For Crocco, it’s about democracy, civic engagement

Photo by Tim Schoon.

Even before Margaret Crocco officially took the reins July 1 as the University of Iowa College of Education’s 15th dean, she was already plunging into her new role.

Coming from New York City, where she most recently served as professor and chair of the Department of Arts and Humanities at Teachers College, Columbia University, Crocco wanted opportunities to connect with the people of Iowa and to learn more about the issues they are passionate about, whether education, the environment, or the economy.

So Crocco spent three days traveling across the state with the UI Faculty Engagement Corps. The group met with everyone—from Iowa Department of Education director Jason Glass in Des Moines to nearly all 200 residents of Goodell, Iowa.

Crocco has initiated collaborations with colleagues across campus, in the community, and across the nation. This includes working as a co-principal investigator on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant with engineering colleagues on initiatives that promote Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. She’s also a member of the Research Agenda Committee for a project led by the National Geographic Society, “Establishing a Roadmap for Large-Scale Improvement of K-12 Education in the Geographical Sciences.”

fyi caught up with Crocco during her first month on the job to find out why she moved from the Big Apple to the Midwest, and what her vision is for the UI College of Education during a time when education is under intense scrutiny like never before.

How did you first get interested in the field of education?
I think it may be because I have seven younger brothers and sisters. Growing up as the oldest of eight, I often helped Mom and Dad out with the gang. We are a family of readers intensely committed to education. It’s in the family genes. I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to be an educator, and, from an early age, pursued my twin passions of history and education. Many of us who love education are interested in the growth and development of other human beings.

A welcome reception will be held for new College of Education dean Margaret Crocco at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 29, in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber. Though the reception is free and open to the public, RSVPs are required by Monday, Sept. 26, by contacting Cristina Cardenas at 319-335-6111 or at

Crocco will give remarks and show a short video featuring the new UI College of Education Teacher Leader Center. An appetizer reception will follow in the first-floor rotunda.

I’m also interested in writing, English, art, and art history. A whole variety of things shaped my fundamental desire to be a lifelong learner.

What most drew you to The University of Iowa?
I was extremely fortunate to have been contacted in the summer of 2009 by Carolyn Colvin and Jean Florman about the Crossroads Institute. They knew of my work on the curriculum “Teaching The Levees” that was keyed off of Spike Lee’s documentary about New Orleans titled When the Levees Broke. And in light of what happened here in Iowa in 2008, they were sensitive to the fact that though floods are a tragedy, they often reshape consciousness around community and community involvement. We had tried to hit some of those themes in the work that we did on this curriculum, with a subtitle called “A Curriculum for Democratic Dialogue and Civic Engagement.”

What I learned then, and have come to know more deeply now, is the amount of meaningful work that is occurring at the UI in terms of these themes. I was invited to give the Ida Beam lecture on this project and to return to participate in the Crossroads Institute. The institute allowed me to work with faculty from across campus. As a person with interdisciplinary interests, this opportunity was particularly appealing.

Another connection across time and place between The University of Iowa and Teachers College, Columbia University was Walter Jessup, who was a Teachers College graduate. Finally, when I visited the College of Education at The University of Iowa in the spring of 2010, I heard John Dewey’s name cited repeatedly. Since Dewey taught at Teachers College and remains an honored figure, hearing his name here at Iowa established another connection between the two places.

What lessons did you learn from “Teaching The Levees” in regard to how education might be improved without a natural disaster?
This curriculum’s fundamental point of view is that people should take a measure of responsibility for their own communities while expecting appropriate support from government at various levels. Citizens need to know what, if anything, their communities have done to prepare for dire circumstances. It is imperative for citizens to be engaged, knowledgeable, and participatory. It is dangerous to sit idly by and expect government to take care of things.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing schools of education right now?
One of the biggest challenges is accountability. Just as there was an accountability movement for K–12 that gathered steam in the ’90s, higher education is confronting many calls for greater accountability. Clearly, colleges of education are coming under great scrutiny in the overall process of improving education nationwide in the face of global challenges. I do understand why some people are looking at colleges of education and asking the question, “Is the preparation in these colleges of education as rigorous as it should be? Who are we admitting and what are we doing while they are there?”

We need to rely on research to analyze our approach to teacher preparation and the preparation of future professors. Likewise, we need to consider how the preparation of others in “helping professions” such as counselor education and counseling psychology can be improved. Finally, we need to use our expertise in testing and measurement to help advance education generally.

What impact is the new Teacher Leader Center having on the way the college prepares future teachers?
The Teacher Leader Center pulled together critical dimensions related to the contemporary challenges of preparing teachers for the 21st century. We have to do a better job regarding issues of diversity. We still need to attract men into teaching elementary school; we need to have more women teaching science and math. We also need to have teacher candidates who consider teaching in places beyond the communities in which they grew up, especially in urban schools. It is also extremely important that we do a good job preparing teachers to use technology. An equally important issue is assessment because the differentiated curriculum is critical to the classroom.

How do you define a successful teacher leader?
Becoming a teacher leader is a developmental process. The successful teacher leader is one who is aware of the need to grow in order to stay current with contemporary education. Leadership in this context doesn’t just mean that one is an executive. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. You’re bringing everyone along, but doing it by modeling your own high standards as well as a commitment to growth and development in concert with others.

How has technology changed the way teachers teach and students learn?
The rural context of much education in Iowa puts a premium on the delivery of education in ways that optimize the use of technology to deliver a UI degree program to many students who live far away from our campus. I’m hoping we can develop other distance learning programs across the College of Education besides the one in educational leadership that we now offer.

What is your vision for the UI College of Education and a few of your major goals?
My vision is to contribute our faculty’s excellence in teaching, research, and service to the state of Iowa, the nation, and the world.

A part of this vision is to make more visible all the good work that goes on here, to do greater outreach to the community, and to increase external funding to the college. We will be engaging in a long-range planning process over the next year, but I very much want this to be a collaborative planning effort that involves all segments of our college community.

What advice would you give to someone considering going into the field of education?
A job in education is the best job you will ever have. If you love learning and enjoy working with other people, if you want to make a difference in the world, if you welcome challenges, then you should consider work in the many fields of education. One thing that is often not widely understood is that education is a lifelong enterprise and extends beyond formal schooling. Many places of work today have an educational dimension and educators can make a contribution to almost all places of work. At the College of Education, we are fortunate to include a comprehensive mix of programs that contribute to education in one way or another. Together these programs offer many interesting pathways into the broad area we call “education.” As Howard Gardner has described it, education is good work: it contributes to making the world a better place.

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