Iowa drops in education rankings

Kurt Meyer writes a weekly column for the Nora Springs – Rockford Register, where this essay first appeared. He serves as chair of the executive committee (the equivalent of board chair) of Americans for Democratic Action, America’s most experienced liberal organization.

If you’re confused about myriad rankings that evaluate public education in Iowa, join the club. I note that Iowa did not fare well in a recent U.S. News & World Report ranking of best high schools—number 48 of 51. But it’s always possible, due partially to the proliferation of rating approaches, to find results where Iowa fares somewhat better.

Wow, 48th! We somehow managed to edge out Nebraska and Oklahoma (Maine, too, since apparently they didn’t grant permission to use Advanced Placement data in their evaluation). Now, we shouldn’t get blown too far off course by one poor ranking, although it’s worth noting, U.S. News & World Report now markets themselves as “the global authority in education rankings."

Fortunately, Iowa maintains a high percentage of students graduating from high school, almost 92 percent; we’ve consistently earned top-three status here. Various rating methodologies occasionally reveal other positive things taking place across Iowa’s 327 school districts.

Still, I have a vague sense that we’re slipping. I sought out other ratings to learn where Iowa stands, checking also on Minnesota and Wisconsin for comparison. In all instances, I’m sharing the most recent information available online.

The U.S. News and World Report evaluation for the entire kindergarten-through-12 span rates Wisconsin, #8: Minnesota, #18; Iowa, #24.

The World Population Review, 2022: Minnesota, #12; Iowa, #13, Wisconsin, #16.

The WalletHub website, July 2021: Wisconsin #9; Minnesota, #12, Iowa, #20.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which consistently points in a far-right direction: Minnesota, #15, Iowa, #41; Wisconsin wasn’t listed. 

While these scores aren’t devastating (the exception being the #48 rating cited above), they’re not a particular point of pride either. For years, I’ve heard countless political candidates say something like, “We must make Iowa #1 in education AGAIN… starting with our youngest students, 'tomorrow’s workforce,' to adult learners acquiring new skills for emerging jobs …” and so on.

The word “again” here is key, conveying the impression that once we were better.

Frankly, we can’t do much about where we stand today. It’s our metaphoric tomorrow – the next decade, arguably, the next several decades – that must be our focus. Since I’m not an educational guru, in a search for greater understanding, I tapped those who know more about this topic. Several issues surfaced.

Drop in Teachers…The number of people entering the teaching pipeline diminished by one-third between 2010 and 2020. A paragraph from a report issued by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning enterprise, in December 2019 (before the pandemic).

Teacher salaries are far too low, which has led many teachers to work second jobs or qualify for public assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).2 For the first time in years, a majority of parents surveyed by PDK International in 2018 said that they do not want their children to become teachers.3 Due to low salaries, difficult working conditions, and a lack of career pathway opportunities, the teaching profession as a whole cannot compare with other high-status professions such as medicine and law.4

Drop in Quality…Fewer teachers and tighter budgets result in larger class sizes. Furthermore, exceptional teachers presented with more inviting career opportunities either leave the field (or leave the state), while mediocrity, with fewer options, remains. In addition, quality is always at risk whenever teaching requirements are lowered in an effort to maintain staffing levels.

Drop in Focus… Education has become a plaything for politicians seeking sound bites, despite their limited understanding of the topic. Invariably, these comments harm Iowa teaching/learning.

For example, if you’re graduating soon with a teaching degree and are offered positions in several states (one being Iowa), this probably won’t be where you’ll launch your career. Grandstanding politicians rarely grasp the potential damage left in their wake. Future generations are likely to pay the price for their shortsighted foolishness.  

Iowa can do better, but right now we find ourselves in a statewide educational rough patch. We must work collaboratively to regain top-tier status, which requires visionary plans, engaged communities, political leadership, and obviously, adequate funding. Let’s face it. Our long-term future depends on it.  

Top image of high school classroom available via Shutterstock.

  • What can I say?

    I started teaching in Iowa in 1968. Keokuk prided itself in public schools, and “only MA teachers need apply” to teach English in the Sr. HS. We English Language Arts teachers got an extra planning period, as the district was serious about teaching writing. I was a greenhorn among real professionals. Pretty humbling, but the culture demanded that you be the best teacher you can be. The KEA was 100%, and the association met monthly, sometimes with spouses to hear a speaker and committee reports. That year the district superintendent was the president of the ISEA, and the school board wanted KCSD to be the top dog on available measurements. That year resulted in major turn over in board membership. The super left to work on his doctorate at U of I. Things changed. English teacher lost their extra planning period. And the rest is in the history books, including a strike in spring 1970. THat’s 52 years ago. Statewide collective bargaining came in 1974, and teachers in Iowa were the most unified ever. The law lasted 42 years with minor hitches. Bargaining became routine…too routine and folks took it for granted. Gradually the political power of teachers and other public employees (unions too) weakened and radical, resentful conservatives filled the vacuum. In 2017 the GOP controlled all three branches, and the dismantling started with destruction of Chapter 29, and all other job security provision in law. Each year, the Rs, fed by a national organization of rightwing radicals, like ALEC whittled away at public education until here we are fighting to retain some measure of professional dignity, while the governor and many local districts are more interested in pleasing the Momma Bears than their local faculty. In the process, iowa has flopped to 48th in one of the surveys. Really sad.

    • Ms

      After being raised in Iowa, and being away 50 yrs , it was quite evident anecdotally, that this was indeed the case. My heart was broken at the decline in the state in the interim while we were away. We moved back to Mn where we had lived longer than any other state, and one who had housed a sane governor here, unlike Iowa. 💔💔💔

  • Pernicious rankings

    I've heard so much criticism of US News and their distorting effect on how colleges operate that I would not trust their results.

    I thought our supposed historical ranking as a top education state probably referred to something like SAT scores or other standardized tests. Why not look directly at those scores rather than letting ALEC or Wallet Hub filter them for you?

    • ACT and SAT

      Iowa ranks 24th in ACT rankings, with an average score that is just slightly below average. Iowa ranks third in SAT, but it isn't a useful comparison metric in Iowa because so few kids take it, about 2%, which are skewed toward high achievers looking to go to college out of state.

      • Ms

        I was referring to the Iowa Basic Skills Test, created in Iowa and given nationally as the first nationally based outcome scores. I took them and saw the place where they were created. This was on the way to Grandma and Grandpas house on Hwy 1 on the very furthest side of Iowa City. We look back to learn.

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