As a child in Iowa, I had the gift of a great public school education. Knowing that Iowa had the top public schools in the country gave me the confidence to go out and explore the world. I’m proud to come from a family of educators spanning several generations; currently, my sister and two nieces teach in Iowa public schools. As a result, I’m a guy who’s very passionate about public schools. Right now, I’m also very concerned. We have some excellent schools in Iowa. But after taking a close look at public education as a whole in our state, I see how much we’ve fallen behind, and that really saddens me.
It’s true that Iowa still has one of the highest graduation rates in the country, and our fourth and eighth graders rank slightly above average in math and reading on national standardized testing. However, dig deeper and the facts are troubling. When you compare Iowa students’ test scores against students with similar demographics, we rank 38th in eighth grade math and 45th in eighth grade reading. The bottom line is that on average Iowa is actually delivering bottom quartile results. Also deeply concerning are ACT preparedness numbers—less than half of our children are college-ready in at least three core subjects. Twenty percent of our high school graduates are not college-ready in any subject.
This is a huge disservice to our children. Jobs increasingly require more training and education, and without a bachelor or associates degree or vocational school, opportunities will be very limited; as will lifetime earning potential. Moreover, a well-trained, well-educated work force is vital for the growth of our state.
We need to make sure that all of Iowa’s children graduate from high school college- or career-ready. The hard truth is that this will require real transformation and years to achieve it. Taking the right first steps is critical, and so is the way we go about reform.
Our first step must be to build accountability into Iowa’s education system – it is missing today. Until we develop accountability, we’re not likely to make much progress with other actions.
The cornerstone of any accountability model is the ability to periodically measure progress towards a goal—in this case getting our children college- or career-ready. But we’re not doing that. Our assessment tests only cover a small part of what we expect children to learn. Moreover, some districts give the tests in the fall, while others give them in January or the spring. With current tools, it is impossible for us to measure each student’s academic growth in each school year.
We need an assessment test that aligns with what we expect our children to learn. We also need to test each child at the end of each school year so that we know 1) how much they learned in that year and 2) whether or not they are on track to graduate college- or career-ready. That is something that each student, their parents, teachers, principals, and administrators deserve to know.
If a student is not making adequate progress, we can step in to get that child back on track. It would also allow us to identify high performing teachers and schools so that we could share best practices. The idea of setting a goal and then measuring progress is not exactly earth shattering, but the sad reality is we’re not doing it today, nor is it part of Governor Branstad’s current education reform plan.
How would we go about creating the type of measurement system we need? Involve the front line; involve our teachers—in a word, collaboration. Too often, education reform efforts are divisive. Teachers and their unions become targets. But teachers are not the problem. Teachers are the solution to the problem. Many education reforms don’t involve teachers, and that’s why they fail.
The bottom line is that education reform is about each child receiving a solid educational foundation and opportunities for a good, productive life. If we commit to doing right by each child, then over time, we’ll find that Iowa’s school system is once again among the best in the nation.
Mark Jacobs founded Reaching Higher Iowa to advocate for education reform. For six years, he was a board member and served a term as board chair of KIPP Houston Public Schools, which teaches over 9,500 economically disadvantaged students. Drawing from his experiences as a Fortune 500 CEO and high-level strategic and financial advisor, Mark is currently teaching a capstone business strategy class to graduating seniors at Iowa State University.