Iowa Panel Backs Accountability ‘Indicators’

By Bess Keller — September 24, 1997 4 min read

Iowa, the only state still shunning uniform academic standards, is moving to slip a few of them through the back door.

A high-powered commission appointed by Gov. Terry E. Branstad issued wide-ranging recommendations last week for change in Iowa’s schools, including a call for measures of academic achievement that all districts would be required to report for their students. These “core indicators” would gauge student performance in reading, writing, math, and science, as well as student success after graduation and parent involvement in schools, the report says.

While not statewide standards as such, the indicators would encourage districts to strive for some of the same goals.

Other recommendations of the broad-based 14-member panel, headed by Des Moines businessman Marvin Pomerantz, include sizable increases in teacher pay; tougher teacher preparation requirements; all-day kindergarten at every school and pre-kindergarten for all children deemed to be at risk of school failure; and financial help for schools that want to extend the academic year.

Wary Reaction

In an interview, Mr. Pomerantz praised the state’s schools, which regularly post top scores in nationwide assessments, but said the system “is not as good as it needs to be in the next century.”

The report proposes phasing in the changes over five years. The estimated annual price tag for the state would be $25 million the first year, building to $105 million at the end of five years, Mr. Pomerantz said. This year, Iowa is spending nearly $1.7 billion on K-12 education.

Parts of the report have been under discussion for weeks, with legislators reacting warily to costly recommendations.

By appointing a longtime political ally as head of the commission, Gov. Branstad signaled his intention to translate many of the recommendations into his political agenda. The changes could constitute a legacy for the four-term Republican governor, who has taken education as a signature issue.

But, first, the recommendations must gain the support of state lawmakers.

Speaker of the House Ron J. Corbett said the report would be “a good starting point” for a Republican-controlled legislature that has already declared education a priority for the session starting in January.

Goals vs. Standards

Mr. Corbett said GOP lawmakers had reacted favorably to the idea of district report cards based on the same measures across the state. “We realize some of our community colleges, our universities are spending a lot of money on remedial work,” he said. “We’re interested in ... holding people accountable.”

Almost all Iowa students take the standardized Iowa Test of Basic Skills, but the state currently mandates no assessments, sets no standards for what students should learn or how well they should learn it, and requires no public reporting. (“State of Contentment,” Sept. 17, 1997.)

Under the plan put forward by the panel, districts would set their own goals as they do now. But in doing so, they would almost certainly be influenced by what the state wants measured.

Mr. Pomerantz and state officials defended the plan as preserving local control--the tenet of educational faith that helped defeat an earlier attempt at establishing desired educational outcomes.

“The thermometers would be standardized,” said Ted Stilwill, the state director of education. “But it would be up to the community to decide what temperatures they want.”

State at a Glance: Iowa

Population: 2.9 million

Governor: Terry E. Branstad (R)

State Superintendent: Ted Stilwill

Number of K-12 students: 505,600

Number of K-12 schools: 1,549

Fiscal 1998 K-12 budget: $1.7 billion

Mr. Stilwill added that he envisioned the state’s setting cut-off scores on the Iowa tests, which districts would then use to report how many students had mastered a particular subject at a particular grade level. He acknowledged that the indicators “sharpen the state’s influence,” but he said they stop short of a full-blown accountability system “where the state comes in and applies sanctions” if districts are not performing up to snuff.

Speaker Corbett said the report’s recommendation to boost the minimum teacher salary by one-fourth, from the current $20,000 to $25,000 in 1999-2000, would constitute “a huge uphill climb” for lawmakers.

The problem, he said, is that while the state would kick in money for teacher pay at the lowest level, those salaries would nudge up others, and those higher-bracket increases would have to come at local expense.

Mr. Corbett was similarly worried about a recommendation to add a fifth year to teacher preparation--to be devoted to an internship--because it would raise the cost of becoming a teacher.

Robert J. Gilchrist, the president of the Iowa Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said he was pleased by the report.

“These are big, bold steps,” he said, noting that many had been favored by the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, for years.

The panel also calls for making laptop computers available for all students in 4th grade and up and rewarding “highly skilled” teachers and administrators with $5,000 annually for five years.

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