Iowa Gov. Proposes ‘Systemic’ Ed Reforms

Published October 4, 2011

Iowa’s governor and lieutenant governor have released a preliminary blueprint for “systemic” education reforms designed to make Iowa once again the nation’s top education state and equip its students to compete better internationally. They say they will submit the proposal to the state legislature in 2012 after allowing for public and educator comment and negotiating with lawmakers.

“Our schools need to be kicked in the posterior to be world-class quality. But people don’t want to hear that, to think their neighbor who is a teacher isn’t cutting it,” said Don Racheter, president of the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. “Only if the governor levels with people and makes a serious attempt to sell [the plan] will he develop the support necessary to motivate legislators.”

Budget Hike Being Considered
The ideas include a tiered system granting teachers more pay for increased mentoring responsibilities and filling high-need subjects, “value-added” teacher evaluations that include student test scores, ending “social promotion” for third graders, increasing teacher starting pay, expanding charter schools, and undoing “last in, first out” layoff policies.

“This is a good blend of some ambitious systemic change at the state level with opportunities for innovation at the local level,” Gov. Terry Branstad (R) said.

Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass emphasized the need to implement changes comprehensively, not as “a series of options to be cherry-picked based on special interests.”

Iowa spends 58 percent of its state budget on education, and Branstad said his plan might require a funding increase.

“Why don’t we take money from the parts that aren’t working rather than allocating more?” Racheter asked.

Three Priorities
Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) outlined three priorities in overhauling education: “Great” principals and teachers in every school; high expectations and clear measures; and innovation.

They said they expected their reforms to be phased in over about three years.

Iowa students’ average math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have risen since leading the nation in 1992, but the national average increased faster, landing Iowa’s better scores in the middle of the pack. Average reading scores in the state have dipped slightly since then.

“Over the last decade or so, we have not put in place some of the reforms that other states and some nations have adopted, such as high expectations for all students, so we have slipped in national education rankings,” Reynolds said.
Tiers for Teachers
The blueprint lists myriad changes intended to attract and retain talented teachers and principals. These include raising GPA requirements for teaching programs, testing prospective teachers for content knowledge, accepting teaching licenses from other states, and implementing peer evaluations.

It also suggests creating four categories of teachers: Apprentice teachers, or those with less than five years of experience; career teachers, with three to five years of experience and “demonstrated effectiveness”; mentor teachers, who apply through a competitive process to coach their peers; and master teachers, who apply competitively and spend half their workdays coaching teachers.

Current teachers could choose between this system or their current arrangements, commonly known as “step and lane” for rewarding years spent teaching rather than effective performance. All new teachers would enter the new system.

Retains Government Monopoly
Racheter said the governor should have included bolder reforms such as education tax credits or vouchers so parents “can choose the school that works best for them, not entrench the government monopoly.”

Though the plan includes measures to expand charter schools, he said the lack of detail on that point indicated “a lack of understanding of the need for flexibility and customization in education.

“You need to get away from having all students crammed into government schools and let every parent choose what is best for their children,” he explained, drawing on his 40 years of teaching. “One child might be good at sitting at their desk and learning the standard way, while another might need more hands-on learning or a Montessori school.”

Curriculum Alterations
Branstad also called for Iowa to follow Florida’s lead and end social promotion for third graders, requiring those who cannot read or do math at grade level to repeat that grade.

“If a student hasn’t mastered reading by third grade, they’ll be handicapped in their education all forward,” Branstad said.

The proposal calls for the state to raise education standards above the recently adopted Common Core “to put Iowa’s standards on par with the highest-performing systems in the world.” It would implement exit tests for core high school subjects such as U.S. history and algebra and require all eleventh graders to take the ACT or SAT.

Branstad and Reynolds said they will now travel to discuss their ideas with Iowan parents and education leaders, and plan to send an amended comprehensive proposal to the legislature before the 2012 session. Branstad said, he expects further changes after submission.

“You could present to the legislature the Magna Carta and they’d amend it,” he said.

Iowa’s legislature is divided between Republican control in the House and Democratic control in the Senate, meaning each chamber has “vastly different ideas for education reform,” said Tim Albrecht, Branstad’s communications director.

“There is no silver bullet in terms of education reform,” Albrecht said. “Everybody has ideas. Some are very good, and we want to incorporate as many positive ideas as possible to reach that consensus.”