformation.

We urge the governor and state leaders, as they seek improvements, to not put up more centralized barriers to real transformation. Make sure schools have adequate funding and the freedom to innovate.

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