Iowa's education chief takes questions from City High students

BY HAYLEY BRUCE | APRIL 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass came into his job ready to reform Iowa's education system.

But a group of City High students and teachers wanted to challenge him first.

Upon the request of City High history teacher Jeanine Redlinger, Glass — appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad and confirmed by the Senate on April 11 — visited City High during three class periods Tuesday to give students and teachers a chance to question him about his plans to reform education.

"I was a little offended at his suggestion that Iowa's education needed to be fixed," Redlinger said, and she contacted Glass via e-mail asking him to visit after she disagreed with his proposed reforms.

To her surprise, he agreed.

Tension was high in light of the recently proposed cuts to the district — potentially a total of 22 teaching jobs — which could include four at City High. The cuts are a result of the district's $4 million to $6 million shortfall, but could be avoided if the governor OK'd a 2 percent allowable growth rate instead of 0 percent rate.

Glass has said he wants to bring Iowa back up to a national leader in education by reforming current methods. One of his ideas that bothered Redlinger was his suggestion that reducing class sizes may not be as important as officials have made it seem in the past.

"We have increased funding to education nationally with inflation; we've used that money to put into the system, and we've used it to reduce class sizes," Glass told the class. "Neither one of those has resulted in improved student achievement."

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He said he believes class sizes can only improve learning if they're a 1-to-14 ratio.

"I will always advocate for more funds for public education," he said. "But I think we need to be more thoughtful about how we use it."

After his remarks, students directed questions — and follow-up questions — at Glass.

"How are you going to do education reforms with two years of 0 percent allowable growth?" a student asked. Redlinger had required her students to pick one topic of interest in education and conduct research to prepare questions.

"When you were talking about how lowering class sizes doesn't improve academic achievement, were you using standardized testing to make that statement?" another student asked.

Teachers and students alike said after the event they were upset to hear Glass support Branstad's proposed 0 percent allowable growth.

"There's a lot of anger right now about how City High has to cut four teachers," said City High junior Sage Behr. " I know I love our teachers, and I don't think anyone here deserves to be cut."

Redlinger agreed, saying the cuts will increase class sizes and prevent her from teaching her students as effectively.

"We're all a little bruised right now," she said. "We understand he's not making the cuts, but he supports them, and this is the face of those cuts."

Glass said he sees two years of 0 percent allowable growth as a window of time in which he could reform the system.

During the forum, he also said he wanted to clarify state education standards, create a more sophisticated accountability system, and improve educator effectiveness.

City High junior Shay Roeder said he agreed with Glass on some topics and disagreed on others.

"The way that the media depicted him as a greenhorn; they made it seem as though he was a lot less experienced than he is," said the 16-year-old, who asked Glass whether teachers should be paid based on performance.

But not all Redlinger's students were happy with what they heard.

"I was really disappointed to hear him say that class sizes don't correlate with student achievement," Behr said. "I really, really think it does."

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