Iowa Education Reform Plan Plows Familiar Ground
By Terry Coyle, Reporter
DES MOINES, Iowa- If many of the education reform ideas like teacher career paths, mentoring and performance reviews that are being discussed by state officials and task forces have a familiar ring to them, they should. They're already in the Iowa Code and have been for 11 years.
In May 2001, then-Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack signed legislation – hailed as landmark at the time that enacted the first statewide compensation system geared toward rewarding teachers based on student performance rather than seniority. The $40 million measure was to mark the first installment in what was expected to be a $250 million investment over a four-year transition to a performance-based pay system designed to make Iowa salaries more competitive and keep student achievement scores among the nation's best.
The plan called for establishing a new structure that included higher pay and mentoring for beginning teachers, skill-building and career paths with higher pay steps for experienced teachers, team-based variable pay incentives tied to student performance, meaningful career development, and regular performance evaluations. It also put in place new Iowa teaching standards that began to define good teaching for purposes of evaluation and professional development. All districts were required to participate no later than July 1, 2003.
However, soon after the plan began to take shape, the nation was hit with an economic recession that dried up state resources for new programs, a new federal No Child Left Behind initiative shifted the focus in Iowa classrooms, and other pressing needs moved the attention elsewhere to the point where Iowa's reform movement in education lost its steam.
Now, fast forward to 2012 where Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is pushing a reform agenda that closely mirrors what already is on the books but was never fully implemented in Iowa. However, it appears that educators outside of Iowa have embraced what was never fully funded here and have successfully used the framework to accelerate student achievement while results have stagnated here prompting Branstad's call for elevated leadership roles for teachers and principals to improve student learning and to reward teachers who pursue additional education and more demanding roles.
"It's ironic isn't it? We passed that," said former Iowa Senate President Mary Kramer, a West Des Moines Republican who led the charge during a tough legislative battle in 2001 that included having a black apple delivered to her Senate desk.
"My view is it was handed off to a Department of Education that created so many committees and involved so many people that to my knowledge nothing was ever implemented," she said. "I was just extremely disappointed that we took all of those concepts and studied them to the death."
Vilsack, who now serves as U.S. agriculture secretary in President Barack Obama's administration, said the teacher mentoring and induction program worked well with promising results, and Iowa was able to boost its standing in national teacher pay rankings as a result of the 2001 legislation. But, he said, the biggest hurdle back then as it is now is money or the lack of it in adequate installments.
"I've watched this debate unfold (in Iowa) for the last year or so and thought to myself, well, they don't really have to have a whole lot of discussion about this. We had this figured out and we were on the path and other priorities came into play," he said in an interview.
"There may have to be some tweaks to it. But basically what they've been talking about is already on the books," Vilsack added. "I get that we have to do something. I just don't get why they have to reinvent the wheel."
Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education in the Branstad administration, said the current plan is to work off the existing code sections, but there are differences in approach and educational advances that have occurred over the past decade that require the new reform effort to revise the 2001 language to make it stronger and more directive regarding what Iowa's 348 school districts will be required to do in implementing the new career paths.
"Instead of saying it is the intent of the Legislature that we create teacher leadership paths, we will instead be stronger in saying the school districts in this state shall implement career paths and here is how they will be structured and here is the resources that are necessary to pull those off," he said. "Until we change those key things – be clearer about what these are, and change this voluntary or ambiguous language to something more directive and then follow through with the cash needed to get this off the ground, it won't happen."
"I think (the) analysis is right on and this is coming full circle, but our challenge this time is to follow through and do it. I think the responsibility is on us now to turn the vision into a reality. That just didn't happen before."
Glass said six task forces currently are working through the various proposals under consideration with the goal of making their recommendations by Oct. 15.
Branstad, who is holding town meetings around Iowa on his proposed education reforms, said his plan is to incorporate those ideas into a legislative proposal that he will spell out to the 85th General Assembly during his Condition of the State address in January. Once state revenue estimates for the current and 2014 fiscal years are set in December, he plans to chart a budget plan that will include money for education reforms and tax relief that he also will present to lawmakers on the second day of the 2013 session.
"Money is always going to be the issue," Branstad said in an interview at a Webster City town meeting last week. "We want to do a better job of aligning the resources we spend with things that are focused on improving student achievement."
The governor said it is important that Iowa embark on a long-term, sustained commitment to education reform that needs to be bipartisan.
"We're going to build off of this but we're going to try to update it," Branstad said of the teacher performance, compensation and career development law that was enacted in 2001.
"Let's look at what we've got that hasn't been implemented and then what else we can learn from elsewhere and put it all together," he said. "We just think it probably can be perfected and we think there are some other new things that can be added."
For instance, Glass said the current discussion focuses on some very different, specialized and evolving roles for mentor teachers, master teachers and model teachers that are different from career path roles envisioned in the current Chapter 284 of the Iowa code.
Glass said the reforms likely will require "a significant investment in our educator workforce" that will include moving the annual base pay for beginning teachers to $40,000 statewide with no new teacher making below $35,000. "That takes investment at the front end and require some legislative component to keep moving the base pay up over time," he said. 'You don't put something that's this significant in place by using only re purposed existing dollars. We're going to have to bring some more resources to the table."
Mike May, a former GOP legislator from Spirit Lake who now is a member of the state Board of Education, said the failure to fully implement the 2001 reforms was a missed opportunity and he hopes the 2013 Legislature will have the courage to provide the leadership and funding necessary to put policy into action.
"We talked the talk but we didn't walk the walk and now we find ourselves in this position of trying to catch up not only with our region but with our nation and with other students internationally," he said.
Phil Wise, a former teacher and ex-House Democrat from Keokuk who participated in the 2001 legislative debate and now works for the state Department of Education, said Iowans have been innovators but not implementers when it comes to education reform. While the current discussion has a déjà vu element, he said he is hopeful the new reform push will succeed because Iowans are unhappy with student performance and are more receptive to some dramatic changes.