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School official addresses state’s new education blueprint

By RENEE WEBB, Globe editor
(Email Renee)

With the State of Iowa recently unveiling its blueprint to transform the state’s education system, the diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools said he plans to keep a close eye on how the plan moves forward.

Dan Ryan, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, said he calls on the state, the governor and legislators to remember that the Catholic schools have been an asset to the common good for over 100 years.

“If implementing portions of this blueprint is to be one of our significant but expensive steps moving forward, how will the state help?” he asked. “I hope they remember that through the presence of Catholic schools, there has been an ongoing benefit to the State of Iowa – its citizens, businesses, etc. – and we can play a significant role in helping this blueprint come into play.”

The diocesan superintendent pointed out that Gov. Terry Branstad, the director of Iowa’s Department of Education and many others for some time now have been discussing the future path of education in Iowa.

Establishing a world-class education system is one of the four priorities set by the administration. With this in mind, in July, Branstad and Reynolds convened an education summit that set out to make the case that it’s time for significant changes. They used it as a chance to learn about options and spur discussion about what it takes to lead the world in education. 

Educational summit
During the summit, the Iowa Department of Education released a report that documented Iowa’s stagnation in math and reading competency compared to other states and nations. The summit was followed by efforts to identify strategies with input from stakeholders across the state.

“Many Catholic school administrators attended that summit,” Ryan said.

As a result of the education summit, earlier this month Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds released the 18-page blueprint titled One Unshakable Vision: World-Class Schools for Iowa.

Ryan said there are three main areas of focus with One Unshakable Vision. The first area of focus is on teachers and principals – preparation, compensation and evaluation. The second area of focus is on developing high expectations for students and fair measure. The third area of focus centers on innovation in education and the development of educational practices for the future.

This blueprint represents a set of draft recommendations.

“Many aspects of this plan will have to be mandated through legislation,” said Ryan, “so there will have to be a lot of conversations, discussion and perhaps changes to this document as it moves forward.”

In the months ahead, the Governor’s Office and the Iowa Department of Education plan to seek feedback to improve these draft recommendations before presenting a sweeping education-reform proposal to the Iowa Legislature and the people of the state.

Considering the impact on Catholic schools, Ryan said many aspects of this blueprint would have a positive impact on schools – Catholic as well as public.

“For instance, improvements in higher education practices around teacher preparation will be beneficial to Catholic schools as well because our teachers come from there,” he said. “There is also the issue of a change in evaluation systems – possibly peer-based evaluations. Typically, the Catholic schools would be involved in state suggestions or mandates.”

Ryan pointed out that one of the items drawing the most attention in the focus area of teachers is the possibility of a new salary system. Rather than having a step-based structure, this new blueprint addresses the value in a more merit-based approach to pay.

Could be challenges
“There is a lot to be determined by that,” he said. “If there was a significant increase in teachers beginning or overall salaries, that could have a significant impact on our schools’ budgets. Generally, we are at 70 to 75 percent of the public school pay scale and if there was a significant increase then either that difference would grow wider or to keep up with them we – the Catholic schools – would have to look at how we could fund higher salaries.”

Another item that is gaining attention is in the area of measuring student achievement. One Unshakable Vision brings up the possibility of retention for third graders who do not meet certain assessment standards. Ryan believes that if this measure moves forward, that could create much debate.

In the area of classroom innovation, Ryan said the potential for a new educational model that allows students to move forward in the curriculum at an individual pace could be very beneficial for the educational setting but could create many challenges.

“That could significantly change how schools and classrooms look,” he said. “What will the bell schedule be like? What will teachers licensing be like? How do you prove the student learned it? What do we do with the student who goes through Algebra, Geometry and Algebra II in the course of a school year?”

The diocesan superintendent said the way teachers, principals and superintendents have been taught to look at education could change significantly as old classroom management techniques will not work very well. That’s where, he noted, technology such as the use of the Internet and virtual schools could come into play.

“There is a great amount of potential but anytime you make a significant change to an institution, the potential for difficulties is huge,” Ryan said. “I anticipate that the challenges will be large and numerous.”

In addition to questions pertaining to the practical application of some of the recommendations made in the blueprint, he acknowledged that the costs associated with some of these changes are raising significant questions.

As the state gathers feedback on this plan, Ryan would like to know if they are exploring ways the state can support “all education in Iowa.”

“We are interested in partnering with the state especially with some of the innovative ideas, but again we have to look at how the state will support Catholic education in making these changes,” he said. “If there is going to be a virtual school and the state is providing a certified instructor who is providing the content then the Catholic high schools need to be included in that. If there is going to be additional money for training educators, will funding be allowed to support Catholic educators who are learning to make the same changes?”

Ryan said if the school reform is being done for the benefit of Iowa and the state’s students then providing resources to assist Catholic schools is necessary.

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