School & District Management

State of Contentment

By David Ruenzel — September 17, 1997 25 min read
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.”

While 35 percent of Iowa 4th graders scored at the proficient level or above on the 1994 NAEP reading exam, 65 percent did not.

Also, as a rural state, Iowa does not have to contend with many of the challenges associated with large and ethnically diverse urban centers. Outside of Des Moines, the state’s capital and biggest city, there is little poverty and racial unease. Iowa consistently comes in second or third on “Kids Count,” an annual report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that ranks states based on indicators of children’s well-being. Iowa’s children are significantly safer, healthier, and less susceptible to abuse than children in most other states.

Finally, Iowa has an abundance of small schools in small districts, which ensures that schooling takes place on a human scale. Children are less likely to fall through the cracks. Even Iowa teachers who complain that their own small-town educations were too conventional, rigid, or narrow say they benefited by having close relationships with committed teachers that were not confined to the school day. They would see their teachers in church, at sporting events, and on Main Street.

“I always had one or two teachers who knew me well,” says Nicole Scott, a young physics teacher at Iowa City High School who attended a rural school. “There was also the fact that a techno-geek like me could be in drama, music, sports--something that would never have happened to me at a big-city high school.”

But in some ways, these blessings are more confounding than they are enlightening. True, Iowa is at the top in terms of student achievement on national tests, but that’s not saying much. A few statistics illustrate:

While 35 percent of Iowa 4th graders scored at the proficient level or above on the 1994 NAEP reading exam, 65 percent did not. (More distressing was the performance of minorities. More than 80 percent of Iowa’s black and Hispanic children read below the proficient level.) When it comes to math, the numbers are even worse. Only 31 percent of Iowa 8th graders scored at the proficient level or above on the 1992 math exam; a staggering 69 percent were deemed less than proficient.

The numbers clearly say much more about the inadequacy of education in the other 49 states than they do about the success of Iowa’s schools. Only one other state--Minnesota--did as well on NAEP. Yet given its many advantages, Iowa should be doing much better.

A few Iowans are beginning to get the message. Even in some of the more traditional schools, there is grumbling that things don’t work as well as they once did. Educators are beginning to question whether they are effectively preparing students for the demands of a rapidly changing world. “There’s a new recalcitrance among kids,” says one middle school principal. “You have more students who just resist going along with what other kids want to do.” Another middle school principal adds: “Just teaching the basics isn’t cutting it anymore. Kids aren’t going to be able to go back to the farm and raise crops the way they used to. That work is vanishing. So we’ve got to prepare kids for different kinds of work, and that means getting kids to solve problems, to interpret data.”

In some schools, the grumbling threatens to become a kind of generalized discontent--especially in the high schools. Teachers and principals alike talk about how bored and disaffected many students have become, working 20 to 40 hours a week stocking shelves in some store and then falling asleep in class. Many teachers, they say, are reluctant to demand much from students.

“Do you know The Shopping Mall High School?” asks principal Warren Weber of Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs, referring to the highly regarded 1985 book about institutionalized low expectations. “Well, that book describes most high schools. The teachers say, ‘Here’s what we expect.’ And the kids answer, ‘Here’s what we’ll do.’ I’ve told our teachers that we negotiate far more than we need to, that we let students get away with minimal effort in order to keep the peace.”

“We’re preparing kids for life in Millville, Iowa, when they need to become citizens of the world.”

Joan Roberts,
North High School

While the majority of Iowa schools stubbornly adhere to the status quo, a few are trying to work their way through loss and frustration to transformative change. Two are in central Des Moines, a city not all that different in some respects from Chicago or St. Louis. The white middle class began leaving the city’s neighborhoods decades ago for the quiet streets and cul de sacs of the western suburbs. In the central city, leafy oaks and maples loom over boarded-up houses.

One of the schools, North High School, is a vast, monolithic structure surrounded by acres of asphalt. Inside the factorylike structure, Principal Joan Roberts is talking on the phone with a parent, trying to negotiate a truce to an unfolding dispute between a teacher and student. “You’ve got to take care of these conflicts right away,” she explains after hanging up. “You can’t allow them even a day to fester.’'

Roberts is locally famous, partly because of personal history--she and five siblings did some of their growing up in an orphanage--and partly because of her vivacious personality and acute intelligence. Roberts recently received the Iowa Principal of the Year award, but she certainly didn’t win it by currying favor. As the head of a school with the state’s poorest students, she’s a fierce critic of an educational system that she sometimes depicts as beyond repair.

“If we see ourselves as the keepers of the system,” she recently wrote her staff in a memo that is both a pep talk and harangue, “we may find ourselves protecting and maintaining structures grievously misaligned with the youth we serve.” She goes on to note that in one semester, two-thirds of North High’s students were referred to her office for behavior and attendance problems and that only 12 percent of North graduates earn college degrees.

“It’s terrible, absolutely terrible, the way some teachers can just drone on,” Roberts says. “Some actually still think that assigning Edgar Allan Poe is enough. Get the students to read ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and they’ll be prepared. I tell you, in some ways, we’re stuck in the ‘50s. And it’s not just the urban schools that need changing. I would ask rural schools, ‘What are you going to do with no farm jobs? Why is your population shrinking?’ We’re preparing kids for life in Millville, Iowa, when they need to become citizens of the world. We’ve got to look beyond Iowa. We’ve got to get real.”

For Roberts, “getting real” means focusing on economic empowerment. She wants North to prepare students for jobs--good jobs--and that means reworking the school’s curriculum. “Poverty is our biggest trap,” she says. “And so 75 percent of our students work at least 20 hours a week at stores and restaurants. Some of them are virtually running the place. But it’s a trap. They feel rich because they can buy a used car and some clothes. ... The business leaders in this city are concerned. They have an investment here and want things to get better. They want kids to come out of school with skills that can be applied to meaningful work.”

From a filing cabinet, Roberts pulls a copy of the 1992 SCANS report, a U.S. Department of Labor document that gets its name from the panel that prepared it, the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills.

The report urges, or rather insists, that students acquire skills and competencies supporting “workplace know-how.” The competencies are what some educators like to call “the new basic skills.” They include not only the three R’s, but also “higher-order thinking skills” and “the diligent application of personal qualities.” There is a heavy emphasis on the importance of teamwork to solve complex problems.

As Roberts sees it, the new basic skills require a new kind of teaching--a teaching that is not all that easy to put into practice. Encouraging students to be punctual, polite, and hard-working is one thing; fostering an ability to “work with diversity,” “exercise leadership,” and “understand social, organizational, and technological systems” is quite another. And teachers accustomed to teaching traditional mathematics are going to have to stretch some in order to promote competencies such as “organizes and processes symbols, pictures, graphs, and other information.”

The majority of the school’s teachers are veterans who have altered their teaching practices, some radically.

But Roberts is convinced that the SCANS report over time can become a guiding vision for a massive training--and retraining--of teachers. Such an effort is already under way at North High. Roberts eventually wants the school to abandon the credit-based system that rewards mere seat time in favor of a competency-based system in which students demonstrate what they can actually do through portfolios and the like.

North has taken steps, albeit tentative ones, toward reform. Although there is still a fair amount of the drone-on teaching Roberts loathes, it’s clear that some teachers are striving to have their students do more cooperative, project-based work. In a biology classroom, students study evolution by comparing and contrasting fossil evidence gathered from archaeological sites in the Midwest. “They need to see what a theory is,” the teacher explains. “They need to know that a theory is not something out there, some kind of truth discovered in a flash, but that it’s an explanation for what we over time are able to find out.”

Similar changes are in the works at nearby Cattell Elementary School, a feeder for North. “I have teachers who believe in early-childhood development,” says Principal Jack Cavanagh. “They don’t believe that children are all at the same place at one time and that they should proceed from one grade to the next in lockstep.” In keeping with this philosophy, Cattell Elementary has five multiage K-2 classrooms; next year, in an effort to keep students with the same teacher, four teachers will move--or “loop"--with their students from one grade to the next.

The majority of the school’s teachers are veterans who have altered their teaching practices, some radically. For this, Cavanagh takes little credit. “I had to tell them it was OK to be innovative,” he says. “They pretty much took it from there.”

Like Roberts, Cavanagh is a devotee of the school-to-work movement. And like her, he talks about the need for schools to address themselves to the issues raised in the SCANS report. “Business is telling us that kids can’t problem-solve, think mathematically, or teach one another,” Cavanagh says. “And it isn’t just our kids"--urban kids--"they’re talking about; farmer kids need these skills, too. People are leaving the small communities in big numbers, and they’d better be prepared for the global economy. Besides, who wants to sit in a classroom working at, say, cursive for hours at a time? No kid can be happy with that.”

In its quest to restructure, Cattell has borrowed from business. Student representatives gather each month in a “success council,” which Cavanagh says is modeled on the so-called quality circles convened by companies seeking employee input. The students talk about the good things that have happened in the school and how other, less desirable situations can be improved. The school also has a close relationship with its business partner, the Hy-Vee grocery store chain. Students shadow managers at the stores, and everyone at the school can recite the four Hy-Vee tools of success: “dependability, compatibility, social skills, attendance.”

The students work mostly in small groups in many of the Cattell classrooms. In one class, they move about the room, charting their heights and weights and conferring about essays and posters. The material on most of the classroom walls is interactive. In one room, a chart titled “What We Want To Know About Plants” hangs over several bedding flats. Children have listed questions--"How much room and sunlight do they need?” or “What’s the best kind of soil?"--that they will try to answer.

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.

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 1997 edition of Education Week as State of Contentment


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