Iowa Education Blueprint: Potent Ideas, Gentle Approach

Published October 14, 2011

Iowa’s governor has just provided a prime example of an education policy states might pursue in looking beyond No Child Left Behind’s notorious failures and coverups. On October 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 early 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.

Alarmed at Iowa’s slide, Branstad has called for “systemic” reform, releasing a Christmas list of changes he and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds plan to discuss further with Iowa parents and educators before sending it to the state legislature next year.

Their 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. Mentor teachers and principals selected by a competitive process would evaluate and coach these peers.

Current teaching pay schedules reward “butt in seat” time rather than excellent track records, which a shift to performance-related pay (though, thankfully, not based on remote, arbitrary standards) would replace. The proposal 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 the new standards. It requires exit tests for core high school subjects such as U.S. history and algebra, and it ends social promotion for third graders, as Florida has done with great success. Branstad’s plan also uses student test scores to measure how specific teachers contribute to or detract from each child’s education, both to pinpoint weaknesses for improvement and to discover excellent educators and best practices.

The blueprint’s third component is innovation, which it would promote by 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, again, merely putting in seat time.

All these ideas have surfaced in recent policy studies and legislative sessions. Branstad’s approach is unique, however, both for his intent to implement as many as possible simultaneously and for the low-key public relations sell he has taken at least a year to compose and roll out.

Branstad could have used his position and a media blowout to push for even bolder reforms, such as vouchers or education tax credits, which are succeeding in Arizona, Ohio, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. But the Republican and former medical university president seems a bit circumspect about the prospects of accomplishing anything that significant with a Republican House and Democratic Senate in a notoriously moderate swing state.

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.

As Branstad said when introducing the blueprint, “You could present to the legislature the Magna Carta and they’d amend it.”

Combining potent ideas with a gentle approach appears likely not just to spark conversation in Iowa and the nation as a whole but also to win Branstad the political support necessary to persuade the state legislature. That, of course, remains to be seen, but it’s a promising possibility.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.