Building a ladder. Governor Terry Branstad's new education plans envisioning Iowa's schools climbing back to best in the nation. We're questioning those building the ladder, school boards executive director Tom Downs and teachers’ union director Mary Jane Cobb on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: When Iowa's General Assembly reconvenes next January Iowa schools will be heading the agenda not only for the usual funding decisions but this time considering aggressively modifying systems for deciding who teaches and how students are learning. The initiative follows Governor Terry Branstad's mid-summer "Education Summit", a wake-up call, if you will, to declining student achievement in Iowa's K-12 schools as compared to some other states, something new for Iowans accustomed to usually smiling about the state leading in test scores. The proposed remedies are affecting legislators and depending on what they decide, teachers, administrators and school boards ... students too. Mary Jane Cobb directs the teachers union, the Iowa State Education Association. Tom Downs, a retired school superintendent, now directs the Iowa Association of School Boards. Ms. Cobb, Mr. Downs, welcome to Iowa Press.
Cobb: Thank you.
Downs: Thank you, Dean.
Borg: We look forward to a lively discussion because this is affecting a lot of us as I have just said. And across the Iowa Press table, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Ms. Cobb, let's start with you. The fundamental underlying assumption that goes into Governor Branstad and many legislative leaders' approach to school reform, if you will, is that Iowa schools are declining and not keeping up with other schools around the country and around the world. Is that a good assumption?
Cobb: The assumption is that we're declining and I think we're not declining, we're not growing as fast as some other systems have been. I think if you look at the test scores we have gone up in our scores, we have not gone up as quickly as some other states have. So, we're not in decline as far as performance, we're in decline as far as how we rate against other systems.
Glover: Mr. Downs, so that means that reform is needed?
Downs: I think it is time for reform and as Mary Jane said, the growth and the development of the global economy is such that other countries are growing quickly in their school improvement efforts and we maybe have not grown as rapidly and that has been the assault on Iowa schools and I think it is the premise for the whole reform movement.
Glover: Ms. Cobb, people say it's going to take money. Will it?
Cobb: Sure, absolutely.
Glover: How much?
Cobb: I have no idea and when we've asked that question the answer we get is we need to look at what the right components of the plan are first and then they'll give us a price tag of the plan but it's going to cost money.
Glover: Where will that money go -- to teachers, to facilities?
Cobb: Well, I think we have facilities taken care of in some of the infrastructure monies that are available. I think when you look at the plan the salary component that they talk about is going to cost money. There are testing components in here that will cost money. There are pieces related to how we mentor teachers and those kinds of things that are going to cost money so there's going to be expense.
Glover: Mr. Downs, Jason Glass, the director of the Iowa Department of Education is trying out his education proposal. He has said it is going to cost money. Are you in line with that proposal? Does that do the right things? And how much do you think it will cost?
Downs: Well, we're still educating our members on this proposal and that is the position we're taking, not one of opposition or advocacy, one of education. I think it is going to cost money. My concern is, is it going to be reallocating the money we currently have or, in other words, realigning it, programs to salaries or is it going to be new money? The cost of the ACT test for all juniors isn't inexpensive. I think the cost of training if we're going to have teachers involved in evaluation and teachers coaching teachers there's going to be intensive training required for that. That means time away from classrooms ...
Glover: Which is money.
Downs: Yeah, it is money.
Glover: Is anybody giving any though to how much this will cost?
Downs: I think the Governor has clearly said that at this stage he is gaining feedback on the reform, he wants to know what people can favor, what they would change and what suggestions and he has readily admitted if we can find initiatives that are going to be supported by Iowans we'll find the money.
Henderson: You two represent organizations, teachers, administrators who have been involved in discussions about past reform efforts. I think before we get to talking about details like those ACT tests for high schools, high schoolers I'm just wondering if change will actually occur. In your opinion, will change actually occur from the perspective of teachers?
Cobb: That is the question that teachers ask when we have this conversation, I think it is the question they're asking themselves. We're sort of an industry that is exploding with good ideas, bad ideas, neutral ideas right now and teachers are a little skeptical about where it is coming from and what it's going to look like and if it is actually going to make it into the classroom. And so I think the consensus building process that the Governor’s office is trying to engage in now is helping people understand that they are moving on an initiative.
Henderson: On the part of administrators is there some building momentum for actual reform or is the status quo going to win again?
Downs: As I represent school boards what administrators are asking me is how can you help boards embrace the need for change? How can we help boards understand that these reforms are timely and will benefit schools? But change is a process that people go through. I'm encouraged that the Governor recognizes this as a five to ten year initiative. It may take five years before we see any results of these changes. I've heard one thing in Iowa education that it's not a push or a shove, it is a lead and it is an educate.
Henderson: You mentioned that you represent school boards. You don't consider them part of the administration of the school?
Downs: Clearly they are the executive branch of the school administration but as Dean said at the start, I still see life pretty much through the eyes of a superintendent having retired in June. I remind myself I'm now serving boards. I think boards of education want change, they want better classroom teachers, they want higher achievement, they want more technology, they want their kids prepared to compete in a global economy.
Glover: Is there the patience among the electorate to wait this five to ten years before something happens, before they see the results? The electorate is notoriously short-sided.
Downs: And right now the electorate is clearly tied with the financial challenges that Iowa schools are facing. We have been underfunded, there's no shortage of people who are critical of this plan because they feel the money isn't there currently to meet the needs and I think boards are going to have to revisit their priorities. Is there going to be a support, a new salary structure system? Is it going to be supporting teacher development and shared decision making on hiring and on evaluation? Lots of challenges.
Glover: Ms. Cobb, what role do teachers play in, I guess, making this play out, helping sell this program to an electorate that is not all that patient and may not be willing to wait for five years for something to happen?
Cobb: I actually think that the decision to maintain the course with the Iowa core, there was some discussion the last legislative session to move away from the core and go to a different set of standards ...
Borg: Now, that is the core curriculum?
Cobb: The Iowa core curriculum, right. I think that the decision to stay that course was an indication that we have some patience. That's going to be a little test for us to see if we're willing to take a long-term initiative and implement it.
Borg: This is not a question to lay the blame for the past, it is a question of if you're going to make some changes you have to know why change proposals in the past haven't worked. So, why haven't they worked? Who is to blame for Iowa schools, as you have made the distinction, falling behind, maybe not declining as such but falling behind other states? And is it lack of funding? Mr. Downs has mentioned it's going to take money and there has been underfunding in the past. Is it underfunding? Is it the teachers union because the teachers union has been blamed for wanting status quo and not making changes in the past? Is it local control, local school boards wanting we control the standards here? Why in the past have these proposed changes failed to make a difference?
Cobb: I would say that one of the reasons they failed to make a difference in the past is we have not given them a chance to be implemented. We are notorious in education for flavor of the month, this is the initiative we're going to do today and then we try it for a little bit and then we move onto the next. Teachers want real reform of a lasting nature and that is why I think they're looking at the Iowa core, something that they can hang their hat on for more than just a week. Certainly funding is a part of the issue and I hope you hear me saying that teachers aren't defending the status quo on this one, teachers want to improve. Nobody wants schools to be better more than teachers do but they need the support and the structures. Teachers need more time for collaboration. Teachers have to go in their classroom, work with their students, have very little time to interact with each other, to reflect on the practices, to go in and observe a different teacher, to see a different methodology. We need to be able to move teachers out of their classroom across their schools into other buildings if necessary to learn to practice and reflect with each other to improve the way that they are all working with students.
Borg: Mr. Downs, you have been around for a long time as a superintendent, now with the school boards. Why have things failed in the past?
Downs: I think as Mary Jane said it is a combination of challenges we've had -- I go back to funding continues to not give these initiatives a long range life. I'll go back now to thinking that the federal government is looking at reauthorizing the elementary and secondary education act ...
Borg: No Child Left Behind.
Downs: Well, it's going to be a little modification of No Child Left Behind and those of us who have been critical of No Child Left Behind because of the punitive measures recognize and I think we'd agree that there is a new conversation, a richer conversation between teachers and teachers and teachers and administrators and board members and administrators about student achievement and about shrinking that achievement gap between kids regardless of what their demographic issues are. I have confidence that this reform plan has already engaged educators in conversations about what we can do to improve and that really is one of the benefits of how we're ...
Borg: You're more optimistic about this one succeeding then?
Downs: I'm very optimistic about this succeeding. I think it is going to take times and some investment of resources but I believe this provides teachers, administrators, board members a united front to talk about how can we improve schools.
Glover: Ms. Cobb, there is a lot of talk and Mr. Downs just mentioned it, the No Child Left Behind, there is a lot of criticism of No Child Left Behind. What is wrong with that law?
Cobb: It is too punitive. It sets goals that sometimes are unattainable for schools and have a sort of punitive sort of reaction instead of supports. When we identify lowest achieving schools what we need to do is go in and provide the teachers in those schools the kind of professional development they need to improve their practices, to work with the student populations that they have. We need more supports and less sort of naming and blaming and so I'm hoping that as Senator Harkin and his committee work through the reauthorization they'll look at that and from every indication I've seen so far they are.
Glover: Mr. Downs, same question to you. What is wrong with No Child Left Behind?
Downs: I believe that the punitive measures ...
Glover: And these punitive measures I assume don't meet certain requirements on test scores ...
Downs: By 2014 school staff are replaced, school leadership is replaced and in essence the state or the federal government could take over the operation of the school. That hasn't happened in Iowa. We are kind of amused by what would happen nationally if the federal government tried to take over all the schools. We know it couldn't happen. It is a local decision and we have talked about local control. But what I think is good about No Child Left Behind is it has raised the conversation about what we can do to reduce the achievement gap between those kids who have plenty and those kids who don't, those kids who have disabilities and those who don't. It has engaged us in new conversations about student achievement, about how we assess and test students ...
Glover: The Governor and Jason Glass at the Education Department have trotted out their education reform proposal. Are you supportive of that? Do you think that is headed in the right direction?
Downs: I think the whole reform movement, as I said a moment ago, is cause for all of us to be supportive, hopefully encouraged. The devil is in the details as we all have heard. I think as I've watched the Governor and Jason go out to the state and begin these town hall meetings one thing that isn't in the report but it seems to be a question asked at the end of all the town hall meetings is should we lengthen the school year. Well, this plan is going to require a lengthening of the school year for teacher training, for administrative and teacher partnerships and I'm certainly believing it will enrich the conversations that happen at school board meetings ...
Glover: Ms. Cobb, does it mean a longer school year?
Cobb: The salary component does increase the number of days that teachers work, it doesn't increase the school year for students.
Glover: So, there should be a longer school year in your view?
Cobb: I didn't say that. I actually think that we should consider a longer school year for some of our student populations. To say that we have a set number of school days and that is right for every child is probably not the best way to approach this. We have some students who need that extra support over the summer and different structures. A lot of school districts are trying different kinds of calendars too, spreading the 180 days differently so that we don't have the loss of learning over the summer like a lot of students experience.
Borg: Kay, you've been trying to get a question in here.
Henderson: The Branstad administration has suggested testing third graders to see if they are reading at grade level, if they don't pass that test they're not socially permitted to go onto fourth grade, they have to repeat third grade. Is that a good idea to keep students from advancing if they haven't mastered the craft of reading?
Downs: I think we're both going to jump in shoulder to shoulder on this one. As educators we know the research on retaining students shows little support for, that benefits the student -- retention has not worked, retention does not prove to be in the student's best interest, however, the reading plan that we look at here intensifies supports for reading, prioritizes reading at primary levels to be job one and it needs to be. Students need to be reading by third grade but the idea of retaining them and then moving them to fourth grade at a time that they suddenly are proficient creates lots of demographic issues and logistical problems.
Henderson: The Branstad administration specifically cites Florida which is doing this and they cite success there and they actually say the Spanish speaking students are reading better than all Iowa students at third grade as a result.
Cobb: I have heard those same reports. What I hear is from fourth grade teachers who have a real significant concern about the fact that a third grade teacher, a third grade student when they are deemed proficient after they have been held back would be introduced into a fourth grade classroom at any point in the year. That student is going to have missed everything that has happened up until that point. How do we reintegrate them? What do we do if we have a student that is great with numeracy, they are very good with numbers, their math grades are good and they have problems with reading? Are we holding them back in math and moving them forward? I think that the focus on reading is good. I'm not convinced the retention is right. I know what the Florida numbers say but I want to talk to some more teachers in Florida and see what they say.
Henderson: I want to talk about testing, ACT testing for high schoolers next but before we go there you have raised an interesting issue. Critics of the current model for education say students should move through the system at their own pace and that parking them in third grade for nine months is ridiculous. As part of this reform movement will there be a movement to let students move at their own pace and get rid of this idea that you have first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade?
Cobb: The invention part of the plan deals with a movement away from the current unit which is the number of hours that a student is in a class and I think they are approaching it through some school districts piloting it initially and then looking at ways that the system supports students moving through the system at their own pace.
Henderson: Would Iowa schools easily be able to do this with every kind of sized school from small school to middle to large school?
Downs: I think Iowa schools already are doing that, Kay. I think they are moving kids along as their skills indicate and as parent and education leaders determine that is best for the student. Whether it is wholesale that we blow the lines between grades I don't see that kind of reform happening.
Glover: One of the things that is involved in the Governor's recommendation is some kind of a way of valuing teachers, linking teacher pay to performance in the classroom. There's been a lot of criticism of that because it is usually linked to student tests. The Governor's program does not link teacher pay to student test performance and puts a bunch of other evaluating questions in. What is the best way of evaluating how teachers are doing, Mr. Downs?
Downs: I think the best way to evaluate how teachers are doing is working with that teacher in a formative way, being in the classroom, giving them feedback constantly, allowing them opportunities to visit other classrooms, promoting district wide professional development. I think it is clear the Governor and Jason do not believe in this being a pay for test scores. I think the pay components or salary components of this plan are more in line to raise the profession, to attract quality college students to choose education and to maintain the teachers who already are in the profession and doing very well to stay in the classroom rather than them leaving the classroom for other fields or choosing administration ...
Borg: Ms. Cobb, where would you like to change Governor Branstad's plan as it relates to teachers and following up on Mike's question? Where would you like to change it?
Cobb: The concept of teacher leader roles is an amazing one, it is one that we have got to consider. When you look at the plan there are percentages of teachers at each level. We don't need to cap how many master teachers a district has. Local districts need to be able to decide what they need in terms of master teachers and mentor teachers. We need to have more flexibility for local districts and their local associations to negotiate what is best in their circumstances.
Glover: Are you in line with the Governor's proposal that teachers ought to be evaluated on a number of things other than just the performance of their students on test scores?
Cobb: Currently the plan doesn't address a change in the evaluation as much as it changes the way we evaluate schools. If you're asking me if I think students' standardized test scores should be a part of a teacher's evaluation my answer to that is I think we already have an overreliance on standardized tests in this country.
Glover: So, what should they be evaluated on?
Cobb: They should be evaluated on the observation of their classes. What teachers tell us constantly is they want the feedback, they want someone to come in, do an observation, give them support, give them feedback on how to improve their practice. That is where the evaluation comes in.
Henderson: Mr. Downs, earlier you mentioned the cost of administering the ACT tests to every high school to gauge their proficiency in the various courses. Is that the wrong approach?
Downs: I don't favor that approach.
Downs: I believe that many of our students are choosing a career in vocations. We know the ACT and the SAT are designed to be college readiness exams. I think the cost is going to far outweigh the value of having all Iowa students do it and my fear is that the reason we want all juniors to do it is it is another measure to compare us to other states, other kids, other countries. And testing for the purpose of just measuring how we look against Massachusetts or Wisconsin or Sweden or Finland isn't to me a good investment ...
Borg: A nod here from Ms. Cobb.
Cobb: I agree completely. We need to look at why we test students. If we're only assessing our students so that we can benchmark them against students in other states and other countries it is the wrong reason. We need to be assessing students so that teachers can change their practice, find out what they are learning, what they are not learning and help them ...
Henderson: The Iowa Board of Educational Examiners has tabled a controversial proposal which would let non-licensed professional go into the classroom and teach in particular subject areas like math and science. Mr. Downs, do you think that is a good idea?
Downs: Alternative pathways for finding teachers or finding administrators or finding superintendents is really a reform for Iowa schools. I do believe with some careful analysis of their skills sets, of their life experiences it is more than content mastery that makes a teacher effective, it is that whole affective side, it is the relationships, it is the skill set to communicate with young people. I do believe there are professionals in the trades and in the other professions that would make excellent teachers but there has to be a clear screening process and if we call that an alternative pathway than a four year degree at a regent school, fine.
Glover: Ms. Cobb, let's look at the practical side of things. Coming in January all of these issues are going to have to work their way through the legislature. Tell me what role your organization is going to play in advancing this agenda through the legislature because both the Governor, legislative leaders in both parties say they want to deal with it. How are you going to help move it through the legislature?
Cobb: Well, in all honesty I can't tell you today that we're going to help move it through the legislature because we have not taken a position in support of or in opposition to. We're doing our homework right now. We will certainly provide the teacher voice in that conversation having our members be in constant contact with their legislators about what the teacher voice in this is.
Glover: What concerns do you have with it?
Cobb: What concerns do I have with it? I have a lot of concerns in what I don't know about it. There are pieces in here that sound really good in a one-line statement but I need to know where the funding comes from, what the changes to statute are, really matters about the details.
Glover: Mr. Downs, same question to you. What role do you think your organization is going to play in advancing this through the legislature and have you decided to try to advance it?
Downs: Well, we're going to advance educating board members throughout the state about the details and logistics but as Mary Jane has shared we still haven't seen the costs. Boards are very concerned about unfunded mandates. Boards are very concerned about living within their revenue stream, very concerned about local property taxes and we know that corporate and commercial and residential property taxes are issues the Governor also has interest in. How that all plays in unity as we work on improving schools ...
Glover: Can you back what they're talking about reducing commercial and industrial property taxes? That is going to have a huge impact on schools.
Downs: Huge impact on local schools. We have lots of concerns about that.
Glover: Ms. Cobb, same question to you.
Cobb: Same concerns, we have a lot of concerns about that. And I will tell you there are other pieces in the blueprint we have some pretty specific concerns about that I don't think would surprise people and some of the parts of this that diminish teacher's rights and make teachers out will employees for much longer, change the appeals process in termination, some of those things. I don't believe that we have to diminish teacher's rights to improve student learning and we're going to have to have a good conversation about that.
Borg: Mike, you raised a point I'm not sure our viewers understood with concern about property taxes?
Glover: The Governor has proposed some reductions in commercial and industrial property taxes, commercial and industrial property taxes obviously help build schools so that could be a problem, Mr. Downs, for both of you.
Downs: I think it will be. I mean, if it takes local revenue away or changes the assessed valuation of a district it obviously is going to sway the local impact on property tax payers and board members are constantly analyzed by their constituents about the value and the burden put on them by local taxes.
Glover: Ms. Cobb, will you be fighting that?
Cobb: Yes. Anything that we do to take revenue out of the funding stream for schools either has to be replaced in another way or we have to cut programs.
Glover: What you're talking about is more revenue, not less.
Cobb: You mean in this program? This program is definitely talking about more revenue ...
Glover: Give me a ballpark on what you think this is going to cost.
Cobb: I think we're in the hundreds of millions.
Glover: Mr. Downs?
Downs: I have no idea. I've heard hundreds of millions ...
Glover: But you wouldn’t disagree with her hundreds of millions ...
Downs: No, not at all. My question and what I still have yet to have answered, how much are we going to require districts to just reassign or redistribute existing state funds? We know that education is a huge part of the Iowa budget ...
Downs: You take that percent, I don't see a lot more money coming to education so we're going to have to look internally what are we going to do without to implement this and that is the devil in the details.
Henderson: Let's talk about the student experience. There are many who say the student experience in the small school is not that of the student in a larger school because they don't have access to the kinds of courses that their colleagues in larger schools have. This really doesn't address the size issue which legislators are never willing to touch. But is that one of the flaws of this plan that it doesn't address the quality of the teaching at all levels and the size of schools, Mr. Downs?
Downs: I'm not certain that the failure to address consolidation or reorganization of Iowa's small, medium and large schools is an issue here that we need to concern ourselves with. It certainly will be an issue in front of the state in the near future. We know that there are quality graduates coming from all Iowa schools. We can look at some of the top students coming from small schools. But the use of technology with effective teaching, with supports for our kids we're finding that regardless of the size of the district they are improving. It is the cost to the state of those small school that is I think going to be a real concern.
Henderson: Can Iowa afford as many school districts as it has currently?
Cobb: The students have to go to school somewhere and we're going to have to educate our students in our rural communities in a school in some mechanism so that cost is not going to change.
Downs: I don't believe Iowa can continue to afford the number of schools we currently have.
Borg: And that is almost heresy from you isn't it?
Downs: Well, if you think about it, it's heresy in that we've got to think about transforming, reorganizing and looking better at how we can share and collaborate. We have to remember that the word community is in the name of most of our local schools and community is not just our local town, our local city ...
Borg: I have to interrupt, I'm sorry that we're out of time.
Cobb: We've got a whole other show on that topic.
Borg: Thanks so much for being with us. As we close, a reminder that the Internet is your direct link to our Iowa Press staff. The address, the e-mail address is at the bottom of the screen right now. We'll be back next weekend at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.