"Our local school districts all set their own standards," says Corine Hadley, who chairs Iowa's State Board of Education. "We don't want state standards."
Iowa used to be one in a group of states -- along with Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, and others -- that resisted the idea of establishing statewide curricula. But while the standards movement enjoyed little success at the national level, it has made phenomenal progress among the states during the past 20 years. Now, Iowa is the only state in the nation that still lets individual school districts decide what teachers are required to teach.
There has been some movement in recent years to give Iowa's state government more control over local districts. "A certain amount of change has taken place," says Hadley. "We changed the way we accredited local school districts and in that process required more reporting to the state." In the late 1990s, Iowa legislators passed a law requiring school districts to set goals for their students and to report whether the goals were met, both to their communities and to the state Department of Education. But according to the Des Moines Register, state officials estimated that the test scores were publicized in as little as 25 percent of the public-school districts.
Districts also are required to report to the state's Department of Education on the status of their curriculum standards in reading, math, and science every year. According to several officials in Iowa, most, if not all, of the school districts do have curriculum standards.
"I had thought that the majority of the districts had standards and benchmark documents in place," says Mike Jorgensen, superintendent of schools in Southwest Webster, a rural district south of Fort Dodge, Ia., with 520 students in grades K-12. "But I did visit a district recently where they haven't even started the process, and I was somewhat amazed."
Iowa's current system may have passed muster with voters and its hands-off Department of Education. But under President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to test students in grades 3 through 8, the state's education department may have to venture into territory heretofore controlled entirely by Iowa's 371 districts if it wants to stay true to the spirit of the new law.
Under the new law, the federal government cannot force Iowa to adopt statewide standards. But it clearly expects the tests that are administered in compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act to be "aligned" with curriculum standards so that students are tested on material that they've been taught in class. Since Iowa has no statewide standards, the districts may be put in the position of having to change their standards to fit the test that Iowa decides to administer. It's supposed to work the other way around.
"You begin with the standards," says Bob Schwartz, president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit organization founded by business leaders and states' governors to help implement standards-based reform at the state level. "[First] define what it is that we want kids to know and be able to do, so we can send a very clear signal to teachers, to parents, to kids: 'Here's what's really important in education.' Then develop a set of assessments specifically to measure the degree to which kids have mastered those standards."
It may be too much to expect all of the school districts in Iowa to both ramp up testing (most students in Iowa are tested in grades 4, 8, and 11) and make sure that the tests are aligned to the curriculum. Teachers are already overloaded, some say.
"The one drawback to doing local standards is that it takes a great deal of energy and human resources to replicate the process over and over and over again," says Jan Reinicke, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association. "It's placed a real time demand on our teachers when there are already 100,000 things they need to be doing."
There is also the issue of how much it costs to maintain such a distributed system. "I think Iowa's wasted an awful lot of money," says Jorgensen, "trying to preserve this notion of local control, having these teachers work endless hours redesigning standards and benchmark documents that could've been established for them."
"It's probably not the most efficient way to do it," says Ted Stilwill, director of Iowa's Department of Education. "However, the reason we [let school districts set their own curriculum standards] is that they are then their standards and they are their expectations for their kids. When people develop their own expectations for their kids, that's a lot more meaningful for them. They will set higher expectations for their kids at a community level than we could ever set at a state level."
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