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Education Issues in Iowa

posted on January 27, 2012

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Head of the class.  Governor Terry Branstad wants Iowa schools to, again, be best in the nation.  And he is proposing big changes for moving back to the top.  We're getting reaction from education leaders ... Tom Downs speaking for the School Boards, Mary Jane Cobb for the Teacher's Union and the state's Education Director Jason Glass on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Hardly anything matches the emotion-generating capability of children, teachers and schools in Iowa.  Local schools in Iowa currently getting more than half the state's budget.  But even with Iowa's emotional commitment and spending, some other states are moving ahead of this state.  That's a wake-up call because, until recently, in many measures, Iowa schools led the nation.  After first calling an education summit conference, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad is proposing big changes ranging from teacher preparation to ensuring that students are learning what they have to know to compete in today's global society.  As Iowa legislators are now shaping those education changes, we're seeking perspective from three key leaders influencing that debate.  Iowa State Education Association Director Mary Jane Cobb representing the Teacher's Union.  Iowa Association of School Boards Director Tom Downs.  And the state's Education Director Jason Glass who is leading the Governor's initiatives.  All three of you, welcome back to Iowa Press.

All: Thank you.

Borg: And across the Iowa Press table, Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Ms. Cobb, let's start with you.  The Governor has premised his whole education proposal on the notion that Iowa student performance has slipped behind and is now in the middle of the pack.  Is that a good premise to start with?

Cobb: It is a premise.  I'm not sure it's the best premise.  When you look at the test scores, Iowa has stagnated some and some states have caught up with us.  We're not doing worse.  The state's schools are still performing very well.  We have a graduation rate of 88%.  We finished second in the nation on ACT scores.  So there are good things happening in our schools.  We need to be very clear about that.

Glover: Mr. Downs, same question to you.  Is that a good premise to start with when you start examining Iowa schools?

Downs: I think it's a good premise if we're looking at continuous improvement and that's what we're about.  I think the Governor has been bold in his focus and priority on education and we certainly welcome that during the forefront of this plan.

Glover: Mr. Glass, I assume you would say that, since it's your premise, that students have slipped, that we need to focus on bolstering teacher performance and student performance.  Is that ...

Glass: I think Tom and Mary Jane are right to say that the schools in Iowa are good.  But we have stagnated in comparison to other states and more importantly in a global economy.  It's not just the other states that we have to be concerned about.  It is the competition that's around the world.  So even if our schools are good now, we have to be engaged in and work on how we can improve them and keep improving them.

Glover: Mr. Cobb, question to you.  The Governor's solution is more stringent standards for teachers and more testing for students.  Are those two things needed?

Cobb: I think that those may be the wrong drivers for the conversation.  We need to be talking about building the capacities in our schools.  We started this conversation back in July looking at the things we thought needed to happen in our schools.  We think teachers need more time to spend together to collaborate, to help each other critique their practice and to improve.  That is not addressed in the plan.  We talk about preparation in the plan but we don't talk about the way teachers spend their time in the school day and I think that is important.

Glover: Mr. Downs, same question to you.  The Governor's plan is predicated on more testing for students and higher standards for teachers.  Is that a good place to start?

Downs: I think raising standards for students and raising standards for administrators, raising standards for all educators is going to be the right driver.  However, I believe we need to focus on how we are delivering instruction and what we're delivering.  And I'm supporting the expansion of the Iowa core and the improvement of assessments, maybe not more assessments or additional assessments, but better assessments and better quality assessments so we're measuring what students know and what their growth has been over a given year.

Borg: Now are you disagreeing?  You both used the word driver here.  You said, shouldn't be the driver but teachers need more time to confer together.  Mr. Downs, you used the word driver and you said, yeah, those are the correct drivers.  Where do you differ here?

Downs: Where we differ I believe is that I don't want the focus to be on who the teachers are, I want the focus to be on what they are doing.

Cobb: That's right.

Downs: The curriculum they are delivering, the assessments that they are using to see student growth.  So, I would agree that assessments is part of this quality movement and I believe that raising standards for educators is part of it.

Henderson: Mr. Glass, let's then address that.  Who the teachers are is a big part of the Governor's proposal.  Are you missing the mark by coming up with this proposal that everyone has to have a 3.0 grade average to even enter into a teacher education program in college and then pass an exit exam once you get done with college?

Glass: Well, I want to come back to this assessment question very briefly.  These two individuals here with me today are absolutely right, that we have to be improving the assessments that we have in place.  I think that in the Governor's plan that we have put forth for this session and over the next few legislative sessions we'll be working to replace, update and improve the assessments we have in place.  So, that is work that we have to do.  On the question of do we need to put in higher standards for who becomes a teacher and how we train teachers, how we recruit and place teachers, how we support them and who we keep in the teaching profession, absolutely.  Even though those discussions are contentious, they are emotional, when we look at high performing systems around the world and think about the lessons that we can draw from them it is a universal concept that they make a stand and they recognize the importance of the classroom educator as a big driver in what improves education.  So, Iowa has to make a stand in this area too.

Henderson: Ms. Cobb, what is your response to that?

Cobb: Well, I think that the big piece that is missing in the proposal we see today is the piece about supporting teachers in the classroom.  There's a lot of emphasis on how we recruit them into the profession and how they exit the profession and not enough emphasis on what we do to support them in the classroom in terms of high quality professional development that is developed locally, meeting teacher's needs and the kind of support teachers need from each other, time to prepare, to plan and to reflect.

Borg: That is a change there, though, Kay, isn't it?  She said professional development but she said developed locally professional development. 

Cobb: Absolutely.

Borg: I think the plan, the plan is, isn't it Mr. Glass, that that come from the state, be dictated from the state level?

Glass: Well, the state should be defining what the state's goals are in terms of focusing the professional development.  But that professional development should be tailored, individualized to schools and what teachers need.  So there's a balance that we need to find across both of these.  We need some ...

Cobb: But the legislation doesn't provide that balance.

Glass: We need some coherence from the state about what is the direction that we need to go as a state.  And then that is differentiated, individualized to schools and teachers.

Borg: Go ahead, Ms. Cobb.

Cobb: I don't think the legislation provides that balance.  The legislation has the professional development opportunities developed at the state level and if the district wants to do something different they have to get a waiver.  We have our teacher quality committees in place right now.  We've been trying to drive those decisions down to the teacher level and this is a step backwards for us in that respect.

Henderson: Mr. Downs, the other complaint that I hear from groups that are not working for Mr. Glass and the Department of Education is that there's not enough money provided for the proposals that are included in the Governor’s scaled back plan.  Do you agree that there's not enough money directed for these proposals?

Downs: I think -- I'm glad you brought the money issue up because that is a big concern and a big question for us.  Concern in that we believe there is a shortage of funds now to do the things that need to be done to improve the quality of schools.  And every school district I am aware of is looking to live within its resources without putting more burden on local taxpayers.  And that is a conundrum they are in.  I think the Governor has stated that this is a $25 million plan for this year and that $17 million or so will be new money.  We need to see new money come with these initiatives.  We cannot repurpose the money we already have because it is invested in programs, it is invested in staff and many of those programs are just underway.

Henderson: Ms. Cobb, to sort of flip that, the state already spends about 60% of its budget on education related programs.  Why should the state spend more?  I mean, it is already spending the vast majority of its money on education.

Cobb: Well, first of all, I think it is one of our biggest priorities as a state.  The education of our young people is our economic driver.  And it is a people driven business.  You can't do education without a lot of people.  And so I'm unapologetic about the fact that the state has put that much resources in.  I agree with what Tom said, we can't be repurposing existing dollars.  This plan takes money out of professional development, it takes money out of class size.  Those are important initiatives that we need to maintain.

Glover: Is $17 million in new money enough?

Cobb: No.

Glover: How much do you need?

Cobb: Not for the kinds of reforms and not for the kinds of initiatives that they're talking about.  When you look at just one piece of it -- if you look at the SAMs program, the amount of money in the budget ...

Henderson: Which is?

Cobb: School Administrative Managers -- to put an additional person in a school to help with the administrative responsibilities.  There's not enough money in that budget item to cover that cost so local districts will have to pick that up.

Glover: So, how much more do you need?

Cobb: I'm not sure because I haven’t seen what it would cost to put an additional employee in every school district.  I know it's more than $500,000 or so.

Borg: Mr. Glass, one of the things I see from the School Board Association and from the Teacher's Union is they are fearing loss of local control.  I think that is one of the things that you may philosophically disagree with.  I think that you want more state control because you want all schools across the state to be adhering to the same standards.

Glass: I'd like to touch on this funding, excuse me, question very briefly because I think it is extremely important as we talk about all of these issues.  We should be investing more in education.  And this is the beginning of a multi-year effort to improve our schools.  But we can't just say give us more money and leave us alone.  We have to be willing to provide the funding to adequately bring about the changes we want and apply the right kind of pressures to improve the schools. 

Borg: And those pressures include loss of local control, that the state would be making more decisions.  You're shaking your head affirmatively.

Glass: The decisions involve what I hope will be the right balance of state and local control.

Borg: But would you agree that it is a loss of local control?

Glass: The right mix is that there are things that the state does well and should be engaged in and there are things at the local level that they do very well and should be engaged in.  And we have to find the right balance between the two.  I consider myself a radical moderate on this question because I don't think that a pure state driven system or a pure locally controlled driven system is the best mix for the state.

Borg: Ms. Cobb, what is wrong with that?  What is wrong with having all schools across the state adhering to the same standards and maybe rooting some of what Iowa has traditionally prided itself on?  And that is local control with school boards locally making decisions.

Cobb: As it relates to standards, we are moving in that direction with the adoption of the Iowa core which is being implemented at the beginning of this next school year.  So, I think that is an important piece.  The kinds of things that we're talking about are things like professional development decisions being made as far away from the classroom as possible, in Des Moines.  And then we're talking about things like a statewide screening for all new candidates coming into the profession.  Those are very different than just standards.  We're moving in a direction of statewide standards.  With the core I thin it's the right way to go.

Glover: Mr. Downs, one issue that gets talked about a lot is early childhood education.  The question is when should you start children in the education system?  There's talk about a four-year-old screening program and even earlier than that.  Talk about what needs to be done to get children ready for school.

Downs: I think student readiness for school, the whole concept of early learning, early literacy begins at home.  And each and every mom and dad know best when to begin their student in a formal program of education.  We've got the voluntary four-year-old program, a phenomenal program.  It may be one of the best things we've done in my 30 plus years in this state to improve literacy.  And I think the funding for that, as the Governor demonstrated this past spring, is important.  We want to protect that.  I believe that needs to continue, especially in the area of reading.  We've got a lot of discussion in this plan about retention of third graders for reading proficiency or lack of.  We think anything that supports more intensive assistance for early learning in the area of reading is going to be a winner.

Glover: Ms. Cobb, same question to you.  What about the focus on preschool?  When should that start?  And what should the state be doing?

Cobb: The state should be continuing to honor the commitment to our four-year-old preschool program.  And then we need to be looking at all of the other ways we touch young people.  Through our empowerment boards, through our community.  What we know in brain development is zero to five are critical years for young people and I would love to see our pediatricians and our hospitals send children home from the hospital with a book in addition to a car seat.  We need to make sure that language acquisition and learning is a part of their early development.  They need to come to us in school around four years old if their parents choose to do that.  But we need books in the home and that is a problem for some in our community who don't have the resources to do that.  We need to figure out how to get them there.

Glover: Mr. Glass, let me make you king of Iowa for a second.  If you could do whatever you wanted to improve preschool in this state, what would it be?  Assume you don't have a legislature, a governor to worry about.  You can just do what you want.  What would you do to improve preschool?

Glass: I think the responses given by Tom and Mary Jane are right.  You intervene early, you intervene often and you focus on literacy.  So were I king of Iowa that would be the focus that we would put in our early childhood education systems.

Henderson: Let's return to a discussion about teachers.  It occurs to me that we're sort of trying to make this a profession akin to being a CPA because you pass an exam and you become a certified public accountant.  There's no reward under the current system, Mr. Glass, because there's no enhanced pay currently in this proposal.  Don't you need to do those two things in concert -- raise the standards and also raise the pay for this "profession"?

Glass: I think for our educators the primary thing that motivates them is helping children.  It's not money.  Although money is certainly something that everyone pays attention to.  So I don't think it is an either/or question.  You have to be doing both.  And so the work that we're doing now around raising the quality for standards and entry into the profession is work that we have to do.  The task force that is in this recommendation that will bring back guidance, a plan for what we should do with the compensation for the next session when we're at the top of a new two-year budget cycle is important.  These are all questions that we have to engage in.  And, again, this is a multi-year effort.  This is not a one shot deal.  We have to engage in this effort of improving schools now and be willing to invest in that effort for the years to come.

Henderson: Mr. Downs, what are your thoughts on this?  Do teacher pay schedules need to grow exponentially to get people to choose to be a teacher rather than an engineer or a CPA or a lawyer?

Downs: I was struck at the summit in July with conversations from some of the global participants about raising the profession of education.  And they talked about the image within their communities.  They talked about the beginning salaries.  But when we listened to those educators it was about the relationship they had with kids.  It still comes down to you have in your heart a desire to work with young people.  And I agree with Jason, it's not driven by money.  I don't believe raising salaries is going to raise the standard of the quality.  I believe we've got good teachers now.  I have not found a shortage of applicants for positions that I have been hiring in the last 30 years.

Borg: Ms. Cobb, why is the Teacher's Union and the School Board Association too, for that matter, why are you objecting to annual teacher reviews?  That is a standard in business now, an annual performance review for most any individual.

Cobb: I think there's a lot of misconception about what we're talking about when we talk about annual reviews versus the every three years we have now.  A teacher evaluation, a formal evaluation involves hours and hours of observation, of conversation and in the off years, the other two years, that teacher is not left alone on his or her own to perform their practice.  There is an improvement plan.  There are opportunities for administrators to be in their classroom.  What we do every three years is a very formal process that is very time intensive.  That should be developed and built around giving teachers appropriate feedback.  And in some places it is not being implemented with the fidelity it should.  And our fear is that if we just add to the frequency we're going to water down the response and the quality of what teachers get in terms of feedback.

Glover: Mr. Downs, are you comfortable with the testing requirements in this proposal?

Downs: No.  I'm comfortable with raising the quality of assessments.  I'm comfortable with assessing growth of a student over the course of a year.  But more testing for the purpose of testing leaves me with some questions.  I'm opposed to the requirement that every 11th grader take a college entrance exam.  I think that is a cost to the state that we can't afford and I don't think it is a value for young people.  I think there are many kids who are planning to go to college and if they don't have the funds to take those assessments, yes, the state can support that.  But every student?  I don't believe that is right minded.

Glover: Ms. Cobb, same question to you.  Are you comfortable with the testing requirements in this proposal?

Cobb: No.  What I hear most from teachers is we need to be serious about why we're testing or assessing students.  Assessments need to be about providing information back to the classroom teacher and to the school about how to improve instruction.  That is the only reason we need to be testing students, to help move them along.  When you look at something like PISA, the test that has been proposed for a sampling of our 9th grade students, that is something that is literally an international benchmark.  Our teachers don't get that kind of information back. That has a $1.5 million price tag for 3,000 students every three years.  That is $500 a student.  We could spend that money a much better way.

Glover: Mr. Glass, you've heard the criticism.  Respond.

Glass: I disagree respectfully with my two colleagues here.  The importance of measures is more than just providing feedback to the classroom teacher, although that is extremely important.  We need to look at something like a college entrance exam such as ACT so that every kid in Iowa has a key to get into college and to be able to look at how our state is comparing against the other 9 states where all students take the ACT.  And I believe that our students will surprise us with how well they do on that assessment.  We also need that international PISA assessment because it is critically important to think about how Iowa schools are doing in comparison to our international competitors.

Glover: But is the administration out of step?  You've just heard the school boards, you've just heard the teachers say this testing proposal is wrong headed?  Are you out of step?

Glass: I think I'm right in step.  Sometimes you have to be willing to go against the grain of what conventional wisdom is telling us.  These assessment proposals are about improving, updating the system of measures that we have in the state.  And I just don't think it's something that we can back down from.

Glover: Mr. Downs?

Downs: I respectfully disagree.  I believe if we're testing for the purpose of comparing ourselves to other states or other countries that is not the right driver.  I believe we ought to be testing our kids to see if they have learned within the span of a year what we have wanted them to learn.  I support the keys to the future are quality instruction, quality curriculum and those students who are prepared to take the college test, who have readied themselves with the right coursework certainly assessments are good.

Henderson: Ms. Cobb, he just mentioned the span of a year.  The Governor and Mr. Glass are touting this blueprint as something really significant.  Wouldn't it be more significant if a kid didn't have to sit in a math class for a year, if they had already learned how to add and subtract?  Wouldn't it be more significant if there was significant reform of how students move through the system?

Cobb: You're actually landing on a piece of the blueprint that we like and that is the piece around competency based instruction and a way to structure our schools so that they fit the student and that a student who doesn't need nine weeks in math doesn't have to be there and a student like me who would need eighteen weeks of math can still be there.  So, I think that that's an important conversation.  It is a big system change.  It's going to require a lot of work.  But it is one we need to engage in.

Borg: Let me see how you can answer this diplomatically.  Is the legislature, just rank and file people, the best place to be designing an education system?

Cobb: I have a lot of faith in our legislature to listen to the people that are practitioners and make good decisions.  But the decisions about curriculum, the decisions about assessments, those kinds of things need to be made very closely in touch with what teachers ...

Glover: We don't have a lot of time left.  Ms. Cobb, let's start with you.  If there is one thing that the legislature and the Governor can do to help out Iowa schools, what would it be?

Cobb: Give teachers time to work together, to reflect on their practice, to improve their practice and to get better at their jobs.

Glover: Mr. Glass, same question to you.  What is the most important thing the state can do to improve its schools?

Glass: I don't disagree with what Mary Jane said and I think that over the next few years we have to address that issue, that issue of time for collaboration is critically important.  The most pressing issue that we have right now is can we get the state policies in place so that we can put in a waiver proposal with the U.S. Department of Education to get us out of some of the burdensome and onerous components of No Child Left Behind.  So that is pressuring us right now.

Glover: Are you going to succeed in that?

Glass: I think if we can get some changes made in Iowa this legislative session I believe we'll be very successful with it.  If we don't get any movement I'm not very optimistic.

Glover: Mr. Downs, same question to you.  You're kind of Iowa.  One thing to be done to help Iowa schools.  What would it be?

Downs: I've heard dictator today and I've heard kind and neither of those seem to fit my thinking.  I respect your questions about local control because, again, the School Board Association, one of our guiding principles and anchor beliefs is local decisions should drive what is best for local schools.  I think the thing we can focus on is improving the quality of the teaching and the curriculum.  I think the Iowa core needs to be implemented effectively.  I think professional development needs to be aligned with that.  I want the focus to be on what we're teaching, not who is teaching it and that quality has to include assessing and evaluating our kids learning that.  I like the competency based movement.  That is changing from seat time too.  Let's move at the rate that the students …

Borg: I'm sorry, we're out of time.  Thanks so much for being with us today.  A lively conversation.

All: Thank you.

Borg: Next week on Iowa Press we're getting Governor Terry Branstad's perspectives on changing Iowa schools and many other subjects.  You'll see our conversation with Governor Branstad at 7:30 Friday night and our new time at noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: education education reform government Iowa Jason Glass Mary Jane Cobb news politics Tom Downs