Reevaluate teaching strategies in Iowa City school districts


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Amid the cries from local parents for public-school reform, Iowa City school administrators should re-evaluate their educational strategies and use a recent Harvard study as a model for change.

After the recent resignation of Iowa City School District's executive director of administrative services, local parents are seeking reform. Many have contended that district finances were not managed efficiently under the tenure of long-standing administrator Paul Bobek.

In recent years, the district has seen a steady increase in enrollment, and trying economic tides have prompted many to vocalize support for re-evaluating the infrastructure of the Iowa City educational system.

Superintendent Stephen Murley said last week the problem lies in the district population expanding dramatically without a corresponding change in the educational support systems needed to facilitate such growth.

A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research may yield new insight into how districts should evaluate educational reform.

The study, conducted by Harvard researchers Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer, presents a controversial thesis, an approach to curricular reform suggesting that measures traditionally considered to be determinants of excellence in schools are in fact not correlated with educational effectiveness.

In an intensive evaluation of 35 New York City charter schools using a wide array of educational strategies, the pair discovered that standardized factors of efficacy such as class size, per-pupil expenditure, and the extent of a teacher's certification and education is not only relatively unrelated to the productivity of learning, but might even lower effectiveness.

Given the current state of the Iowa City School District and the obviously vocal desire for a realignment of education strategies, it would be wise for the administration of local public schools to consider the new findings.

By moving away from resource- and merit-based systems of curricular valuation and placing an emphasis on more subjective and need-based systems of educational individualization, the productivity of a learning environment and the aptitude and success of its students will, according to research, see a notable rise.

Dobbie and Fryer's research places suggests that efficacy of the educational system from grades three to eight sees distinguishable improvement when intensive focus is placed on teacher-student feedback, increased instructional time, tutoring, and academic and behavioral expectations.

The study seems to shine light on a troubling reality: The current methodology dictating educational reform is not as sound as it should be. Earlier this year, Gov. Terry Branstad released a $25 million education-reform package, placing a high degree of emphasis on rigorous student testing, raising of teacher standards, and a $10 million Iowa literacy initiative.

At the state level, legislators should be considering the national board's research as well — not merely raising the bar for how difficult it is to become a teacher in the state or requiring 11th-graders to take SAT and ACT exams. While large-scale strategies still seem to emphasize spending on merit-based and resource-driven modes of reform, the focal point should instead be individualization: a re-evaluation of the principal teaching strategies that govern public-school classrooms — that is, tutoring, individual attention, and a heightened focus on behavioral and academic standards.

With Bobek's seat now vacant, district administration has pledged to fill the position by no later than July 1. Whoever is selected should make it a priority to exercise new strategies and techniques. Now is not the time to allow the enrichment of Iowa's youth to be hindered by a clinging attachment to traditional preconceptions of education, because — clearly — the current system isn't working as it should.

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