State of Contentment

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Iowa leaders say their schools are among the nation's best. But does everyone agree that's good enough?

Council Bluffs, Iowa

Entering Hoover Elementary School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, is like stepping back in time: back to before the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination--back 30 or 40 years. The school is spick-and-span, on a street lined with maple trees and pleasant houses with lamps in picture windows. The children, virtually all of them white, wear clean, tucked-in shirts, say thank you and no thank you, and don't talk during class.

Teachers tend to stand in front of the room giving instructions in short, swift declarative sentences. They never have to yell; their plain Midwestern voices have natural carry. The students sit at their neat desks transcribing the teachers' parsed words, and they do what they're told with little fuss. When a teacher glares at a girl chewing gum, the girl simply tucks it into a piece of paper, which she drops into a wastebasket, and resumes taking notes.

Iowa manages to outperform most other states on a number of important educational measures. On the highly regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, Iowa consistently ranks among the top half-dozen states. And an impressive 93 percent of its students earn high school diplomas. Is Iowa doing something other states should be doing? Has it implemented effective education reforms? Or does Iowa's success stem from the fact that it is rural and homogeneous, relatively free of big-city problems that bring other states down?

Here at Hoover Elementary, Principal Daniel Fellows, who it turns out is only weeks from retirement, says he will not--cannot--speak for what is going on in other Iowa districts and schools. The refrain was the same at several other schools and classrooms across the state during visits last spring.

Iowa's cornfields may roll on forever and ever, but its school districts are boldly demarcated. Local school control is sacred in Iowa, and principals are quick to explain that the district just up the road will have its own curriculum, its own standards, its own way of doing business.

Iowa is one of only three states--Montana and Wyoming are the other two--not writing statewide academic standards. Nor are statewide assessments in the works. Most Iowa educators say this is not a problem. Many chortle over the fact that Education Week, in its 1997 report card on the condition of education in the 50 states, gave Iowa an F for failing to implement state standards and assessments. "They gave us an F in a course we never even signed up for," Ted Stilwill, the director of the state education department, said on Iowa television.

Fellows says there have been few major changes at Hoover over the past 10 years. "We've renovated the building, added a computer center, but that's about it. We were a good school then, and we're a good school now. We haven't really had to add anything, to bring in anything new."

Fellows obviously is proud of the refurbished building. "Our taxpayers are good school supporters," he says.

In one 4th grade classroom, the teacher is a measured, somewhat imposing woman who has pinned to her dress a brooch that spells out t-e-a-c-h-e-r. When she says "shhhh," the students in turn "shhh" one another; order reigns supreme.

The teacher divides the students into small work groups, telling each one that it has $50 to plan a party. The groups must work within this budget to order food, decorations, and anything else they may like. "But how will we know how much these things cost?" one student asks. The teacher, as if by sleight of hand, produces a raft of grocery store inserts and Toys R Us catalogs, which she distributes. As the students page through the advertisements, the teacher says, "Here's what I'll be grading you on: the paragraph explaining the theme of your party and the math you use to calculate your budget."

"We're pretty traditional, and that's the way the community wants it. No one is yelling for change."

Sandra Thorpe,
vice principal,
Lincoln High School

A banner stretches across the front of the classroom: "Fourth grade, it's the real thing." On one wall is the Circus Poetry Corner, where such student-composed alliterations as "leaping lions" and "terrific tightrope walker," are posted. The opposite wall is covered with dozens of gold-starred worksheets. The first line of one reads: "Rules for a community are called: a) laws b) acts c) decisions."

As the class approaches its final minutes, the students clean up with remarkable efficiency; when the next class arrives, scissors, paper, and circulars are all out of sight.

In a 4th grade science classroom, construction-paper human bodies dangle from the ceiling; orange and red wedges delineate the organs. "What do you know about muscles?" the teacher asks the class.

"They help you lift things," one student says.

"Is there a muscle you can't stop?" the teacher asks.

"Closing your eyes when you sleep," a student says. The teacher shakes her head.

"The heart," another offers.

Then there's round robin reading: "There are three kinds of muscles," someone intones. "Skeletal, cardiac. ..."

A single computer sits in a corner of the classroom. A sign posted on the terminal reads, "Do not use without adult supervision."

Of a dozen randomly chosen schools here, roughly half are like Hoover. There are small variations here and there, but for the most part, the teachers talk, the students appear to listen, and the principal--expressing confidence in his or her staff--stays out of the way. There is little evidence at these schools of the education reform movement that has swept much of the country. A few teachers use forms of cooperative learning. A large school has been divided into "houses." There is a new emphasis on technology. (A number of schools have new computer labs, but few have many machines in the classrooms.) And that's about it.

The administrators and teachers working at these schools are under no illusion that they are on the "cutting edge." In fact, they say their wariness of reform is a strength, not a weakness. "I think it's of primary importance that we haven't gone to frills, bells, and whistles," says Duane Frick, the principal of Jefferson Junior High School in Dubuque. "We're cautious, and we won't jump on the bandwagon just because something new is coming along."

The idea that reforms are "frills, bells, and whistles" is common in Iowa. "We're never the first to jump on anything new," says Darrell Brand, the principal of the high school in rural Montezuma. Grinning, he adds: "Maybe we're slower than slow--we're molasses."

Bill Cox, the superintendent of the small district--its elementary school, junior high, and high school are in different wings of the same building--says: "We don't have frills. We may not have a lot of electives. But if our kids are successful here, they can make it any place at any level. Eighty-five percent of our students enroll at college or community college after graduating from here."

If Hoover is a typical Iowa elementary school, then Lincoln High School in working-class south Des Moines is a typical tradition-bound secondary school. "We're about the same now as we were 10 years ago," says Vice Principal Sandra Thorpe. And she ought to know. Thorpe graduated from Lincoln High in 1962. In fact, all five administrators are Lincoln alumni.

Thorpe believes that if anything has changed over the years it's the students, not the school. "The big difference between today and years ago is that we would never have gotten away with what kids get away with now," she says. "The standards for behavior are not nearly as high as they once were, and the expectations in some classes are not as high either."

Later, she adds, "We're pretty traditional, and that's the way the community wants it. No one is yelling for change."

As for Iowa's decision not to jump on the standards-setting bandwagon, Thorpe says, "We've been criticized as a state that lets districts go their own way and do their own thing. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and maybe more states should do that."

Iowa educators are hardly surprised that their schools are among the best on measures of student achievement.

On a short tour of the large, labyrinthine school, the bell rings and the corridors flood with students. A couple of minutes later, they're gone. "It always amazes me," Thorpe muses, "that 2,000 students can move so smoothly from one class to the other in five minutes."

In a Spanish class, students are conjugating irregular verbs. In algebra, students are solving for "x," and in a psychology class, students are watching a video of a trembling man talking about how someone is putting thoughts into his head, giving him a headache.

The psychology teacher is young and enthusiastic. He tries, with an entertainer's flourish, to interest his 30 students: He lowers his master-of-ceremonies voice for dramatic effect, prances back and forth upon an imaginary stage, and asks some good, probing questions. But he's working a tough crowd. The students, all sitting in long, tidy rows, are by equal measure fidgeting, primping, or glazed-over.

"Is this guy in the video normal?" the teacher asks.

A girl sitting in the back row, who ends up making almost half the student responses, says, "There's a strong social-expectation component to being normal. Unconventional behavior is considered not normal."

The teacher follows up by asking, "Can you give me an example of behavior that's not normal?"

A wise guy says, "Picking your nose," which receives a few hisses. But there are a few forthright responses, too. One student says, "It's when people act out for no reason, having no obvious motivation." Another adds, "It's like what happens in Tourette's syndrome, when people swear and yell out for no reason."

The teacher tries to turn this into a discussion about normalization, about how difficult it is to draw lines between genuine emotional illness, eccentricity, and nonconformist behavior, but he is clearly swimming upstream. Trying to incite interest, the teacher talks about demons and witches, about how holes were once drilled in heads to relieve headaches and nightmares, about how rebels and freethinkers have been ostracized and labeled "ill" in different societies. But it's of little use. At one point, he asks a girl who has been watching the clock and twirling strands of hair around her index finger what she thinks about all of this. "I don't know," she says with undisguised boredom. "That's cool. That's cool," the teacher responds.

In one biology class, the teacher is a man with such a gung-ho Marine Corps approach that it's almost refreshing. He's tough but also cracks unexpected jokes and breaks into big cartoon-character grins. The students clearly like him. As they read from the text, he eggs them on, exclaiming, "Concentrate now, guys, concentrate!" When he assigns homework, he says,"Drill and practice, drill and practice! Remember, I can quiz you at any time."

Today's lesson encompasses a review of the skeletal and excretory systems, followed by a brief introduction to the endocrine system, better known, he explains, as the glands. "I think you'll enjoy this unit on the endocrine system," he tells the students. And it's just possible they may. The teacher relates a few anecdotes about huge people with malfunctioning pituitary glands and diabetics on the edge of insulin shock. "Stay tuned," he says when the bell rings. "We'll be getting a cow's heart and kidneys in the next few days."

Iowa educators are hardly surprised that their schools are among the best in the nation on measures of student achievement. They know their state has a number of natural advantages, which they are happy to enumerate. Most begin by citing Iowa's strong work ethic, reflected in the state's astounding ability to feed much of the world. "The values of the agricultural culture dominate the state, even if there are far fewer farmers than there once were," one teacher tells me. "Hard work, dependability, a reliance upon family--Iowa was about all those things long before the politicians used them for sloganeering."

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