Summit panels address polarizing, tough issues

Summit panels address polarizing, tough issues


DES MOINES - Iowa school reform legislation doesn't need consensus as much as it needs follow-through and buy-in from the top.

Teachers need to be evaluated by their peers and paid according to how well they perform in the classroom and on the test.

Principals need more training, and school districts need to be more selective in whom they hire for a building's top job. Tenure has to be earned, not once, but several times during an educator's career.

Those were just a few of the opinions aired at the Iowa Education Summit during the first day of the two-day Iowa Education Summit that brought teachers, principals, business leaders, college professors, politicians, nonprofit representatives and the nation's top educational authority, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to Des Moines. The summit is expected to be the catalyst for a wide-reaching education reform package Gov. Terry Branstad will introduce next legislative session.

"Welcome, Iowa, to the education reform party, it's been going on since 1983," said Chester Finn, executive director of the Thomas Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative educational think tank, and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Finn was one of the more than 60 speakers and panelists who spoke either during panel sessions in one of the main convention rooms of Hy-Vee Hall for roughly 1,600 guests or during smaller, break-out panels in the afternoon.

How the discussion will inform the state's reform efforts and how radically that will change the current system remains to be seen.

"One of the things that bothers me is I'm known as ‘the merit pay guy,'" said Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass during a panel he moderated on teacher pay and compensation.

He said there is a balance between the traditional step-and-lane systems and the strict pay-for-test scores. He promotes looking at several models, but the merit pay label seems to stick.

His panelists included Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who said teachers need more frequent and meaningful evaluations with pay tied to those evaluations, and Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, who said urged raising the starting salaries for teachers statewide.

"What about 360-degree evaluations?" asked Branstad, who sat in on the panel. He said that as president of Des Moines University, he was evaluated by everyone who was a direct report as well as the board. Glass said that those types of evaluations are "in a largely experimental stage" in various places and could work in educational settings.

Whatever the reform package turns out to be, one of the keys, Finn said, is to make sure that the leadership is on the same page. Getting buy-in from the top leaders is more valuable than getting a consensus from everybody because that tends to water down the final product, said Finn, who spoke during a panel discussion on how to make reform a reality,

"Just deciding what you are doing doesn't mean it's done," added Harry Heiligenthal, leadership development director with the Iowa Association of School Boards. "You have to follow through."

Panelists agreed that not only do boards, administrators and teachers need to be told that 4th-grade math is going to be different next year, but so do the parents and the students.

The summit continues today with a half-day program of two panel discussions, one on top-ranked Massachusetts and the other on the standards, assessments and the achievement gap.


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