Category Archives: Iowa Core

Curriculum Review and the School Board

Over at another blog about school, Chris asks what’s curriculum got to do with [the proficiency gap]?

I don’t know what the curricular options out there are, though, and I don’t pretend to have any special expertise in evaluating them. But at some point, if we are continually unhappy about the gaps we’re seeing in our students’ proficiency data, how should the board go about assuring itself that our curricular choices are not playing a role in the problem?

It seems to me that the board is in a difficult position. I don’t see how the board can independently reassure itself about curricular–and instructional–choices not playing a role in the problem of persistent proficiency gaps. The information and data the board needs to make that assessment, to the extent the district is collecting it, is entirely within the hands of the administration.

This means that it is the administration that must reassure the board that curricular and instructional choices are not playing a role in a proficiency gap. Is the administration providing adequate reassurance on this issue through the curriculum review process?

Consider the science curriculum review report presented to the board earlier this fall. Ask yourself how many of the listed strengths of the program have anything to do with whether students are actually learning science? [Hint: student enjoyment, activity, collaboration, and technology use are poor proxies for learning.] Ask yourself why there are proficiency gaps when teachers and administrators are in agreement that instruction is being differentiated to meet the needs of students in the classroom and what that means for the likelihood of them effectively evaluating whether curriculum and instruction plays a role in the proficiency gaps? Ask yourself whether there is any attempt to evaluate whether outside tutoring or parental help plays a significant role in determining how much science students are learning?

Whether or not you think the administration is providing adequate reassurance, this issue presents an interesting oversight problem for the board. How can the board effectively evaluate and direct the efforts of the superintendent with regard to curriculum and instruction if it is dependent upon the superintendent and his staff for information about the effectiveness of curriculum and instruction decisions made by the superintendent and his staff?

The most important thing for directors to do, I think, is to independently read up on curricular and instructional trends so that they can think critically and ask questions about the information presented to them by the administration. Directors won’t have time to become curriculum and instruction experts, but I don’t think they need to be experts to represent the community and hold the superintendent accountable for results. They just need to be willing to keep asking questions until they get the answers they need.

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Compelling Stories

The Iowa Department of Education released draft Social Studies standards last month. Written by the Social Studies Standards Writing Team between January and June 2016, the draft standards are in the process of being reviewed by the Social Studies Standards Review Team, which met for the first time on November 8th.

The draft standards are self-described as “a bold step toward a vision of social studies for all of Iowa’s students.” Bold or not, the draft standards offer an impoverished vision of social studies, driven by skills rather than content knowledge in the disciplines of history, geography, economics, and government.

Skills driven standards can’t go out of fashion fast enough, in my opinion. Content knowledge is power. The power to think, to create, to apply, to evaluate, to understand, and the power to acquire more knowledge within a particular discipline. [See David Didau, for example, on the impossibility of separating skills from knowledge.]

These standards fail to effectively outline much in the way of content knowledge students should acquire (more on this in a bit), but, also, having turned away from content driven standards, the Social Studies Studies Writing Team has apparently determined that the purpose of social studies education in Iowa is to develop the “civic competence” of students instead of building their content knowledge.

From the introduction of the draft standards:

Preparing students for the 21st century cannot be accomplished without a strong emphasis on the social studies. The founders of our country emphasized that the vitality and security of a democracy depends upon the education and willingness of its citizens to participate actively in society. This level of participation requires civic competence. In other words, it is imperative that our future generations gain an understanding of the core concepts of social studies. Life in the United States within our democratic system is constantly changing which creates varying social circumstances. As a result, citizens need to adapt to such changes in order to sustain vital democratic traditions. Meeting this need is the mission of the social studies.

As we work to carry on the ideals of the founders, we are compelled to revisit our fundamental beliefs and institutions and to construct new social contexts and relationships. The Iowa Core in Social Studies reflects the belief that the informed social studies student comprehends and applies to personal and public experiences the core content perspectives of the many academic fields of the social studies. Our entire social experiences, as well as our republic, are established upon the principles of individual citizenship. Therefore, it is necessary to pay attention to the education of those future citizens.

The Iowa Core for Social Studies is premised upon a rigorous and relevant K – 12 social studies program. Engaging students in the pursuit of active informed citizenship will require a broad range of understandings and skills. It will also require an articulated district curriculum which connects students to the social world through informed instructional experiences led by teachers who are committed to active civic participation. This represents a bold step toward a vision of social studies for all of Iowa’s students.

If the problem isn’t immediately apparent, let’s take a look at the inquiry anchor standard taking informed action. Under the draft standards, Kindergarten students are expected to “[t]ake group or individual action to help address local, regional, and/or global problems (e.g., letters to the editor, public service announcement, community service projects, and posters).”

While I agree with the writing team that education is important to prepare students for whatever civic engagement they choose to pursue, there is an important distinction to be made between teaching the relevant content of history, geography, economics, and government that could form the foundation of civic participation and directing that actual civic participation under the guise of developing civic competence.

Setting aside that Kindergarteners seem unlikely to possess the skills and knowledge to craft effective letters to the editor, we’re talking about state actors directing students to make political speech and take other political action. I can’t see any way for this to be done in a content and viewpoint neutral way. It seems like this should have been an obvious problem for a group purporting to carry on the work of the Founders, but apparently it wasn’t.

As an alternative, I’d like to see Iowa develop history-driven (chronological order, please) content standards (see, as an example, South Carolina’s 2005 social studies standards). Through the study of history, students have the opportunity to learn about the structure of our government institutions and the reasons why our government institutions are structured the way they are. In addition, our history is full of compelling stories of political action and movements that have shaped our nation–the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and more. These stories can help students build the foundational knowledge of civic competence while leaving them to make their own choices about their own political activity.

Unfortunately, the draft standards are weak on any specific historical content knowledge.  Compare Iowa’s draft 4th grade standards with South Carolina’s 2005 4th grade standards. Or Iowa’s draft 8th grade standards (US history) with South Carolina’s 2005 4th and 5th grade standards (US history). I’ll leave it to you to determine which standards are more likely to result in students prepared “to bring to bear the complex and sophisticated ways of thinking utilized by historians when thinking historically.”

Another mistake, I think, is the decision of the writing team to try to embed Iowa history throughout the K-12 standards. If Iowa history were assigned to a particular grade level, then the University of Iowa Press and IPTV have us covered for teaching materials.

All in all, I’d like to see the review team to recommend a substantial, content-driven rewrite of the draft standards but have no expectation that will happen.

More Questions Than Answers

Just a few quick words about the science curriculum review report presentation at tonight’s board meeting.

Diane Schumacher, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Testing, said tonight that course changes should alleviate concerns of parents about the science curriculum and that there is a science course flowchart that will be presented at an upcoming meeting.

She also said that the Next Generation Science Standards require earth and space science course work (true–see the high school earth and space science standards by Disciplinary Core Idea here, here, and here). Schumacher also stated that administrators believe it will take a full year to teach all 19 earth and space science performance expectations. So, the idea would be to rework the current Foundations of Science III course into an earth and space science course.

Contrary to the report recommendation that all 9th graders be required to take the course, without exception, Schumacher suggested that 8th graders might be permitted to take the course, subject to the usual gate keeping used for placement in accelerated math courses (test scores, teacher recommendations).

Here’s where things are a bit confusing. I took this as a suggestion to shift the doubled up science course problem from 9th grade to 8th grade. Here’s why: the Next Generation Science Standards have middle school standards grouped by grade band (6-8) but when the State Board of Education adopted the standards as the Iowa Science Standards, they adopted them as grade level specific standards* as presented in the Science Standards Review Team Report. So, if 8th grade students have to cover both the 25 8th grade performance expectations and a full year of 9th grade earth and space science performance expectations, how do they manage without taking two science courses in 8th grade? (With the fall back option of taking two science courses in 9th grade instead. Pick your poison.)

Others I spoke to after the meeting heard this differently–that 8th graders opting for the earth and space science course would just take a single science course.

Stay tuned. Hopefully things will be clearer with flowcharts in hand.

*Find the NGSS performance standards for all grade levels, by DCI here.

Science Curriculum Review Report

The science curriculum review committee report is on agenda for Tuesday’s ICCSD school board meeting.

A few comments on the report follow, but first three things to be aware of with regard to science standards in Iowa:

  • In August 2015, the Iowa State Board of Education adopted the Next Generation Science Standards performance expectations, as described in the Science Standards Review Team Report, as the Iowa Science Standards.
  • The Iowa Science Standards are required to be implemented in grades K-5 and 9-12 plus one middle school grade by the 2018-19 school year; an additional middle school grade by the 2019-20 school year; and the final middle school grade by the 2020-21 school year. [Iowa Science Standards Implementation Plan]
  • The Iowa Science Standards are minimum requirements. From the Science Standards Review Team Report (page 41): “It is important to remember standards are the minimum requirements for all students and that those who are planning to major in science will need/want to take more advanced courses.”

The report starts out with a mission statement. I don’t generally hold out much hope for mission statements, but this one particularly disappoints me somehow. I’d like to see the District embrace a straightforward mission involving knowledge–that students should know a lot more stuff after attending our schools than they did before. But I’d also like to see the District explicitly state that the mission is to not just meet minimum state requirements but to also exceed them by providing a college preparatory education to students who choose it.

One of the identified limitations of the District science program is that “40% of parents do not believe Foundations of Science III prepared students for future science classes.” This is at odds with administrator and teacher opinion that the Foundations of Science courses do prepare students for future science classes.

This difference of opinion should have prompted a review of the Foundations III course, including, perhaps, further survey questions to determine where parents believe the course to fall short. The report provides no evidence that has happened, and instead recommends that all 9th grade students be required to take the Foundations III course (or whatever replaces it as the 9th grade science course) without exception. The report also  recommends that the value of the course be better communicated to parents, signaling, perhaps, that the District thinks 40% of the parents are just wrong or misinformed.

Note that the communication is meant to include information on how the Foundations III course emphasizes improving science skills–such as organization, lab skills, and measurement–needed to be more successful in upper level courses. My guess is that parents who believe the course isn’t helpful have students who already possessed sufficient science skills to succeed in upper level science course work.

If the K-6 math curriculum has adequate coverage of units of measurement, including metric system units, I’m hard pressed to see how students need all of ninth grade to prepare to measure things in high school science lab courses. Graduated cylinders, beakers, scales–none of this should be that difficult to work with after short explanation from the teacher. And if the K-6 math curriculum is lacking in coverage of units of measurement, maybe that should be remedied before requiring all students to take Foundations of Science III.

As for “lab skills”, I don’t know what specifically they think 9th grade students are lacking, but I can’t see why specific lab skills can’t be developed through lab work in biology, chemistry, and physics courses; in fact, that seems like the ideal place to develop disciplinary specific lab skills.

In any case, it seems unreasonable to me that ICCSD students should be expected to double up on core courses (see recommendation for concurrent enrollment in 9th grade science and biology). University-bound students need time in their schedules for four years of a world language and arts,music, or other elective courses.

The review report references ACT Science scores, but does not indicate that the review committee collected information on university minimum coursework entrance requirements to ensure that recommendations for secondary course changes don’t disadvantage university-bound students.

In fact, I think all secondary curriculum review reports should provide overviews of current university minimum coursework entrance requirements, including college specific requirements, and course sequence maps demonstrating how District course offerings will allow students to meet those entrance requirements. The science report, in particular, should provide a map showing NGSS minimum course sequence path, an accelerated college prep science course sequence path, and a twice accelerated college prep science course sequence plus AP science course work path.

In short, I’d like to see the board ask the administration–before the District buys or develops new instructional materials–to communicate the possible science course pathways created by the science curriculum recommendations or other proposed or anticipated changes to science courses, ask them to communicate how those pathways satisfy university entrance requirements (and which ones–some colleges set higher requirements), and to ask the administration to come back with other ideas for offering accelerated secondary course work in science that don’t require students to double up on science courses.

Have Fun, Start Now

Have fun, start now are the guiding principles in Dan Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.

Willingham focuses on three foundations of reading: decoding easily, comprehension, and motivation. These foundations are addressed by age groups, birth through preschool, kindergarten through second grade, and third grade and beyond. Willingham discusses what you might expect to be happening at school and what you can do at home. And, because it is Willingham, there are references to research, both what we already know and where further study could be helpful.

This book is aimed at helping you help your child to see the value and pleasure in reading for enjoyment or entertainment. Basically, kids who read have a self-concept of themselves as readers (“reading is one of the things that I do”) and Willingham offers suggestions for helping your child build that self-concept as well as positive encouragement (it’s never too late to start!).

Willingham also cautions about relying too much on your child’s school. From the Introduction:

If you want your child to value reading, schools can help, but you, the parent, have the greater influence and bear the greater responsibility. You can’t just talk about what a good idea reading is. Your child needs to observe that reading matters to you, that you live like a reader.

I found myself nodding along throughout much of this book, though there were two points at which I was stopped short. The first was at this passage, from Chapter Five:

I encourage you to be very cautious about providing reading instruction at home. There are studies showing that such teaching can help children learn to read, but in these studies, parents are trained in specific techniques by the researchers. If you’re not trained by researchers (or your child’s teacher), you’re either going to go with your gut instincts about how to teach (which is dicey) or you’ll choose one of the many products out there for parents to work on phonics with their kids. Many of these products are not sound in how they approach reading instruction, and most are terribly boring. (Emphasis in the original.)

I agree that many products (and advice) sold to parents may not be sound in how they approach reading instruction, but I am confident that that statement may too often be true with regard to materials (and advice) sold to schools as well. In other words, I’m less optimistic than Willingham that schools are mostly getting systematic phonics instruction right.

In addition, I think parents either trying to evaluate the quality of their child’s school’s reading instruction or listening to their child’s early efforts at decoding and offering effective corrective feedback may need to study up on systematic phonics instruction anyway, in which case, you’re most of the way to being prepared to teach reading to your own child (one-on-one). So while I might agree that there’s no reason to intervene if you are satisfied with your child’s reading instruction, I wouldn’t hesitate to intervene if I had concerns; just be careful who you take advice or purchase materials from.*

Case in point: here’s a portion of a literacy consultant’s blogpost, on the Iowa Reading Research Center website blog, highlighting a video, “Reading Solution: Don’t Give Me the Answer”, from the IRRC Family Resources page.

The video also shares that if a child is stuck on a word after a few tries, a parent can support the child by asking some questions. The parent in the video encourages the child to use the pictures in the book to see if the word makes sense. I decided to try this and it worked! Griffin stumbled on the word “tickets” in the sentence “Mom gets tickets.” I asked him to look at the mom and see what could be in her hand and to think about what they needed to get into the fair. Since he had figured out the first part “tic”, he was able to guess the rest of the word correctly. (Emphasis added.)

Let me suggest something different this parent could have said to her child instead. How about, “Griffin, each syllable in a word has a vowel sound. Let’s see if we can divide this word into syllables and try sounding it out again?” Having assisted Griffin in dividing “tickets” into two syllables (tick-ets), Griffin should have been able to sound out this word, not guess the word from the pictures (which, it should go without saying, won’t be a particularly good reading strategy in the long run).

The other passage that stopped me short was this one, from Chapter Six, following a discussion of the importance of broad general content knowledge:

In chapter 5, I encouraged you to count on your child’s teacher to get him reading, but when it comes to knowledge building, you can’t exhort the schools and hope for the best. This work will fall to you.

In this case, it wasn’t so much disagreement as discouragement about the general state of schools with regard to content knowledge that would cause Willingham to write this and what it means for local efforts to address the achievement gap. As we add more time to the elementary school day, I hope local school officials will take note that making time for building content knowledge (history, civics, science, art and more) is vital for supporting later reading comprehension (Chapter Six).

One other topic of particular interest to me is the role of electronic devices in reading and in schools. Willingham notes that it probably doesn’t matter if your child reads on an e-reader or not (Chapter Eight). However, in Chapter Eight, Willingham notes:

There is one qualification to that conclusion. If your child’s school is considering moving to electronic textbooks, be at least a little wary. Publishers are working to improve electronic textbooks, but with the current offerings, the research is pretty consistently negative.

Willingham discusses digital technology more extensively in Chapter Ten:

The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to listen to, watch, or read and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort. . . . We’re not distractible. We just have a very low threshold for boredom.

But it’s not all bad news (e-readers can help make appealing reading material easily accessible) and Willingham offers a number of suggestions to encourage kids to choose to read.

All in all, a worthwhile and engaging read, and a book I’d like to see local teachers and school administrators find time to read.

*FWIW, I like the Montessori preschool writing to reading sequence of materials and activities. I also like Sound Steps to Reading (plus storybook) by Diane McGuinness.

The Long and Winding Road to the Smarter Balanced Assessments

The second funnel deadline for the Iowa Legislature is today and neither of the assessment bills (HF 446 or SF 429) will survive it. So despite the zealous advocacy of the Assessment Task Force, the State Board of Education, and the Education Coalition (Iowa Association of School Boards, School Administrators of Iowa, Iowa Area Education Agencies, Iowa State Education Association, Urban Education Network of Iowa, and Rural School Advocates of Iowa) and who knows who else, it appears that the Iowa Legislature will take no action regarding statewide assessments this session.

How did we get here: the executive branch loves SBAC, the legislative branch loves it not (apparently).

Governor Branstad, then State Board of Education President Rosie Hussey, and then DE Director Jason Glass signed off on making Iowa an SBAC governing state in June 2011. The letter requesting the change in status updated the SBAC MOU originally signed by Governor Chet Culver, interim DE Director Kevin Fangman, and Rosie Hussey in June 2010. The MOU contains the following language with regard to the Smarter Balanced Assessments: “The purpose of [the SBAC MOU] is to . . . (h) Bind each State in the Consortium to every statement and assurance made in the application . . . ” and “Each State that is a member of the Consortium in 2014-2015 also agrees to the following: . . . Fully implement statewide the Consortium summative assessment in grades 3-8 and high school for both mathematics and English language arts no later than the 2014-2015 school year, . . . .”

Thus, it would appear that the executive branch had committed Iowa to implementing the Smarter Balanced assessments during the 2014-2015 school year.

However, 2012 brought SF 2284, Division II of which fixed the Iowa Assessments as the statewide assessments for Iowa.  The state board was permitted to submit recommendations for modifying the assessment, but legislative action would be required to adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessments.  [SF 2284 is found in Chapter 1119 of the 2012 Acts and Joint Resolutions, which begins on page 434.  Division II of SF 2284 is on page 435.]

2013 brought further changes with HF 215, Division V of which allowed for a successor assessment administered by the same assessment provider (Iowa Testing Programs) and modified the assessment requirements as follows:  Beginning with the 2016-17 school year, districts will be required to administer assessments to all students enrolled in grades three through eleven.  The assessments shall be administered during the last quarter of the school year, must be aligned with the Iowa common core standards, must accurately describe student achievement and growth for accountability purposes, and must measure student progress toward college or career readiness. [HF 215 is found in Chapter 121 of the 2013 Acts and Joint Resolutions. Division V begins on page 13.]

HF 215 also directed the director of the DE to establish an assessment task force to review and make recommendations for a statewide assessment of student progress. The task force began working in October 2013.

Meanwhile, some Iowa schools participated in SBAC pilot tests in spring 2013 and SBAC field tests in spring 2014.

In July 2014, Governor Branstad and DE Director Brad Buck sent a joint letter to SBAC, stating in part:

How to best measure the academic performance of Iowa students is an important conversation under way in Iowa. The Iowa Assessment Taskforce established by the 2013 Iowa Legislature has been studying the state’s academic assessment needs, including past, present and future options for accountability. Taskforce recommendations are expected by Jan. 1, 2015.

To honor the work of the taskforce, Iowa will not sign a new Memorandum of Understanding with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium as requested.

The Assessment Task Force submitted a report and recommendations, including a recommendation that the Smarter Balanced assessments be adopted as the statewide assessment of student progress in mathematics and reading, on December 31, 2014.

In February 2015, the State Board of Education endorsed the Assessment Task Force recommendation to adopt the Smarter Balanced assessments.

Senate and House assessment bills (HF 446 and SF 429) were passed out of respective education committees earlier this session so that the assessment issue would survive the first funnel deadline. Meetings about the statewide assessment issue were held by the Senate Education Committee and the House Education Committee on March 18th and 25th.

And then, somewhat unexpectedly, though questions about the effect of a delay had been raised, legislators have taken no further action and the assessment bills, as noted above, are effectively dead for this session. One might assume that legislative support was insufficient to assure passage of a bill adopting the Smarter Balanced assessments at this time.

What happens now: your guess is as good as mine.

It is too soon to despair or rejoice (depending upon your preferred assessment outcome) as there may yet be a path to Smarter Balanced assessments in Iowa. (District IT staff may want to go ahead and despair the uncertainty and lack of additional funding for school technology infrastructure). Here are a few scenarios to consider:

One: After time to think, twist arms, or otherwise make sausage, legislators return in January 2016 and vote to adopt the Smarter Balanced assessments–either for the 2016-2017 school year or with a delay to give districts more than a few months notice to get prepared for computer-based assessments.

Or two: The State Board of Education adopts the Smarter Balanced assessments through the administrative rule-making process–either in 2015, risking a legislative backlash that undoes the adoption of the Smarter Balanced assessments in January 2016, or after the 2016 session.

The (unsubstantiated) word is that there is a legal theory being floated that the State Board of Education or the DE has the authority to choose a new assessment if the Legislature fails to act.

I haven’t yet heard the details of the theory, so I won’t comment on the quality of it, but I do think there is an argument to be made that the Legislature has acted on this issue. The Legislature directed the State Board of Education to adopt rules to make the Iowa Assessments or a successor assessment administered by the same assessment provider (ITP) the statewide assessment of student progress on the core academic indicators of mathematics, reading, and science. The successor assessment that will be administered by the same assessment provider (the Next Generation Iowa Assessments) meets the minimum legal requirements that take effect for the 2016-2017 school year. No conflict, no further action by the Legislature needed.

New Iowa Core Website

The Iowa Department of Education has launched a new Iowa Core website.

The website includes a series of parent’s guides to the Iowa Core for kindergarten through grade eight, and high school.

The educator resources page includes links to Iowa Core mathematics support materials, which include documents explaining the Iowa Core mathematics content shifts from prior practice for high school and grades six through eight, and content and practice shifts for kindergarten through grade five. At first glance, these documents look more accessible than reading the standards themselves, at least for understanding how things might be changing under the Iowa Core, as well as for understanding how the Iowa DE is interpreting the the common core standards.

The educator resources also include a link to the IowaLearns digital library of teaching and learning resources, thousands of which are available to the general public through a guest login.

With the inclusion of an Iowa Core Spotlight containing statements from Iowa Core supporters, the new website is clearly intended to promote a positive view of the Iowa Core, but it does seem to be an improvement over prior websites in terms of pulling Iowa Core resources together, in a way that they may be more easily found.