Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Legislative Session So Far and Education Reform

Pardon me in advance for my cynicism.  I had hoped, naively perhaps, that with this being an election year, we would actually try to get something positive done.  Education reform is the 'topic dejour'; one of the Governor's major campaign platform issues was to 'fix education'.  School leaders and policymakers gathered in Des Moines this past summer to hear ideas about reform efforts around the world that had pushed student achievement in some countries to unprecedented levels.  There was excitement in the air indeed.  Had a new era arrived? Were we truly going to improve our system of education?

Not so fast.  The Education Blueprint landed flat on October 3rd. From its inception it was met with resistance.  One of the first pieces to fall by the wayside was a proposal to overhaul the teacher compensation model.  The reason given:  too costly at this time, more study is needed.  Fair enough.  Although I believe there were many more questions about this model than merely the cost.

Mrs. Krapfl teaches her First Grade class about reversals in
math class.
Shortly before the General Assembly convened, the final legislative package was released, and guess what?  We have figured out how to reform education for a mere $25 Million.  Wow, for those of you keeping score at home that is a pretty remarkable feat (drop in the bucket?) considering the state budget is just north of $6 Billion.  (You can get an exact number of course, but it is different depending on whether or not you are an "R", "D", or in the State Auditor's Office.)

My optimism is quickly fading.  Not only do we have a reform package that falls short of real school improvement, we have a lack of adequate funding to do the things that we are already struggling to do.

In the Branstad/Reynolds Administration Recommendations for World-Class Schools, Director Glass outlines 26 specific components for legislative consideration.  These components are divided into three sections:  Great Teachers and Leaders, High Expectations and Fair Measures, and Innovation.  It is difficult to disagree with any of these concepts, but it is not until you begin to dig deep into the specifics that you really begin to have more questions than answers.

Rather than focusing on each component, let's take a moment to examine what is missing from this legislative proposal:  funding.  We can't seriously talk about improving our educational system without having a discussion about appropriate funding mechanisms.  Instead, we are having a discussion about how we are going to lose some of our funding (you heard me right), and instead have it (in legislative words) "re-purposed". 

The plan seems to have a heavy focus on teacher evaluation, as if the reason for stagnated student achievement in some corners of the state should rest solely at the feet of our teaching force.  I do believe there are those [teachers] in the profession that are in need of assistance, or should look for gainful employment in another career, but this approach will not yield the results that are promised.  For starters we simply do not have the capacity to do what is proposed.

Section two of the proposal relies heavily on assessment of students. This is the section that includes the infamous third grade retention.  The plethora of assessments proposed would lead us to believe that constant measurement is the key to improved student achievement. 

The component that deals with third grade retention is getting a lot of negative feedback right now, and it probably should.  It is based on misleading data from a similar plan the state of Florida enacted.  The state of Florida can contend that their fourth grade students score higher on the NAEP, because those retained students are not part of the cohort.  Many studies also indicate that the so-called benefits of retention are mitigated after two years.  Did you also know that students who are retained are much more likely to drop out of high school?  What is Iowa's graduation rate compared to Florida's?  Check it out yourself right here.

In my opinion another component that is missing from this proposal is an evaluation of the length of the school year.  Our school calendar is based on a 180 day model, which was well suited for Pre-Industrial Age America.  This calendar suited us well for over 100 years, but those times have long since passed us by.  We are training youngsters for the Information Age.  It makes sense to me and many of my colleagues that if our students are exposed to an excellent teacher [for more days], then student achievement will increase.  However, this idea was dismissed because it was viewed as an erosion of local control.  This seems somewhat ironic since a majority of the plan seems to do just that.

Yesterday the Iowa Senate passed an allowable growth rate of 4%.  Unfortunately it has zero chance of going any further.  The Governor has proposed eliminating the law that requires the General Assembly to set the Allowable Growth rate within 30 days of receiving his budget proposal.  His reason is that we need more time to study the compensation and calendar issue.  Setting allowable growth in advance of the fiscal year is critical to the planning and preparation that goes into our budget cycle.  Certainly the Governor recognizes this, doesn't he?  After all, he insisted on a two year state budget in order to provide stability and predictability in budgeting. 

I guess that doesn't apply to schools.

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