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Vol. 24, No. 20 April 9, 1999

In Lecture at Teachers College, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton Praises Successes of Public Education, But Asks Educators to Examine Ways to Improve (see photo)

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton Launches Iscol Lecture Series At TC

"All students can learn. No exceptions. No excuses."

That mantra is part of the founding philosophy of Columbia University's Teachers College. It is part of the mission of The Jill and Ken Iscol Lecture Series, recently established at Teachers College (TC). And it was at the heart of the speech First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered as the inaugural lecturer of the Iscol series.

It is a "revolutionary and profoundly American statement," the First Lady said because by making the commitment to that simple value -- that all children can learn -- the nation is already taking a big step toward improving the justice and possibility of public education for everyone.

On April 19, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the TC Horace Mann Auditorium to a standing ovation given by the 600-plus audience members who were eagerly awaiting her arrival. She came to the College to talk about improving the justice and possibility of public education for everyone as the inaugural speaker for what will become an annual event, The Jill and Ken Iscol Lecture Series.

TC President Arthur Levine gave the opening remarks. While President Levine first joked that the event was special because the TC Community needed a lottery to secure a seat, he quickly gave three real reasons to mark the significance of the lecture series.

First, he said that this inaugural lecture was special because of the subject matter--disadvantaged children--which is the reason TC was created by its founders more than 100 years ago. Secondly, the lecture series would not have been possible without the generosity and dedication of Jill and Ken Iscol. And thirdly, the lecture series is special because of its inaugural speaker, who has been an advocate for children throughout her career.

The kick-off for the event included a performance by the Margaret Douglas School Children's Choir. One little girl came forward after the song to present Mrs. Clinton with a framed picture the child had painted. The young artist and most of the other children in the choir gave the First Lady handshakes or hugs as they exited the stage.

It was Jill Iscol who had the honor of speaking next to the First Lady. Iscol is more than the co-founder of the lecture series. In 1968, she completed a master's in curriculum and teaching with a focus in children and education. She began her career in education in the classroom as a first-grade teacher at P.S. 105, and she also taught at TC's own Agnes Russell School (now Horace Mann Hall). She returned to Teachers College to work on a doctorate and served as co-director of the Preservice program in Childhood Education. After she completed her Ed.D., Iscol wrote educational materials; she taught at TC and was a faculty member at Bank Street College. She continued her role as a scholar and earned a postdoctoral degree from Yale in sociology. Iscol is also currently the chair of the Annual Family Reunion Policy Initiative in Tennesee, which is moderated by Vice President Al Gore and Tipper Gore. Today, she is an activist working for social and economic justice for children and families.

Kenneth Iscol shares his wife's concerns about education. He has assumed leadership roles at his alma mater, Cornell University, where he served on the advisory boards of the Cornell Council, The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and the Personal Enterprise-Small Business Program. He is also a founder and trustee of the Cornell Center for the Environment. Ken Iscol holds an M.B.A. from New York University and is currently the principle owner of Cellular One. The Iscols have two children.

"Each year we will bring to the College the best minds of the world to give young teachers insight into the complexity of equity issues so that it becomes a part of their mission as they create world class learning environments for children," said Dr. Iscol, as she described the mission of the lecture series. Mrs. Clinton's participation in the Iscol Lecture Series will be the first of many annual lectures to be given by prominent people involved in improving public policies on the education and care of at-risk children.

The First Lady's opening remarks reiterated the key issue of the series--re-imagining education and the need "to think clearly about justice and possibility in light of what we know about teaching and learning, to apply research and intuition, to reach out across the lines that too often divide us. And in the process, begin to translate into reality the vision of an educational system that would truly serve all of our children." She asked the question that the founders of Teachers College also asked: What can we do in the midst of a rapidly changing society to educate all children? And also, not just how we will educate children, but whether we will remain committed to the public education system?

In her speech, Mrs. Clinton said that education is the key to opportunity in society and that we must look at what we do right and what we need to improve. She stressed that a large part of the success of the United States may be attributed to its public school system because of how the U.S. has welcomed people from all cultures, races and religions into society, and due to the opportunity we are given to respect difference in our public education system.

But the First Lady said that there are many challenges in our public schools as well--teachers who are not knowledgeable enough in their respective subject areas; the retention of good teachers; large class sizes; high-drop out rates among certain communities; lower and unjust expectations for low income children; the need for increased parental commitment; and the increased demand to hire more teachers over the next several years.

Mrs. Clinton said that when our public schools don't work it gives ammunition to those who don't want them to work and the "undermining of the public education system leads to an undermining of the public good."

The White House has signed legislation such as Goals 2000 and the 1994 Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to help improve the quality of public schools. According to Mrs. Clinton, the White House plans to "continue to push forward on the agenda of justice and possibility equated with high expectations and results."

First, there will be federal support to improve teacher quality. The First Lady also emphasized that the "most important ingredient in seeing those results is the quality and dedication of the teachers who are asked to try to meet those standards." She continued, "if we do not do more to support, respect, understand, and yes, pay better our public school teachers, much of our hopes will not be realized." Secondly, disadvantaged children will be targeted with particular attention on the early years of development. And thirdly, there is a need to promote real accountability for results.

In closing, Hillary Rodham Clinton asked: "What can we do about creating more competition, more challenge, more encouragement within the public school system?"

While she noted the increase of charter schools as an alternate choice to public education as a good thing, she also emphasized the need to fix our public schools and not abandon them.

"We can never take for granted that America's public school system is a cornerstone of our democracy," said Mrs. Clinton. "America's greatest markets for future opportunities are right here at home-in our inner cities, in our rural communities, in our aging suburbs."