As education in Iowa slips, where's the public outcry?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jul 21 14:52:19 UTC 2008

July 20, 2008

As education in Iowa slips, where's the public outcry?

The Register's editorial

What would it take for Iowa - and the nation - to fully prepare
students for the globally competitive world of today and tomorrow?
What does that mean for the curriculum, training of teachers and
expectations for students? What is the best way to transform
classrooms to deliver this world-class education, not just to elite
students but to everyone? Are national standards the answer, or should
that be left to states? Those are some of the questions The Des Moines
Register's editorial board has asked in recent months. We've talked
with educators and policymakers, we've visited schools and we'll visit
others here and abroad.

Several things are clear from conversations to date:

One is a growing, though hardly universal, concern that the United
States must better educate students to keep its competitive edge in a
fast-changing global economy. The rise of Asia and the flattening of
the world with technology - allowing jobs to move virtually anywhere
in the world - create great opportunities but also pose significant
threats. That's especially worrisome when American youngsters perform
so poorly in math and science on international tests compared to their
peers in many other places.

Interest grows in higher standards

The other thing that's clear is the uncertainty about how to make
education in America world-class.

There's interest in figuring that out, however. Just this summer, at
least three major national conferences tackled the issue. The James B.
Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy devoted its
2008 Governors Education Symposium in June to state strategies for
developing a world-class education system (Iowa Gov. Chet Culver was
scheduled to be there, but the floods kept him home). Next came major
conferences conducted by the Education Commission of the States and
the Asia Society.

Former North Carolina Gov. James Hunt, whose state is credited with
improving test scores more than any other in the 1990s, is passionate
about this national challenge. He not only leads the Hunt Institute
but was an opening-night speaker at the Asia Society conference.

"Let's talk about where America is," he said. "We have not kept our
standards up to the world level... There are certain things students
need to know and be able to do to do world-class work. The state
standards are not good enough... It might make sense for all the
states to go together and do it together. Not have the federal
government do it to us."

That idea is gaining currency.

The Education Commission of the States, for example, is encouraging
states to collaborate to develop internationally benchmarked education
standards that would be adopted on a voluntary basis at the state
level, said Kathy Christie, that group's chief of staff. At its Austin
conference, it presented a blueprint, "a very first take on what
states might be able to do."

Look to other places for ideas

As for the components of a world-class education, Hunt identified them
as follows, echoing other experts: Students must be prepared to think
for a living. They need to graduate from high school with the skills
in core subjects to prepare them for college and a globally
competitive work force. They should communicate well, probably in more
than one language. And they need knowledge of international regions,
cultures and issues.

That last aspect - helping students develop an international
perspective - is what sets apart Walter Payton College Prep (profiled
in today's section), which won a Goldman Sachs Foundation prize for
excellence in international education in 2006. Iowa should replicate
some of what it does, such as requiring four years of a foreign
language and teleconferencing with students in other countries.

Iowa also should adopt some of the initiatives under way in Ohio,
which won the Goldman Sachs state prize in 2007. Here's how the
foundation's Web site describes Ohio's strategies: "Ohio's State Board
of Education is the first in the country to engage in a systematic
international benchmarking study. The state's Creating a World Class
Education System in Ohio compares its educational system to others
globally and makes recommendations for policy changes... A strong
partnership between the Ohio State Department of Education and The
Ohio State University is creating new opportunities for students to
study world languages. ... The state Legislature also created a
Foreign Language Advisory Council, which, in December 2007, released a
foreign-language plan for students enrolled in preschool through

In contrast, Iowa has never had a staff member at the Iowa Department
of Education whose entire position is devoted to supporting world

Iowa works on core curriculum

Iowans have heard the call for world-class schools before, including
the Iowa Business and Education Roundtable's 1991 report titled
"World-Class Schools: The Iowa Initiative."

Yet since then, Iowa has slipped from its former top-performing status
in comparison to other states on the National Assessment of
Educational Progress.

Charlie Edwards, a former Register publisher, was a member of that
now-defunct roundtable. He is now vice president of the Iowa Board of
Education and dean of journalism and business at Drake University in
Des Moines.

Edwards describes world-class schools as something "everybody wants."

"But then we get into what is the definition of world-class schools
and into political turf and local versus the state and small schools
versus large and how resources are going to be allocated. It is
challenging for a state board to set a standard that applies across
the board. That is why we came up with the recommended core curriculum
(the 2008 Legislature made it mandatory). So yes, there is a
commitment, but it breaks down."

The Iowa Department of Education describes the Iowa Core Curriculum as
"an ambitious initiative to provide students with a world-class
curriculum" in all Iowa districts. The curriculum, which will apply to
kindergarten through 12th grade, specifies the essential skills and
concepts to be taught in math, literacy, science, social studies and
21st-century learning skills (civic, financial, technological and
health literacy and employability skills).

To develop the curriculum, the department worked with international
business leader Kemin Industries, among other experts, to select
essential skills and concepts. Every effort was made in a tight time
frame (a year each for 9-12 and K-8) to research international
assessments and related information, said department Director Judy

Jeffrey believes the Iowa Core Curriculum will be world-class if "we
get to the much deeper intellectual work on the part of all our
students that's envisioned." That will depend on strong lesson plans
and teacher preparation, including having time to collaborate, as well
as adequate resources, she said.

Complacency holds back change

That is the right direction to head in, but Iowa needs to move faster.
The Iowa Core Curriculum will not be required for high schools until
2012-13 and not for K-8 until 2014-15. By then, a student entering
first grade this fall will be almost a teenager.

At a statewide summer science institute in Fort Dodge this summer, one
teacher told of getting $75 for science-project supplies for the
entire school year. Another talked about how parents complain if
academic demands are too rigorous. Those were just some of the
comments reflecting a troubling complacency.

Where's our collective sense of urgency to assure our children are
well-prepared for the 21st century?


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