Education Reform Looms Large

Governor Branstad unveiled his vision for education reform earlier this week, a plan that will likely dominate much of the discussion during the 2012 legislative session. The plan was developed primarily by Department of Education Director Jason Glass, and the Governor’s Assistant for Education, Linda Fandel. Following the Education Summit, which the Governor hosted this summer, they set to work taking ideas from multiple sources and began drafting a plan. After several meetings with many education stakeholders, including legislators, school boards, teachers unions, school administrators, AEAs, and the business community, a draft was composed.

The heart of the plan is to get a great teacher in every classroom and a great principal in every building. Director Glass has emphasized many times that this is a comprehensive plan with many pieces that all fit together. This is a systemic change of “Strategic Persistence,” reforms that pull together, make sense, last years, and will take time to work.

Here is the breakdown:

I. The Centerpiece: Great Teachers and Principals
This portion of the plan is meant to help raise the teaching profession, make sure that skilled educators and leaders are being produced by preparatory programs, proper support and mentoring is being provided to them, and a pay scale and career ladder that have impact are created.

To attract talented educators, preparatory programs have to be more selective on who enters and exits teacher prep programs. Raising the bar on who enters the profession helps to ensure quality individuals are making it through and being placed in front of children. In addition, not all talent comes from a traditional teacher prep program and the plan would look to include ways for alternative pathways to enter teaching. If an individual is qualified and has years of experience in their field, they make me an excellent educator.

For recruiting and hiring great teachers and leaders, a “one-stop” educator recruiting system for Iowa needs to be developed, where prospective teachers can go online to find education jobs, a unified state application process and links to relevant sources such as the licensing process. This would also include allowing reciprocity for teachers licensed in other states. There would also be the creation of school-level hiring teams comprised of current teachers and parents in those buildings who would pass recommendations onto administrators and school boards.

For supporting teachers in the field and those who are new to the profession, leadership roles would be established to provide mentoring, coaching, and peer evaluations. Mentor and Master Teachers would be in every building and would spend time out of their day serving as instructional leaders along with principals. Additional hours would be required, based on their level in the career ladder, and teachers would be required to meet weekly in small groups to plan and collaborate on teaching and student learning.

Peer evaluation would become a part of the system, with a new educator evaluation system being put into place in which teachers would receive multiple evaluations yearly by both administrators and other teachers. The evaluations would take into account many factors to help teachers find where they are and how they can improve. It is a system that will be meant for improvement, not punishment.

Finally, a new pay-scale and four-tiered career ladder would be put into place for all new teachers and for any teacher on the current pay system that want to switch over. The four tiers are:

  1. Apprentice teacher (years 1 to 5):
    1. Beginning salary around $40K
    2. At-will employees
    3. Teach 100% of the day
    4. About 20% of the workforce
  2. Career teacher (years 5+):
    1. Salary around $50K
    2. Teach 100% of the day
    3. About 60% of the workforce
  3. Mentor Teacher (Selective hiring process):
    1. Salary around $55K to $60K
    2. Teach 75% of the day, mentor 25% of the day
    3. About 15% of the workforce
    4. 10 additional contract days
  4. Master Teacher (Selective hiring process):
    1. Salary around $65K to $70K):
    2. Teach 50% of the day, mentor 50% of the day
    3. About 5% of the workforce
    4. 20 additional contract days

Mentor and Master Teachers would be selected based on performance in a competitive process. The goal is to get teachers who are great at their profession to evaluate, mentor, and share best practices with other teachers. The positions would be decided by the principal and would be at-will, with a teacher returning to the career teacher tier if removed.

Additional salary options would be available for advanced degrees in content areas, national board certification, performance based elements determined locally, hard to fill subjects or areas, and working in high poverty schools, among other options.

Another change being suggested is in job protections and effectiveness. The plan would do away with the last-in-first-out policy of reduction in force situations, instead putting into place a democratic firing process that would involve a committee of peers at some level, with final decisions being made by the principal (for teachers) or school board (for administrators). Apprentice teachers will be considered at-will, with annually renewed contracts. Career teachers can be dismissed after two consecutive years of ineffective performance. They will have a due process afforded to them in cases of dismissal, but the school board will make the final decision, not the court system. Ineffective performance will be based on peer and administrator evaluations compared to a state-established definition and observation-based measure of effective teaching. Teachers must be given individualized improvement plans and supports to improve if they are evaluated as ineffective.

II. A Relentless Focus on Learning: High Expectations and Fair Measures
The second part of the Governor’s plan focuses on student learning through high expectations and fair measures.

The state needs to improve and expand the Iowa Core. A standing-level committee would be established, made up primarily of teachers, to keep the standards up-to-date and to keep improving our standards. The goal is to get a rigorous model curriculum in place by July 2013 that can be used as a starting point for schools and teachers. Additionally, these standards will be applied to art, music, and world languages as well, given their importance as vital 21st century learning skills.

Assessments will be a part of the framework and will vary by year:

  • Kindergarten – A kindergarten assessment would be put into place to ensure that kids are starting kindergarten ready to learn and exiting kindergarten prepared for success. It should help identify weakness and strengths and instruction will adopt accordingly.
  • Grades 3 through 8 – A new assessment will be designed and implemented that will replace the Iowa Test of Educational Development (ITED). As part of the Smarter Balance Consortium, a group of states working on a better developed assessment tool, Iowa will work to put into place assessments that align to the Core and are taken online to reduce test-taking time and provide instant results.
  • Grade 9 – A sampling of 9th graders every three years would be randomly chosen to participate in the PISA exam which measures progress internationally.
  • High School – End-of-course exams would be designed and given for the core subjects such as English, Algebra, Biology, and US History to provide clear expectations for high school courses and to provide a check on how students are performing. A cut score required for graduation would reinforce clear expectations for students, with remedial help provided to students who fail, along with multiple opportunities to retake the test.
  • Grade 11 – Finally, the plan would require all 11th graders to take the ACT or similar college entrance exam. The purpose is to give Iowa comparable data to other states as well as provide all students a key needed to attend college.

The administration also wants to put into place a new accountability system for schools, rating them on a scale from “exceptional” to “persistently low-achieving.” Student growth, assessments aligned with the Core, healthy and success children, successful support for teachers, graduation rates, parent satisfaction, and other factors will be used to rate the school. Districts and schools that rank high on the scale will earn autonomy from the state, while those with low rankings will receive additional support but are subject to increasingly prescriptive direction from the state.

Lastly, the plan includes a path towards ensuring third grade literacy. The program would take a model that has been successful in Florida for the past decade, increasing Florida’s reading scores to among the highest in the country and effectively closing the racial achievement gap. It would involve establishing a reading center in the Department and providing a system of support to ensure that all kids who enter fourth grade are reading at a minimum level. It would end social promotion by not allowing those who are not proficient from moving on to fourth grade. Exceptions will be allowed when the case warrants one, and holding a child back will be a last resort option.

III. A Spirit of Innovation in Education
The final section of the plan recognizes that not all good ideas come from the state level department or the legislature. Many are found in the districts doing the work and making the effort to find creative ways to educate children and spend money efficiently.

An “Innovation Acceleration Fund” would be established that would be distributed to districts through a competitive process. The ideas submitted for the grant money must recognize a problem in the district and find a creative way to solve it. The best ideas get funded and the results are measured to see if they can be replicated state-wide.

In addition, the department would get greater waiver authority to allow for flexibility in granting districts the opportunity to try things that may not fit with current statute or rules. The State Board would be the approving body of such waivers.

Iowa’s Charter School law would be expanded to allow for the possibility of stronger Charter Schools to exist. They would have to demonstrate a need in the community and how the school would propose to meet that need. The process for starting a school would be multi-step and transparent. The Charter Schools would have to be open for all students and a Charter School that is failing its mission must be closed.

Online learning options need to be expanded with the possibility of establishing a virtual school that would be open to students across the state. And competency-based education would be a part of that as well, recognizing that some students learn at different levels with different skillsets and to allow students to progress at a pace that makes sense for them.

Finally, the plan would establish a parent and community engagement network to get parents and communities involved in their children’s education. The schools can’t do it all and much of a child’s learning should be spurred by encouragement from home. High-needs schools and high-poverty neighborhoods would see the creation of teacher leaders that would act as a parent liaison, working to establish connections and get them involved.

Timeline and Cost
The plan at this point is a framework, without the details filled in. Director Glass speculates that the provisions in the plan will take anywhere from a year to ten years to fully implement and start taking root. Parts like the compensation system may not be able to be put into effect until 2014, given the complexity of the roll-out.

Cost for the plan is also still unavailable. Early estimates put the new compensation structure at $100 to $200 million, but that could change. The Department is working with the Department of Management and the Legislative Services Agency to put a price on the reforms. We may not see a solid picture until the end of the year.

It’s likely the bill will come before the legislature as a single omnibus bill, but the chance of it being broken out into more manageable drafts is still a possibility. Expect many parts to change, additions to be made, and parts to be removed.

The plan is incredibly ambitious and complicated. At this point, the Governor’s plan is a blue-print, a document that will change. There’s a lot more to be seen and a lot of discussion still to occur. House Republicans are keeping an open mind about the plan and look forward to working with the Governor, the Department, the minority party, and the Senate to ensure that we pass an effective set of reforms with focused effort on student achievement and efficient spending.

To read the full plan, visit http://www.governor.iowa.gov/. The Governor, Education Director, and staff will be holding town hall meetings across the state in the coming months to share information about the plan with the public and to public comments and concerns about the plan.

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Dansette