Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Register editorial: Parents a key piece in school reform


Gov. Terry Branstad has talked repeatedly about making Iowa the healthiest state in the nation. To accomplish this, he wants residents to eat better, exercise and “take responsibility” for their lifestyles. He has not suggested Iowa doctors do a better job. There have been no proposals to pay physicians in a different way or require a minimum grade-point average for incoming medical students.

Why not? Because such proposals are obviously ridiculous. No one would lay the responsibility for the complicated task of improving the health of an entire state on the professionals working in health care.

So why is the governor fixated on teachers when it comes to the complicated task of improving education in Iowa? His proposals to create “world class” schools are disproportionately targeted at educators. He has pushed for a new pay structure, mentors and even personality assessments for teachers. His education reform proposal would require college students to have at least a 3.0 grade-point average to be admitted to teaching training programs.

Last week, he told educators a lack of collaboration is contributing to problems with student achievement: “Teachers still work largely in isolation … and I’m convinced this has a negative impact on classroom learning for Iowa students.” Those who agree to tackle school planning, coach peers or analyze school data could be paid more money, he said.

The implication in these proposals is that if Iowa fixes what is supposedly wrong with teachers and teaching, we can fix what ails education in this state. If only it were so simple.

Like a great doctor, a great teacher can have a positive impact on the lives of many people. Also like a doctor, he or she can only do so much. A teacher cannot read students a bedtime story or confiscate their video games until they finish their homework or take them to the clinic for an ear infection.

Improving education is as much about what goes on in homes as in classrooms.

Rather than so much focus on teachers, the governor and his staff should talk about the need to reduce poverty, which directly affects student achievement. They should make the connection between success in education and better-paying jobs, health care and human services. Rather than praising schools in other countries in isolation, they should acknowledge that those countries have social safety nets and universal health care.

Though it is easier to get your arms around a group of public employees, teachers are only part of the equation in reforming education. Parents are just as critical. So are government services, including food stamps, child protection and libraries. A child will struggle to learn if he is hungry, abused or sick.

But you don’t hear the governor talk about that.
Branstad doesn’t suggest a “great doctor in every office” will improve the health of millions of Iowans. Yet his staff has repeatedly said a “great teacher in every classroom” is the way to significantly improve learning. That assumes teachers are doing something wrong now. And that assumption ignores the many variables affecting how well a student does in school.