Globe Gazette. Feb. 19, 2013.
Interesting times for those involved in education
We live in interesting times in education — and much like the Chinese curse, "interesting times" has connotations both exciting and apprehensive.
At the state and federal level there is a growing emphasis on boosting performance by students, and that logically requires a boost in performance by educators — teachers and administrators — as well as involvement by parents and investments in technology and facilities.
In his State of the Union speech recently, President Obama called for initiatives aimed at the extremes of the education spectrum, for high quality preschool to be available to all children and for a potential restructuring of the federal aid system for college students.
In Iowa the Legislature is tackling the second year of Gov. Terry Branstad's ideas on education reform. After a freshman year where only a sliver of the governor's proposals were adopted, Branstad and his Department of Education have shifted in their sophomore year to a focus on teachers.
If approved, the proposals could mean more money, more training and more responsibility for teachers, but also more accountability.
Changes are occurring or being considered at the local level as well. Driven by concerns both over budgets and performance, school districts are looking at ways to share resources, combine programs and use new ideas and new technology.
Clear Lake and Mason City are looking at the New Tech Network model as a possibility for shared programming among area schools.
New Tech Network is an approach that uses project-based learning, emphasizing active, hands-on engagement of students with a curriculum that addresses real-life issues and attempts to find real-life solutions. There are currently no New Tech Network schools in Iowa, but there are more than 100 across the United States.
Several Clear Lake school staff traveled to the Sioux Falls (S.D.) New Tech High School recently. Mason City teachers have also traveled to New Tech schools for observation. One possibility — just in the "think about it" stage now — would be to establish a New Tech High School in the former Sunset School in Clear Lake as a magnet to draw 100 to 200 students from surrounding school districts.
Such integrated learning within the community is an exciting opportunity. President Obama mentioned taking college credits while in high school, and the Career Link program offered through North Iowa Area Community College and area high schools has been using that model for many years, working with area businesses.
Teachers who viewed the New Tech Network were excited about the possibilities of such a program in this area, but agreed that approach would not work best for all students. Likewise some students take advantage of Career Link and other don't.
Perhaps that's the biggest change accelerating in education — better fitting the teaching methods to students' individual needs. Some students do best in a traditional setting, others might thrive under a New Tech or some other approach. Others blossom under the individualized approach offered through alternative high schools.
Figuring out the best way to reach individual students and then figuring out how to accomplish that with available resources is the challenge. Interesting times, indeed.
The Hawk Eye. Feb. 19, 2013.
There's been an awful lot of talk about guns since the Newtown, Conn., massacre.
It started with President Barack Obama making a national call for stricter access to firearms, which sent Second Amendment zealots into a tizzy, declaring the president was going to singlehandedly outlaw the private possession of guns.
Of course that was never true — the president never suggested such a thing — but those on the fringes of both the right and the left never let pass an opportunity to whip up a frenzy.
Last week, the Wapello School Board discussed including armed security at its building in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. Similar discussions are taking place around the country as sane people try to cope with an insane possibility.
One touchy subject with the gun owners is the fact that the permit they need to carry a weapon is a public record in most states, including Iowa, and any citizen can go to their county sheriff's office and learn who has a permit to carry a gun.
Seems fair, but it's struck a nerve from gun advocates who think it's nobody's business if they have such a permit.
It's prompted House File 81 in the Iowa Legislature, which would make confidential the names and addresses of holders of nonprofessional permits to carry weapons and permits to acquire pistols and revolvers. The bill has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.
It's one of those it's-none-of-your-business laws. And that would be true if the permit holder never took the weapon off his — or her — property. Then it's just a private matter.
But when the gun is brought into the public domain, the dynamic is changed.
Someone can go to the Des Moines County Courthouse anytime and find out who has taken out a marriage license. You can go to the Burlington Police Department and find out how many speeding tickets were issued so far this month and who they were issued to. When things happen out in public, it's no longer a private matter.
We say the public has a right to know an awful lot on this page, and this is one instance where that is painfully obvious.
The Des Moines Register. Feb. 19, 2013.
Regents in commendable transparency push
One job performance measure on which University of Iowa President Sally Mason will be judged by the Board of Regents is improving how the university communicates with the public. That would be a welcome change in the culture of secrecy that has come to permeate the Iowa City school.
The top leaders of the Board of Regents made clear in a meeting last week with The Des Moines Register that a new attitude of transparency must permeate not only the U of I, but all regent institutions. "Openness and transparency will lead to accountability," Board of Regents President Craig Lang said. "The attitude begins at the top."
To that point, Mason met with the Register earlier in the week and also pledged she would be more open with the press and make sure U of I administrators respond to reporters' calls.
Next month, the regents will consider appointing a "transparency task force" to propose ways to make this change happen. Lang and board President Pro-Tempore Bruce Rastetter propose a nine-member task force that includes representatives from the board, the Legislature, the new Iowa Public Information Board, the universities and the public.
Clearly, Lang and Rastetter are tired of the litany of bad news that has emanated from the Iowa City campus, and they want the university to do a better job of telling its story in a positive way. In part, the cycle of bad news has been perpetuated by U of I officials' practice of routinely issuing "no comment" responses when bad news erupts and too often refusing to talk to the media. As a result, the public assumes the worst and believes that the university does not take campus problems seriously.
One of the most frustrating excuses cited by the university is the so-called "personnel exemption" in the state's open-records law. This exemption to the general rule that government records are open to the public was intended to protect legitimately private information about public employees. That means such things as home addresses and telephone numbers, Social Security numbers and health records. Instead it's too often used to conceal important information that ought to be public.
Lang readily admits the "personnel" exemption is too often used to conceal information that should be made public. Yet, members of the Board of Regents don't seem to fully understand this concept: The board would not release the goals and objectives the regents gave Mason after she was directed to revise them.
The people of Iowa, who own the three state universities, have a legitimate right to know what standards government employees are expected to meet. (To her credit, Mason made public her new job performance goals.)
Neither the Board of Regents nor University of Iowa is unique in this respect, however. The personnel exemption has long been abused by other state and local government officials, and it's getting worse. The Legislature should rewrite this open-records provision to make clear that it was intended to be a very narrow exemption, not a catchall for information government officials don't want the public to know about.
Meanwhile, it is commendable that Lang and Rastetter are confronting the transparency issue head-on within the institutions governed by the regents. The recommendations of the proposed transparency task force might just serve as a model for all state and local government agencies in Iowa.
The Gazette. Feb. 19, 2013.
'Straight ticket' not the problem
Iowa is one of a declining number of states that offer straight-ticket voting. Voters here still can check one box that applies their vote to all the candidates from one party, instead of individually voting for each candidate in each position on the ballot.
Republican Rep. Peter Cownie of West Des Moines has a bill, HF186, that would eliminate straight-ticket voting in Iowa. Four other states have similar proposals being considered. And just 15 states still allow the practice, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The trend has been to do away with the practice in recent years. Wisconsin did it in 2011.
Nonetheless, we don't see this issue as a major concern in our state. Instead, we wonder whether the proposal reflects a symptom of the political climate. Too much reliance on ideology instead of effective compromise. Too many candidates' messages based on sound-bite advertising and speeches.
Instead, parties and their candidates could do a better job of creating dialogue with voters and communicating their positions and attributes in more detail so that those casting ballots can more thoroughly compare candidates, not just automatically default to one party.
The argument for eliminating straight-ticket voting is not limited to one party or the other in most states. Generally, the party pushing such a proposal has been on the downside of the practice.
Sure, some folks are always going to vote the party line. But in Iowa, where the number of independent registered voters remains greater than those registered as Democrats or Republicans, we think many voters weigh candidates on more than their party affiliation or the party platform.
Straight-ticket voting in Iowa simply doesn't strike us as a problem deserving much of our legislators' time