Soon after the final votes of the Iowa legislative session were taken late last week, many legislators from both Parties took to multiple media platforms trumpeting the â€œhistoricâ€ and â€œsweepingâ€ positive reforms they had just passed.Â I would love to fully concurâ€”and if I happened to be a Democrat I certainly wouldâ€”but as a Conservative Republican I am less than impressed with some of these â€œachievementsâ€.
Of the three major compromises reached I believe, at the most, Conservatives should be â€œsomewhat satisfiedâ€ by the understandable terms reached on tax reform and health insurance coverage.Â However, I am deeply disappointed by what has passed as â€œreformâ€ in Iowaâ€™s K-12 education system.Â The following will focus on education reform and later in the week we will deal with the tax and health insurance issues.
Making Appropriate Distinctions
In general I believe House and Senate Republicans grossly misread and under-valued the strength of their handâ€”particularly in dealing with education reform.Â In all fairness, the tax reform and health insurance issues had different dynamics surrounding them and this criticism applies less in these areas.
The reason for the differing standard in my mind on the tax and health insurance issues was that in these two areas inaction would have resulted in direct negative consequences for Iowansâ€”higher taxes and un-insured citizens.Â However, when it came specifically to public education reform the status-quo would not have concretely damaged anyoneâ€”a point made more painful by the likelihood the reforms that were passed will have no positive impact.
Just to be clear, I am making a key distinction between the public education reforms and the home schooling reforms contained in the bill.Â I strongly support any action that makes it easier for homeschoolers to operate and expandâ€”and I do not necessarily begrudge them for supporting this reform as a means to achieve it.Â The real tragedy here is the sad construct in which this group has to â€œbuyâ€ these reforms by supporting increased money for an ever-expanding and shamefully ineffective education leviathan.Â The truth is the vast majority of home schooling families pay taxes to support a system which they often-wisely opt out ofâ€”and then ironically proceed to outperform while simultaneously funding.
Public Education Reform
The best way to go about exposing this bill as the completely ineffective piece of legislation I believe it to be is by asking 6 simple questions.Â Since we as taxpayers will be spending an additional $160 million dollars a year, answering these questions shouldnâ€™t be too much to askâ€”unfortunately I have a strong suspicion that even those who voted for it canâ€™t provide many answers.
1.Â How and when will we know this reform has worked?
By this I mean what specific metric or metrics can be looked at to prove this reform has or hasnâ€™t worked?Â Additionally what date on the calendar will we be able to make this assessment?Â At a minimum Republicans should of asked these questions and demandedÂ the answers be written into the bill.Â Surely this isnâ€™t too much to ask for.
2. Why didnâ€™t the 35.4% increase in K-12 education spending (an additional $650 million) that we have had since 2002 produce any positive results?
A seemingly common-sense question to ask I would say.Â It would be one thing if this reform came on the heels of us having starved the system of money for decadesâ€”but this simply isnâ€™t the case.Â What specifically did this massive increase (including 4% allowable growth every year under Gov. Culver) in spending since 2002 go to?Â Was it supposed to raise test scores?â€”I hope not because if so it clearly didnâ€™t.
3. Are we to honestly believe that every member of the Iowa House (91-0) and 80% of the Iowa Senate (40-10) looked at this legislation and all independently concluded it would deliver fantastic results?Â And further that these results would justify spending an additional $160 million a year?
I fully understand the concept of compromising, and that doing so will deliver a more bi-partisan roll callâ€”but letâ€™s be serious here.Â Anytime Ako Abdul-Samad and Tom Shaw are voting together on a major reform that spends hundreds of millions of dollars and affects every child in Iowa we have to be skeptical.Â Unless Iâ€™m missing something I see only two possible reasons for thisâ€”and neither are good.Â One is that many out of town members just wanted to go home (which I doubt), and two is that so many random offerings were made by both sides it was just palpable enough for each caucus to vote for (which I believe).Â If so, this approach will never result in a meaningful, affordable, and wise solution.
4. Why does it continue to be acceptable not to evaluate teachers, at least in part, by the actual results they achieve in a classroom over the course of a school year?Â And what kind of people refuse to stop the practice of passing 3rd graders on to the next grade when they canâ€™t even read?Â And whose interest are they honestly serving in doing so?
The answers in order are: the teachers union, disgraceful ones, and their own.Â This is where true education reform lies and the fact Republicans can only get a â€œstudy councilâ€ on teacher evaluation is absurdâ€”too mad to expound on any further.
5. How were teachers able to have such high-performance in the late 1980â€™s and mid-90â€™s and not in the 2000â€™s and beyond?
In the early 90â€™s Iowa led the nation in reading and math scoresâ€”but those days are long gone.Â Today we face disturbing realities like this oneâ€”only 3 other states in the nation (2 of which are in the Deep South) have less 8th graders enrolled in some form of advanced math by grade 8.Â Furthermore, the performance of minority students in math at this level is alarmingly low and trials other students by up to 30%.
During this debate we have heard a lot about starting teacher pay in Iowa.Â While this is an important number, lost in shuffle is the fact that the average teacher salary in Iowa has increased from $36,480 in 2001 to $49,622 in 2010.Â The teachers union will say this steep increase was due to the fact Iowa teachers were among the lowest paid in the late 90â€™s-early 2000â€™s and this in part is true.Â But then I ask: if they were among the lowest paid and salary equates to performanceâ€”how could they possibly have had Iowa kids achieving at such a high level?Â Also, the fact remains they saw a large increase in pay and responded with flat-lining and worsening performance.Â By the way, if the teacher’s union is ready to start blaming the kids or their parents for worsening test scores Iâ€™m ready to listen.
6. Why does â€œreformâ€ always mean spending more money?Â Why canâ€™t it ever be spending the same amount of money but in a smarter wayâ€”or even (gasp) spending less?
Maybe someday we will try it…I bet it would be just as effective if not more so.
Though controlling only the Senate and not having the House or the Governorâ€™s officeâ€”Democrats got well over half of what they were after with this bill and have to be privately ecstatic.Â They managed to get additional money both for 1st year and veteran teachers, 4% allowable growth this year and next, and have again avoided being evaluated on their actual results.Â Republicans should and couldÂ have done much betterâ€”and if they couldnâ€™t they should have done nothing.
And the final insultâ€”I canâ€™t be the only one who sees the irony that we apparently have to create â€œcareer pathwaysâ€ with increased pay for our not-so-good teachers to be taught by other teachers how to teach betterâ€¦and this is after the not-so-good teacher already graduated from a college that apparently did a not-so-good job teaching them how to teach in the first place.Â A sign of the times I guess…
With a sweeping education reform package currently being worked on by a bi-partisan Conference Committee at the Statehouse, some potentially damaging information about how the state is representing student achievement is coming to light.Â Late last week the citizen group Iowalive released a report that would, if true, give all Iowa parents and legislators cause for grave concern.
The crux of the report is Iowalive’s claim that the standards our Department of Education is using to report student proficiency levels is misleading.Â This, according to the group, stems from Iowa having adopted a lower standard to measure student learning called the “40th National Percentile Rank”.Â This current set of standards was adopted a decade ago by the then Governor Vilsack administration and is different from a more “honest” standard used by other states known as the “65th National Percentile Rank”.Â The 40th National Percentile Rank standards that we use now apparently do not actually require a student to be proficient in various skills at their grade level to be deemed as such.Â The obvious problem here being that if this is the case, parents are being told their child is succeeding at their grade level when in fact they are not.Â If true this is absolutely unacceptable.
Between long declining national education rankings, the misrepresenting of graduation rates at some Des Moines High Schools, and the entire Nancy Sebring debacle–the education system here in Iowa hasn’t exactly built a huge reservoir of trust recently.Â Despite this, and despite the fact spending on K-12 has increased $650 million since 2002 (+35.4%), the legislature is potentially poised to yet again increase the dollars flowing into this institution by almost $200 million any day now.Â If the claims of Iowalive have any merit it’s long past the time to say enough is enough–the river of funds needs to be damned until the system functions honestly and properly.
More To Come
This issue will be looked into further by this website in the coming weeks, including a specific explanation of the two sets of standards.Â At first glance the source–Iowalive–appears to be legitimate group with expertise in education and statistics (I was unfamiliar with them prior to late last week).Â In the meantime I encourage you to visit their website (link here), and become informed on their general claims.Â If everything they say checks out, this level of brazen misrepresentation and deception to Iowa parents will be a massive outrage.Â If a teacher tells a parent their child is performing “at a 3rd grade level” in a subject, that better mean exactly that–anything else would be totally unacceptable.
Without a doubt Iowa legislators from both parties and both chambers should demand an explanation from Jason Glass and the Department of Education.Â If it turns out they have been “cooking the books” with a deliberately low standard to enhance our schools perceived performance, then the reform bill currently being discussed should be tabled immediately.
Below is an excerpt from the Iowalive report, here is a link to the report complete with tables and source data, and more can be found at their website.Â Though the information is not presented in a lively way, these are serious charges that demand being responded to by our elected and unelected government officials.Â We as Iowans must have answers on this very, very soon.
GROSS MISREPRESENTATION OF % OF IOWA STUDENTS, THEÂ DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION REPORTED PROFICIENT
Greetings, Governor Terry Branstad and allâ€”
Finally, at 3:34 PM, Friday May 10, (to make it nearly impossible to make the Sunday Papers) the Department of Education provided Percent Proficient data Iowalive requested on Jan.14, 2013.Â The data would not have been provided at all except for prodding from State senators and the State Ombudsmanâ€”who are gratefully thanked for their help.
As shown in the table below, the Department of Education reported to parents, students, legislators, taxpayers and others that 74.4% of Iowa 4th graders are ReadingÂ Proficiently (Expertly) at the 4th grade level, when in fact the Department of Education just admitted onlyÂ 40.3% are actually reading at the 4th grade level, when tested.Â This equates to an 85% inflation, or misrepresentation, of student achievementâ€”perpetrated by use of the bogus 40th NationalÂ Percentile Rank (NPR) Proficiency standard, adopted by the Department of Education, under Governor Vilsack and the ISEAÂ teacher union.
Similarly, the table shows parents, students, legislators, taxpayers andÂ others were told 78.2% of Iowa 4th graders are doing Math Proficiently (Expertly) at the 4th grade level, when in fact the Department of Education just admitted onlyÂ 40.1% are actually doing Math at the 4th grade level, when tested.Â This equates to a 95% inflation or misrepresentation of student achievement.
Similar misrepresentations for 8th and 11th grade reading and math are shown in the table.Â It must be stated that the DepartmentÂ of Education made NO corrections for cheating, as if none exists, despite gross cheating already under investigation in Davenport.
The problem is: Iowaâ€™s low 40th NPR â€˜proficiencyâ€™ standard considers 4th graders scoring at the 3.1 Iowa grade level to be â€˜proficientâ€™ or expert 4th grade readers!Â Similarly, Iowaâ€™s low standard considers 8th graders scoring at the 6.9 Iowa grade level to be â€™proficientâ€™ or expert 8th grade readers, and 11th graders scoring at the 9.2 level to be “proficient” or expert 11 grade readers.Â The same applies to Math–and all grades tested.Â This is nearly double the number actually Proficient.Â And it is going on in grades 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, & 10 as well.
Large Iowa media news editors have failed, and stubbornly refuse, to report these shameful, if not outright fraudulent,Â conditions to Iowans.
Governor Branstad, youâ€™re a lawyerâ€”if this misrepresentation isnâ€™t fraudulent, what is??Â What are you going to do about it?Â This happened on your watchâ€”even though it started under Governor Vilsack!Â Â DE Director, Jason Glass, could have stopped using the bogus 40th NPR Proficiency Standard and replaced it with the honest 65th NPR, but he did not, Governor.Â How come?
(Read Report With Tables)
Question: What has happened so far at the Statehouse this session?
Answer: Mostly a whole lot of nothing.
With potentially as little as three weeks left before they gavel out this has been one of the most uneventful sessions since I began following them closely.Â There could still be some fireworks in store as the larger ticket items get discussed, but as it stands now nearly everything Governor Branstad has signed into law has been with near unanimous consent from both Parties.Â In fact, of the 36 bills he has signed so far most have been technical or clerical items passed with no dissentâ€”and all but a couple have hadÂ no more than 3 no votes between the two chambers (notable exceptions being SF 184 and HF 160).
Conservatives Left with Little to Cheer About
The fact that divided government is not producing sweeping changes is hardly surprising, but getting no movement whatsoever on traditionally non-entrenched ideological issues is disheartening.Â For me personally these disappointments include the first funnel costing any chanceÂ of banning Automated Traffic Enforcement and the second funnel claiming the Voter ID bill.Â Both these issues have a clear majority of public support (Voter ID routinely gets well over 70% in public polls), and despite this couldnâ€™t even receive the dignity of a vote.
Additionally, the Education Reform effort (yes, even the version the Republican House passed with no inter-Party dissent) is a â€œsolutionâ€ few true Conservatives can embrace.Â Firstly, it is dumping $200 million more dollars into a system that already has received a 35.4% funding increase since 2002â€”with no discernible benefit in most districts.Â And secondly, the kind of actionable teacher evaluation, similar to what exists in the private sector, is nowhere to be found.Â Instead, in my view, what this reform offers is a largely a bunch of feel goodÂ jargon about â€œladdersâ€, â€œcareer pathwaysâ€, â€œmentorsâ€, and â€œmaster teachersâ€â€”now does that sound like a recipe for fixing a failing school?
In some way this issue has been absurdly overcomplicated, how aboutÂ teachers just teach kids the information in their textbooks like miraculously you were able to do in the 1990’s and we’ll call it even.Â In fact, prove you can do so and we will give you a nice raise…you knowÂ the way it has worked forÂ all the rest of us inÂ the private sectorÂ since our birth.
While it is true that many strong home schooling amendments got passed by the House, A) the big ones wonâ€™t make it to the Governorâ€™s desk, and B) even if they did it still wouldnâ€™t make this effort worthwhile.Â And while there are a few bright spots (HF 625 which expands STO’s), there was no movement of Sen. Zaunâ€™s proposal last session to give parents true schools choice, nor was there any effort made to ensure we have strict 3rd grade retention for reading proficiency.
Tax Reform the Big Prizeâ€¦But Likely to Elude Again
Just like last session, there was talk by both sides at the beginning that something needed to get done here, but the writing is on the wall that it wonâ€™t.
Largely this is because the players and the policies they are pushing for are essentially unchanged from last year.Â Additionally I am starting to think that Sen. Gronstal knows he controls only one branchâ€”but perhaps has the trump card in this standoff.
The way I have started to look at this is to see the similarities between this situation and the fiscal cliff scenario faced by Republicans on the Federal level at the end of last year.Â If you recall, Republicans were forced into caving because the specific position they were inâ€”if no deal was struck taxes on everyone in the country would go up on January 1st.Â Similarly, here in Iowa if nothing gets done our tax rates will continue to climbâ€”a reality that would surely bother Republicans more than Democrats.Â Not only does this give Gronstal more leverage in cutting a deal to avoid the tax hikes, if he can manage to stave off a deal until rates are raised he is in the position of deciding then who â€œdeservesâ€ tax cuts.Â As frustrating as this tactic is for Republicans, as long as high taxes donâ€™t cost Democrats their majority it is truly brilliant politics.
The TruthÂ As I see ItÂ
I would love to be able to say everything is looking up here in Iowa and nationwide, but the evidence disagrees.Â Coming off a brutal performance last November when Mitt Romney was unable to defeat a president with a terrible record and RepublicansÂ failed to take the Iowa Senate, we are now seeing the results.Â This legislative session is almost a mirror copy of the last and the chancesÂ of anything passing at all are slim–and unfortunately the chances of passing any significant Conservative policy is hopeless.Â Simply put, at the moment the landscape is virtually barren when it comes to potential political victories.
Elections indeed have consequences–and Conservatives are feeling them now.Â We must do better as a Party going forward–2014 awaits and brings another chance to make a profound and positive legislative impact.
In my senior year of high school I took advanced physics with Mrs. Osborne; one of my favorite classes with one of my favorite teachers. Being an advanced-level course, only kids who wanted to be there had signed up for it. The teacher knew that we wanted to be there, and actually wanted us to be there as well. The class was very instructional and free of behavioral problems. Amazingly, the teacher treated us like full human beings – which is not always the case in public school.
The moral sentiment at work was that of voluntarism – not to be confused with volunteerism, which is when career politicians or community leaders want you to work for free. Voluntarism is the manifest free will; when you do something because you want to do it.
In my opinion, only voluntarism can save the academic future of most youth, and thus education reform is largely a waste of time.
Compulsory state education does not have the tools needed to enact this lesson on a societal scale. How can you introduce voluntarism into state-run, compulsory education? You can add a handful of electives for a handful of students, but how can an institution that depends on force adopt the benefits of free will?
The philosophy behind education has also changed; many Americans still equate education with Laura Ingalls Wilder and prairie schools, and a time when education was geared towards teaching specific skills designed to help the students understand the world and be more self-reliant in it.
Teaching to increase self-reliance is not the same thing as preparing for the jobs of tomorrow. In times past, the philosophy of education acknowledged – as the pediatric human resource gulags of today no longer do – that children are actually people.
A Dutch Masterâ€™s Take
Any person who is concerned about the state of education in this country would do well to consider â€œThe Geographerâ€ by Johannes Vermeer. (You can see a representation of it from Wikipedia here) Â A man is stooped over a map on a table and holding a compass. His other hand is resting on a book – he is propped up by knowledge in a sense. He is peering out the window, and the cabinet behind him is casting a rather long shadow. Perhaps the man was so carried away by his study that he lost track of time, and is now noticing the sun moving lower in the sky. Such was his delight with his work.
The late art critic Robert Hughes said that the job of art was to â€œ make the world whole and comprehensible â€¦. Not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything which is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.â€
Now, this is far too much existentialism for anything run by the government to digest, let alone copy. There is nothing for government to gain by having self-reliant people in a whole and comprehensible world.
Besides, the students donâ€™t need to understand, they merely need to be trainable for wage-serfdom masquerading as opportunity. Understanding the world and having the tools to be self-reliant in it appear to be severe disadvantages today, much to our eventual detriment.
National Career Readiness Certificate
Brought to you by the same people who produce the ACTâ€™s, the NCRC is a test designed to measure applied mathematics, reading for information, and searching for information.
It will also test â€œsoft skills,â€ like teamwork and tolerance, to make sure that the propaganda was absorbed properly and to weed out the self-reliant, self-confident, potential whistleblowers of tomorrow.
According to an Iowa Workforce Development presenter, the NCRC will soon be widespread – if not mandatory – for Iowa high school students. According to someone in the Governorâ€™s Office, it isnâ€™t. He also implied that I was falling for a conspiracy theory for thinking so, which annoyed me.
What is wrong with testing kids for employable skills?
Well, here is what is wrong with it; a fortune in taxes has gone to build schools, staff them with teachers, and bus children to the schools for 13 years at the end of which they receive a diploma, which is apparently so utterly disconnected from any intellectual capacity that the diploma-laden youth must take a standardized test to prove that they can read. Will no one throw the flag on this?
Even teachers who hate everything I have to say will tell you that when a student is interested in something – and it doesnâ€™t really matter what – performance increases across the board.
The excitement dripping from Vermeerâ€™s work captures the essence of learning and curiosity conducted in solitude and peace, by someone who in doing so was quite transported. Government education policy cannot copy this; they can only make room for it.
What Vermeer celebrated in paint, America can suppress with psychoactive drugs. So, children will be sent to school, set to work on things which donâ€™t interest them, and if they donâ€™t sit down and shut up for their boring lessons, then their compliance will be compelled through pharmacology.
So much for manifest free will.
Later this session the Iowa Legislature will debate various measures, namely the Governorâ€™s, designed to improve the performance of our stateâ€™s K-12 schools.Â There are three main components to the Governorâ€™s proposal and in a continuing series we will look at each separately.Â Today we start with the most expensiveâ€”the $160 million for increasing the base teacher salary from $28,000 to $35,000 over the next three years.
First things first here, before they appropriate an additional dime of taxpayer money to this system it is both fair and prudent that at least three simple questions be asked and answeredâ€”Who are the great teachers in Iowa? Who are the average teachers? and Who are the bad teachers?
To clarify, by â€œwhoâ€ I mean a literal list of names district by district categorizing each teacher as great, average, or poor in terms of classroom performance.Â Though this sounds simplistic I think most Iowans would be shocked to know how complicated a question this really isâ€”and even further shocked to find out that nobody in the education bureaucracy can currently answer these questions definitively.
All we hear from both political parties is we have great teachers in Iowa, and to both reward this greatness and make sure we have great teachers in the future we have to pay them more.Â Even though itâ€™s just as pertinent to fixing the problem, and because itâ€™s not pleasant or politically correct, we never hear about bad teachers in our classrooms.Â You would think the first step in solving this problem, as it would be in the private sector, would be determine which employees are not performing their jobs at a high level.
While there is no doubt I am skeptical of most of these individual proposals I will reserve judgment and keep an open mind as legislation is crafted and various amendments are added.Â I donâ€™t need to agree with all elements of the final product to support it, but do have to feel that it at least identifies the problem specifically.Â As with all issues there is both a policy and a political aspect that need examined.
From a policy perspective, to just approve a blanket increase in pay when a majority of our schools are functioning very well is sillyâ€”and to spend this money with no clear goal or way of measuring success is flat-out nonsensical.Â Common sense says that in order for anyone, especially a Republican, to support a final bill it would have to contain clear benchmarks and ways of actually proving results were being delivered for the extra pay. As it stands now the approach seems to be letâ€™s just pay teachers more money and in theory kids will learn moreâ€”which hasnâ€™t proven to be the case in the past.
To make the point beyond question that we have already tried theÂ increased funding approach, one needs only to consider the following three statistics: 1) since 2002 education appropriations to K-12 schools in Iowa has increased $650 million (+35.4%), 2) the average teacher salary in Iowa has increased from $36,480 in 2001 to $49,622 in 2010, and 3) 4% allowable growth was given every year from 2006 to 2010.Â In spite of all these amazing numbers, here we are again talking about more money.
What few seem willing to say is that when a school is failing there are only three actors involved to shoulder the blameâ€”the teachers, the parents, or the students.Â Simply put, one of the three, or a combination of all three, are at fault when a school is failing.Â When looking at the teachers one obvious element is missingâ€”a way to fairly evaluate how good each one is and how much money they deserve.Â Until this gets determined one senses that no amount of increased spending will do the trick.Â Here is what I propose.
While unsympathetic to their concerns regarding â€œteaching to a testâ€, Iâ€™m relatively sympathetic to teacherâ€™s arguments that there are many factors out of their control determining a classesâ€™ progress throughout a school year.Â Taking this into account my initial thought on a fair formula to evaluate our teachers (and hence dictate future pay) would look like this: 25%= credit for years on the job and the resulting experience (this would be automatic much like the step and lane increases in the current formula), 25%= based on student achievement using a baseline for the class coming in compared to their results going out, and 50%= determined by a yearly grading and evaluation by their direct superior (usually their principal).
From a political standpoint the construct of the increased pay proposal seems to be offering Democrats (the teachersâ€™ union) the following: we will increase teacher pay in exchange for allowing student achievement to be factored in to teacher evaluation.Â In my view Republicans shouldnâ€™t be bargaining for a student achievement metric in evaluationsâ€”they should be demanding it.Â This should be a reality both because it makes perfect sense, and because past reforms and increases in pay have not solved the problem.Â Republicans should be able to win on the political argument that, in order to fix the problem, Iowans need to know which teachers are adequately doing their jobs.
If there is a political trade to be made in exchange for increasing teacher pay it should be for a significant look at the benefits of true school choice for parents.Â In my mind this would be a four year pilot program in which parents at all failing and sub-standard schools in Des Moines would have the freedom to spend the per-pupil cost attached to their child at any school they chose (with transportation being the responsibility of each participating parent).Â All students involved would have their progress tracked, with reports being given to the legislature after years 2 and 4.Â This would be similar in principal to the Zaun study bill from last session without all the â€œextremeâ€ elements, like abolishing the Dept. of Education etc.
I would love to see baby-steps being taken in this direction, and would dare the teachersâ€™ union to make the argument to Iowans that the well-being of the teachers and their union trumps that of a student in a failing school which they staff.
Given the history of failure in select districts and the many fruitless past funding increases, in general I believe the Republican hand on education reform is stronger than the Governorâ€™s proposal recognizes.Â There is little reason the argument canâ€™t be made that we have tried the teachersâ€™ union way of never assigning blame and increasing spendingâ€”and it has not worked.Â If there is going to be reform, let us at least not try the same blanket increases in spending and hope for a different result.Â Instead we should identify the shortcomings in the flawed districts and fix them specifically.