Building a better Iowa begins with building better schools

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Gov. Kim Reynolds recently launched a “Building a Better Iowa” campaign aimed at improving the state’s business climate to build new industries and train Iowans for the jobs of tomorrow. Silicon Valley titans such as Apple, Google and Facebook are flocking to Iowa to build cutting-edge data centers.

But the most important work to building a better Iowa starts with building a better school system to prepare today’s students for these new economy jobs.

The jobs of the future will go to the states that are best able to develop their human capital — the skills, abilities and talents of its citizens. The ticket to a good-paying job and access to the American dream increasingly depends on students obtaining the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in college and these new jobs.

While Iowa continues to improve the quality of education offered, too many students are still graduating lacking the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the modern economy.

A report from Education Reform Now indicates that more than half a million college freshman are not capable of handling college-level coursework and require remedial tutoring that costs upward of $1.5 billion annually.

That is an enormous amount of money to teach students what they should have learned in high school. We can — and we must — do better for our students.

The concern for these students was so great that it compelled Congress to do something far too rare in this time of political polarization — to work together. With a rare show of overwhelming bipartisanship they passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which returns authority to state policymakers and school leaders to determine how best to help struggling schools.

While the law gives states flexibility to devise new formulas to categorize school success and to develop better metrics for reading and math proficiency and growth, all of that exists to serve school improvement to deliver results for students.

Iowa’s state education officials embraced the spirit of ESSA and held listening sessions across the state, drafted multiple plans based on community feedback, and gathered public input and academic data. The results will be an ESSA plan that reflects Iowa’s values and, most important, reforms its strategies for doing better.

I, along with more than 30 other education experts, reviewed the state ESSA plans that were submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in April. (The results of our review can be found at CheckStatePlans.org.) Iowa is one of the states that will submit a plan this month.

The most critical flaw I saw in the early submissions from other states was weak plans for turning around struggling schools. It’s fairly simple to identify a school that isn’t performing well — student and teacher morale is low; assessment scores are low; graduation rates are low; the number of discipline problems is high; dropout rates are high; educator and staff turnover is high.

It’s great to have more refined metrics to identify a struggling school but what really matters is what happens after the school is identified. Too many of the plans we reviewed kick the can down the road on school-improvement. The plans recommended hiring consultants or providing more training, but very few talked about specific interventions and many didn’t reflect the urgency the challenge demanded.

This is where Iowa has a chance to set itself apart and lead the nation.

Policymakers should focus on struggling student populations and consider putting in place tiered lists of specific interventions and actions that will kick in depending on the seriousness of the problem. The solutions to these problems will come from a cross-section of society — educators, school administrations, legislators and education policy experts are a critical group but so are civil rights groups, business organizations, philanthropic and charitable foundations.

Just as state policymakers are creating the business conditions to attract new companies to the state, they also can create the conditions to attract new approaches to education, new interventions for struggling students, and new supports to help teachers succeed.

Marshaling the resources available through wide swaths of stakeholders is a critical component, which is why ESSA requires state education agencies to seek input from a variety of people and groups. There’s still time to be heard before Iowa has to submit its plan to federal officials.

Finalizing the state’s ESSA plan is a good first step on the long path to building better schools. But it is in many ways only the beginning. The real challenge lies ahead with implementing that plan and committing to do whatever it takes to serve all students well.

• John Bailey is a strategic adviser to philanthropies, investors and technology companies. He wrote this for InsideSources.com

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