Iowa's Wake-Up Call

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Iowa's Wake-Up Call

Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the Iowa Education Summit

July 25, 2011

I’m excited to be here this morning--and to participate in the Iowa Education Summit with Governor Branstad and so many distinguished educators, school leaders, district administrators, lawmakers, and parents all committed to giving Iowa’s children a world-class education.

Everyone here knows that Iowa has a rich educational tradition, with many outstanding schools and great teachers. For decades—and as recently as 1992--Iowa students either led the nation in student achievement or were right at the top of the pack. The Iowa Tests of Basic Skills began, not surprisingly, right here in Iowa. So did the ACT assessment.

Governor Branstad has also had an enduring commitment to education reform. More than 20 years ago, in 1989, he helped organize the formative National Summit on Education. And in Washington, Iowa has had a tireless champion for education, my friend, Senator Harkin.

He has been a wonderful advocate for children--and a national leader in early childhood education, expanding college access, and supporting students with disabilities.

Yet Iowa cannot rest on its laurels. In fact, no state can afford to be self-satisfied and to perpetuate the status quo. The standard of success in the information age has risen dramatically. And today, not enough of Iowa’s children are receiving the world-class education they need to succeed in the global economy.

In the knowledge economy, the country that out-educates us will out-compete us. And the hard truth is that Iowa has started slowly slouching toward educational mediocrity.

Over the last two decades, Iowa has stagnated educationally. As the report prepared for this summit, “Rising to Greatness”, shows, many nations and states are now out-performing Iowa.

My fervent hope is that this summit will serve as an urgent wake-up call to all Iowans.

For too long, academic standards and expectations have been set too low. Innovation to boost and accelerate learning has been slow and sparse. And Iowa has not done enough to attract, prepare, support, evaluate, and reward top talent in the classroom.

These may be unpopular conclusions to draw, and a lot of people still reject that picture. They think the schools they send their children to are just fine.

Education is a problem for other people’s children and schools. It’s the urban minority students, the disadvantaged rural students, the immigrant children who are English language learners that drag down performance.

I’m here to say today that those explanations for mediocrity are exaggerated. Those excuses won’t fly anymore. This is not a time for complacency. And ironically there may be no better example than Iowa of how America is failing to provide a world-class education to children without the special challenges of poverty and language.

As the “Rising to Greatness” report spells out, no state scored significantly higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than Iowa in reading and math in 1992. Iowa was at the mountaintop.

But today, the picture on NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, is quite different. It’s not that student achievement is declining in Iowa. Instead, it’s that students in many other states and nations are rapidly improving and are now out-performing Iowa’s children.

By 2009, Iowa’s eighth graders had gone from the top of the pack in math on NAEP to having 15 states out-perform them.

In fact, Iowa is the only state in the nation that hasn’t made significant progress in eighth grade math since 1992. More recently, since 2003, only one state has had less student growth than Iowa on the NAEP math assessment.

According to the “Rising to Greatness” report, Iowa currently has the largest achievement gap in the nation in reading and math between students with and without disabilities.

And at a time when earning a degree is more and more critical to success, just one in four Iowans has a bachelor’s degree. Of the 12 Midwestern states, Iowa has the fourth lowest percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree.

Part of the explanation for Iowa’s below-average college attainment rate is that Iowa’s high schools are falling short of preparing most students to be truly career and college-ready.

Iowa now ranks in the bottom ten states in the percentage of seniors who take and pass an Advanced Placement course. And the ACT scores of college-bound students suggest that only three in ten high school graduates in Iowa are ready for post-secondary course work.

Numerous states have made their curriculum more rigorous in the last decade. But Iowa has one of the lowest enrollments of eighth graders in Algebra I or other higher-level math courses of any state in the country. Only Mississippi, North Dakota, and Louisiana have a lower percentage of eighth graders enrolled in higher-level math.

Until recently, Iowa’s academic standards were relatively low, compared to those of many high-performing states. One independent study gave Iowa’s English Language Arts standard an F and a C in math.

Now, when we discuss facts like these I can almost hear the “Yes, but” responses some might have. So let me respond to the “Yes, but” objections.

It is absolutely true that Iowa’s students are more likely to be poor, minority students, and English language learners today than in 1992. Iowa, like our nation, is becoming more and more diverse.

In the last decade, minority students have gone from about 10 percent of students in the state to 18 percent. The percentage of students who don’t speak English as a first language has gone up as well, from about two percent to more than four percent.

It’s also true that having more diverse and disadvantaged students in the classroom presents significant added challenges to elevating and accelerating learning.

Yet it is simply not the case that Iowa’s performance has stagnated because the addition of more minority students has obscured the high performance of Iowa’s white students.

More than 80 percent of Iowa’s students are white--and Iowa’s white students are no longer among the best in the nation.

In fact, reading scores for non-poor, white students in Iowa on the NAEP assessment are now below the national average for their peer group. While white students have progressed nationally, Iowa’s white students have seen no growth—and in some cases have actually declined—on the NAEP in recent years.

To put this all in an international perspective, the economist Eric Hanushek and his colleagues carried out a study last year that showed how well each state did at producing high-achieving students.

The Hanushek study also broke out the results separately for white students and students with at least one college-educated parent. Yet even after separating out disadvantaged minority students, Iowa’s students performed poorly in international and national comparisons.

If Iowa was a country, the Hanushek study suggests that it would rank 53rd in the world in producing students at an advanced level in math, behind 33 nations and provinces and 20 U.S. states.

But the results for Iowa’s white students alone are even more telling. White students in 29 U.S. states are more likely to be advanced in math than white students in Iowa. And all students in 30 nations and provinces are more likely to be advanced math students than just the white students in Iowa.

Put another way, Hanushek’s study suggests that countries like Slovenia, Estonia, Slovakia, Poland, and Lithuania produce a higher proportion of advanced math students across the entire student population than the Iowa school system does among its white students alone.

Simply put, today, those countries are out-educating Iowa. They are doing a better job of promoting educational excellence.

In the knowledge economy, that is not nearly good enough--because Iowa students are no longer competing just against their peers in their community or in their state. They will be competing with students for jobs and admission to higher education with students from China, South Korea, Canada, India, Poland--and yes, Estonia.

This competition is a reality today, not down the road. At Grinnell College, how many of you are aware that nearly one in ten applicants is from China? And that half of the Chinese applicants have perfect scores of 800 on the math portion of the SAT?

Now, in the face of Iowa’s educational stagnation, we have to step back and ask, why?

Why have other states and nations made dramatic educational progress, even as their student populations have become more diverse, while achievement in Iowa has leveled off?

I believe Iowa’s flat performance is due to four factors.

First, until recently, Iowa set low academic standards that did not truly prepare students for colleges and careers.

Every state should have a high bar for success. Every state should set standards that show students truly are career and college-ready, without the need for remediation, by the time they graduate high school.

Second, Iowa has not been a leader in implementing innovation to increase learning. Iowa did not receive a Promise Neighborhood grant. It has no Teacher Incentive Fund grantees rewarding effective educators who serve in high-need schools and subjects.

Translated, that means we have invested $1.2 billion in other states demonstrating more creativity. With its increased diversity, what is Iowa doing creatively around the use of time, longer school days, longer weeks, longer years for student who need more help?

Only one Iowa project received a small Invest in Innovation, or i3 grant. And Iowa has one of the weakest charter school laws in the nation, limiting educational flexibility and experimentation.

Iowa finished well out of the running for a Race to the Top grant. The state’s application itself candidly described Iowa’s educational system as a stalled system. And the independent experts who reviewed Iowa’s Race to the Top application felt the state was not pursuing transformational reform on an aggressive schedule.

To be sure, Iowa has implemented a laundry list of reforms in recent years. But the state and school districts have made little effort to measure the impact of their programs on student learning.

Third, Iowa, unlike some states, has not been a national leader in increasing educator effectiveness.

Nothing—absolutely nothing--matters more to the success of children in the classroom than creating a strong talent development system that gets great teachers and principals into the communities, schools and classrooms where children need them most.

Like many states, Iowa has a mediocre teacher evaluation system that does little to enhance professional development, collaboration, and continuous learning by teachers.

Iowa also does not have true alternative certification programs for teachers, since all preparation programs have to be offered through institutions of higher education.

Last year, 73 graduates from Iowa State University applied to Teach for America. But none of them will be able to teach in Iowa--and without change, you will continue to export that talent to other states.

Finally, Iowa has yet to become a leader in creating high-quality early learning programs, which are one of the most foundational and cost-effective investments a state can make in its children.

I was pleased to see in the recent Iowa Poll that the vast majority of Iowans believe that every child in all parts of Iowa should have access to quality preschool education, and that a commitment to free public preschool will pay off for Iowa by making the state more attractive to businesses and families.

These four concrete reforms—boosting standards, elevating educator effectiveness, implementing innovation, and advancing high-quality early learning--can help Iowa again become a national leader.

And they are very much in keeping with the thrust of the state’s recommendations for reform in the “Rising to Greatness” report released at this summit.

Now, I will be the first to admit that the federal government has often been a stumbling block to transformational change. We have not been sensitive enough to the needs of states and rural districts.

And where change is happening, where states and districts are moving in the right direction, we must support you—not stand in your way.

As much as I am challenging you today, please know we are challenging ourselves as hard, or harder. We have to become a better partner for you as you strive to go to the next level.

That’s one reason I feel so strongly that we need to fix the broken No Child Left Behind law as soon as possible—so states can continue to lead the way on raising standards, measuring and supporting teacher and leader effectiveness, and closing achievement gaps. We need a law that supports teachers, students, and parents at the local level, not one that is so punitive and prescriptive.

Senator Harkin has been a great partner in this effort, working across the aisle with Democrats and Republicans alike. But if Congress doesn’t get a bill done, we will use the tools at our disposal to provide regulatory relief and partner directly with states. I desperately hope Congress will act. But if it doesn’t, I promise you, we will. I refuse to go through another school year with a law that is so fundamentally flawed.

I know my message has been a sobering one today. But I feel that if I fail to tell the truth, or sugarcoat reality, I don’t do our nation’s children any favors.

And despite the real challenges we face, I am actually optimistic that Iowa is taking important steps to provide its students with the world-class education that they need and deserve to succeed in the information age.

Last year, Iowa was one of the first states to adopt the Common Core standards, which the nation’s governors and state school chief officers initiated, designed, and implemented. That move took leadership and courage and a willingness to challenge the status quo.

It is a game-changer for Iowa’s children that the state has raised its academic standards in math and English Language Arts to reflect international benchmarks for college and career-readiness.

Iowa is also playing a leadership role in the SMARTER Balanced consortia, one of the two state consortia that are developing and implementing the next generation of assessments to measure 21st century skills.

With Governor Branstad’s appointment of Jason Glass as State Director of the Iowa Department of Education, Iowa has gained a leader in using teacher evaluation to enhance professional development and elevate the teaching profession.

In the Eagle County Schools in Colorado, Jason helped implement an educator effectiveness system that mirrors some of the practices of high-performing nations.

Teachers received annual evaluations based on multiple principal and master educator observations--and educators were eligible for bonuses for receiving exceptional evaluations and contributing to school- and district-wide student achievement gains.

Eagle County also implemented multiple career pathways for teachers--including mentor teachers, who wanted to spend most of their time teaching but devote some time to coaching small groups of teachers. Teachers have longed for meaningful career ladders that enable them to share their expertise, yet also remain connected to classrooms and children they love.

So I am absolutely hopeful that Iowa will commit to the hard work of reversing its educational stagnation.

This summit itself is a testament to the value that Iowans place on education--and their willingness to study and adopt the best practices of high-achieving nations in the era of the knowledge economy.

Complacency, clinging to the status quo, and continued tinkering will not solve Iowa’s large educational challenges.

We need Iowa to again help lead the entire country where we need to go. And, please challenge me to be a great partner as you embark on this journey.

From Cedar Rapids to Council Bluffs, that commitment to transformational change must start with the recognition that accelerating student learning and expanding educational excellence are not just challenges for other people’s children. They are challenges that profoundly affect all of us.

As a state, and as a nation, we are at a critical fork. I implore us, together, to take the tougher path, not the easy one.

Enhancing education for all—and not just for some--is the key to Iowa’s future economic prosperity. Today, more than ever, education must be the great equalizer in America.

Our children get only one chance at a great education. They cannot learn or live on past glories. It’s time that Iowa--and every state—renew the promise of providing all children with a world-class education.

With your leadership, and with your collective courage, I’m convinced we will fulfill that promise.