Catholics share pros, cons of education reform blueprint

Owen Horak reads to Brennan Westphal last school year at St. James School in Washington.

By Celine Klosterman

Education leaders in the Diocese of Davenport said they’re grateful that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s blueprint for education reform has put a new spotlight on schools. But the Catholics also shared concern about the potential impact of the blueprint’s proposals to raise teacher pay and hold back third-graders who can’t read well.

The state’s document “One Unshakable Vision: World-Class Schools for Iowa” makes recommendations for forming quality teachers and leaders, setting high expectations and developing new assessments for students, and fueling innovation. Issued Oct. 3, the blueprint was developed after this summer’s Iowa Education Summit that explored strategies to improve schools.

Lee Morrison, diocesan superintendent of schools, said he’s excited about the blueprint’s recommendation to expand online learning options and increase flexibility for schools to try new ideas. “We have very little bureaucracy, and our schools can change quickly,” he said.


But one of the most challenging elements for Catholic schools may be the proposal to reform teacher salaries, educators said. “One Unshakable Vision” calls for implementing a four-tier compensation system with apprentice, career, mentor and master teacher levels, with significant increases in pay beginning at the apprentice level.

“I certainly believe teachers deserve to be paid well for the very important work they do,” Morrison said. “However, if the new pay structure causes a significant gap between parochial and public-school teacher pay, it will make recruiting and retaining Catholic-school teachers more of a challenge.”

But he said Catholic schools also emphasize to potential applicants several non-financial benefits:  the focus on faith and values in the classroom, parental in­volve­ment and support from the parish and community.  “We’ll do whatever we can to attract and retain quality teachers in our schools.”

Julie Delaney, principal at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School in Davenport, agreed. “Our main sources of income are tuition and parish subsidy. Parishes are already giving as much they can. And if we raise tuition too much, we’ll lose families.”

Small public-school districts may not be able to afford higher teacher pay, either, said Chad Steimle, principal at John F. Kennedy Catholic School in Davenport. He noted that “One Unshakable Vision” proposes that master-level teachers spend half their time coaching other educators. “So you’d not only be raising teachers’ salaries; you’d have to pay to hire another teacher” to take on half of the master educator’s teaching duties.

Teresa Beenblossom, principal at St. James School in Washington, wondered how students would be affected if educators split time between teaching and coaching. “Is it good for kids to have their teacher there only 50 percent of the day? They need continuity.”

She and other leaders in education also expressed concern about this proposal in the blueprint: “End social promotion for third-graders who read poorly, with numerous good-cause exemptions (disability, English Language Learning, for example) and multiple opportunities to pass.”

Morrison said he understands the reasoning behind that suggestion. “You have to be reading at level in third grade. The subject matter moves quickly and becomes more difficult.”

Morrison said achievement levels are already high in Catholic schools, so he doesn’t see third-grade retention being a problem for diocesan schools. But for students who do need extra help, research hasn’t consistently shown that simply holding students back is effective. “What are we going to do differently in the second year of third grade to make sure kids catch up?”

“My concern in holding back third-graders is that eventually we will have a bottleneck in third grade,” said Heidi Pflum, a third-grade teacher at Notre Dame Elementary in Burlington. “Won’t this cause an increase in class size?”

Better strategies than retention are additional tutoring and summer or after-school programs, Morrison said.

“The key is catching students at kindergarten,” Delaney said. “If we wait until third grade, we’re too late.”

That’s why she and Steimle appreciate the blueprint’s proposal to adopt an assessment to measure whether children start kindergarten ready to learn and leave prepared for first grade.  If a child at St. Paul the Apostle doesn’t seem ready for kindergarten, educators there meet with parents to discuss his or her future. But a state assessment would give the school’s recommendation for the child more credibility, Delaney said.

For all grades, “One Unshakable Vision” encourages Area Ed­ucation Ag­en­cies (AEAs) to help schools align curriculum to state academic standards. But Been­blossom said that as AEAs are cutting staff and receiving less funding, they tend to prioritize helping large schools over smaller, Catholic schools. “Will the agencies be accessible to us?”

With regard to measuring achievement, Delaney supports a proposal to develop new, computer adaptive assessments that can recognize and tailor test questions to a student’s ability. The blueprint calls for evaluating students in ways that consider their background (such as poverty or disability) and growth rather than just their raw test scores.

“One Unshakable Vision” says success is measured by more than tests. Also important are student engagement and parental involvement — which Beenblossom noted parochial schools tend to have.

In recommending a system that measures student hope and well-being, the blueprint reflects Catholic values, Steimle said. “Catholic schools emphasize not just academics, but the whole child.”

To read the full blueprint, visit

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