Friday, December 18, 2009

Iowa Core, in a Nutshell

I've had this conversation enough that it is time I posted it. For many educators, the Iowa Core Curriculum comes across as more confusing than it really is. Partly, that is due to problems with a roll-out, and another part due to questions about mandates and timelines. With non-educators (and many educators would openly admit, with them too), there is too much jargon that comes across as fluff, the eduspeak of those of us who have worked in education for a long time.

But at its heart, the Iowa Core Curriculum is really simple. Its really solid. And, there's little argument about it, even though there is consensus we could do a better job on these things. Here is the Iowa Core Curriculum, boiled down to seven basics:

1. We have to always be changing.
Because, the world is always changing. And we have tended to say that we're pretty good at what we do, which can create complacency. Eduspeak calls this the culture of continuous improvement, but basically it means we can't rest on our laurels. We have a process where we get better, going on all the time.

2. Change has to be based on data.
We can't make changes willy nilly. We have to seek data so that we can make a good decision. And most importantly, we have to know what kinds of data we seek. It isn't always the ITEDs. In fact, it usually shouldn't be. As schools, we have to be better at a) defining what we're after, b) knowing how you measure that, c) actually going out and measuring it, and d) interpreting it to make a decision... as opposed to twisting it to reinforce the decision we have already made.

3. We teach what we should be teaching.
The word thrown out here is alignment. The Iowa Core gives us essential skills and concepts for students to master. The problem is not that those are different than district's written standards and benchmarks... they usually aren't. The problem is, a district's standards and benchmarks are different than what actually goes on in their classrooms. We need to actually look in our classrooms and determine what is actually taught, what is "covered", and what is assumed to be covered by a different grade level.

4. We have good instruction and assessment when we teach, and we know what that means.

The Iowa Core identifies 5 characteristics of effective instruction. But even here, there isn't anything magical about these terms. They refer to teaching that is constructivist in learning. Deep learning. Less topics, higher-order thinking. More focus on analysis and creativity, less on rote memorization. Ongoing feedback, students driving the learning. Authentic learning environments, activities in the real world. And differentiation around a student's abilities, interests and prior knowledge.

Teachers have heard these buzzwords for years... the Iowa Core isn't new here. What's key is calibration. Can teachers look at a lesson being taught and identify if it is higher-order or not, how it can be more authentic, etc.

5. We develop 21st century skills in all that we do

Perhaps the biggest of buzzwords with the Iowa Core -- 21st century skills -- are actually well known. Show teachers a clip of a good lesson and they'll be able to identify the skills taking place, be they creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, innovation, etc. The problem is we see them as a discreet skill, as though we need a separate lesson on creativity in our curriculum.

Rather, they should be the lens by which we look at all that we do. You've got a unit on polynomials, or structuring a paragraph, or the process of osmosis. Great. How good is that unit at developing creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, etc? How can you make it better at those? Each lesson, regardless of content area or age level, should have that as the implied focus, the universal outcome.

6. We need to work more closely with those outside school
And, that's not just communication. Are we actually collaborating with others, partnering with others? Parents, community groups, local businesses, other schools, government institutions, the list goes on and on. We need to admit as educators that we can't teach students the best by creating an insular environment. We teach better when we bring in external "teachers".

7. We need good leadership
None of the other things happen without good leaders. And leadership doesn't always come solely from administration. We need to be systematic about building leadership... it won't happen just on its own. We need to adopt attitudes of balanced leadership, giving other people the chance to lead in the areas of their strengths.

No one is saying we need poor leadership in schools, of course. But when we talk about a district that doesn't have quality leadership, we tend to throw up our hands. Not much we can do there.

That's the wrong attitude to take. Every school needs quality leadership. Therefore, we need to not just pay this lip service, but actually invest time and money into leadership development. Administrators and teachers alike. The Iowa Core emphasizes to districts that this is a priority.

No comments: