WEBSTER CITY, Iowa — If many of the education reform ideas — teacher career paths, mentoring and performance reviews — being discussed by state officials and task forces have a familiar ring to them, they should.
They’re already in the Iowa Code and have been for 11 years.
In May 2001, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack signed legislation — hailed as landmark at the time — enacting the first statewide compensation system geared toward rewarding teachers based on student performance rather than seniority.
The $40 million measure was the first installment in what was expected to be a $250 million investment over a four-year transition to a performance-based pay system designed to make Iowa salaries more competitive and keep student achievement scores among the nation’s best.
The plan called for establishing a new structure that included higher pay and mentoring for beginning teachers, skill-building and career paths with higher pay steps for experienced teachers, team-based variable pay incentives tied to student performance, meaningful career development, and regular performance evaluations. It also put in place new Iowa teaching standards, which began to define good teaching for purposes of evaluation and professional development. All districts were required to participate no later than July 1, 2003.
However, soon after the plan began to take shape, the nation was hit with an economic recession that dried up state resources for new programs, a new federal No Child Left Behind initiative shifted the focus in Iowa classrooms, and other pressing needs moved the attention elsewhere to the point where Iowa’s reform movement in education lost its steam.
Started, then stopped
Fast-forward to 2012, when Gov. Terry Branstad is pushing a reform agenda that closely mirrors what already is on the books but was never fully implemented. However, it appears that educators outside of Iowa have embraced what was never fully funded here and have successfully used the framework to accelerate student achievement.
Results have stagnated here — prompting Branstad’s call for elevated leadership roles for teachers and principals to improve student learning and to reward teachers who pursue additional education and more demanding roles.
“It’s ironic isn’t it? We passed that,” said former Iowa Senate President Mary Kramer, a West Des Moines Republican who led the charge during a tough legislative battle in 2001 that included having a black apple delivered to her Senate desk.
“My view is it was handed off to a Department of Education that created so many committees and involved so many people that to my knowledge, nothing was ever implemented,” she said. “I was just extremely disappointed that we took all of those concepts and studied them to the death.”
Vilsack, now U.S. agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, said the teacher mentoring and induction program worked well with promising results, and Iowa was able to boost its standing in national teacher pay rankings as a result of the 2001 legislation. He said the biggest hurdle back then, as it is now, is money or the lack of it in adequate installments.
“I’ve watched this debate unfold (in Iowa) for the last year or so and thought to myself, ‘well, they don’t really have to have a whole lot of discussion about this.’ We had this figured out, and we were on the path and other priorities came into play,” he said.
Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said the current plan is to work off the existing code sections, but there are differences in approach and educational advances that have occurred over the past decade. That requires the new reform effort to revise the 2001 language to make it stronger and more directive regarding what Iowa’s 348 school districts will be required to do in implementing the new career paths.
“Instead of saying it is the intent of the legislature that we create teacher leadership paths, we will instead be stronger in saying the school districts in this state shall implement career paths and here is how they will be structured and here is the resources that are necessary to pull those off,” he said.
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Glass said six task forces are working through the various proposals under consideration with the goal of making their recommendations by Oct. 15.
Money for education
Branstad, who is holding town meetings around Iowa on his proposed education reforms, said his plan is to incorporate those ideas into a legislative proposal that he will spell out to the 85th General Assembly during his Condition of the State address in January. Once state revenue estimates for the current and 2014 fiscal years are set in December, he plans to chart a budget plan that will include money for education reforms and tax relief that he also will present to lawmakers on the second day of the 2013 session.
“Money is always going to be the issue,” Branstad said in an interview at a Webster City town meeting last week. “We want to do a better job of aligning the resources we spend with things that are focused on improving student achievement.”
Starting pay boost
Glass said the reforms likely will require “a significant investment in our educator work force” that will include moving the annual base pay for beginning teachers to $40,000 statewide with no new teacher making below $35,000.
“That takes investment at the front end and require some legislative component to keep moving the base pay up over time,” he said. ‘You don’t put something that’s this significant in place by using only repurposed existing dollars. We’re going to have to bring some more resources to the table.”
Mike May, a former GOP legislator from Spirit Lake and now a member of the state Board of Education, said the failure to fully implement the 2001 reforms was a missed opportunity, and he hopes the 2013 legislature will have the courage to provide the leadership and funding necessary to put policy into action.
“We talked the talk, but we didn’t walk the walk, and now we find ourselves in this position of trying to catch up not only with our region but with our nation and with other students internationally,” he said.