Education blueprint raises concerns

Maya Amjadi/News Editor

Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and the governor’s special assistant for education, Linda Fandel, held a town meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15, to address “One Unshakable Vision” for education reform.

The CFHS auditorium was filled with over 200 teachers, administrators, parents and students. Most of the input was provided by teachers concerned about the proposed four-tier system of teacher pay, although other parts of the plan including student assessments were also discussed.

The input from this audience and those that preceded it from other meetings around the state made an impact on the governor’s blueprint, because the next day, Branstad tabled the four-tier system for at least one year. In the four tier system, apprentice, career, mentor and master teachers, would have different pay checks. Only five percent of teachers would become master teachers and 15 percent of mentor teachers. Of those who went to the microphone during the CFHS meeting, all were opposed to this part of the plan.

Afterwards, teachers continued to have questions.

“If you only [are allowed] a certain percentage of mentor teachers, what if you have more teachers that want to do that and are qualified?” English teacher Diane Flaherty asked.

The Cedar Falls School District has a high percentage of teachers with masters degrees.

“Will teachers who want to be master teachers be forced to go to another district? TAG teacher Tim Kangas asked.

Frank Jowitt, math teacher, applauded efforts to attract “the best and the brightest” teachers by paying a higher starting salary. However, he disagreed with the four-tier system.

“After each year and after more education, we get more money with the steps and lanes (current system). [In the four-tier system,] our wage is effectively frozen unless we bargain collectively as a teacher’s union, and that isn’t going to happen,” Jowitt said.

Branstad countered educators’ worries about competition for the highest positions when he said, “Competition makes us all better, same as in business.” The crowd roared “no.”
Later Kangas said, “You can use a business model, but only so far, in education. Students aren’t products. They’re people. We aren’t selling them to the highest bidder.”

English teacher Scott Lawrence-Richards had this response the next day, “If I were to amend the governor’s plan, I would make it far less focused on competition and more focused on collaboration, fostering the achievement of all students and growth of all faculty.”

Some community members also arrived to the meeting with concerns after reading Branstad’s plan. Retired educator Jill Mortenson is part of a book group on the University of Northern Iowa campus.

“A main point is [the plan] is not very focused on learners. Schools are a community of learners, and I don’t see much focus on that.” Mortenson said.

“One Unshakable Vision” also requires teachers to have a GPA of at least 3.0 and pass a test on the subject they will teach. UNI associate professor Cherin Lee said,  “I agree with the idea of increasing the quality of teachers and the education students get in the K-12 curriculum.” However, she disagrees with the GPA change.

For teachers in elementary education, the courses are much different than a high school physics teacher’s. “Even if they get a B-, they won’t be a teacher,” Lee said about taking courses such as calculus.Biology teacher John Black said, “I think the teacher criteria to enter the field is a good idea. Many other professions have college exams to illustrate competency, such as doctors and lawyers. Teachers should have it too.”

Another change the plan proposes is teachers evaluating other teachers, Kangas said. “In the situation where teacher A is in charge and teacher B is subordinate, the collaborative and professional environment is skewed. How willing are they going to be to work together and what will that relationship be?”

“A teacher’s job isn’t to evaluate another teacher, ” Mortenson said.She stated that if teachers lose their jobs due to poor peer evaluations, this will kill collaboration. However, she is very pleased that education has become a strong talking point for the governor in office.
Black said it is his understanding that teachers’ job security will be based on effectiveness, determined by the school board, without any legal protection.“This is a big change,” Black said. “They are trying to eliminate poor teachers, which the current system does not do, but it’s a scary attempt.”

Branstad mentioned China, Taiwan and Scandanavia having high test scores. Black said, “My question is are those students at a football game at 11 p.m. on Monday? Do they have organized sports? No.” Black knows this from when he lived in Argentina, where there are no organized school sports, just club teams, and school comes first. “It’s apples and oranges.
I participated in sports in high school and loved it.” He said it is impossible to compare students from the United States where sports are a top priority. He said there needs to be continuity in the classroom and full weeks without disruptions.

The plan also outlines a weekly meeting for teachers to collaborate, which Cedar Falls High School has already implemented in the form of Tuesday morning Professional Learning Communities (PLC).

“I think the PLC is a good thing. The willingness to work together has always been there. It is the time [that was the issue,] and now we’ve got it,” Kangas said. In the governor’s plan, students will be required to take end-of-course exams, which will serve as exit exams in high school and a third grade reading test which will determine promotion to fourth grade. “The third grade possible retention is kind of scary. Basing teacher pay on test scores, there are too many outside factors that go into that,” Dike-New Hartford teacher Scott Connolly said.

Kangas likes the idea of exit exams.“If students can pass, are we going to allow them to pursue advanced education? Could they graduate as a sophomore?” Kangas asked.

“I think it is a good plan; We do need to make an education change in Iowa, but it’s got a long way to go,” resource teacher Megan Tasler said. “I do believe with my kids, [the plan] may not be as inclusive as Iowa has been.”

The governor proposed emphasizing work experience over college readiness for these students. The governor also pushed for people to go into the science and mathematical fields, but Tasler argued that isn’t for every student.

“Some of my kids can go to college; you want to be able to do what you want to do, although not every student is going to be an engineer.”

When Tasler questioned Branstad at the meeting, he said, “Special Education kids are a different situation. There will be evaluations of how your students have met their individual goals. We have to make education more like special ed. It needs to be individualized. I want students to have the mind set they can get jobs.It’s not a one size fits all plan. Our plan is designed to get us something better.”

To this last statement, there was laughing from the crowd. Branstad said, “Iowa has been stagnant while other states are improving, and that is not OK. I’ve committed to doing what I can, but we need your help. People hate change, but they love progress. We want this to be progress for the long term.”

But if the general reception from the teacher-dominated crowd at the governor’s meeting is any indication of his plan’s potential, he may have a long way to go.
“Unless the governor can gain consensus for his educational plan among all parties, he risks fostering discord rather than progress,” Lawrence-Richards said.

Class of 2014

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