My Response to the Fordham Report

The second issue raised in the July 21st Des Moines Register Article is about the quality of the Iowa Core. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently published the results of a study in which they examined the English/language arts and mathematics content standards of each state and compared them to the Common Core Standards in terms of rigor and clarity. You can find the full report here. The short version is that Iowa gets an F for English/language arts and a C for mathematics.

The Iowa Core literacy essential concepts and skills are faulted for being broad, vague, repetitive, and arranged by grade span. The report characterizes the literacy Iowa Core as "only general statements that are repeated almost verbatim across spans" (p. 125). The report points out "some weaknesses in the development and prioritization of arithmetic" in the Iowa Core mathematics essential concepts and skills. Additionally, high school mathematics is characterized as "unusually presented" and "missing much of the essential content" (p. 129). Both literacy and mathematics receive low ratings for rigor. 

I don't intend to argue against the content of the report, the measurements used in the analysis, or even the validity of its conclusions. What I will say is that any comparison of the Iowa Core to the Common Core is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The Iowa Core is not standards and benchmarks and has never pretended to be. The Iowa Core is a continuous improvement process that is about what we teach and how we teachIt is a roadmap toward systemic change in Iowa schools. 

With that said, the Iowa Core is what it is--for better or worse--because of deliberate decisions, not because of oversight, of its developers. Once again, I would like to provide some perspective on the Iowa Core. 

The fact that the Iowa Core essential concepts and skills are organized broadly by grade spans allows for maximum flexibility at the local level, while at the same time ensuring that each and every student is ultimately held to the same high expectations. This allows us to hang on to our local control philosophy that says those of us closest to the students in our classrooms know best about what they need right here, right now to achieve at high levels. At the same time, it also allows for standardization of outcomes across the state. 

The repetitive nature of the essential concepts and skills underscores a belief that deep learning occurs in what can best be characterized as a spiral. Students engage in learning experiences that develop the same conceptual and/or procedural knowledge in depth over time through increasingly complex content or through increasingly complex iterations of the skill or concept. I'll paraphrase Daniel Pink and say that mastery of complex skills and concepts is an asymptote. It can never actually be attained--the target moves as we grow and develop. 

Iowa has had a sharp focus on rigor. We, as a state system, have engaged in thorough and intense study of our content, instruction, and assessment through the lens of rigor--as defined by Bloom's Taxonomy. We have highly successful statewide initiatives, such as Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW), Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI), and more that inspect and respect cognitive complexity. Our newest round of teacher and administrator evaluation certification teaches evaluators how to identify and coach for rigor and dimensions of knowledge through the Southern Regional Education Board's Revised Bloom's Taxonomy. If this respect for rigor has not been appropriately communicated through our Iowa Core, I'll be happy to get to work on addressing the problem. 

In the meantime, I'm going to continue to hold my head high as an Iowa educator and keep working to support high quality learning for each and every child in our state. 

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