Branstad to seek new teacher pay system for Iowa (updated)

New Iowa teachers would no longer receive automatic raises based on years of experience or post-graduate degrees under an education reform proposal to be revealed in the coming weeks. Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass and Governor Terry Branstad's special adviser on education, Linda Fandel, shared the outlines of the proposed changes with journalists yesterday.

Mike Wiser reported yesterday,

Under the [Branstad administration] proposal, teachers would start as apprentice teachers at $40,000 a year - compared with a minimum of $28,000 per year now - and serve as apprentices until they can prove themselves as a career teacher. Then they would get a boost to about $50,0000 a year. Career teachers could then become mentor teachers or master teachers if they take on extra responsibility, but master and mentor designations would be limited to about one-quarter of a district's teachers.

Glass said the figures are just preliminary, and the administration is still working to see how it might fit in with the budget. Fandel added that the system would be grandfathered in so teachers currently in the system if and when the new compensation strategy is adopted could choose to participate, but all new teachers would have to participate.

"Neither years of experience nor education credit is a particularly good measure of good teaching and that causes us to under-pay teachers early in their careers," Glass said. "It also causes shortages in math, science and special-education areas because we're not being reactive to the teacher labor market."

Responding to questions about the plan, Glass indicated that only 5 percent of the teachers in each district could become "master teachers" at the top of the pay scale, while another 15 to 20 percent could become "mentor teachers." The concept is for mentor teachers to spend about 80 percent of their time teaching and 20 percent coaching other teachers, while master teachers would spend about half their time on each task. Glass suggested that the top salary for master teachers would be in the $80,000 range.

"Merit pay" schemes have often been criticized for over-emphasizing student test scores. Such a system rewards teachers whose students come from more prosperous socio-economic backgrounds, and in the worst-case scenario can give teachers and administrators incentive for cheating. Glass said yesterday that the tier system was "not pay-for-performance," and that test scores would be only one aspect of measuring a teacher's skills.

Glass and Fandel listed several other points that will be included in Branstad's education reform proposal. The Iowa State Education Association and its Democratic allies will certainly resist a few of them:

Changing teacher tenure to make it easier for districts to get rid of ineffective teachers. Officials also want to do away with "last in, first out" procedures, based solely on laying off teachers with the least amount of seniority. Instead, district officials when considering layoffs would recognize teacher credentials and the needs of individual schools. [...]

Expanding the presence of charter schools. Officials continue to explore whether to allow private companies to run the charters. Operators would have to demonstrate a need for the school and its feasibility, Glass said. If they failed to meet state expectations, they would be closed.

Republicans in the Iowa legislature might try to block other ideas, such as a high school exit exam for all Iowa students before graduating, or "alignment of the Iowa Core with national standards and curriculum." The core has become a four-letter word for some conservatives, who see it as a centralized government intrusion on local or parental control. Some writers have depicted the core curriculum as a Trojan horse for secular indoctrination in public schools.

I predict that legislators from both parties will embrace the idea of an "innovation fund," which would provide state grants for new programs in school districts or buildings. I would also support more experimentation with technology, the school calendar, or learning models such as Montessori or Waldorf. My big concern is that the innovation fund would all get spent on computer hardware and software, which hasn't been shown to improve student performance in other parts of the country. This recent New York Times feature discussed some of the problems in an Arizona school district that has poured tons of money into computers. Meanwhile, classroom sizes have grown and basic needs for teachers and students go unmet. One-to-one laptop programs sound great to many people, but I question the value of putting kids in front of a screen for several more hours each day, especially when I read anecdotes like this one:

There are times in Kyrene when the technology seems to allow students to disengage from learning: They are left at computers to perform a task but wind up playing around, suggesting, as some researchers have found, that computers can distract and not instruct.

The 23 kindergartners in Christy Asta's class at Kyrene de las Brisas are broken into small groups, a common approach in Kyrene. A handful stand at desks, others sit at computers, typing up reports.

Xavier Diaz, 6, sits quietly, chair pulled close to his Dell laptop, playing "Alien Addition." In this math arcade game, Xavier controls a pod at the bottom of the screen that shoots at spaceships falling from the sky. Inside each ship is a pair of numbers. Xavier's goal is to shoot only the spaceship with numbers that are the sum of the number inside his pod.

But Xavier is just shooting every target in sight. Over and over. Periodically, the game gives him a message: "Try again." He tries again.

"Even if he doesn't get it right, it's getting him to think quicker," says the teacher, Ms. Asta. She leans down next to him: "Six plus one is seven. Click here." She helps him shoot the right target. "See, you shot him."

That doesn't sound like a world-class model for teaching kindergartners to add numbers.

Glass and Fandel didn't say yesterday whether the governor's education reform plan would seek significant changes to Iowa's preschool program. After a widely publicized governor's summit on education in July, Glass indicated that Branstad did not plan to reopen the question of whether the preschool program should remain universal or be targeted to needy families.

Any comments about education policy are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: State Representative Nate Willems, an employment attorney and the ranking Democrat on the Iowa House Education Committee, points out that there is no "teacher tenure" in Iowa:

The fact is that any poor performing teacher can lose their job in Iowa and no union has the ability to stop a termination.

Chapter 20 of the Iowa Code governs collective bargaining between public employers and employees. It lists subjects that must be bargained when developing a contract. There has never been any right for a union to bargain language on discipline or discharge; even if a union proposed "teacher tenure," the school district is well within its rights to decline to even discuss the matter. Chapter 279 of the Iowa Code governs school districts. The word "tenure" is not used as it relates to teachers. However, 279.15 of the Iowa Code does state that the decision to terminate a teacher shall be for "just cause."

So, what does Iowa law mean by "just cause?" The Iowa Supreme Court has defined "just cause" to mean "one which directly or indirectly significantly and adversely affects what must be the goal of every school system: high quality education for the district's students... It must include the concept that a school district is not married to mediocrity but may dismiss personnel who are neither performing high quality work nor improving in performance. On the other hand, 'just cause' cannot include reasons which are arbitrary, unfair or generated out of some petty vendetta." That is the current teacher termination law in Iowa.

It is a pretty low bar to meet. If, in the judgment of the school district, the teacher's performance in the classroom is significantly and adversely affecting the goal of providing a high quality education, the law will not save that teacher's job.

Willems also told me today, "There is nothing in the code commanding 'step and lane,'" the common practice of paying teachers more for seniority and for higher education credits. Willems said school districts have stuck with this policy out of "inertia," but any district could propose a different basis for salaries during the collective bargaining process. Similarly, nothing in the Iowa Code requires districts to lay off staff on the basis of "last hired, first fired"; the criteria for staff cuts can also be negotiated during the bargaining process.

Willems suggested that depending on how the Branstad proposals are written, legislation to establish new principles for teacher compensation or procedures for laying off teachers could sharply curtail collective bargaining between teachers' unions and school districts. Branstad and Republican lawmakers tried to restrict public employee bargaining rights during this year's legislative session, but the bill died in the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate.

SECOND UPDATE: Branstad named his appointees to a new STEM Advisory Council, which will submit recommendations on how to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in Iowa. The legislators named at the bottom of this list include two Republicans (Chelgren and Byrnes) and two Democrats (Schoenjahn and Steckman). John Carver, the superintendent of Van Meter schools (Dallas County), has overseen a "1:1 Laptop Initiative," now in its third academic year. He has said he wished the district would have given laptops to all students in all grade levels, rather than just junior high and high school.

The Executive Committee members of the Governor's STEM Advisory Council are:

Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds, Council Co-Chair

Ben Allen, President, University of Northern Iowa, Council Co-Chair

Jason Glass, Director, Iowa Department of Education

Debi Durham, Director, Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress

Teresa Wahlert, Director, Iowa Workforce Development

Gregory Geoffroy, President, Iowa State University

Sally Mason, President, University of Iowa

Rob Denson, President, Des Moines Area Community College

Raynard Kington, President, Grinnell College

John Carver, Superintendent, Van Meter Schools

Gail Wortmann, K-12 educator, Bloomfield

Don Frazer, Private employer, SynGest

Paul Schickler III, Private employer, Pioneer

Additional appointees to the Governor's STEM Advisory Council are:

Lin Chape, Vermeer Manufacturing, Newton

Pat Barnes, John Deere, Bettendorf

Alissa Jourdan, Kemin, Des Moines

Rachel Hurley, Iowa Biotechnology Association, Johnston

Jonathan Wickert, Iowa State University College of Engineering, Ames

Victoria Sharp, University of Iowa, Iowa City

Dr. Douglas Dorner, Iowa Health Systems, Des Moines

Nancy Foerstel, Microsoft, St. Louis, Mo.

LeAnn Jacobson, Iowa Technology Association, Des Moines

Carolyn Boss, IBM, Clive

Jordan Cohen, University of Iowa, Iowa Innovation Council, Iowa City

Teresa Finken, Iowa Wesleyan College, Iowa City

Valerie Newhouse, President, Iowa Lakes Community College, Emmetsburg

Jeff Herzberg, Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency, Manson

Allison Gilchrist, St. Cecilia Elementary School, Ames

Gary Scholten, Principal Financial Group, Des Moines

Cindy Dietz, Rockwell Collins, Cedar Rapids

Craig Johnson, Iowa Academy of Science, Cedar Falls

Deb Dunkase, Iowa Children's Museum, Iowa City

Katherine Swoboda, World Food Prize Foundation, Pleasant Hill

Kichoon Yang, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Haymarket, Va.

Isa Kaftal Zimmerman, Massachusetts Governor's STEM Advisory Council, Boston, Mass.

Jon Ericson, ACT, Iowa City

Senator Brian Schoenjahn, Arlington

Senator Mark Chelgren, Ottumwa

Representative Sharon Steckman, Mason City

Representative Josh Byrnes, Osage

THIRD UPDATE: This article from the UK Observer newspaper should be read by all charter school advocates:

[T]he competitive system of free [charter] schools Sweden pioneered in the early 1990s - is under assault.

SNS, a prominent business-funded thinktank, issued a report last Wednesday that sharply reversed its normal pro-market stance. The entry of private operators into state-funded education, it argued, had increased segregation and may not have improved educational standards at all.

"The empirical evidence showing that competition is good is not really credible, because they can't distinguish between grade inflation and real gains," Dr Jonas Vlachos, who wrote the report on education, told the Observer. [...]

But Vlachos, an associate professor of economics at Stockholm University, is standing his ground. His argument is based on his finding that students who entered gymnasium [sixth form] from free [charter] secondary schools on average went on to get lower grades over the next three years than those who had entered with the same grade from municipal secondary schools.

Vlachos suspects that, because schools rather than external examining boards mark students, free schools are more generous than municipal schools in the grades they give. "There's been tremendous grade inflation in Swedish schools," he said.

Sweden's path-breaking educational reforms of the 1990s have come under question since last December when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development published the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment.

This showed that Swedish students had dropped to 19th place out of 57 countries for literacy, to 24th in maths, and to 28th in science. This compared with 9th, 17th and 16th in studies done in 2000, 2003 and 2006 respectively.

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