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Middle class decline tied to achievement

Published: Monday, Feb. 10, 2014 1:07 p.m. CDT

The 20-percent decline in the middle class in Iowa is primarily caused by a 50-year decline in Iowa student achievement and related job skills that are necessary to fill Iowa jobs requiring higher critical thinking and problem-solving skills than Iowa K-12 public schools can accomplish.

Work force skills and their cost are the primary driving forces for employers.  The Iowa Business Council released an economic report January 27 showing the state’s overall economic competitiveness requires an increase in skilled workers.  Higher-paying jobs are going unfilled due to a lack of workers with skill levels to fill them.   

Iowa ranks 33rd in states with people holding degrees beyond high school.  This low rank is a reflection of Iowa being unable to raise student achievement above the 41st national percentile (when the 65th national percentile would be grade level).  Global standards are higher than U.S. standards. 

Iowa students graduate, on average, about two years behind grade level, and have been doing so since foundational concepts were removed from the curriculum and teacher training programs at least fifty years ago, making them unprepared for higher education as well as higher-paying employment.  With 82 percent of the public schools in the country graduating students behind grade level, shouldn’t the argument be made that public schools carry a large share of the burden for the disappearance of the middle class?

Concepts began being removed from the curriculum and teacher training programs after the 1954 Brown vs Board of education decision required school integration.  After Congress  ended decades of the severe immigration quotas in 1965, immigration numbers more than quadrupled in the first five years and continued rising, so a movement across the country created Special Education in 1972, allowing schools to label students with low test scores in order to avoid counting those low scores in the calculation of average. 

No proper assessment was done on the impact of the lack of foundational concepts in the curriculum, nor in teaching methods, to learn why the numbers of students were experiencing difficulties. Foundational concepts are universal, so once a student figures out how to relate a concept to his life, it is possible for them to apply it to other areas. 

The U. S. education system continues to write reports about gaps in achievement among various demographic groups but absolutely fails to do a proper assessment of the contribution of a lack of foundational concepts and the prejudice instilled in the teacher training programs toward those groups. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which writes the PISA exams, where you go to school is more of a determining factor than poverty. 

Research shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds in some countries out-perform the wealthiest children in other nations in math.  Further research into the math skills of the most deprived ten percent of pupils found those in big-spending Britain (for example) were not keeping pace with high-performing areas such as South Korea, Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong Kong in China. 

The same is true in the U.S.  All of the countries out-educating us by having foundational concepts in their curriculum and teachers trained to effectively teach them do not experience these gaps in achievement. On the 2013 PISA exams, U.S. students slid in global rankings on reading, math, and science.

Iowa was the last state – resisting for eight years – to finally adopt standards, and only last year approved an embarrassing curriculum dumbed down from the national one that was at least a move toward international standards.   According to the OECD, the U.S. spends more than other developed nations on education but does not get the same results. 

In addition, both new and experienced teachers in the U.S. out-earn most of their counterparts around the globe.  This clearly means that public schools in the U.S. have no idea how to improve student achievement up to global standards while spending less per student. 

This does not bode well for the future of the middle class, nor for Iowa (where Democrats in the Iowa Legislature believe more spending is needed for education and education already accounts for more than 50 percent of the General Fund budget).

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