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We’re just getting started with school reform in Iowa

Published: Friday, June 14, 2013 11:53 a.m. CDT

The education reform bill that recently passed the Iowa Legislature is an important victory for Iowa’s children and a step in the right direction toward regaining our leadership role in education.

Reaching Higher Iowa got engaged early on in the conversation, and the final bill reflects our recommendation to change the way Iowa does student assessments by moving to a model that calculates each child’s annual academic growth each school year. This is the basic metric of determining how well we are educating our children, and until now it’s been missing.

It cannot be overstated how much this matters. In states that have shown significant improvement in student achievement, a common thread has been measuring each child’s annual academic growth.

However, the passage of the bill alone will not change the results we see in the classroom. The heavy lifting has just begun, and we can’t afford to become complacent. In my view, complacency is why we lost our position of national leadership in the first place. We were so good for so long that improving just wasn’t a priority, and other states passed us by.

There are those who quibble over the measures that clearly show our loss of leadership. Others get defensive when examples of success elsewhere are mentioned. Some point to Iowa’s changing demographics or funding as reasons why we can’t improve.

On one level, I’m glad that more voices are joining the conversation. But nitpicking the data, discounting the success of others and playing the blame game, especially when the finger points toward our teachers, is not productive. What is productive is for us to discuss what it will take to significantly improve student achievement in Iowa.

Top of the list is thoughtfully implementing the provisions of this new bill, particularly the measures that deal with annual academic growth. To be successful, these measures must have the input and support of our front-line educators.

There’s other work ahead to improve public schools and serve our children:

Hire a new director of the Iowa Department of Education. Leadership will be particularly important while implementing the elements of the new bill.

With Jason Glass’ departure, we will need someone with a demonstrated track record of success in leading a state or an organization through major improvement initiative. Moreover, this individual must recognize that the primary role of the state is to set standards and build an accountability model while leaving most of the decision making to our local school districts.

Cast our net broadly to create a deeper talent pool from which to hire teachers. This is particularly important for our low-income neighborhood schools where, on average, children are two to two-and-a-half grade levels behind their peers in higher income areas by the time they get to eighth grade.

One way to widen our net is by modifying our alternative teaching licensure requirements, currently among the most stringent in the nation, so local school districts have the option of tapping into resources like Teach for America that have a demonstrated record of closing the achievement gap.

Develop meaningful professional development programs. The education reform bill provides professional development to our teachers through a mentoring program. Additionally, we should provide tuition reimbursement for those who enhance their skills.

We also need to create a professional development program for our principals. Research shows that the single biggest factor in the success of a school is the leadership capabilities of the principal.

Focus on reading literacy through the third grade. Through grade 3, children learn to read. After grade 3, they read to learn. Children who enter the fourth grade without good reading comprehension skills are at a significant disadvantage. We need a strong reading literacy program in the early years and must not move children on to fourth grade until they are proficient readers.

Provide choice and options. No parent should be forced to send their child to a school that isn’t effective at educating students. For next year’s legislative session, let’s develop a model of providing choice and options for students and parents, and that includes changing our funding laws and developing a set of standards so that we can start an effective charter school program in Iowa.

While it will take time and much hard work, I believe we can resume our position of national leadership in K-12 education.We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make the climb. We can study how other states have overcome similar challenges and more important, determine if and how those principles could be applied in Iowa.

Further, I have no doubt that with a laser focus on continual improvement that Iowa will become an incubator of innovative techniques and practices.

Our public school system just took a step forward. Now, it’s on us to maintain the momentum. We all own a piece of the responsibility to ensure every child in Iowa receives a solid start and opportunities that are only possible with a good education.

• • •

Mark Jacobs founded Reaching Higher Iowa to advocate for education reform. For six years, he was a board member and served a term as board chair of KIPP Houston Public Schools, which teaches over 9,500 economically disadvantaged students.  Drawing from his experiences as a Fortune 500 CEO and high-level strategic and financial advisor, Mark recently taught a capstone business strategy class to graduating seniors at Iowa State University. He is a proud alum of Greenwood Elementary, Merrill Junior High, and Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. Contact Mark at mark@reachinghigheriowa.org.

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