New education reform could impact ISU teachers

David Bartholomew

In a move that has startled many on the left and the right, Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has made public his new 18-page education reform bill titled “One Unshakable Vision: World-Class Schools for Iowa.” The plan, officially released Oct. 3, makes sweeping changes to the Iowa public education system, as well as to the process for becoming a teacher in Iowa, which could substantially affect aspiring teachers at Iowa State and other colleges and universities in Iowa.

Under this new education bill, students in K-12 public school will be subjected to a more intense Iowa core curriculum, third graders will be required to take a reading test in order to move on to the fourth grade, ninth graders will be asked to take a standardized test that would compare them to other students on an international basis, and 11th graders will be required to take a college entrance exam.

As for teachers, the required grade point average for admission into teaching programs at Iowa universities will be raised from a 2.5 to 3.0, core content coursework may be increased, new teachers will enter into an apprentice program in which they will be mentored and trained by distinguished veteran teachers, and a new pay ladder will be implemented from which pay will be tied to both performance and experience. Many believe that these new ambitious approaches are needed to make Iowa a leader in education again, but many still remain wary of some of the ideas proposed in the bill, especially the new standards for prospective teachers at Iowa universities.

“The concern for raising the grade point average requirement is, who is it going to impact?” said David Whaley, associate dean for the College of Human Sciences. “Many of our students have full-time jobs and are in majors that have stricter requirements … a 2.6 grade point average in physics is very good, but under these new requirements they won’t be accepted into the teaching program … the culture for GPA expectation is different from major to major.”

Whaley also went on to say that the average GPA in Iowa State’s University Teacher Education Program is already a 3.23, not a 2.5, so the evidence that teachers entering the program do not have strong GPAs is lacking. Also, there has been talk about extending the student teaching terms required from 14 weeks to an unspecified length, which Whaley believes would be helpful for new teachers.

Additionally, the new teacher apprentice and salary program has raised a few eyebrows. Assuming the plan is passed in its entirety, new teachers will enter an apprentice program in which they will be supervised by a veteran teacher for an average of two years. After they demonstrate competency to evaluators, they will become career teachers and their pay will be increased as they become master teachers and so on. This means that starting salaries for teachers in Iowa will be increased.

“Teachers are already part of the step and ladder policy … which means the more years and more credits, the higher the salary,” Whaley said. “But this new system does away with that. Placing new teachers into an apprentice program will increase starting salary and increase incentives for teachers to come into shortage areas, which are both important factors.”

Despite the new proposals in the bill, many wonder how viable the plan will be once it reaches the state legislature in Des Moines come January.

“There are constructive ideas in the new plan, but I am not sure if every piece of it will fly,” said state Sen. Herman Quirmbach, of Ames. “It’s going to be a long process of deliberation and legislation. I am currently in the process of reaching out to parents and teachers to get their feelings about it. What is conspicuous though is how [Branstad] intends to pay for it.”

It is true that the governor’s plan calls for increased spending on education, but he has yet to come out with a plan to actually pay for it. This shortcoming has worried both Republicans and Democrats alike who continue to push for education reform, but also accountability.

“We have made considerable improvements in education over the last few years,” Quirmbach said. “And the governor’s proposal is another step in the right direction … It builds pre-K education, increases teacher’s pay and strengthens the core curriculum. However, we need to continue to ask what ideas have been proven to work in other states and apply them to this bill.”

Education has been a hallmark of Iowa for more than a century, but the fact remains that the state has fallen behind many other states in the past few years who have significantly improved their education systems. Many see this as an issue of bad teachers, but a balanced critique revealed it is not just teachers, but rather a mixture of funding issues, student progress, social environment and demographic problems, and a lack of accountability across the board that is creating the situation Iowa schools are in now.

This is what makes it a community issue. While stricter teaching requirements may or may not help remedy the situation, the fact remains that Iowa State and other schools consistently produce very good teachers and many see policymakers solely blaming teachers as the real problem in education reform.

“I don’t see a large number of things that are problematic with this plan,” Whaley said. “While there are things I don’t agree with, it does appear to be a step in the right direction … lots of accountability.”