An educational discussion
Ahead of the Iowa Education Summit, Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and education special assistant Linda Fandel hosted town hall meetings on the subject in seven different cities. A packed Spencer Middle School played host to the last meeting Saturday morning, drawing people from across northwest Iowa.
Reports of Iowa's drop from first in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math to 27th and 28th, respectively, were the primary focus early in the session.
"When I first discovered how far Iowa had dropped in the rankings of national tests, national assessments of educational progress, I was very shocked and dismayed," Fandel said. "It's not that our schools have gotten worse. Our schools are better than ever. But, some other states have put in place stronger school reforms and they moved ahead of us."
"One of the reasons I ran for governor was to help restore Iowa schools to the best in the nation and make sure our students can globally compete in education," Branstad added. "We have a proud tradition of giving our children the best possible education, but we're not keeping up with a number of states in recent years. That's not acceptable."
The five-term governor noted that most students must have a strong foundation in math, science, language arts and social studies, in addition to critical thinking and communication skills. He drew a link between innovative thinkers and Iowa's ability to compete globally for good-paying jobs and employees for those jobs.
Reynolds shared that education reforms which will help paint that picture will come in different shapes and sizes with varying price tags.
She identified three priorities of the education summit: Increasing teacher and principal effectiveness; raising academic standards, along with an effective assessment for measuring progress; and increasing innovation that help students to be passionate about learning.
Branstad later added that innovation and competition, such as charter schools, need to be encouraged and opportunities for high-level courses for students in small districts should be available either digitally, or through community colleges.
Branstad also said that high-achievers should be recruited as teachers and that staff development needs to be more effective.
On that note, long-time Spencer High School teacher Steve Bomgaars believes subject-specific professional development should be available for teachers to help them be passionate about what they do.
"Teachers like that make the difference and we need to make sure the professional development is there to give teachers the skills they need and also respect that kids learn in different ways," Branstad said.
Dan Rogers, of Spirit Lake, suggested, "Before you spend more money, I think it's important to address the moral decay in society."
Branstad acknowledged things have changed since he grew up, but government can do little to make sure parents are involved as they were then.
"We need to do the best we can to make sure that every child, regardless of what their home circumstances are, gets an opportunity for a quality education," Branstad said.
"It doesn't matter what their socio-economic situation is, we need to get them here," SMS teacher Diane Maisenbach said, regarding attendance. " ... That's my biggest heartbreak, when I see kids with huge potential and they gradually slide off the scale and I think, 'What are you doing?'"
Branstad stressed the importance of consistent attendance as students become members of the workforce.
The governor also agreed with Maisenbach's point that students should have clear expectations of what they should know at the end of each year.
Laura Heitritter, of Boyden, shared that Boyden-Hull has lost teachers due to budget cuts and asked if agriculture and the arts would be de-emphasized.
"We should not be de-emphasizing vocational agriculture," Branstad said. "The field is really hot right now in agriculture.
"... Music is also important," Branstad continued. " ... Some people with musical backgrounds are some of the most creative people and tend to be inventors and create new things. That's not something we should be downsizing."
He empathized with small districts faced with tough budget situations and said it is important to "restore certainty and predictability in state funding."
Harry Rasdal brought up the controversial idea of a merit pay system for teachers.
Iowa Director of Education Jason Glass once worked on a system to compensate teachers based on performance, Branstad said. He added that board certification could be a way to fairly qualify teachers for benefits and also said such teachers could be used "as master teachers to help improve the skills of others."
"We're looking at student achievement in a different way," new Spencer Superintendent Terry Hemann said. "We're looking at student growth instead of just (test scores in) fourth, eight and 10th grades. We're looking at how students grow throughout the year."
Reynolds praised such a system.
"Assessing students throughout the year is a way to bring parents into the equation," she said.
Sue Downing, of Spirit Lake, broached the possibility of teaching English language learners some things in their native tongue via technology, as they learn English.
"That's a really interesting idea," Fandel said. "It reminds me that the possibilities with digital technology are just huge, but that's a particularly intriguing recommendation."
She said she would bring it up during a panel discussion of digital media.
The final comment of the day promoted multi-age classrooms, which used to be utilized in country schools. Fandel noted that Corning is experimenting with such classrooms and noted, "It is working great."
The sold-out Iowa Education Summit wraps up at 11:45 a.m. today.