Educational Reform in Iowa – A Tragedy in V Acts

This is way too long but I can’t seem to shorten it as I haven’t finished reading my Christmas present called, “How to Write a Sentence,” by Fish.    My appologies to Fish and I hope both this and  that the previous possible sentence fragment were indeed actually sentences.

Warning  “Cynicism and “Sarcasm Alert!”

Our governor has proposed a “reform” plan to improve Iowa’s schools.

His plan includes:

  • Ending social promotion for 3rd graders. No other grade is mentioned
  • Requiring all teacher candidates to have a 3.0 grade point for entering and graduating from educational programming
  • Require end of course and college readiness tests for all high school students….”ALL STUDENTS”
  • Layoffs of teaching staff would be based on evaluations rather than seniority
  • The School day and the school year would be extended

Some random thoughts… I was an 8th grade teacher hence the random…… about this plan

Act I – Ending Social Promotion for 3rd Graders

I am normally against social promotion as a general policy because in reality  it  promotes and sets up eventual failure when the stakes are much higher in high school and life.   But this proposal which targets only  one grade and one area of of the curriculum(reading) to identify students for retention  is just plain, to use a technical term, “nuts.” Not to mention that under federal law I believe it would be found to be biased against the class of people who are in 3rd grade.  How about 4th grade students shouldn’t they be allowed under “equal protection or due process” to get this “opportunity” to fail a grade as well .
The Governor’s proposal will end Social Promotion only for 3rd Graders who can’t read no other course or area of education is mentioned. Those other areas such as reading, social studies and science  are by this measure relegated to second class status  and will suffer the same fate that science and social studies at the elementary level have all ready suffered under the NCLB. The governor’s proposal at the same time that it establishes higher standards for 3rd graders also  establishes additional standards that apparently students don’t need to meet as we are using only “reading” as the measuring stick in 3rd grade. As a part of this proposal new requirements will be established in the fine arts, physical education, foreign language, entrepreneurial education, applied arts, and character education. Doesn’t it seem odd that  kids who  can’t read, don’t know who George Washington was, and think electricity is made inside the walls of their house  are going to get required entrepreneurial education. Where is the time and money coming from for these ( Probably an extended school year/day or silo funds)?

I have some  immediate questions about this proposal,  some will seem cynical and  sarcastic but in this politically correct world of wedge issues someone will push the door open to additional fine tuning and that can end up with higher definition or lots of effort and a screen full of snow…. Snow being the operative word.
Will blind students be exempted from this reading requirement?
Will students with learning difficulties that preclude reading or will make reading very      difficult for the rest of their lives be exempted from this requirement?
Will all students who are identified for special education services be exempted from this requirement while at the same time those who are not identified but are higher functioning will be persecuted by it?
Will ESL/ELL students who are new to the country but showing rapid progress be held in 3rd grade not because of skills but because of language issues or will they be exempted?
Will math students who are functioning 2 to 4 grades above 3rd grade be held in 3rd without any accommodation? If  not where is the money and the staffing coming from to insure  that accommodation will be made for these students?
Will teachers still be allowed to use tape recorders/DVD / white boards and other equipment to provide information to those students who cannot read but can audibly understand almost everything? I.e. are we worried about 3rd grade reading or 3rd grade understandings?
The idea of selecting a set point in time where some students are all of a sudden declared  illiterate is a classical tragedy as it may end up harming those it intends to help as the protagonists (schools) have shown a weakness in the past  for any programming that is politically correct and  looks good, sounds good and feels good.  Programming often  based on statistics or politics without any real understanding of what is really happening or needed. The only thing that  this set point retention policy will do for certain is promote flight to private schools.  It will also create a  huge backlash from those parents whose children are all of a sudden after 3 years in school  found to be illiterate in 3rd grade. I don’t care how many times parents and kids  are warned they won’t remember the warnings until the retention occurs and that is a major disaster waiting to happen.

I often apply Kipling’s Six Serving men of Who, What, When, Where, Why and How  when faced with a complex problem. I wish our political leaders would also do so!

From the “Elephants Child.”    I have my interpretation…. make your own!

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!


  • Who will be required to take this test?
  • Who will give the test? Who will pay for the test?
  • Who will write the test?
  • Who will correct the test?
  • Who will establish the criteria for passing.
  • Who will be exempted and who is going to keep track of the massive pile of paperwork this is going to generate (who’s going to pay the pile of paper and its handlers)?
  • Who are we doing this for? Are we once again concentrating any of our efforts on meeting the needs of our average to good students or instead concerned about only our below average students? I don’t mean to be owly about this but has anyone in government thought these things through or are they just simply flying in the dark.


  • What criteria will be established to determine who gets held and who does not?
  • Will it include exceptions, accommodations or be as I would expect a slavish acceptance of some variety of standardized literacy testing.
  • Will it be a timed test?
  • Will special education, Gifted Education accommodations established in IEP/Pep’s be denied during this testing and if not why not?
  • Will the criteria be standardized across the state and within districts? For example would the same criteria be applied to a school full of the children from parents working in Fortune 500 companies be the same as that applied to a school where 97% of the parents live in poverty, 30% are ELL or ELL grads and both parents are working double shifts just to survive.
  • What happens when a student moves in or out of state after testing?
  • What happens if I enroll my “non-reading” student in a private school or home school for the last semester of 3rd grade and then re-enroll them in public in 4th grade?
  • What will happen to students who enroll from out-of-state after testing, are they going to have to take a test to enroll?
  • What are we going to do with students who are still illiterate after a second session in 3rd grade?
  • Will we send them on to 4th  or keep them in 3rd for another year and have them driving their car to middle school?

When will the testing be done or will it need to be done twice?

Will the test given once as a warning and then a final high stakes test to make the decision? Would that test have to happen sometime in March so that it could be graded and parents could be informed before the end of the school year or would the districts administer the test at the end of the year and simply send the parents a letter in late July that says, “Sorry,’ or more likely “we have a “new opportunity” for your student?” And if they use either of these times how would they arrange their staffing for the next year as contracts usually come out in March and schools won’t know if they  need five 3rd grade teachers next year due to retention and only one 4th grade teacher? Maybe we should waste a half-year and give the test in January to meet staffing needs and forget what-ever the child might accomplish during the remainder of the year.


  • Where will this testing take place?
  • Will private and parochial schools be exempt from testing?
  • Where would a student who enrolled in the district from out-of-state after testing be placed?
  • Where is the hole everyone seems to have their head stuck in?


  • Why are we doing this?
  • Are we meeting the needs of all students or only those who cannot, for whatever reason, read? Are we once again potentially penalizing all of our students to meet the needs of our struggling students?
  • Should ballet dancers be required to show that they can waltz or pro basketball players pick out a basketball from different kinds of balls before they are allowed in the “big leagues”?
  • Is it an exercise in semantics and posturing designed not for effect but perception or is it simply an attempt to meet an unreachable goal of literacy for everyone?  And when parents ask “why” has my child all of a sudden become illiterate  at the end of 3rd grade?” I hope someone besides me has to answer that question. If retention is good, which I agree it can be, why only 3rd grade?
  • Why are age based grade levels  in elementary schools anyway?


  • Will it be timed or forbidden for some special educations students?
  • Will slow readers with high comprehension but low-speed be retained?
  • How will the test be created?
  • How will it be administered.
  • How much money will it cost? How many students will be retained ( some estimates in some buildings are as high as 50%)
  • How will schools staff and accommodate these retentions?
  • How long will it take before politicians realize that the problem in our schools lies not with the schools but with our superficial society. The  problems of our society are not caused by our schools but are in fact the other way around.
  • How can anyone watch TV programming and not wonder where we are going with this?

Act II – Require end of year and college readiness testing for high school students

So I see the plan now. It is to  retain students in 3rd grade and then give them a free pass in 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade at which time the schools will once again start requiring high stakes punitive testing with repercussions. I remember a monograph we read in anthropology class 40 years ago. It was  about a society where children are fawned over and could do not wrong until they were 12 or  14 and then with no warning they were treated as adults. As I remember in that society the net result was that  no one trusted anyone for any reason as an adult. If my memory is correct it seems remarkably like this plan. A plan that would teach students under one set of rules  until 3rd grade and then at that set point hit them unexpectedly with another reality and turn their world upside down.Then resetting their expectations and regaining their trust we wait another  5 years and after they enter high school once again turn their unhappily, happy little hormone ridden world upside down again.   Was the state planning on doing a social experiment on them with this proposal where you apparently allow Iowa’s school children to do what they want for 5 years after 3rd grade and then slap them with stiff requirements again when they start high school. Apparently expecting them to all change from pampered  trained zebras to work horses over-night. This whole proposal is not much more than harmful department store window dressing that appears to be real but is actually a fantasy.  Anecdotally, from my experiences, chances are if you haven’t got-em going the right direction by the time they’re in 8th grade they are going to have to suffer some real hard knocks in life and school or the system is going to have to deliver some at times harsh intensive treatment for them to recover and be a star in high school. This can be briefly expressed as “Too little too late.” In a final point the proposal says “all students” This I would assume includes some special ed students who are effectively functioning at a pre-school level causing them to be forced to  take a timed test in  world  literature and higher math. I am also concerned that technologically sound students who are not college tracked but very skillful in their area of work  for example auto mechanics would find themselves being judged by a test of calculus.

Act III –Require a 3.0 grade point for entrance to and graduation from teacher education programming leading to licensure as a teacher.

I will go for this one as soon as they pass the same law licensing  governors, legislators, CEOs and newspaper writers. This proposal would mean that Einstein, Edison, Lincoln and lots of other lessor individuals including myself would not have been eligible to become teachers. In my case during the second semester of my freshman year my grade point was a .64.   Its not that I didn’t learn that semester I learned a lot about  billiards, bridge, road trips, and parties that semester. And because I did okay first semester I mistakenly believed that going to class and studying was no longer really a requirement. I was also somewhat  ambushed by being placed in 2nd year college level Spanish because I “tested well.” Unfortunately I couldn’t understand a spoken word of Spanish  or speak in anything but rudimentary sentences but was still placed in a  2nd semester class anyway because of test scores.  A second semester 2nd year class  where the instructor refused to speak English  EVER.  This is remarkably like allowing students to get through elementary and  middle school  with no functional literacy or math skills and then expecting them to understand Chaucer or succeed at calculus.

I can speak directly to this because after I had done nothing in middle school and high school and survived on passing tests and after being marginally successful the first semester of college  I had assumed that like high school I didn’t need to do anything in college either. It is a shock to your system when you discover that after 12 years in school you don’t know how to work or study and now you are being held accountable.   But it is almost more amazing what a .64 grade point in one semester will do or more accurately undo  for your cumulative grade point even 4 years later. I shaped up after the letter from the U telling me I had one more semester to improve or be gone. I was  never below a 2.5 after that but it didn’t help my cumulative grade point  ending up well below that 3.0 threshold. Maybe I am biased by my experiences or perhaps my own lack of intelligence and skills  as shown by my grade point of below 3.0 but I firmly believe that teaching is an art not a science and to believe that all things are quantifiable denies the skills of dancers, athletes artists,musicians and teachers. As a final question are they going to go back and refuse to accept teaching certificates from other states because the job candidate did not have a 3.0   cumulative grade point when entering their teacher education program or students whose grade point didn’t measure up  after changing their major from Astrophysics to education?
Act IV    Effectiveness of all educators will be reviewed annually and layoffs would be based on performance.

Huh? Teachers are already  evaluated  annually does this new proposal infer that  the effectiveness of teachers is only important when they are being terminated or RIF’d?  I personally would have no fear of this evaluation process but do fear that for it to be effective and fair someone would have to be hired full-time in each building to do the evaluations.  It would be truly fair if  everyone in employed in  government including elected officials were evaluated in the same way. They too would have to prove that they, as  teachers are expected to do ,  take some impure carbon, water, oxygen and trace minerals in varying quantities packaged in different shapes and shipped along different routes and make them into  consistently knowledgeable working computers in groups of 30 at a time.

Act V  Longer School days and school years. 

The proposal also of course suggests implementing the current “cure of the day,” arguing for an extension of the length of the school day and school year.  This seems so logical and yet is so wrong for most of our students and certainly  for our stronger students who already get the materials in less than half the time of our average students and probably 1/10 of the time of struggling students.  Without a major paradigm shift in our educational direction and focus I can only see this as an  attempt to  maximize potential boredom issues for all capable students state-wide while at the same time robbing all students of their childhood. We must  remember that Bob Keeshan( Captain Kangaroo), Fred Rogers and Maria Montessori  all agree in various forms that ‘ Play is the work of children.” And indeed I  would trust any of those people  with the educational  life of my child before I would trust it to the whims of a poll driven politician.

I believe Bill Murray said it best in  “Meatballs” the movie, that when it comes to public education  for most politicians,  perception is everything and reality, “just doesn’t matter.” perhaps because at least Washington politician’s kids are  going to a private school anyway!

“It just doesn’t matter,”  unless I agree with it, it reduces my responsibility, or makes me money would be  a truly  fitting mantra for our current society.


Excellent take on education that just came on line today.  I recommend it highly!

About safrisri

I was a school teacher until retirement. I have taught at all educational levels from pre-school to college. My college degree is general science which I arrived at after 5 years and 5 different majors. A degree as it turns out, almost as valuable and in demand as one in Neo-Bulgarian Mythology. I have been around education for around 40 years and can remember when teaching was a pleasant, happy and creative job and our schools were the same. Now I'm the guy sitting on the porch with an opinion on everything.
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