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.
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]