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Iowa shouldn’t adopt other states’ solutions to education problems

May 12, 2010
Thomas J. Switzer
Cedar Rapids Gazette
May 23, 2000

Thomas J. Switzer, professor and dean of the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa

Not good enough for Iowa Public education continues to be at the top of national and state agendas. Legislators in the halls of Congress and in state houses across the country want to be seen as leaders in education. Most politicians have the best interests of children in mind as they promote education reform.

Iowa has long led the nation in educating its citizens. Sadly, education in many states is in deplorable condition. Politicians and would-be reformers in those states reach out in desperation for anything they think will work to improve their schools

Unfortunately, while long-term, systemic reform initiatives are needed, what tends to emerge from the political process are short-term, single-initiative solutions to perplexing educational problems. Simple answers do not solve complicated problems. And, more importantly, many of these proposed solutions do not measure up to Iowa's high educational standards.

There are huge philosophical differences in this country about the best direction for educational reform. These differences stem, in part, from a misunderstanding of the reason for public education. Public education for too many Americans has come to mean "publicly financed." This is not what our nation's founders had in mind when they conceived of public education. To them, "public" meant for the public good. Schools were developed to educate the public – to give all citizens the knowledge, skills and attitudes to allow them to lead productive lives in a democratic society. This is the goal we should aspire to today.

In state after state we hear about programs such as charter schools, voucher systems, teacher testing, state and national standards, performance indicators for students, and performance-based pay systems for teachers. These reforms are now being proposed in Iowa. While there is merit in some of these reforms, we are in danger of being drawn into a whirlpool of ill conceived educational reform initiatives.

We can and should make changes in education in Iowa. Being complacent means slow death for our educational system. Jumping on ill-conceived bandwagons of reform can, however, be equally deadly.

So, what should Iowans do? Iowans should draw upon a phrase from the war on drugs and "just say no." We are under no obligation to follow the lead of other states or, for that matter, federal initiatives that are just plain wrong. Many of the reforms advocated for other states just are not good enough for Iowa. For example, many states have implemented simple paper and pencil tests for beginning teachers in an attempt to guarantee that they are competent to teach. Unfortunately, success on these tests shows no relationship to competency in the classroom.

At the University of Northern Iowa we are working with 10 other universities to develop a more thorough process that involves sampling of the work of our students at various stages as they go through the process of becoming a teacher. This "work sample methodology" will provide us with the assurance that our students in teacher education can perform well as classroom teachers and significantly impact the learning of the students they teach.

Iowans do not avoid change. We embrace change – if change comes about for the right reasons. Iowa schools must change if they are to provide our citizens with the education they need for this new century.

It is time for Iowa to stand up and be recognized for what it is – a leader in education. Iowa should serve as a role model in education for other states to emulate, not the other way around. In Iowa we can and should do better. Yes, we can improve. And, we will improve if we allow ourselves to start from our already high level of success and move up to the next level.

We should not feel the need to simply join in lock step with lower standards designed for other states' needs. What other states are doing is not good enough for Iowa. Do we have the will to provide Iowa children with a world class education? I hope the answer is "yes."