The stagnation of Iowa’s educational system will impact the region negatively in more than just rankings, according to the United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. The status quo has potential to cripple Iowans entering a globally competitive job market.

“The countries out there that out-educate us, they out-compete us,” Duncan said. “The sad truth is that Iowa has started slowly slouching toward mediocrity.”

The Keynote speaker of Gov. Terry Branstad’s much publicized Education Summit, said that reform will be tough, possibly unpopular, but absolutely necessary to remain relevant in a “knowledge economy.”

“My fervent hope is that this summit serves as a wake-up call to all of us,” Duncan said. Duncan’s speech echoed the sentiments expressed by Jason Glass, the freshly appointed Iowa Director of Education. Both emphasized a need for accountability and raised standards, and both said placing a priority on the achievement gap was a necessity.

And both encouraged uniting across party lines. Glass said during an appearance at a Clinton Rotary Club meeting that the educational system should transcend political rhetoric for the good of the students. Duncan made similar statements during his speech, drawing applause from the sold-out crowd.

“Politics has hurt education,” Duncan said.

The floundering Iowa educational system can be attributed, at least in part to a lack of concrete goals, according to Duncan. He said that other states and countries have managed to surpass Iowa, once ranked number one nationally in terms of academic achievement.

Duncan said that studies that proclaim Iowa’s fall from scholastic grace are often criticized, by failing to incorporate the state’s changing demographics. The number of Black and Hispanic students have increased dramatically since 1992, the gold standard year of Iowa education and the last time the state was ranked at the top, as have the number of students below the poverty level. Some say that the influx of lower-achieving students skew the study.

Not so, according to Duncan, who cited a recent report by the Iowa Department of Education. The study shows that white, relatively affluent students are not performing up to the same standards as their peers worldwide.

Duncan said the issue is systemic, not the result of changing socioeconimic and racial landscapes.

“Those excuses simply won’t fly anymore,” Duncan said. “This is not a time for complacency.”

Duncan also expressed a desire to recruit stronger talent into the educational system. Echoing statements Glass made at the Rotary Club meeting in June, Duncan said that academically successful nations recruit educators from the top of the University talent pool.

Though it may be unpopular, he said that underperforming teachers who don’t respond to job coaching, should be removed from the classroom. Duncan also encouraged more selectivity in choosing teachers.

Conversely, Duncan expressed a desire to make teaching a more lucrative profession. He said that if teachers could make salaries approaching six figures by their late 20s or early 30s, top minds will be more likely to be lured into education.

“You shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty to enter the profession,” Duncan said.

He also addressed the achievement gap that plagues Iowa schools. Once again referencing the IDED report, Duncan said that the gap of academic performance between disabled and non-disabled students in Iowa is the worst in the nation.

The issues Iowa faces are not all homegrown, according to Duncan. He said that his peers at the federal level have a tendency to be a roadblock to progress, and he decried the “fundamentally flawed,” No Child Left Behind Act, something he says needs to be fixed before any positive steps can be made.

But Duncan said that all is not lost.

“Despite the very real challenges we face together, I’m actually very optimistic,” Duncan said.

Bright spots in the system are visible, Duncan said. He said Iowa’s overwhelming support of early childhood education was a good sign, and Iowa’s recent move to adopt core standards show initiative.

Duncan’s speech kicked off the two day education summit, a gathering of educators from across the state. Gov. Branstad has made improving Iowa’s educational standing a priority of his current administration.

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