Iowa reformers focus on teaching profession

Return to world-class will be a long-term effort, Branstad says

More than 450 Iowa educators have gathered Monday at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny for the second Iowa Teacher and Principal Leadership Symposium focused on implementing school reforms in Iowa. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)
More than 450 Iowa educators have gathered Monday at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny for the second Iowa Teacher and Principal Leadership Symposium focused on implementing school reforms in Iowa. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

Teachers like Tania Johnson are excited about the prospects that a new Iowa reform process focusing on mentoring, collaborating and coordinating can have for transforming their students, their classrooms and their professions.

“It’s going to be amazing for the state,” said Johnson, a 2013 Iowa Teacher of the Year winner who taught kindergarten for more than 20 years at Jackson Elementary in Cedar Rapids before taking on a new teacher leadership role in one of 39 school districts with about one-third of Iowa students in both urban and rural areas that are implementing a new mentoring approach later this month.

Johnson was among more than 450 educators from around Iowa who attended a day-long leadership symposium at Des Moines Area Community College on Monday that focused on elevating the teaching profession as a means to boost student performance and make the profession more satisfying, effective and respected.

Gov. Terry Branstad, who was among the symposium speakers, touted the new reforms approved during the 2013 legislative session that he hoped would be adopted by all 338 school districts in Iowa by the 2016-17 school year.

The program -- which raises the beginning salary for teachers to $33,500 and provides bonuses to talented teachers chosen to coach their peers – will cost about $150 million annually when the phase-in process is completed, Branstad said.

The reform process to get Iowa schools back to world-class status will entail a sustained, long-term effort requiring the help of communities in placing more value on the work of teachers and educators outside the classrooms as well as providing the tools they need to be successful inside the classroom, he said.

“This is a challenge that Iowa must take up. It’s clear that no single reform by itself is enough. But there’s broad agreement that great teaching is essential,” Branstad said in addressing the symposium.

“Iowa’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation System will make a significant difference by placing effective teachers in leadership roles, by attracting more talented new teachers with better pay and by fostering greater collaboration so teachers can learn more each other,” the governor told participants.

The participants heard from Ee-Ling Low of the National Institute of Education in Singapore, which ranks among the world’s best school systems and is similar to Iowa in population with 350 schools and a corps of teachers close to Iowa’s 34,000 instructor count.

The Singapore expert said her country placed an emphasis on attracting top candidates to the teaching profession with competitive salaries, leadership development and an elevated profession. During a question-and-answer period with Iowa participants, Low said Singapore does allow judicious use of corporal punishment but limits the use to a select group of school officials.

Branstad told reporters during a lunch-time break that the presentations underscored the importance of a disciplined environment for successful learning, but added “I’m not advocating that we follow their direction with regard to that particular issue.”

Jon Wibbels of the Northwest Area Education Agency in Sioux City said he sees potential benefits from Iowa’s new approach to give teachers time during the school day to assist colleagues in improving their instruction and to learn from each other’s experiences. But, he cautions, the results won’t be instantaneous.

“I think it’s a beginning,” said Wibbels, who has helped districts in his area apply for the new state funding available to implement new systems in schools that promote teachers to be mentors to other teachers. “It’s going to take a lot of years,” he said – three years to implement and two to four more years for the system to mature.

“Probably within the next four to six years I hope we can start seeing the data and the achievement starting to climb at that time,” said Wibbels, who has had 40-plus years in the education field.

Another symposium participant, David Benson, superintendent of Cedar Rapids Community School District, said his district is excited about the prospects the reform initiative presents but he also cautioned the process won’t be a quick fix in improving student performance and returning Iowa schools to world-class status.

“I’m sure that it will make a difference for our students and I’m confident that it will,” said Benson. But he added “sometimes education results are like watching paint dry, you know it’s happening, but the real differences can’t be told right away.”

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds predicted Iowa’s education initiative will “revolutionize” the teaching profession over the next three years and provide recognition that educators are “the real change agents of the 21st century.”

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