Almost two decades have passed since Iowa was ranked as the No. 1 state in the country in terms of academic excellence. Consistently landing in the middle of the pack, Iowa flounders, no longer setting the standard to which other states strive.
Jason Glass, newly appointed Iowa Director of Education, believes there is a road back to the top, but warns that it is paved with compromises.
“It’s important for us as Iowans to listen to all points of view,” Glass said, speaking at Monday’s meeting of the Clinton Rotary Club.
Glass, plucked from his position as an education-reformer in Ohio by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, has become a spotlight figure in Iowa government, primarily for his role in the upcoming Iowa Education Summit. He spoke to Rotary about his vision for the education system in Iowa, and how becoming a leader in education would require solutions that transcend party lines and ideologies.
One of the things Glass emphasized was the importance of Iowa students to be competitive, globally as well as domestically.
“We have to develop a workforce that is as educated as the highest performing nations in the world,” Glass said.
To achieve this end, Glass said traditional viewpoints need to be set aside. He said that those given the education reformer label are perceived as anti-union “mobs” that want to cut funding and punish teachers.
The other end of the spectrum is perceived to be apathetic educators wanting more money to perpetuate ineffective techniques, he said.
“The truth is, we need to find a middle ground,” Glass said.
Iowa educators need to admit there is a problem, according to Glass. He called tradition in the Iowa education system its greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. Though he believes the schools in Iowa are very strong and have gotten consistently stronger over the years, he said education systems in other states have grown faster.
Once a problem is acknowledged and identified, the next step is determining what specific steps can be taken to address the issues, something Glass believes is easier said than done.
“I have been criticized of being long on ideas and short on details,” he joked. “Today, I will perpetuate that.”
He said that Iowa can’t “airlift in” a cookie-cutter system of reform and drop it on the educational system. The education summit, which is expected to draw almost 2,000 attendees, is a good way to generate ideas from a variety of education professionals.
Glass identifies three broad areas of improvement that schools in Iowa will face.
First is high expectations and fair measures. Glass said other countries with strong education systems set high academic goals and students educated in those environments perform well.
Accurately measuring academic success will also need to be addressed, as just establishing a uniform line that all students meet is no longer reasonable, according to Glass.
He expressed an interest in Iowa re-establishing itself as a leader in certain areas of study, including science and math.
He also lamented the stagnancy of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Using paper bubble sheets and sending results through the mail are outdated and ineffective, he said.
The second area is improving educator effectiveness.
“This is a human-being driven venture,” Glass said, adding that 80 to 90 percent of education budgets go to salaries. “The quality of the education comes from the person in the room. That’s where the rubber meets the road.”
Countries with high levels of academic achievement recruit the top college graduates to be teachers, whereas American teachers often come from the lower half, according to Glass.
He said that Iowa schools will have to be more selective with who is allowed to teach.
“We have to have the courage to say, ‘This is too important. You can’t do this,’” Glass said.
While Glass said that he doesn’t believe firing all underperforming teachers is the answer, he said some union regulations make it too difficult to dismiss bad teachers.
He added he understands that low starting pay for teachers might dissuade qualified educators who have other options, and said it was another issue he hoped to address.
The final hurdle, the one that he believes is most difficult, is moving away from the “one-size-fits all” education system.
“We have an industry model right now,” Glass said. “Kids are put on an assembly line.”
He said that while a third of the students excel in such an environment, the rest don’t learn well or don’t learn at all. Education must be more customizable to be successful, he believes.
Following the lunch discussion, Glass participated in a question and answer session with local educators. He reiterated his insistence on uniting across party lines, and said he would support reforms endorsed by Branstad.
But according to Glass, the important thing, however it is finally manifested, is that some change occurs.
“We can’t just keep demanding more money to do the same things,” he said.