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Iowa looks abroad for lessons on education reform

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Iowa has surprisingly global ambitions to improve its education system.

That’s why I found myself moderating sessions at the Iowa Teacher and Principal Leadership Symposium with titles such as “Better Than We Used to Do is Not Good Enough” and “Leadership Lessons From Around the Globe” before a sold-out crowd at Drake University in Des Moines last week.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (photo by Gage Skidmore)

The titles speak volumes about Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and his determination to improve education in the Hawkeye state, although his agenda has faced its share of setbacks.

Branstad hopes to reform the way teachers are paid and promoted, and he’s giving serious consideration to what other states—and countries—do. He often uses the phrase “world-class schools” to describe his aspirations for Iowa’s classrooms.

The governor sat quietly for hours last week, listening intently to union leaders, school-board officials, principals and teachers. He made it clear beforehand, however, that he has deep concerns about student performance in his state, noting that “the status quo is unacceptable.”

Iowa’s students in used to lead the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade mathematics, but now they rank in the middle of the pack. In addition, “33 percent of recent high school graduates who enrolled in Iowa’s community colleges needed remedial help. Iowa employers regularly tell us it’s difficult to find well-qualified applicants for job openings,” Branstad wrote on his website before the symposium.

Branstad’s quest for change is focused on Iowa, but his search for successful role models is one The Hechinger Report is familiar with. We’ve spent time over the last two years visiting countries on three continents to look at their ambitious higher-education agendas. We’ve also scrutinized how other states are attempting to increase the effectiveness of their teachers, as Iowa is.

Branstad was the longest-serving governor in Iowa from 1983 to 1989, and was re-elected again in 2010. He’s since made education reform a priority, even though quite a few of his proposals have been defeated.

Still, Branstad says he’s worried that schools have not changed with the times in Iowa, and that the state’s teachers work in isolation. He hopes to create career ladders with different pay rates and positions depending upon a teacher’s experience and expertise.

He also wants Iowans to learn from other countries. That’s why they listened to a lengthy presentation from Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, and author of a new book, Surpassing Shanghai, that examines what strategies are working internationally to foster better student performance. You can watch and listen here.

Those in attendance also heard from Vivien Stewart, who is responsible for building connections between U.S. and Asian education leaders at the Asia Society. She spoke of the need for all young people to meet the growing demands of a global economy, and provided specific examples of what’s been possible elsewhere.

It’ll be fascinating in the coming months and years to see what lessons Iowa and its schools learn from others, both near and far.

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