Courier Staff Writer
The state of Iowa may have received an F on a report card, but the grade only reflects how Iowa measures up to one group’s idea of good education policy.
“The danger is in not reading the report [carefully], thinking that this [describes] the state of education in Iowa,” said Art Sathoff, superintendent of Fairfield schools.
What these various grades from groups demonstrate, say Iowa officials, is how well a state or a school district is doing implementing the policies supported by that group.
“Any organization that’s out there is essentially going to try to promote their agenda, their [preferred] policies,” said Superintendent Russ Reiter of the Oskaloosa school district. “As superintendent of a school district, I have to [seek policies] that are going to be best for our students.”
Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass sent the Courier a statement echoing the sentiment.
“Report cards from advocacy groups are common, but they are not based on objective criteria — they are based on the political agendas of each particular group,” Glass wrote.
For example, Iowa was one of the states that made national news this week when StudentsFirst gave state government an “F” grade for its education policy.
StudentsFirst CEO and Founder Michelle Rhee was the controversial Washington figure known for firing hundreds of teachers during her tenure as head of the D.C. school district.
The group does have its own agenda — and they don’t deny that this is a grade based on whether their specific ideas have been implemented.
In Washington, some praised her policies, while others expressed grave concerns.
Sathoff said he’s concerned when media reports fail to mention the grading criteria. It’s easy for the public to believe a national group said the quality of classroom education in Iowa is poor.
Another worry in southeast Iowa: How can a single series of policies be good for every state in the nation?
“Policies are going to vary based on the needs of that community,” said Reiter. “When you take a look at Des Moines, Sioux City ... other areas, compared to what we might need in Mahaska County, we all have our different problems that we face, our different needs.”
StudentsFirst policies, as with some other national “grade-giving” entities, are intended to good ideas to guide all states. Yet policy needs vary so much from district to district, Reiter said, it would be difficult to have an all-encompassing set of policies for a single state, “let alone the entire nation.”
He said he can’t imagine one set of specific policies that would fit 50 states.
“In a word: ludicrous,” said Reiter.
That’s not to say new policies of some sort wouldn’t be an improvement, the superintendents said. Iowa education news has said for more than a year that the state is working on new regulations designed to boost student achievement. But the odds that all of the new laws would match the suggestions of any one group appear to be pretty slim.
And a press release from StudentsFirst acknowledges that “nearly 90 percent of states received less than a ‘C’ on the [StudentsFirst] State Policy Report Card, and no state earned higher than a ‘B-.’”
“While we appreciate the pressure for improving education, each state’s context is unique,” Glass said. “In Iowa, we have crafted an education reform agenda that is the right fit for our state.”
In fact, said Reiter, maybe Iowa could grade various political action groups on how well their policy ideas fit students and teachers in Iowa — or in Oskaloosa.
What the StudentsFirst group is looking for:
• State law “must facilitate digital learning by allowing certification for online instruction” as well as “eliminating mandatory ‘seat time’ laws” for kids being in classrooms.
• They promote paying effective teachers more but define “effective” in large part by student test scores.
• State law and district policy should not mandate higher teacher salaries for master’s degrees or additional education credits.
• StudentsFirst is against the idea of tenure, which they say creates “rules and regulations [which] make removing even the most unmotivated and ineffective teachers nearly impossible.”
• States must reduce legal barriers to entry in the teaching profession, like “complicated credentialing or certification [which use] factors [which] do not correlate with teacher effectiveness.”