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Be a leader, Iowa, not a follower: Just say 'no' to state mandated educational standards

May 12, 2010
Thomas J. Switzer
Cedar Rapids Gazette
February 5, 2002

Thomas J. Switzer, dean of the College of Education

Much has been written lately in the press and reported on television about how Iowa is not subject to the testing provisions of the recently passed federal education bill. Headlines say Iowa is not subject to these regulations because we are the only state in the nation with "no standards."

The truth is that Iowa is the only state that has no "mandated" statewide standards against which student achievement is measured. The news media reports imply that Iowa is not keeping up with the rest of the nation. Once again it is assumed that the folks from the heartland of the country are just not "with it." The other 49 states are doing it, so why not Iowa? When I read these statements I simply smile and take pride that I am from Iowa.

As dean of the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, (UNI), I participate in many professional meetings around the country and come in contact with some of the nation's best educators. I can assure you that in the eyes of most of these professional educators, we are not seen as backward and resistant to change. On the contrary, Iowa is the envy of the country. These educators wish that they had in their states what we have in Iowa. They look at how well students in Iowa score on almost any measure of educational quality, and at our long-standing reputation for excellence in both our preschool K-12 system and in our higher education system. They wonder how we do it without mandated state standards.

What Iowans understand is that states can never mandate quality. The effort required to achieve quality in our schools comes from committed professionals who are empowered to make decisions that affect the lives of their students. It comes from a sense of responsibility, and pride and ownership in decisions that impact education in their local communities. It comes from a strong sense of being locally accountable for your actions, not to some state or federal agency. We are accountable to the students and the parents in the communities we serve. It comes from being well prepared to carry out these tasks.

In Iowa we view teachers and administrators as competent professionals and insist that they be well prepared to carry out their important tasks. We treat teachers and administrators as informed decision makers and vest in them responsibility for crafting the educational experience in their community. We vest in them "agency," the capability and competency to exercise influence and make decisions. In short, we empower well-prepared people to facilitate positive change. In doing so, we model the best of decision making in a democratic society.

This is in stark contrast to other states that are slipping toward an image of teachers and administrators as low-level functionaries carrying out the wishes of the state. This image leads, of course, to state mandates, high stakes testing and punishments if state-set goals are not achieved. A UNI graduate who teaches in a state noted for its high-stakes testing told me that she cried at home over pressure put on her to teach to the state test. She had to make sure that her students scored well on the test to avoid the punishment that might be imposed on her school. She was concerned that her students were missing out on a rich education because her teaching was increasingly narrowed to focus solely on the test. That is not the way she was taught to teach at UNI.

So the next time there is a headline stating Iowa lacks standards for student achievement, I hope Iowans will take pride in the fact that they live in such an enlightened state. Instead of feeling that we need to follow the lead of other states, we should invite those states to follow the leader in education. That's Iowa.