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Judy Jeffrey and Linda Lantor Fandel Discuss World Class Schools

posted on January 26, 2009 at 2:14 PM


Judy Jeffrey, Iowa Department of Education Director and Linda Lantor Fandel, deputy editorial-page editor The Des Moines Register discuss aspects of world-class education with Paul Yeager.The Finnish and Canadian school systems are described in the Iowa Journal feature, and the Register also visited high achieving schools in Iowa and Illinois.

Paul Yeager:  What can be learned from these high-performing schools?  And how can those lessons be applied in Iowa?  Linda Lantor Fandel is Deputy Editorial Page Editor for The Des Moines Register and author of the report that you saw in the Register and Judy Jeffrey is Director of the Iowa Department of Education.  Ladies, welcome to The Iowa Journal, glad to have you here.  So, Judy I want to start with you, what should a student know in a world class education?

Judy Jeffrey: We really have outlined that in the core curriculum that has been established for the state of Iowa.  We really looked at international and national trends and what was being tested and also what we really think students in a democratic society need to know in order to not only be ready for post-secondary and work but also for life.

Paul Yeager: Linda, in what you found and some of the research, how did that match up with what Judy is saying it should be?

Linda Lantor Fandel: Well, what they found in Alberta and Finland was three key pieces of world class education -- very talented teachers, a great curriculum and high expectations, both parents for students, students for themselves, etc.  And then underlying that was a foundation that includes continuous improvement, catching students early who are struggling and giving teachers a lot of professional development in areas that they felt would help them become better teachers.

Paul Yeager: You hit a couple of points here that are very interesting and it's the expectations game.  Do we need to raise expectations in this country?  Is that a message you thought was in your head when you were writing a lot of these stories.

Linda Lantor Fandel: It depends on the school.  Yes, generally we need to raise expectations.  But we have, I think, Judy would probably agree a lot of unevenness and inconsistency.  There are some schools where the expectations are extraordinarily high like Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids.  There are others where they need to be brought up to a higher level.

Paul Yeager: How do you raise expectations?  Does that have to start at home or does that start in the school district?

Judy Jeffrey: It starts from everywhere.  First of all, it has to start with the teachers because students have told me over and over again they will produce what is expected and so if the expectations are high they will deliver.  But it also comes from parents, from the community, from the leaders in those school districts so it's very important.  That high expectation has a great deal to do with all of it.

Paul Yeager: And it's not just students but it's got to be on teachers, it's got to be on the school board, it's got to be on community leaders, business leaders as well.  Why is it the business leaders have to play a role or are playing a role in some of these discussions in helping raise expectations?

Judy Jeffrey: Well, they absolutely influence a great deal of what happens in our communities and across the state.  They carry a great deal of work and expectations for not only their workplace but they are usually very prominent within their own communities and they can change the belief of Iowans about what they really expect out of their education system.

Linda Lantor Fandel: And one of the things I've heard from teachers is that they are often not clear on what it is businesses need.  You're not just training workers in their classrooms, they know that, but they do need to train people to understand what they have to go out and do when they get to the workforce and so I think there's a bit of a disconnect sometimes and businesses can really play a big role in connecting.

Paul Yeager: When did we bring business to the table to be in this discussion?

Judy Jeffrey: Well, we had business representatives when we developed the core curriculum.  We had higher ed at the table, community colleges, teachers out of the K-12 system so they were all at the table and then we had actually an online survey where people could give their input on an online survey as to the expectations they wanted to see in the core curriculum.

Paul Yeager: Let's talk about that core curriculum a little bit more here.  How will core curriculum help all Iowa schools?

Judy Jeffrey: First of all, there is an absolute goal that every student will attain those essential concepts and skills regardless of the career track they are on.  So, there are essential skills developed in what we consider 21st century skills which I think are absolutely the key to changing how we might educate our students in this state and frankly in this country.

Paul Yeager: So, what are some of those?

Judy Jeffrey: Well, we have essential concepts and skills in financial literacy, in civic literacy, health literacy, employability and technological literacy and those are all skills that really talk about the communication of students, the problem solving of students and their ability to work with others and those are crucial skills in today's world.

Paul Yeager: I went to an Iowa high school and elementary school and I don't remember any of those subjects being offered and it wasn't that long ago.  Why or how are you going to wedge these into English and calculus and physics and geometry?

Judy Jeffrey: Well, that is absolutely our challenge ahead of us and we have to look beyond just those normal courses and really look I think beyond the school doors, look into extracurricular activities, clubs so we have to expand our scope of where do we really teach students and where do we have all of our expectations that are comprehensive across the board.

Paul Yeager: You mentioned athletics and activities and Linda that was something from one of your articles about Finland where they have very few, if any, high schools that have sports.  It's mostly a club atmosphere.  How has that changed the perspective of what they do in the classroom or how a school approaches learning?

Linda Lantor Fandel: Well, where the change is, is that students don't leave early to go to an athletic event in a town an hour and a half away.  So, the focus in the school day is very much on academics all day long.  At the high school I visited, for example, it starts at 8:00 and goes until 4:00, 75 minute class periods with 15 minute breaks in between but the focus is very academic.  And you're right, there are club sports and then there are a few high schools that have specialized sports focuses but otherwise kids don't do things after school connected to school.  On the other hand in Alberta they do, it's almost identical to what we do here.

Paul Yeager: There was a shot I saw of a volleyball practice so they have it but there's also good life skills.  We would think that athletics and speech and drama, those all play very important life skills and you don't want to give those up, right?

Judy Jeffrey: Right, there's quite a bit of research about the fact that when students really cooperate on a team and communicate in many of those activities that those are skills that carry over and are definite life skills.  So, what our aim is to really not do away with sports or extracurricular activities but really have everyone focused on those expectations that we have for our students and everyone contributing so that students can really demonstrate the skills that we're expecting.

Paul Yeager: Do we see that that is a conversation that would come up ever?  Do you think that would ever come up to say well if it works for Finland with athletics maybe we ought to look at it here?  Do we ever think we'd see that in Iowa?

Judy Jeffrey: I honestly don't think so.

Paul Yeager: How do they get around -- I think it was in Finland in the article you had mentioned -- in math and science they make it interesting because I always remember classmates and it's not mine, it's everybody, but they go, why do I need to learn this?  What is the importance of learning math or science?  How is it that they get beyond that question to get something taught and results from those students?

Linda Lantor Fandel: Well, if you look at the Finnish basic core curriculum for kids age 7 to 16 it's fairly focused on the child understanding their role in the world, their role in Finland, their role as an individual and their responsibilities and so it's got a very inward and outward focus at the same time and there's a very big emphasis on being engaging.  It's not just about content.

Paul Yeager: So, is that something that's working well or not working well?

Judy Jeffrey: That is another goal of the core curriculum is that we really look at how we bring relevancy to all of the students in their classrooms and that it is absolutely engaging work.  We really want to move, when we say core, we really want to move from this whole attitude of a mile wide and an inch deep to a mile deep and an inch wide and that is what the countries are doing that are outpacing us and outperforming us right now.  So, that is one of the objectives of the core curriculum.

Linda Lantor Fandel: I think one of the biggest challenges we face is building enough rigor into the curriculum early so that there is a base to build on as you go forward.  I think that's one of the things that makes Finland especially successful, a lot of rigor very early.

Paul Yeager: You do talk about core and there is a very rigorous setup but there's also freedom.  How does that work?  I don't quite understand how that translates.

Linda Lantor Fandel: In both Finland and Alberta the curriculum says here is what you need to teach, here are the concepts, here are the essential skills, here are the performance outcomes we want students to be able to deliver when they're at the end of second grade, fourth grade, etc.  The teachers figure out what lessons will produce those results and there's a huge amount of individual freedom from teacher to teacher, from school to school, from department to department in both places.

Paul Yeager: So, how would that be different with the core curriculum that we're going to have in Iowa?

Judy Jeffrey: That won't be different.  There really is a great deal of still local control and the teachers developing their lessons and really feeling a part of how do we bring those essential concepts and skills into our classrooms and into our written curriculum in our own school districts.  So, that part of it is very similar to have that teacher ownership because we know it really doesn't work very well to tell everybody exactly what to do or adults really don't like that.

Paul Yeager: We like our freedoms in this country.  There's also a concept of individualized lessons.  How would that play or would that be a part of this curriculum?

Judy Jeffrey: Well, I think as we really look at the world of technology and how rapidly it is moving there are more opportunities now for us to individualize and personalize not only lesson plans but also learning plans for students and I prefer it to be really learning plans rather than lesson plans because you really want a learning plan for each student.  Right now in Iowa there is a learning plan that is dictated at eighth grade so that they can really look to what are their future career goals and then what do I really need to accomplish while I'm in high school in order to achieve that career goal.  So, they're moving there but I think technology has the greatest hope for that.

Paul Yeager: Teachers will say they can't squeeze anything else in the day so how do they go about implementing, how do the schools do that especially if we're talking about budgets that are being cut?  How do you go and put that into place?

Judy Jeffrey: We're really going to have to take a serious look and we're going to have to cut out some of the things maybe we'd like to teach and that have been a personal favorite of teachers.  They're really going to have to examine that core and we're going to have to give up some things.

Paul Yeager: Are you talking subjects or individual classes?  Are we going to stop doing English 2 or something?

Judy Jeffrey: I don't think they'll stop doing English 2 but all of the things that were covered in English 2 we may have to take a serious look at and say is that really as important as we think it should be?  And how does that really align to the core curriculum?  So, there are many decisions that have to be made and some of them will be hard.

Paul Yeager: Schools are going to look dramatically different in the state the way it sounds here.  What is that timetable going to be?

Judy Jeffrey: Well, we have a timetable.

Paul Yeager: I know it's 2012 for high school but is that when we will see the first big change?

Judy Jeffrey: You will see this as a gradual improvement.  I think all of the facts that Linda found is that these countries also continually focus on continuous improvement so you just don't flip the page of a book and find everything different tomorrow, it just doesn't work that way.  And we know that it takes a quality teacher and in each of the countries that Linda also visited that really a great deal of attention was paid to that professional development of that teacher and that is absolutely crucial as we move forward.

Paul Yeager: I need to bring Linda back in the conversation.  We've only got a couple of minutes left, hard to believe.  But let's talk about teachers and expectations for them.  In Finland I think you said only ten percent get in the University of Helsinki.  It's 85% of those who apply that get into the University of Northern Iowa.  How do we change or do we need to change expectations on our teachers and the training for that?

Linda Lantor Fandel: I think there is a whole systemic change that needs to occur.  Salaries need to be considerably higher, working conditions need to be better, there needs to be more professionalism in the profession so that people who will be better teachers -- we have a lot of great teachers now but we don't have great teachers everywhere.  You want to have great teachers everywhere you've got to create the conditions for that.

Paul Yeager: And that's an individual district by district basis?

Linda Lantor Fandel: That's something we need to do as a state.  As you know the Governor has pushed to raise teacher's salaries successfully.  We need to go farther with that but the working conditions, the training for teachers, those pieces are also critical.

Paul Yeager: You've only got a minute so I want to ask one question.  We don't need any more policy change right now, do we?

Judy Jeffrey: No, we certainly don't.  I would love to stay the course for just a few years so that we can actually implement the core and implement it very well and that we provide the training that we need for our teachers and I would love to get to the point where Finland and these other countries are in their selection of teachers.  We have an extreme teacher shortage right now so that is a dilemma that we deal with.  How selective can we be when, for example, I had 110 physics teachers ready to retire and we graduated 17?  That puts us into a dilemma immediately.

Paul Yeager: And that’s something we're going to have to look at.  What are we doing right?

Linda Lantor Fandel: We're doing a lot of things right in different places in the state and that is something we hope to focus on in this coming year as part of the world class schools -- consistency is the key and we're not there yet with consistency.

Paul Yeager: Very good, I appreciate it.  I hate to cut everybody off.  Linda Lantor Fandel is the Deputy Editorial Director for The Des Moines Register and Judy Jeffrey is Director of the Iowa Department of Education.  Ladies, thank you so much, great conversation as always. 

 

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