Paying Lip Service to Quality Education

Mark Roulo left a comment on a kitchen table math post that I think presents a useful description of why there are so many arguments about education policy.

When I read the 1989 NCTM document, it seems to me that the *goals* of the authors are different than mine. This is as much a value judgement as anything else. I don’t think that they will change their values, so it would be required to show that what they are pushing doesn’t achieve what they want. But what if it does? Then what?

I don’t remember seeing anything in that document about enabling the maximum number of kids to major in STEM fields if those kids wanted to do so. Since this isn’t a goal, pointing out that the ’89 standards track the vast majority of kids *out* of these fields probably isn’t going to have much impact. *MY* kid, for example, is pretty much tracked out of any opera career at this point, and I don’t get to[o] worked up over it. Pointing this out to me won’t change my basic approach. I think that the same is true for the NCTM crowd.

I think that you would almost have to convince these people that allowing lots of kids to get STEM majors if they wanted to do so was important. *Then* we could start discussing whether or not MathLand worked. But I don’t think that you can persuade them of this, so I don’t see much hope.

-Mark Roulo

I have been increasingly frustrated with elected officials regarding education policy.  We could make many changes right now to improve student academic achievement, especially regarding early reading instruction but also K-6 math instruction.  So why aren’t those changes being made? Because student academic achievement is simply not a top priority.

From Chet Culver: The Record:

Helping Iowa’s Kids:  Increased the number of Iowa children who will have access to quality preschool programs – from less than 5% to over 90% by next year. Strengthened Iowa’s child predator laws, and gave law enforcement more authority to remove sex offenders from areas where children are located.  Signed safe schools legislation to protect kids from bullying and harassment.

Note that “quality” in the phrase “access to quality preschool programs” means the quality of being state-funded not quality as in participation causes lasting gains in academic achievement.  The less than five percent number appears to refer to the number of four year-olds enrolled in state-funded preschool–a number that excludes the children served by federally-funded Head Start programs and private program enrollment (which are lumped into the category other/none).  See here.

Supporting Iowa’s Teachers:  Raised teacher pay to encourage the best teachers to stay in Iowa while providing the tools they need to give our children the highest quality education.

Here quality seems to simply mean pay teachers more.  Note the description of the teacher quality initiative on the official governor’s website :

The Culver/Judge Administration implemented a new teacher quality initiative, which has helped increase teacher salaries statewide.

The initiative is credited with higher salaries but not higher teacher quality or higher student achievement.  I think Governor Culver’s priorities regarding education are clear: spend more money.

From the Iowa Department of Education:

Iowa students will become productive citizens in a democratic society, and successful participants in a global community.

Champion excellence for all Iowa students through leadership and service.


  • All children will enter school ready to learn.
  • All K -12 students will achieve at a high level.
  • Individuals will pursue postsecondary education in order to drive economic success.

Guiding Principles:

  • All students can learn at a high level.
  • Students respond best to challenging expectations.
  • Safety and respect are essential to student learning.
  • Educators need ongoing support and professional development to improve student achievement.
  • Improving student performance requires a broad constituency of support.
  • A quality education system is essential to a successful democracy, lifelong learning, and a vibrant economy.

It is difficult to quibble with the broad vision and mission statements.  But consider the goals.  Two of the three top goals of the Department involve what happens before and after children are involved in the K-12 education system.  The goal regarding K-12 is meaningless.  Achieve what at a high level?  Social skills?  Emotional skills?  21st century skills?  If student academic achievement is a Department priority, why don’t the goals might look more like this, for example:

  • All children in Iowa will be proficient at reading and writing in the English language.
  • All children in Iowa will be proficient in arithmetic and prepared for an authentic Algebra I course by 8th grade.
  • All college-bound high school graduates will be prepared for college-level course work without remediation.

How about guiding principles such as:

  • All children deserve an opportunity to learn regardless of the willingness or ability of the child’s parents to be involved in school work.  Instructional practices that depend upon parents being able or willing to teach (or reteach) basic skills at home or to help with homework should be eliminated.
  • Educators cannot teach what they don’t know.  All teachers must be knowledgeable about the content matter they are expected to teach.
  • Explicit, systematic and thorough instruction in synthetic phonics is a necessary component of early reading programs.  All teachers must know and understand the phonetic code to assist students with their decoding skills.

Unfortunately, the Department website demonstrates that obtaining federal funding is a significant priority (see the Race to the Top, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other stories regarding grants of federal funds) and student achievement is not (see, for example, the failure to acknowledge the 2009 NAEP reading assessment results).

In short, I guess I count myself as a Mark Roulo–worrying about keeping the door open for a STEM major–while the state sets about preparing future opera singers.