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History, context explain need for Iowa education reform

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 11:43 a.m. CDT

As the Iowa Legislature prepares to take up the issue of education reform, some history and context will help explain why reform is necessary.

Iowa Testing Services writes the ITBS and ITED standardized tests and each year issues a report about Iowa education, containing tables of data.  In 2001, one of their tables included 60 years of statewide averages of student test scores.  Graphing these shows some startling shifts in student achievement for Iowa. 

Beginning about 1960, there was a precipitous drop in average student achievement.  What changed in education to create this? 

One change was dropping phonics from the curriculum.  Good phonics is based on concepts, effectively teaching those concepts, and being able to apply them correctly.  Without this, both reading and writing begin to go downhill. 

Another significant change was the math curriculum.  Something called New Math was introduced, and math concepts began to be removed from the curriculum, teachers who knew how to teach these concepts eventually retired, and enrollment in math courses (and degree programs) dropped. 

With concepts being removed from the curriculum, they were no longer necessary in teacher training programs, so those changed as well.  The ITBS and ITED tests became a focus on what material students could memorize. 

Teachers got copies of the tests so they knew what material to help students memorize.  That process continued until the 2011-2012 school year, when the tests became focused on concepts and how well students could apply them.

In 1968, teacher training programs officially adopted the defective student theory (called Constructivism) to explain the noticed drop in student achievement.  This deflection successfully removed proper periodic analysis of curriculum content and teacher training programs (for effectiveness), and continues to this day. 

The Iowa Core Curriculum is only graded a C-minus because it fails to put back all of the concepts that were removed.  Iowa’s teacher training programs, collectively, rate a D-minus grade by the National Council for Teacher Quality because future teachers are not trained to effectively teach all the concepts the rest of the world continues to use, and there is a continued emphasis on the bogus notion of “defective” students rather than defective curriculum and defective training. 

According to the Iowa Department of Education, Iowa students graduate an average of about two years behind grade level, losing with regard to grade level as they process from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

In 1973, Iowa created Special Education.  This not only allowed schools to label students with low test scores as “defective” (and not count their low test scores as part of the average), but extra funding was provided to schools. 

Unlike other countries, where a form of Special Ed. exists to help students learn the concepts some individual teachers failed to effectively teach, in the U.S. all Special Ed. does is look for additional ways to help students memorize material in a bad curriculum.

Because the education community clung so tightly to its bogus theory of “defective” students, Congress finally had to take action in 2001, by passing No Child Left Behind, requiring schools to educate all students with normal capacity to learn (about 95% of the entire human species) up to grade level by 2014. 

Ten years later, 82 percent of all public schools in the country continue to graduate students behind grade level.  According to SAT scores in 2012, only 43 percent of high school seniors were ready for college work.  SAT tests look more at concepts than ACT tests (dumbed down several times).  For this same time period, about 60 percent of high school seniors appeared ready for college work after taking the ACT tests. 

Iowa is unable to move beyond its selection of the 41st national percentile as its student proficiency standard, where fourth-graders are considered proficient when achieving at the 3.2 grade level, eighth-graders at the 6.9 grade level, and 11th-graders at the 9.2 grade level.  Because the standardized tests are now testing for concepts and their applications, more Iowa schools will be added to the list of schools in need of assistance.

Ask your school if it uses a phonics curriculum that says there are 150 “sight” words that must be memorized rather than learning the correct phonics concepts based on the fact that each letter, and combinations of letters, in the alphabet makes a sound. 

I have three older dictionaries in my home with all the rules for phonics on the inside front cover — and absolutely every word in them shows the phonetic pronunciation (including each of the 150 “sight” words).  Schools using memorized “sight” words have a bad curriculum that reduces the ability of students to read and write.

Ask your school if its math curriculum depends on memorizing information rather than learning number concepts, and whether it relies on Order of Operations (a memorized five-step approach to solve equations) rather than algebraic proofs. 

These are indicators of a bad math curriculum that prevents students from properly learning math as the information processing system the rest of the world knows it to be.  Order of Operations is not used in any of the science and engineering applications of math, nor by the rest of the world.

As the Iowa Legislature prepares to reform Iowa education by restricting potential education majors (for being “defective”), they are now applying the favorite excuse of the education community since 1968 to themselves. In 2004, the Manhattan Institute released its teachability study, where it created an index of the “defective student” factors for each state. 

The states with the lowest index score, whose student achievement should be bad if there really is such a thing as “defective” students, are the states whose student achievement is surpassing Iowa – pushing Iowa down to 45th now and falling.  Continuing to rely on a baseless, bogus, theory is not serving Iowa well. 

It is past time to drop this and once again put concepts back into the curriculum and into teacher training programs. People are not defective; systems are.

Atkinson resides in Baxter. She is an educator who teaches mathematics, accounting, political science and history with the online University of Maryland University College, Des Moines Area Community College and William Penn University College for Working Adults.

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