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No Poison Apple? Terry Branstad’s Education Proposal Aims to Be Palatable to Varied Legislators and Interests. They’re Open to Reform but Leery. - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 19 January 2012 06:42

Withholding Judgment

Although the basic proposal was released more than three months ago, legislators and interest groups remain cautious. The bill is 156 pages, after all, and it will take some time to evaluate it. Representative Linda Miller, a Bettendorf Republican who serves on the House Education Committee, said she needs to talk to teachers about the legislation, and “I don’t think they’ve had the chance to digest the bill yet, either.”

“I don’t know if we have as many dislikes as we just have questions,” said the ISEA’s Bern prior to the bill being made public. “I don’t think that there’s anything that we actually dislike conceptually. It’s all going to depend on the details.”

“The devil is always in the details, and until we have a chance to analyze the specifics, I’m tending to withhold at least some of my judgment on this,” Quirmbach said a day after he’d received the bill. “A poison pill is often buried pretty deeply.”

But if problematic details are just details, they can be overcome. What should concern Branstad is the resistance to a couple key aspects of his proposal.

Quirmbach said he has philosophical issues with at least two elements of the Branstad plan: retention of third-graders who can’t pass a reading test, and the 3.0-grade-point-average requirement for entry into college teacher-prep programs.

On third-grade retention, he said, he has talked to school superintendents in his home county as well as people involved in education generally. “There is a lot of reluctance at least to the idea of flunking every third-grader who can’t pass some state-mandated test,” he said. “That’s a significant consequence. Really what you’re doing long-term is taking away a year of the kid’s adult life. They graduate high school a year later, they get a job or go to college a year later. ... That’s not something you undertake lightly.”

The GPA requirement for teaching programs, he said, would be difficult to enforce (in terms of private and out-of-state institutions), would have unintended consequences, and would amount to micromanagement of Iowa’s public universities. Plus, it could exacerbate teacher shortages in hard-to-fill areas. “Are we going to make it that much more difficult to recruit people in the STEM areas – science, technology, [engineering,] and math ... ?” he asked. “I’m on board with the goal. I have questions whether this is the right way to implement it.”

Republican Miller was similarly skeptical of those two legislative mandates. On both, she said, she supports the goal. “I think there has to be leeway instead of absolutes ... ,” she said of the GPA requirement. “I’m not averse to that as an expectation, but as black-and-white legislation demanding it ... I’m not sure I’m ready to go that far. ... The fact that we expect more from them [teacher-prep programs] than they are delivering currently, ... I think everybody in the state of Iowa can agree with [that].”

Miller similarly said she supports the goal of having all students read at grade level in third grade. “I do think it’s important to tell parents this is what our expectation is,” she said. “We’ve never done that before. We haven’t been clear about what our goals are.”

But she stressed that she’s hesitant to support such rigid rules. “We have to be careful of the unintentional consequences when we make Band-Aids,” she said. “I’m kind of a less-is-better person at this point in time ... . But I do believe that we have to be clear in what our expectations are in improving education.”

And she added that sometimes the discussion itself can produce change without the legislature taking action. “The fact that we are actually discussing this is good,” she said, “because it actually does bring about change kind of just by consensus, rather than legislative change.” She said that Branstad’s reform proposals have prompted discussion about teacher-preparation programs in Iowa’s higher-education community.

Bern said that while the ISEA supports an increased emphasis on early-childhood literacy, it too has issues with third-grade retention. He said there’s a contradiction between the governor’s support of competency-based education – in which students advance at their own pace – and the third-grade-retention proposal.

Toothless Noble Goals?

There are several dangers to Branstad’s plan in these specific objections.

First, third-grade literacy/retention has arguably the highest profile among his proposals, and Glass said teacher selectivity has the potential to have a lot of stand-alone impact. If those get watered down or eliminated, the plan overall loses a good deal of its boldness.

Second, a reluctance to attach a genuine “pressure” (in Glass’ terminology) to the early-literacy and teacher-selectivity components might reflect a general reluctance to put teeth in education reform. Noble goals without clear repercussions are unlikely to have the desired impact.

Quirmbach said he’s not opposed to gauging progress through testing. But the state needs to be sure that it’s not over-testing students. “We absolutely have to measure what we’re doing,” he said. “But on the other side, time taken up in testing is time taken away from instruction. Testing is not free.”

The ISEA also frets about the Branstad emphasis on testing. “There’s a lot of talk about assessments – there’s kindergarten assessments and end-of-course exams and college-entrance exams and so forth,” Bern said. “One of the questions is: What are we going to do with all that information? How’s it going to be used?”

The ISEA worries that school districts will place undue weight on student-achievement scores in evaluating teachers and making personnel decisions. “If they use a standardized test, and make it a major part of the teacher evaluation, we would not be in favor of that,” Bern said.

Glass addressed that concern, saying that student achievement should be “used as a validating component of an evaluation” where available and appropriate. A positive teacher evaluation should be accompanied by large student-achievement gains. “Where those things aren’t lining up, then I think there are some questions to be raised at the local level about the capacity of the evaluation system,” he said. School districts, however, would make decisions about how much student assessments play into teacher evaluations, he said.

The ISEA is also concerned that new mandates aren’t accompanied by new tools. “There’s no talk about how we’re going to support educators in doing their jobs – in getting students ready for these assessments,” Bern said. “For example, there’s no talk about professional development. And there’s no talk about preparation time ... .” (Branstad’s plan actually does address professional development by having the Department of Education dictate target areas for the state’s nine Area Education Agencies.) There’s further concern, Bern said, about unfunded mandates.

These are details, yet they’re important ones rooted in philosophical differences. And it’s in the details rather than the overarching goals that any reform will (or won’t) be ultimately successful.