December 3, 2013

This million-dollar question has been the focus of local educators since the first statewide standards were adopted five years ago. As schools shift from exploring to implementing Iowa's core standards, it has become a central question for parents as well.

In short, the Iowa Core is a set of standards that lay out what math and reading skills a student should learn each year from kindergarten through high school, and what science and social studies skills students should learn within grade spans, such as between third and fifth grades. The Iowa Core also has a section of 21st-century skills addressing areas such as finance, civic engagement, health, technology and employability.

The Iowa Core incorporates the Common Core State Standards, which focus on math and reading goals. According to the Iowa Department of Education website, the Common Core is a national program that was developed in 2009 by a bipartisan coalition of 48 governors and state education chiefs who consulted teachers and parents before the standards were written. States were given the option to adopt the standards or not, and the option to add additional content of their own, with the Common Core serving as the base.

The Iowa Board of Education adopted the Common Core in 2010, incorporating those standards into Iowa's program while adding additional goals of its own, such as the 21st-century skills section. Districts were given until July 2012 to implement the Core standards in high schools and until the 2014-2015 school year to fully implement the standards in kindergarten through eighth grades. Iowa is one of 45 states that have adopted the Common Core.

"The Iowa Core is essentially the Common Core plus," explained Karen Sandberg, director of curriculum for the Jefferson-Scranton School District. "Every state had the opportunity to add in up to an additional 15 percent content if they felt like something was missing."

In Iowa, these additions included specific reading benchmarks at each grade, such as literary fluency or reading strategies.

"It's important to know it was not federally mandated," added Ted Garringer, elementary principal in the Kuemper Catholic School System. "We adopted (the Common Core) because it closely links to ours with a few changes."


But, while the Core lays out what students should learn, it does not tell educators how to teach those skills, dictate what books and lessons to use, or mandate specific tests to assess those skills. This aspect of the Core leaves it to teachers and administrators to organize classrooms and determine assignments, assuaging some parents' fears that districts will lose local control of their children's education. The Core does promote some common themes, such as increased rigor and relevance, student-centered and inquiry-based classrooms, and ongoing assessments, that will be explored in further detail throughout this series.

"Our teachers have been unpacking those standards to actually figure out what they are, what they mean and how you measure it and assess that expectation because it isn't just gray and black, it's not clear cut," explained Coon Rapids-Bayard superintendent Rich Stoffers.

Coon Rapids-Bayard principal Brent Jorth described the Core as a "framework." While fears of losing local control are warranted, he said, a comparison of Iowa's test scores to those of states with a common curriculum shows a clear need to move in a more cohesive direction, he said.

The key is that the Core does not mandate the how, administrators agreed.

"There is your local control," said Margie Schwenk, curriculum coordinator at Coon Rapids-Bayard. "That's where (the teachers') creativity is, and that's a huge component of the core."

Jefferson-Scranton superintendent Tim Christensen sees the local control in the different experiences each teacher carries into his or her classroom.

"There are people a heck of a lot smarter than I am out there, and I think it's long overdue in Iowa and probably the country," he said of the shift to the Core curriculum. "We're all teaching the same thing, but I've got a different perspective, so that's the local control I bring."


"I think (the Core) will put Iowa on a common playing field, and we'll really know where we stand when comparing our kids to other states and where other kids stand, because the world is very global now" said Sue Ruch, curriculum director and elementary principal in the Carroll Community School District. "We've heard the news, they're all reporting that we're not keeping up. I doubt education has changed a whole lot from the 1960s to now, but industry is not doing the same things today, not creating the same products they were 20 or 30 years ago."

Coon Rapids-Bayard superintendent Stoffers believes Iowa districts have been slow to adjust to this global model. Employers can train new hires in specialized skills, he explained, but they need schools to teach this generation to be responsible team players and creative critical thinkers.

"These kids are going to need to be globally competitive," said Jefferson-Scranton's Sandberg. "The jobs our middle-schoolers are going to graduate into don't even exist today."

The tools may be different, but the problem-solving, collaborative attitudes will still be needed. Educators describe the Core as a shift from content to concepts, focusing on teaching skills rather than information.

"It's getting kids to be a problem-solver, because the knowledge isn't going to stay the same," explained Ruch.

Information is literally at students' fingertips, but they must be taught how to learn.

"It's knowing where to find the information they need and being able to rationalize between actual information that's quality versus skewed toward some site," Ruch said. "It's being able to think that through."