State of Contentment

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In Iowa, traditional schools blanket the state, with a few pockets of reform here and there.

In a K-2 classroom, the day concludes with children reading aloud from their journals. Some children read blocks of short stories they've written; others improvise on primitive fragments they've scrawled across the page. When a child asks how you can tell when someone in a story is talking, the teacher draws quotation marks on the board.

In their 1995 book Tinkering Toward Utopia, education scholars David Tyack and Larry Cuban argue that school reform, contrary to the common perception, is far from an all-or-nothing proposition. Although some schools stubbornly resist even the most sensible reforms and a faddish few jump on anything novel, the majority are somewhere in between. They do not so much accept or reject reforms as "tinker" with them.

Tyack and Cuban argue that schools change reforms as much as reforms change schools, substantially modifying them as they are brought into the building. The tinkering is inevitable because schools rarely mess around with what the authors call "the basic grammar of schooling"--what the public considers the true and tested. Schools occasionally will try new things, but only if they can be brought into alignment with the "basic grammar" of teachers lecturing, children working at desks, students taking paper-and-pencil tests, and so on. In short, schools will tinker with reform, but only in a few rare instances will they embrace it completely.

This conception of tinkering with reform applies perfectly to Iowa--and probably to most schools nationwide. There may be experiments with "authentic assessment" or team teaching, but for the most part, school is still school in the familiar, time-honored sense. The basic grammar is intact. In Iowa, traditional schools blanket the state, with a few pockets of reform here and there.

North High and Cattell Elementary in Des Moines are two such pockets, as is Harrison Elementary School in a working-class neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. "We have designed Harrison around brain research," says Principal Gregg Petersen. "Until I was exposed to this brain research and really began to think about it, I assumed that the way school had always been is the way it should be."

As far as Petersen and the Harrison staff are concerned, cognitive science has provided very definite answers about how students learn and how, consequently, classrooms and schools should function. "It's all about kids finding meaning," says Petersen. "We don't have kids do tasks in isolation or break information into bits and pieces. Instead, we have kids learn in the context of the whole, making connections throughout the curriculum."

Petersen--who was preparing to leave Harrison to head another school--insists that "threat gets in the way of learning," a tenet of the school that is reflected in its physical environment. The classrooms are set up to feel like home--or at least an idealized vision of home. Almost every room has soft lighting, throw rugs, blooming plants, and muted colors. Instead of the typical don't-run-in-the-hallway mandates, the school rules at Harrison read, "No put-downs. Trust. Active listening. Personal best. Truth." Teachers speak to students in subdued tones, and New Age music plays on cassette decks in some classrooms.

Teacher Rick Swenson says students these days are interested in the science, economics, and business of agriculture.

If there are pockets of school reform within districts, there are also pockets within individual schools. At Iowa City High, a large comprehensive school of 1,600 students offering everything from advanced Japanese to auto mechanics, there is a cadre of teachers who live up to the school's motto: "A school that leads." In a government class, for example, students assume the roles of lawmakers and craft bills pertaining to social issues. Chemistry students make soap with a recipe they've downloaded from the Internet. The class operates like a company. The "marketing department" has conducted a survey to learn what people want in a soap. That was the easy part. "Now, we're trying to bring the pH level down," the "company manager" explains with a grin. "Right now, it will take your skin off."

More than half of City High's seniors enroll in the school's award-winning physics program, which was created because faculty members believed the traditional advanced-placement physics curriculum was too limiting. "There's a push for the students to solve a lot of problems so they can do well on a test," Nicole Scott says of the program. "But everything we do here is lab-based, and we use the textbook as a resource guide rather than as the primary source."

The fact that there are marked differences in teaching approaches within generally uniform schools and districts--and hence marked differences in what students learn--creates a confused, patchwork quality to the state's educational system.

There is a sense throughout the state that there are newer, better ways to educate children that are not merely trendy or faddish, and yet there is an equally strong reluctance to give up what most Iowans consider tried and true. The result is something of a tug of war--from teacher to teacher, school to school, district to district--between the traditional and experimental, the past and future, the comfort of the old and the edginess of the new. If anything is apparent in Iowa, it is that this tug of war will not be won by force alone, the capitulation of one side to the other. It will be won by the recognition that educational change has to follow economic and societal changes already under way.

Rural Montezuma High School may be, as its principal claims, slower than molasses in responding to change, but its vocational agricultural program is radically different from what it was even a few years ago. It's no longer about planting corn and beans. Only two of its 100 students plan to work on a farm.

Teacher Rick Swenson says students these days are interested in the science, economics, and business of agriculture. As they gather around their teacher, the students talk about their plans to go into engineering, plant science, agricultural accounting, and marketing. No one mentions working on a farm.

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