National, local leaders stress education reform in Des Moines


Mary Chind, Des Moines Register/Associated Press
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National and local education leaders discussed ways to reform Iowa's education system in Des Moines Monday, listing the future of teacher salaries and economic growth as two priorities.

"How can Iowa deliver a world-class education to all students, who must be better prepared than ever to succeed in a dynamic, knowledge-based global economy," said Gov. Terry Branstad to a crowd of roughly 1,700 at the Iowa Education Summit.

The summit will reconvene today and end at noon.

Last week, Branstad said he will propose linking pay raises for Iowa teachers to classroom performance in an education-reform package for the next legislative session, the Associated Press reported.

"My hope is for this summit to be a catalyst for statewide reform," Branstad said Monday.
U.S. Secretary of Education and keynote speaker Arne Duncan argued a big step is to pay great teachers more for their efforts.

"One of my greatest worries is that great teachers have been beaten down," he said. "Teachers are the unsung heroes of this society."

Duncan said he would like to see a future in which a "great teacher could make $120,000 a year," which could involve a tradeoff by lengthening school days and years.

Duncan also focused on Iowa's slow shift towards mediocrity in education and agreed dramatic reform is necessary.

"Today, not enough of Iowa's children are receiving the world-class education they need to succeed in the global economy," he said, acknowledging that his message may be unpopular.

Margaret Crocco, the dean of the University of Iowa College of Education, believes the secretary's words were tough to hear for the audience because of the complexity of Iowa educational issues.

"Sometimes, I feel [the topic] is oversimplified," she said.

In March, Iowa City School District officials made plans to cut 22 teaching positions at secondary and elementary levels in effort to level the near $6 million shortage faced by the district.

During fiscal 2012, K-12 officials will face 0 percent allowable growth. Local schools will deal with last year's budget levels while experiencing increasing costs.

Throughout the day, discussion cited Iowa as complacent and being passed up by other states, despite being at the top in previous decades.

"In the knowledge economy, the countries that out-educate us will out-compete us, and the hard truth is that Iowa has started slowly slouching toward educational mediocrity," Duncan said, noting that Iowa is the only state that hasn't made a significant growth in years.

Both Branstad and Duncan placed importance on using charter schools, which was a cause of concern for Iowa City School District Superintendent Stephen Murley.

"Under this thought process, it is a good thing to relax state regulations for non-public charter or private schools and allow state funding to follow children to [charter or voucher] schools," Murley said. "I would challenge this thinking. If the national and state regulations are prohibiting schools from innovating, perhaps we should consider exempting not just those non-public schools from it but also our public schools."

Some educational leaders are wary about the discussion of Iowa's school systems.

"[The negativity] is unfortunate, because Iowa has had a proud tradition of education," said Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville. "To say that all of a sudden, we have lost our initiative is not the thing to do."

And Lew Finch, the executive director of the Iowa Urban Education Network, agreed.

"There are some good comments that seem to make sense to us," said Finch, who attended the summit. "And there are some things that we wouldn't entirely agree with."

Finch said there needs to be a complete change on how we assess our classrooms.

"Our students today are probably more educated than they have been," he said. "You have to be careful how you paint the picture so it doesn't look like you're blaming the teacher."

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