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.