Jason Glass, Iowa Department of Education director, discussed Gov. Terry Branstad's education reform goals with the Fort Dodge Noon Rotary Club Monday.
"When I first came to Iowa I met with Gov. Branstad and talked a lot about his vision for the state, where he wanted to take education," Glass said. "He had a very compelling future that he wanted me to think about."
In the early 1990s, Iowa ranked as the top performing education system in the United States, according to Glass.
"Arguably, the United States was the top performing education system in the world. We were graduating more students from high school, we were getting more adults with college degrees than any other system in the world," he said. "If you compare that to where we are today, Iowa comparatively is a more mediocre performing state and by a lot of comparative devices the United States is a more mediocre performing country."
Despite this, Iowa's schools are still excellent, according to Glass.
"Iowa's schools are actually better than they have been at any point in history," he said. "Visit some of the fine public and private institutions that you have in this community and you'll see some really good things happening for kids, things you should really be proud of."
The problem, Glass said, is that other states - and other nations - have made a "focused and dedicated effort at large scale system improvement."
"Iowa has not made that same effort," he said. "What we have seen is dramatic acceleration in some systems with some of our competitors."
Branstad's goal, Glass said, is to make Iowa's education system on par with any education system in the world.
Glass solicited ideas from each table for strategies or policies the state should undertake to raise school performance
Responses included smaller class sizes, letting students know there are more opportunities after high school than a four-year degree, more math and science to compete with India, and greater teacher accountability and also flexibility. An idea suggested by visiting students was higher expectations placed on the students.
In the nationwide discussion, Glass said there are three more areas of focus: greater school choices, alternative pathways to becoming a teacher and teacher evaluation based on student scores.
"That's a lot of stuff," he said. "And we only have so much energy, time, effort, focus, there's only so much we can do. We need some focus."
Glass said all high-performance systems focus on three areas: a quality and highly regarded work force, aligning the high expectations held for students with the curriculum and a responsive, personalized education for each student and teacher.
"The recipe for being a world-class, high-performance school system is a relentless focus on those three things," he said, "And an abandonment of principles or strategies that are not within those three areas."