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Education is part of the solution; it is not the problem

May 12, 2010
Robert D. Koob
Cedar Rapids Gazette
May 6, 2001

Robert D. Koob, University of Northern Iowa President

A recent survey quoted in newspapers across the country claimed that more than 90 percent of parents with school-age children expect them to go to college. This rise in expectations for educational accomplishment was not a surprise.

Consciously or subconsciously, most Americans today realize the positive relationship between education and income. Fewer may be aware that college-educated citizens enjoy greater civic involvement and an accompanying sense of participation in today's society. I am not the first to notice this.

"Time" magazine, in a story over a year ago, worried about the development of an educational "overclass" in American society. In the same way that high school graduates of my generation dreamed of being a part of the nation's great middle class, today's generation aspires to be a part of the nation's educated class.

This is what has been at the heart of expressed discontent with American schools.

There is no data to support the concept that American schools have somehow failed. More students successfully exit our school system than ever before. If there are failures, they are failures of the distribution of the educational opportunity, not failures of the overall system.

What American schools have failed to do is to keep pace with our expectations.

Our school system was designed in an industrial age when the largest percentage of graduates were likely to enter jobs not requiring college experience of any kind. It was created to separate students into categories that matched workforce needs.

Our discontent arises from the observation that workforce needs have changed faster than our schools. This realization has profound implications for how we deal with our schools.

What does this mean for Iowans? It means we have to educate an increasingly greater proportion of our population to a level at which they have the skills, values, knowledge and wisdom of a college graduate or beyond.

We need teachers who understand how to draw the greatest possible achievement from all students.

But it is unreasonable to expect teachers educated in a previous generation to have the necessary skills for this endeavor without offering them regular and ongoing professional development opportunities.

Successful learning happens when qualified, motivated teachers encounter receptive students. Adopting the latest curriculum craze or throwing tests at every teacher and student in the system is largely irrelevant.

Iowa is fortunate to have colleges and universities that turn out qualified and motivated teachers. It's imperative that Iowa determine how best to support those teachers and their students in light of our vastly increased expectations.

Our society, business and government are all under pressure from the rising expectations of the American family as well as from the new economy that is looking for a college-educated workforce. It's clear to me that we need to focus these pressures and remember that education is part of the solution -- not part of the problem.