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Education must keep pace with change

May 12, 2010
Robert D. Koob
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
May 6, 2001

Robert D. Koob, University of Northern Iowa President

It is common now to speak of the "new economy," "information economy" or the "knowledge economy." Seldom defined, it loosely refers to what happened to the business world when it became clear that computing and communication technologies made a difference in worker productivity.

Fundamentally, what has really evolved is the rate of change. As long as we have been aware of the concept of an economy, it has been a knowledge economy in some sense of the phrase. Each economic advance has been the product of a new idea. Changing from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society, and from an agricultural society to an industrial society were possible because new ideas made work more productive. Humans reduced their survival dependence through a direct result of their own labor, to dependence on labor agents such as animals, machines and electronics. What humans have always brought to the mix is intelligence.

In the new economy, it is clearly more important to bring intellectual tools, not physical tools, to the work place. This has created rising expectations of our schools. As the pool of opportunities for those that labor in the 19th- and 20th-century sense diminishes, and the pool of opportunities for those who work with information and ideas increases, we expect our schools to provide each student the tools to survive and succeed in a rapidly changing world.

This is a reasonable expectation, but not one that can be accomplished in isolation. Achieving such a profound shift in the world of work requires the full participation of our society.

Ask any educator -- indeed, examine your own experience -- and you will learn that a childÕs early life experiences shape the potential for success in school. Yet Iowa finds itself in an odd circumstance for early childhood experience.

Iowa is a high-employment state. Most parents work. And yet Iowa has one of the least restrictive oversight codes for childcare in the nation. Childcare does not equate to early childhood education.

It is frightening how little data exists about early childhood education in Iowa. How many Iowa communities can provide information on the number of childcare opportunities in that community? Can that same community provide information on the educational character of those placements?

And what about life at home? How many communities can provide information on the parental support school-age kids have at home? The support must be fairly good or Iowa would not have such a good reputation as an education state. Because good education depends on quality teachers and supportive parents, Iowa must have a good share of both. Still, how many communities consider it their responsibility to be certain parents have the time to spend helping their children learn?

These are very difficult questions. They are not questions we are accustomed to addressing. They seem to encroach on the privacy of the family, so it has been much easier to blame schools when they do not meet our new expectations of preparing every child for college. The fact is, however, that no matter what kind of testing we do, no matter how many times we might revise the curriculum, if we do not have well-qualified teachers and a supportive home environment, we cannot meet these expectations.

The state has been blessed with a bountiful higher education system, public and private, that has, by every measure, developed quality teachers for many years. The state continues to show its concern for those teachers by seriously considering its pay and standards for professional progression. It is now time for each community to begin addressing the more difficult question of the supportive home environment.

It is the responsibility of each community, and therefore each person in that community, to make certain that every child has a safe place to live. Recent news has shown us that we have not yet reached that simple standard. If we are truly to prepare our children for the new economy, we must go well beyond safety. We must provide our children with places that stimulate their mental growth and protect their physical bodies. Iowa has barely begun to address this enormous challenge.

The bottom line is that we are all responsible for schooling, from the very earliest childhood education through college. If we are not happy with the way our own expectations are being met, then we must seek solutions together to the whole range of education.