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Des Moines Register: Leaders hope 7th time's a charm for education reform plan

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For decades, recommendations have been made, but most failed to gain traction.

Des Moines Register
October 1, 2011

Six times in the past three decades, education reform proposals aimed at ratcheting up teachers’ classroom performance and students’ academic skills have been rolled out in Iowa.

And six times, reports filled with ideas on how to create a world-class education system were shelved because of a lack of money and political bickering.

Monday morning, the newest round of education reforms will be unveiled. And, like previous ideas, these proposals are expected to focus on setting clear and rigorous academic standards for the state’s 468,000 students; improving the effectiveness of 35,000 teachers; and increasing innovation in classrooms.

While the broad ideas are not new, the urgency to implement them is. And this time around, education leaders are counting on the reforms to stick.

“A lot of what has occurred has just been tinkering around the edges,” said Kittie Weston-Knauer, a retired Des Moines principal hired to open the district’s first charter school. “We have these initiatives that come to the forefront and then things just fall to the wayside.”

That’s not to say reform measures haven’t taken hold in Iowa. A few have, including teacher licensure procedures.

Most other reforms, though, failed largely because education leaders and lawmakers adopted initiatives piecemeal.

Some initiatives fell to the wayside after lawmakers cut funding or grant money ran out, said Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education.

“I understand there is skepticism,” he said. “What has to be different now is we have to build a reform agenda that transcends ideology and traditional party politics. We need this to sustain beyond the next election. We have to pitch it right down the middle.”

Other states and countries have recognized the need to strengthen their education systems in order to compete in the global economy, Iowa education leaders said. Better schools serve as magnets for new-to-Iowa companies, they contend.

As reform has taken hold elsewhere, Iowans have become more aware that the state’s students have fallen behind, leaders say.

Iowans also know the stakes for success are higher than ever before.

The future of Iowa’s economy rests on its ability to produce highly qualified and skilled workers, which will help attract and retain businesses, they say.

“It has become clearer and clearer that it isn’t just about getting better teachers and getting them to work harder or making the old system work better,” said Ted Stilwill, the state’s education chief from 1995 to 2004. “We have done a lot of that. We have to find ways to move more radical change much more quickly.”

As work begins on Iowa’s newest education reform efforts, education leaders say their success hinges on creating a blueprint for change that will draw bipartisan support. Education and political leaders also say they need buy-in from education groups, districts, teachers, parents and others in order to sustain reforms.

“It’s clearer now than ever before that we have to raise the bar academically and continue to look at how we improve if our students are going to be top performers,” said Linda Fandel, Gov. Terry Branstad’s special assistant for education.

Even when Iowa led the nation in education, state leaders were pushing for reform.

A task force produced a list of recommendations in 1991 meant to help the state maintain its No. 1 position while adapting to a changing world in which technology was rapidly evolving.

The task force focused on creating strong statewide standards that could be adopted at the national level, where leaders were trying to address the national “education crisis,” said Bill Lepley, state education director from 1988 to 1993.

Iowa’s plan was to put in place common standards and then develop an exam to measure student progress, Lepley said.

But that never happened.

A study group developed standards that extended beyond the core curriculum areas of math, reading, science and social studies. In its recommendation, the group spoke of students being able to compete in a global economy.

State leaders took the plan to the public and held hearings that at times became contentious. The push-back resulted in an unsuccessful effort to oust Lepley.

“Even back when we were pushing for change in the ’80s and ’90s there was general complacency that we were doing OK,” Lepley said. “Most parents thought their school was fine and it was the other schools that weren’t.”

Iowa education leaders are considering resurrecting a 1980s teacher pay measure that increased salaries, provided raises to teachers who got advanced degrees, and mentored and trained other teachers.

The measure basically did away with a decades-old system that paid teachers based on their years of experience and credit hours. It also provided funding for professional development, Lepley said.

The legislation was never fully implemented and fell by the wayside because the state couldn’t fund it.

Lawmakers revived it in 2001, passing a similar measure. Again, the economy soured and money dried up.

“All of that groundwork that we laid we had to back off of because of funding,” Stilwill said. “We had the type of collaboration that is difficult to get. It didn’t go as far as I would have wanted, but lots of times it takes several tries to move these things ahead.”

Under Stilwill, the state also reformed teacher licensure requirements and strengthened teacher and principal preparation programs.

As a result, teachers now receive temporary licenses during their first two years on the job. They must demonstrate competency to obtain a permanent license.

Also, preparation programs in the state became performance-based, meaning students show they have mastered the skills needed to be an effective teacher or principal.

Those measures are still in place, but need to be more consistently applied across the state and updated, Glass said.

“It’s not like nothing has happened in Iowa,” Glass said. “My critique of Iowa was they were taking steps in the right direction but they didn’t go far enough.”