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IA: Hawkeye State ranks last in student gains

By   /   September 6, 2012  /   News  /   5 Comments

By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog

DES MOINES — Iowa schools are ranked worst in the nation for their mediocre learning gains during the past two decades, according to a recent Harvard University study.

The state’s fourth- and eighth-graders improved on reading, math and science tests at a rate that put them less than a year ahead of their peers in 1992. States posting the largest gains, including Maryland, Florida and Delaware, improved at a pace of two to three times of that in Iowa, according Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.

Iowa lags in student achievement gains, according to a recent Harvard University study.

Test scores in Iowa remained largely stagnant despite an increase in spending. The state spent $5,119 per student in 1997-98 compared with $8,603 in 2009-10, according to the Iowa Department of Education. That represents a 68 percent increase in per student funding. Figures for previous years were not available, said Staci Hupp, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education.

“Iowa was quite exceptional,” said Paul Peterson, director of the program and co-author of the study. “It’s a state that has such a history of support for education that goes way back to the turn of the century. They were the first to develop high schools. They had such a good university system. There was a commitment to education. It’s remarkable to see that’s no longer evident.”

The study didn’t look at the reasons behind why some states made more gains than others, Peterson said.

The findings come as Gov. Terry Branstad continues his push for comprehensive education reform, in hopes of restoring the state’s standing as an educational leader nationally and internationally. Iowa has been slow to adopt changes in recent years, which some attribute to a reluctance of districts to give the state more say in the education of children.

Branstad introduced a year ago a blueprint to improve teacher preparation programs, strengthen educator evaluations, elevate standards and create assessments that measured student progress.

Lawmakers, however, passed only portions of the plan — some of which were unfunded — and created task forces to study other proposals. Those include early childhood assessments, instructional time, teacher leadership and compensation, educator evaluations, competency-based learning, and teaching standards.

“This report really for me validates that we can get better in Iowa,” said Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education. “It’s this generation of Iowa leaders turn to step up and lead this state through education transformation. We owe that to the state and its future citizen. It’s our turn to take responsibility.”

Branstad and Glass plan to provide lawmakers with an aggressive reform agenda when the legislative session begins in January. It will focus on improving the state’s teacher workforce by raising teacher pay and creating teacher leadership roles, as well as attracting high-caliber professionals to education and providing more support to retain effective teachers, Glass said.

Additionally, Iowa needs to raise its standards and develop assessments that measure students’ progress in meeting them, he added.

“We are in the middle of a marathon right now and a number of people on the outside looking in would assume it’s a sprint,” said Paul Gausman, superintendent of the Sioux City School District, who is also a task force member. “The areas we are discussing at the state level are important ones that need to be discussed. The governor recognizes education is the key to Iowa’s future and the nation’s future.”

Contact Sheena Dooley at [email protected]


Sheena formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • I wonder how much the cost of living index increased in that same period. I doubt that the increase in education spending in dollars corrected for inflation is anywhere close to 68 percent.

  • Peter Gatliff

    Looks like GrandPa was right!! When it comes to education the Republican motto is, “Keepem down on the farm and keepem stupid’.

  • SW

    It is not just a Republican or Democrat, it is actually both. I think part of the problem is not just the way we evaluate students, but the way we evaluate teachers as well. With some of these unions and giving teachers tenure, it allows a teacher with tenure to just not care, they stay where they are, while young teachers with fresh ideas that are not union, do not get a chance. We need to care more about our children than a union who doesn’t care at all.

  • Dan Kirkpatrick

    ironic my grandpa said the very exact same thing about Democrats….

  • Erik Hanushek is a rightwing professional critic of education and
    noted education deformer and abuser of truth at the Hoover Institute
    stink-tank at Stanford. Other authors have similar pedigree–
    impressive sounding at first (Harvard, Standford), but essentially
    professionals with a background in economics, finance, or political
    science who put numbers together to keep education alarm bells
    ringing. There have been a plague of such people in the last 15
    years, mostly financed by conservative think tanks and the
    billionaire boys club (as Diane Ravitch calls them).

    This specific report, as is typical, uses a single indicator,
    performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress
    (NAEP), to argue that the US sucks relative to other industrialized
    nations and Iowa sucks because the NAEP numbers aren’t going up as
    fast as other states. State comparisons on NAEP are easy to do given the data tools
    available at their site ( http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ )
    Unfortunately, it also makes it easy for these clowns to play with
    the numbers and continue their distortions.

    The basic problem with the methodology in this report is that Iowa
    has traditionally done well on NAEP and has less room for
    improvement (which is what this study puts in play). Wisconsin,
    Nebraska and North Dakota are at the bottom with Iowa (which gives
    their Republican governors license to abuse education) while noted
    paragons of educational disaster like Florida and Louisiana fall
    near the top of their rankings. The authors also use a very crude index (percent
    change) to rank states and distort reality. This is yet another
    example of the absolute stupidity of ranking states, programs,
    nations, people on the basis of test scores. These authors make a
    habit of publishing such junk science and putting it out as if it
    were legitimate research. The Think Tank Review site at U of
    Colorado has not yet reviewed the report cited, but here is a link to
    one a similar report from this stellar group of authors:
    http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-us-math .

    Education can always be improved, but our single-minded focus on test scores does not suggest thoughtful consideration of the issues involved.