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One source of pride, Iowa education at crossroads

May 12, 2010
Robert D. Koob and Marvin Pomerantz
Des Moines Register
February 11, 2006

Robert Koob

We both grew up in hardship and poverty, with few apparent opportunities. Yet, we've had good lives. We credit our quality Iowa education.

Today's global marketplace has forever changed what once worked in Iowa schools. We must face the facts and boldly act now.

We lead a 15-member nonpartisan group, the Institute for Tomorrow's Workforce. What we've found, based on solid data: Iowa's future is in peril.

Virtually every major organization representing business, research, education and government has documented the critical situation in science, math, technology and engineering. From measurable declines in U.S. patents and scientific articles to soaring numbers of students in other countries majoring in those fields, the near-bottom U.S. scores reflect students' lagging interest and performance. The yardstick is now international.

Some countries require four years of high-school-level math and science and send more of their young people to college than we have people in our nation. Some Iowa students take no more than two years of math and science and lack interactive learning experiences. Technological literacy, teamwork, problem solving and critical thinking are basic skills of the 21st century. Further, too few Iowa teachers are prepared in math or science.

As Iowa builds its new economy with high-wage, skilled jobs, we must ensure Iowans can fill them. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 49 of the 50 top-paying jobs will require post-high school education. However, seven of 10 students now graduate from high school without completing the coursework to succeed in college or the workplace.

For every 100 Iowa students entering ninth grade, only 37 of them are in college for a second year. Less than one-fourth of Iowa's population 25 years and older has a bachelor's degree. That's below the national average and the lowest in the Midwest.

Students' test scores are stagnant. Children who live in poverty, a factor directly linked to student achievement, increased to nearly 30 percent in Iowa in the last decade.

Iowa's teachers' salaries are 41st nationally, $8,500 below the national average. Just five years ago, we ranked 38th. States such as Florida, Texas and Georgia actively recruit newly graduated Iowa teachers. Of the remaining teachers, many leave the profession within five years. Iowa faces a critical shortage as many other teachers near retirement.

Iowa spends less per student than five neighboring states. Iowa has fallen in per-pupil spending over the past 10 years, from 25th to 36th nationally. Spending is more than $1,000 per pupil below the average — a loss of $500 million annually.

The institute has four major recommendations:

Begin immediately to establish performance criteria for students, teachers, school districts and the statewide system and require all Iowa high schools to offer a core curriculum. Maintain an average ACT score of 22 one point above the national average.

Fund the 2001 Student Achievement/Teacher Quality Program, based on the teacher performance/compensation model. Immediately raise minimum teaching salaries to $32,000-$40,000.

Establish an independent commission to create a performance-based, learner-centered delivery system. Address alignment of local school districts, area education agencies, community colleges and the Iowa Department of Education.

Develop adequate financial support for a performance-based system. Review how the pre-K through community-college system is financed. Target the national average for per-pupil funding.

Many Iowans cling to the myth that Iowa still leads the nation in education. Pride, excuses, inaction and ignorance are Iowa's enemies. We have little time to play worldwide catch-up.

We need efficient, effective schools. Classroom "seat time" must be replaced by career pathways.

Iowa's future depends on it.

Robert Koob is president of the University of Northern Iowa and Marvin Pomerantz is chairman and chief executive officer of The Mid-America Group. They were appointed by Gov. Tom Vilsack and legislative leaders to serve as co-chairs of the Institute for Tomorrow's Workforce, a nonprofit foundation.