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Duncan at Iowa Education Summit: better teach evaluations, pre-k for all needed

Quality preschool, including easy accessibility to it, is key for any state’s quest to reform education and be a frontrunner in the classroom, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a Monday morning keynote on the first day of the Iowa Education Summit, and Iowa is no exception.

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/education_summit_logo_150.jpg“A commitment to free public preschool will pay off for Iowa,” Duncan said, amid applause.

Iowa currently has a universal preschool system which was at the center of a Legislative battle this year, as Gov. Terry Branstad tried to push an income-based voucher program that would ultimately eradicate the voluntary, universal program. Democrats heavily pushed back and refused to budget or compromise on preschool.

Late in the session, Branstad retreated, saying time had run out in the current session to implement his proposals. Though funding for preschool was reduced, the universal policy remains in place and the Governor has indicated the voucher program will be re-introduced in subsequent sessions.

“Gov. Branstad has always believed early childhood education is important and agrees that it should be a priority,” Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht told the Iowa Independent Monday, following Duncan’s keynote. “Gov. Branstad believes that at a time when resources are limited, those able to pay for [preschool] should, enabling us to expand educational opportunities for those less fortunate and needing it most.”

Though he did not come off as critical, Duncan — a Chicago native who previously served as head of Chicago Public Schools — gently warned that partisan-driven policies on both sides of the aisle do nothing to improve education.

“I keep saying that, frankly, politics have hurt education,” Duncan said. “Education has to be bi-partisan. Put aside politics and put aside ideology. If Iowa doesn’t do that, then I worry tremendously for the young people of this state.”

But accessible quality preschool is only the start of education reform in the Hawkeye State, he said. Iowa has fallen behind other states — and whole nations — considerably in the last several years, primarily due to:

Under-prepared students: Iowa students are graduating from high school not fully prepared for either college or the workforce because of low academic standards in Iowa high schools;

Iowa has not taken strides or been a leader in innovations that encourage and advance learning;

Finally, “Iowa, unlike other states, has not been a national leader in increasing leader effectiveness,” Duncan said, citing a “mediocre teacher elevation system,” which U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has said he would like to see changed.

Tom Harkin

Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in D.C., was scheduled to deliver remarks Monday at the education summit; business in the nation’s capital canceled his appearance in Iowa, a spokeswoman from his office said.

Last week during a weekly conference call with the media, Harkin touched upon many of the same items Duncan did Monday, in hopes new objectives for state education would be borne from the summit, especially early education and student preparedness after high school.

“One goal I’d like to see come from the summit, which has been a goal of mine for awhile, is to do away with the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) model and substitute it with a growth model that says students should be college- or career-ready after high school,” Harkin said at that time. “What is it these students need to know to be successful in college, or what do they need to know to enter the workforce? That is something that goes back all the way starting in kindergarten.”

Both Duncan and former North Carolina Gov. James Hunt, Jr., stressed one way to better prepare students is better prepare teachers. Duncan cited European countries where teaching is a prized profession to enter, while the U.S. on the whole has beaten the profession down; Hunt encouraged lawmakers to work more directly with teachers.

“We need to work with teachers, [and] we need to respect teachers and help them be their very best,” Hunt said. “You can’t have good education with political leaders fighting with teachers.”

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