Arne Duncan on Education in Iowa

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at an education summit organized byIowa Governor Terry Branstad in Des Moines on Monday morning. There Duncan addressed those in charge of Iowa’s education system, which was once among the best in the United States but has recently been in decline.

Duncan acknowledged that Iowa was once a model of successful education policy, saying, “Iowa at [one] time was absolutely at the mountaintop. Today, the picture is quite different.”

Duncan and Barnstad addressed several issues, including teacher performance, under-use of technology in the classroom, poor funding and not enough focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education.

Branstad made it clear that standards for teacher performance would have to be raised significantly. “If we are going to expect more from our teachers, we must provide a better support system for teachers,” said Branstad. “That starts with being more selective about who becomes a teacher.”

Duncan and Branstad both touched on a plan to tie teacher salaries directly to performance, posing that, if teachers’ salaries depended on the quality of their work, they would be more motivated.

The plan also called for increased support for teachers. “One of my greatest worries is that great teachers have been beaten down,” Branstad said. “Teachers are the unsung heroes of this society.” He went on to discuss greater opportunities for professional development and increased funding for schools as a way to attract the best teachers available.

Teacher salaries were not the only issue. Duncan reminded those in attendance that Iowa had one of the least developed charter school laws in the country. He discussed the numerous ways that charter schools can innovate and improve upon an education system.

While most in the crowd acknowledged that Iowa had to make changes to bring its education policy up to par, not everybody agreed with Duncan’s assessment of its current state.

According to the Des Moines Register, most attendees of the speech approved of Duncan’s comments on raising teacher salaries, fixing No Child Left Behind and developing early childhood education. Other points were more contentious.

“You can cherry-pick data and come up with a narrative,” said Sen. Robert Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “This idea that Iowa had the best schools in the world in 1992 and is now in the back of the pack I don’t think is accurate.”

Former Iowa House Speaker Brent Siegrist, who is now the State Services Director for Iowa’s Area Education Agencies (AEA), a series of regional bodies that provide services for school improvements, pointed out that many of his peers have been saying this for years.

“If you’re going to do some of the things they want to do with assessments and closing the achievement gaps and so on, you have to have the infrastructure to do that, and that’s what the AEAs are,” said Siegrist.

Lawmakers cut AEA budgets by $20 million in the fiscal year that began July 1, and the agencies are set to face an additional $10 million cut in the following fiscal year. Such cuts may hurt Iowa’s ability to improve.

While many points touched on during the summit remain controversial and many may not have clear solutions, the summit in general was intended to bring these issues to forefront of Iowans’ minds, the first step to reform.

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