Go Your Own Way

By Jeff Archer — February 17, 2006 3 min read

In the late 1990s, when the nation’s governors and business leaders threw their weight behind the push for statewide academic standards, Iowa begged to differ. With its strong tradition of local control and history of comparatively high performance, the state felt little compulsion to get on the bandwagon. “We’re not going to give up local control just because some CEO says we need statewide standards,” then-Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, told U.S. News & World Report in 1996.

The Standards Movement:
A Progress Report
Tracking Devices (Delaware)
Go Your Own Way (Iowa)
Boom or Bust (Nevada)

Iowa’s deference to local autonomy has deep roots. When state lawmakers first mapped out the education system in the 19th century, they allowed towns with as few as 1,000 people to run their own school districts—a number that was later lowered to 100, for a time. Even today, after decades of district consolidations, 70 percent of Iowa’s 365 districts have fewer than 1,000 students. Districts follow their own guidelines for what students should know and be able to do, though in practice, those guidelines vary little from district to district. The only difference, many in the state maintain, is that local educators feel more buy-in for having determined the final product.

Any remaining doubt about Iowa’s focus on standards-based education would be erased by a visit to the 5th grade class of teacher Kara Haugen in Waterloo. On a Wednesday morning last fall, her students were sprawled about their colorful room at the Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence, creating posters to explain idioms like “cold turkey” and “peas in a pod.”

The reason for the assignment? Haugen and her fellow 5th grade teachers had given their students a test and found they were struggling to infer the meanings of things they’ve read. Asked how that skill fits into her district’s standards, Haugen points to a binder on her desk that lays out Waterloo’s 5th grade curriculum. Now in her sixth year of teaching, Haugen says she wouldn’t want it otherwise. “Some teachers’ idea of what a 5th grader should know might be different than another teacher’s, so this definitely sets out a direction for what should be taught,” she explains. “It’s only fair to the kids.”

Many in the state believe that district standards spare them some of the mania over test preparation.

Having that direction set by the district and not the state has had consequences. While districts across Iowa share similar goals for what students should learn by the time they graduate, there’s no guarantee that what those districts teach at each grade level is similar. And each district has had to develop its own standards and grade-level expectations. In Waterloo, one of the state’s larger districts, it took two years and dozens of teachers to produce standards and specific grade-level expectations for literacy and math. Only recently have they managed to add similar guidelines for science.

“The hours that we put into development of this could be hours spent on other curriculum and instruction matters,” says Debbie Lee, a curriculum coordinator with the district. “We really want to be more in there helping teachers with the delivery, and we are having to create and develop and revise standards, benchmarks, and objectives.”

Despite the quirks that come with Iowa’s adherence to local control, many in the state believe that district standards spare them some of the mania over test preparation. “What I hear from other states is they spend two to three months preparing the kids for the state tests,” says Carol Lensing, the superintendent in Anamosa. “I don’t think that’s going to help our kids at all if you have to do away with your regular instruction for that.”

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