Schools Good but Could be Better

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," June 6, 2000, p. 11A

NOTE: This column was cut by the editors for space. The material omitted from the newspaper-published version is indicated here [in brackets]. 

“We’re obviously doing something right in this district,” I whispered to our superintendent, Dr. Lane Plugge, during graduation.

We watched our accomplished high school graduates file down the aisles at Hancher Auditorium and onto the stage. [Hancher was packed to its 2500 capacity with proud parents, family, friends – and, not incidentally, the students’ teachers.]

They had every right to be proud. They were given the opportunity to make the most of those four precious years. And make the most they have.

[High school should not be about an elite handful of students competing and winning. It’s about the participation and personal progress of every student.]

[But o] Our championships and recognition include everything from National Merit Scholars, music, debate, math, chess and poetry to virtually every athletic activity. The number of students involved in that range of accomplishment suggests our capacity for excellence is not narrowly limited.

At [one] the graduation we were told the number of [that] the high school’s graduates headed for college. A quick calculation showed it is 93 percent.

Face it, we’re good. So why aspire to get still better? [Why talk and write about magnet schools, education in Germany and Bulgaria, the Pentagon’s schools, year-round schools, standards, and alternative schools?]

There are two reasons: (1) we’re not always as good as we think we are, and (2) even if we were we are well behind the curve in adopting proven innovations.

It only takes a slight turn of the wheel to change from the fast lane of excellence to the slow lane of arrogance to the shoulder of intransigence and end up in the ditch.

“We’re Number 1!” we brag.

Well, not quite.

Our third graders’ reading and language arts test scores place them below even national averages – and well below Iowa averages. Iowa’s testing guru, Dr. H. D. Hoover, says that ought to be cause for concern, especially given the quality of our district’s parents and children.

With no academic standards, no “ends policies,” those numbers would continue to be ignored. Instead, this school board is doing something about them. It has proclaimed literacy to be “the highest priority” of its academic standards.

The standards are simple, clear, and – most important – mathematically measurable. There is to be (1) an annual increase in the number of students who are “proficient” – now defined as scoring above the 40th percentile [. And] , and  (2) an annual increase in the number who make one year’s progress in one year’s time. There’s no room to waffle with vague generalities. The superintendent either makes those goals or he doesn’t.

[Parents are to be told the facts about their kids’ performance. The community the facts about its district.]

There are undoubtedly other areas that could do with improvement.

And many that would benefit from innovations.

[Kodak was a top quality company. Film was its business. So much so that it turned down the opportunities to develop videotape, the Polaroid camera, and the Xerox process. It has survived those arrogant blunders, but not with the growth it might otherwise have enjoyed.]

[Educators are not the only ones who resist new ways of thinking. But the risks they run in doing so are no less serious.]

Western Iowa calls us “The Peoples Republic of Johnson County.” We proudly think of ourselves as progressive. Johnson County’s population has the highest proportion of college graduates of any county in America.

So why are we so resistant to educational innovations? It’s a mystery.

[There are hundreds of good ideas in 15,000 school districts and as many research reports. But you don’t have to look that far.]

We fight middle schools, magnet schools, alternative schools, year-round schools, and the Coalition of Essential Schools – even though Cedar Rapids offers numerous successful models of all five. West Liberty offers bilingual education. We don’t. Davenport has an Edison school. Not us. Solon’s building new schools. We’re not. And College Community has successfully evaluated and put in place every conceivable educational innovation from accounting to zoning. We haven’t.

The local reaction to the board’s efforts to establish academic standards – something 49 of 50 states have been doing for years – has ranged from apathy to resistance to ridicule to hostility.

Am I proud of the abilities of this year’s high school graduates?

You bet I am.

So why keep discussing all these alien ideas? Because I’d like to be equally proud of the ability of the rest of us to recognize the challenges that remain and the even greater accomplishments that could lie before us.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site,