Mid-Prairie Report Card

By James P. Hussey
Posted 1/20/00

Irresponsible. It’s not a pleasant word, but it’s the one the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation uses to describe Iowa’s educational standards. The foundation’s leaders are convinced tough …

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Mid-Prairie Report Card

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Irresponsible. It’s not a pleasant word, but it’s the one the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation uses to describe Iowa’s educational standards. The foundation’s leaders are convinced tough standards, combined with equally tough penalties for non-performing students and educators, are the secret to school success. Unfortunately, according to a report released earlier this month by the foundation, Iowa and 20 other states “cannot claim to embrace standards-based reform.”

As Iowans, should we be ashamed of our spot on Fordham’s skid row, or proud of it? One clue may be the five states placed on the foundation’s “honor roll”: Alabama, California, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas. Would you rather have your child attending school in one of these paragons of academic performance or going to class in one of our equally “irresponsible” sister states? Hint, the “bad” list also includes Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon and Vermont.

While statewide standards may or may not be useful, it’s obvious from Fordham’s own lists that you cannot pass laws that automatically result in academic achievement. When actual learning is measured (as by the National Assessment of Educational Progress), the five states on the Fordham honor roll are towards the tail end of the curve, and the irresponsible states are generally setting the standards for everyone else.

These counterintuitive findings show just how hard it is to link external standards to what goes on within a student’s mind. Acknowledging that reality, Iowa, alone among the 50 states, has consciously decided not only to be “irresponsible” but also to not even play the game. Instead of dictating what appropriate achievement ought to be, the Iowa Department of Education has delegated that responsibility to local school districts. Perhaps in an example of “be careful what you wish for,” educators who might normally resent the heavy hand of the state are now struggling with the yeoman task of measuring their schools with self-designed yardsticks.

Earlier this month, several Mid-Prairie board members went to Linn-Mar High School to receive instruction in Chapter 12: General Accreditation Standards of the Iowa Administration Code: School Rules of Iowa. The bottom line? While we may not have to do exactly what Des Moines tells us, we do have to do something; actually, a lot of things. According to just the 44 pages of code we received at the meeting, our board must appoint a school improvement advisory committee, adopt long-range goals, write a comprehensive school improvement plan and collect and analyze data necessary to judge our schools’ performances.

In some large districts, Iowa City for example, there are well-paid professionals whose only jobs are to manage relatively small slices of the curriculum. In Mid-Prairie, we don’t have the luxury of delegating the heavy lifting to anonymous administrators and, in my mind, we’re better off for it. If we really believe in local control of our schools, it means all of us— staff, students, board members, parents and community members—need to be involved.

From 1992-94, as an administrator for the University of Alaska, I had the privilege of chairing my community college’s accreditation self-study, as well as the duties of my regular job. If the result of our collective two years’ work had just been a 300-page report that ended up on some bureaucrat’s shelf, the self-study would have been a colossal waste of time and money. Instead, because every employee and student of our college was involved, as well as people from all segments of our communities, the self study helped us figure out what we were about, and what we wanted to become.

Our Mid-Prairie principals have taken the lead in working with their staffs to determine what standards make sense for their students. I can only applaud their efforts, because I know how much hard work is involved. While I may be “talking out of school,” if you want a voice in shaping our schools’ future, this is your chance to make a difference. Visit with your principal, talk to your teacher, call the Central Office or show up at a board meeting, and find out how your voice can be heard because, by law, it must be.

Are Iowa schools irresponsible? The answer obviously is no. In fact, if the proof is in the pudding, most states would do well to copy our recipe for success. Nonetheless, continued excellence requires continued commitment, from all of us. Like it or not, that is our responsibility.

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