Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
March 5, 1999

Raising the standards

by Kevin Brown

In her first job -- at an inner city high school in Denver, Colo. -- Ann Vail learned "we (teachers) can make a difference in people's lives."

The job, which involved working with 60 teen parents, "impacted the direction of my career," said Vail, assistant professor of family and consumer sciences education and studies. "These students lived at basic survival levels -- eating nutritious meals, obtaining shelter and acquiring clothing. I often think about those 60 young people. Today, their children would be the ages their parents were as my students. I've often wondered if those children's lives are better today than their parents' were."

It is that early teaching experience that drives Vail to nurture and advance the professional opportunities for family and consumer science (FCS) teachers. She was one of several professionals who collaboratively created the first-ever "National Standards for Secondary Education."

In a process that began two years ago, "FCS professionals came together to write national standards," Vail said. "There are 25,000 FCS programs in the United States -- the potential impact of this work is great."

The standards are a reference for legislators, administrators and instructors to evaluate their programs and ensure that students receive a uniform and broad-based education.

Vail said the standards created by the development panel were validated through 25 public forums around the country. Educators, parents, business leaders, government officials and others reviewed the standards and offered input. Vail participated in hearings in Park City, Utah, and Richmond, Va.

Armed with the feedback, Vail and others reworked the first draft. Participants from all 50 states contributed in some way to this phase of the project, Vail said. The eventual standards, published last May, were a joint effort of 37 states that put up the $750,000 project cost.

The standards are not mandates, but a guide, Vail stressed. No state or federal agencies have adopted them.

The standards are unique, she said, because most professional standards originate from organizations. This project was initiated and completed by FCS professionals seeking to directly improve the effectiveness of their teaching.

She said the standards also give FCS educators more authority and credibility as professional sources for making educational decisions.

"Before the national standards, FCS teachers weren't at the table on educational decisions regarding overall standards," Vail said. "Now, we have a place."

In Iowa, school officials in several cities have embraced the standards and are working to implement the project in their districts.

One outgrowth of the standards project, Vail said, has been a statewide newsletter for FCS teachers sponsored by Families Extension.

Another is an administrator's handbook on FCS, completed in cooperation with the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, an organization that serves almost every school district in the nation.

"They came to us and said, 'We want you to write the FCS handbook,' which now is in the hands of every superintendent that is a member of the organization," Vail said. "The potential impact of that is phenomenal. It is used as a tool to improve their programs."

Iowa State people have had roles in each phase of the project because of the university's commitment to FCS education, she said.

A national commission now is reviewing the standards to strengthen implementation, she said. The commission is devoting a lot of work to developing assessment scenarios that are representative of what actually takes place in families or in the work place, she said. "Nationally, this is the direction we are trying to go."

From boardroom to classroom

It is that same level of critical thinking and scenario development that Vail brings to her popular "Educational Aspects of Family Social Issues" class.

"The class instructs teachers and others that they must be problem-solvers, but that they also must be teachers of problem solving," Vail said. "This is done by using and developing critical thinking skills and using issues analysis."

Each student in the class must select a two-sided issue and write a paper from both perspectives. The final exam is a poster session in which the student presents information, either as an advocate (taking a stance on the issue) or as an educator (educating about both sides of the issue).

Topics selected by students have included female circumcision, discipline in the schools, standardized testing of students, euthanasia, genetic engineering and hog lot issues.

Since the class qualifies as a diversity credit for students, Vail said there are students from a variety of majors and experiences.

"We all make decisions about information and sharing that information," Vail said. "This class is about developing the capacity to do that. The range of students adds a nice dimension of diversity."

The course teaches students to use and evaluate information to promote their own quality of life and not to depend upon the experts to do it, she said. "They also learn how to teach others to do the same."

Vail said the link between classroom and boardroom for her is the need to foster critical thinking skills and the awareness of change. Because "the best answer for today, may not be the best answer for tomorrow."

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