Melissa Hocking’s classroom looks a lot different than it did when she began her teaching career 19 years ago. Some of that is physical – she’s in her first year as a science teacher at Washington High School in the Cedar Rapids Community School District – but the intangible part of that has to do with the Iowa Core.
“The Iowa Core changes your teaching style and what you do in the classroom,” she said. “We’ve had to relearn and rethink how we do everything, and that takes a lot of professional development.”
To her, that means more problem solving, critical thinking, inquiry and project-based learning.
The Iowa Department of Education defines the Iowa Core, adopted in 2008, as a set of academic standards that articulate what concepts and skills Iowa students need to master in math, science, English language arts and social studies as they move from kindergarten through grade 12.
The Iowa Core – which also includes a focus on Iowa Legislature-determined 21st Century Skills of employability skills as well as literacy in financial skills, health, technology and civics, according to the department – envelops the national version known as the Common Core State Standards, which cover English and math.
The initiative, introduced for adoption in 2010, is a joint venture of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. As Iowa’s lawmakers debate education reform, the Common Core keeps popping up in the conversation.
“The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers,” reads a mission statement on the official Common Core website. “With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”
Iowa adopted the Common Core, making its standards part of the Iowa Core, in 2010 and is now one of 45 states and Washington, D.C., to do so. The Iowa Assessments, statewide standardized tests to gauge student achievement, debuted during the 2011-2012 school year with the subject matter aligned to the Iowa Core.
“It’s an ideal balance really between what needs to be determined at a state level and what needs to be determined at a district level,” said Rita Martens, the Iowa Department of Education’s lead consultant for the Iowa Core.
The Iowa Department of Education has $2 million in state funding allocated toward Iowa Core adoption for the 2014 fiscal year.
Deadlines for complete application of the standards in Iowa school districts are July 1, 2012, for grades 9 through 12 and the 2014-2015 academic year kindergarten through eighth grade.
The Iowa Core aims to affect content, instruction and assessment. For some school districts, that has meant changes in curriculum.
“I would have to say that I would think most schools are in transition from where they were to the Iowa Core,” Martens said. “We’re not in every classroom. There’s not nearly enough people to be monitoring the classrooms on a day-to-day basis to see how their instruction has changed.”
Instructors in the Marion Independent School District have adopted Atlas, a web-based program they use to map their curricula and alignment to the Iowa Core.
“They’re putting in what they’re doing at their various grade levels and subject areas and what are the various knowledge gaps between what we’re currently doing and the Iowa Core, so we can make some adjustments,” said Superintendent Sarah Pinion.
Gaps in instruction are exactly what the Iowa Core attempts to avoid statewide, Martens said. One upside of both the Iowa Core and the Common Core, she said, is that they allow students to move freely between districts while standards remain consistent.
Hocking praised the Iowa Core for collaboration it engenders between educators across grade levels and within subject areas.
“I don’t think teachers should teach in isolation,” she said.
Martens said that consistency also should benefit teachers and, in Hocking’s experience, it has. She came to Cedar Rapids from Webster City High School and said the standards are consistent for instructors without boxing them into one way to teach.
“It’s providing a set of what I think is a very well-researched set of standards, but it does allow for local control,” she said. “I think there’s still plenty of latitude.”
That’s not how Shane Vander Hart sees it, however.
The Des Moines-based online communications director for conservative advocacy group the American Principles Project’s Fight Common Core initiative, Vander Hart called Common Core a “data-less reform” that’s implementation “cuts out citizens and parents from being able to have significant input and have elected officials weigh in on the matter.”
“Even if these were the best standards possible, I’d be concerned with how they’re implemented,” said Vander Hart, who also voiced concerns about the content of the standards. “I’m not a fan of national top-down standards. I think local control is best.
“I think the closer you can get to the students and the parents, the better the standards will be. … I think innovation happens at the state level.”
Karla Ries, director of instructional services for the Cedar Rapids district, said different school systems are varying the ways in which they implement the Iowa Core.
“There are different needs for kids. We need to have that high expectation, that high standard. That’s nonnegotiable,” she said. “The piece that is negotiable is, what does this child need to meet this need and what’s the best way to do that?”
Ries said the district’s staff and administrators are working continuously to align student expectations to the Iowa Core.
Hocking has witnessed the standards’ effects on her students, whom she said are more engaged as a result of the changes brought forth by the Iowa Core.
“Instruction is largely different because we used to provide one-size-fits-all instruction,” she said. “Now, school is a student-centered place, learning centered.
“It is now my job to make sure every student learns.”
Some examples of Common Core standards for mathematics, arts and English language
First grade — Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson. Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.
Second grade — By the end of the second grade, know from memory all sums of two one-digit numbers. Use addition to find the total number of objects arranged in rectangular arrays with up to 5 rows and up to 5 columns.
Third grade — Understand a fraction as a number on the number line. Represent fractions on a number line diagram.
Fourth grade — Explain major differences between poems, drama and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems — for example, verse, rhythm, meter — and drama.
Fifth grade — Come to discussions prepared, having read or studied required material; explicitly draw on that preparation and other information known about the topic to explore ideas under discussion. Summarize a written text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively and orally.
Eighth grade — Understand that a two-dimensional figure is congruent to another if the second can be obtained from the first by a sequence of rotations, reflections, and translations. Given two congruent figures, describe a sequence that exhibits the congruence between them.
11th and 12th grades — Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account. Provide an objective summary of the text.
During high school — Develop a probability distribution for a random variable defined for a sample space in which theoretical probabilities can be calculated. Find the expected value.
Source: Common Core Standards Initiative