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July 25th, 2011

Different Viewpoints Shared At Branstad’s Education Summit

Governor Branstad told a crowd of 1,600 educators, parents, business leaders and legislators at the Iowa Education Summit that over the past decade Iowa lost its standing in educational excellence by becoming complacent while other states raised educational standards. Considering all the students in Iowa schools, the governor made the case that there are 475,000 very good reasons why Iowa’s public education system must be fixed.

Under a banner that read “world-class education=world-class workforce” Branstad stressed that the goal is not for Iowa to become simply the best school system in the nation, but rather Iowa must compete on a global stage in order to prepare Iowa with tomorrow’s workforce.

“It is my hope to build a consensus on educational reform” said Branstad.  One of his goals is that Iowa students are prepared to compete on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an internationally standardized assessment jointly developed by participating economies and administered to 15-year-old students.

The two-day summit being held at Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines is one of steps the Branstad administration is taking to “retool” Iowa educational system said Jason Glass, Iowa Department of Education Director who opened the conference with welcoming remarks and moderated the program.

Keynoting the conference was U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who spoke of Iowa’s former leadership role in educational excellence and his hope that the state will work to reverse what he called a problem with stagnation.  “Politics have hurt education. Education needs to be bi-partisan and non-ideological,” said Duncan. According to Duncan other nations are out educating Iowa in today’s knowledge economy.

Duncan referenced Iowa’s failure to receive Race to the Top funding because Iowa referred to its own educational system as “stalled” on its grant application form. Calling the conference an urgent wake up call, Secretary Duncan received applause when he recommended free universal preschool to prepare young children to enter school ready to learn. Additionally Duncan recommended that No Child Left Behind be entirely revamped or scrapped, and if Congress does not act to fix the mandate, the Department of Education will act on its own. “I refuse to go through another school year with a law that is so fundamentally flawed,” Duncan said.

Following Secretary Duncan’s presentation a plenary panel presented a variety of critiques and ideas about how to prepare today’s K-12 learners for college and career paths. Panelists suggested that with more than 1,400 teacher preparation institutions in the U.S., there needs to be greater effort placed on best practice standards in teacher training including getting student teachers into the classroom before the second semester of their senior year in college. Panelists also stressed that it must be easier for principles to let a teacher who is ineffective go.  In many instances, removing an ineffective teacher becomes a legal battle, almost harder than proving a teacher has committed a crime.

The conference included panel breakout session which focused on attracting more top talent and better preparing teachers, setting the bar higher for teacher evaluation and competence, helping principles to become instructional leaders and not just building managers, making schools fit kids instead of kids fitting schools, and education in the digital world.

Throughout the day, conference participants were asked to use ActivExpression, an interactive feedback device, to respond to survey questions. The wireless digital devices by Promethean, a multinational educational company specializing in interactive learning technology, recorded responses and, in real time, charted the survey answers which were displayed on large projector screens. This type of technology can be used in classrooms to provide formative student assessments so teachers can immediately adapt a lesson to meet the needs of students as they are learning.

The summit also provided a Twitter site, #IaEdSummit, which allowed conference attendees to Tweet comments and interact with one another throughout the event.

An afternoon presentation by Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, gave some of the conferences’ best research-based substance. Three of her key points stressed that to improve education there needs to be an emphasis placed on professional development of teachers to keep them up to date with best practices, particularly in teaching the most difficult students; a greater collaboration between teachers and principals; and an emphasis on tests that are worth teaching to. Darling-Hammond ended her presentation with a twist on an old saying, “Those who can, do. Those who understand, teach.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who has tackled public education and the teacher’s union in New Jersey concluded the day’s presentations a sobering talk about education today by saying that school choice is an economic not a partisan issue and that the changes needed to fix public education are needed now.  He highlighted his concern for tenure as a system that does not reward excellence and promoted performance-based pay. Christie’s talk was not well received by the bulk of the summit attendees if the tenor of the Tweets during his talk can be used as a measure.  Noting that the course we are on will lead to failure, Governor Christie told participants, “We need to focus more on the things that unite us.”

The conference will conclude tomorrow.

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About the Author

Polly Twocents

Polly Twocents is the pseudonym for the political commentary of Patti Brown, a partner in the Iowa Policy Institute, a research and analysis firm specializing in public policy issues. Patti is an Iowa mother of five who has a masters degree in journalism with a minor in political science from Iowa State University and an masters in social work from the University of Iowa. Patti worked for many years as a social worker in hospital, hospice and mental health settings. In addition she has also been a staff writer and columnist for The Catholic Mirror and a writer for The Des Moines Register. She is unabashedly and consistently pro-life and pro-family. As a bleeding heart conservative, Patti believes in a limited, representative government, personal responsibility, individual opportunity, and free enterprise.

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