Iowa Moves on Content Standards for Core Subjects

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 25, 2008 5 min read
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Iowa educators have long boasted of their local control over what is taught in schools, even as the state has been chided by education reform advocates as the lone holdout on adopting state content standards in core subjects.

They may soon be able to get a break from those critics.

State education officials are working on a model curriculum for K-8 as required by legislation adopted last year that set state standards in core subjects. In the legislative session that began this month, the debate is expected to shift from whether the state should have content standards— the broad outline of the knowledge and skills that should be taught—to what those standards should include and how to get districts to follow or exceed them.

“In talking with colleagues and constituents in the education field, they’re ready,” said state Sen. Frank Wood, an administrator at North Scott High School in Eldridge. The Democrat chairs the Senate education budget committee. “We’re tired of being bashed for not teaching this or not teaching that. We want some guidance.”

The change in Iowa comes after more than a decade of resisting the movement among states to devise content standards that define what students should know and be able to do at various grades. There has been a growing consensus among the state’s lawmakers, educators, and business leaders that such guidelines are needed to address the lack of progress on studentachievement indicators and an evolving definition of what it means to prepare students for the global marketplace.

The core curriculum, which is a more detailed description of what should be taught, is due to be presented to the state school board in April, and Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, has called for the guidelines to be in place by 2010.Voluntary core-content guidelines for high schools were developed in 2005.

The legislature this session is expected to debate whether to require districts to mandate the curriculum or come up with incentives that encourage districts to follow or exceed the content guidelines.

“Our members are local school boards, so we used to defend local control against anything,” said Margaret Buckton, the associate executive director for public policy for the Iowa Association of School Boards.

But the association reversed its long-standing opposition to state standards last year. “When we went through our research and saw that other states were making a difference in terms of achievement with standards-based reform, we saw value in taking that route,” the group said in a report to members.

State Guidelines Lacking

The state’s 364 school districts have not operated without standards for academic content. But until recently, they did not have state guidelines over what is taught. Nebraska adopted mandatory standards in 2000, making Iowa the last holdout in the movement to establish statewide standards and assessments that began in the 1990s.

In 1998, Iowa passed a law requiring districts to outline the content and skills students are expected to master. Most districts took heed of the standards drafted by national organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, or the guidelines of other states.

To meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the state established standards in mathematics, reading, and science in 2002 and mandated that each district align its local standards to them. Those standards are based on the content of state assessments, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Iowa Tests of Educational Development. The legislature adopted those standards as the official state standards last year and added requirements for guidelines in social studies, financial literacy, and several other areas deemed by lawmakers “21st-century skills.”

About one-third of the districts are part of a consortium using a common set of standards considered more comprehensive than the state standards, but which fall short of some other states’, according to a report released last winter by the Iowa Association of School Boards. Among the other two-thirds of the districts, the report found that standards varied considerably.

Some proponents of state standards say the state has suffered without them. Iowa’s ranking on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has slipped from among the best in the early 1990s to the middle of the pack in recent years.

“Iowa suffered from educational conceit. While everyone else was working to get better, we were saying we’re good enough,” said Brent Siegrist, the interim chairman of the Institute for Tomorrow’s Workforce, an education reform advisory group created by the legislature in 2005. “But in the last few years, people are saying, ‘We’re pretty good, but we can be better.’ ”

Rigor Debated

There are still questions, however, about whether the state is setting the kind of rigorous criteria that will prepare students for college and the workplace.

Marvin Pomerantz, a businessman who previously headed the advisory group, and has been openly critical of Gov. Culver’s education agenda, is not satisfied. He has threatened to file a lawsuit on behalf of districts that he says are lagging without adequate state support.

“Iowa students haven’t obtained a competitive edge,” he said.

Last year, the institute came up with recommendations that included adopting standards and assessments aligned with the NAEP benchmarks, which are considered more rigorous than those set by most states.

The state’s standards and assessments earned a D-plus in the 2008 Quality Counts, the annual report on states by Education Week. Only Nebraska, which received a D, fared as poorly in that category. The report concludes that Iowa’s standards are not “clear, specific, or grounded in content.” The state’s overall grade in that report was a C.

Education officials, however, argue that when the core curriculum is complete, it will provide clarity and specificity teachers need, according to Jim Reese, who heads the state’s bureau of teaching and learning services.

In its analysis, the school boards’ association concluded that while the state standards are narrow, the model high school core curriculum is comparable to national standards, as well as to state standards in Florida, Massachusetts, and New York. It expects the K-8 curriculum will be also.

Some lawmakers would like to push stronger standards, but expect that the curriculum will fill the void. Mike May, the ranking Republican on the House education committee and a former high school teacher, said he will also argue for a state assessment aligned to the curriculum, a position that the school boards’ association and other groups have pushed as well.

“If all the key players are convinced that we are developing a rigorous curriculum that is standards-based, with good specificity so it’s clear what the expectations are,” he said, “I’m good with that.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Iowa Moves on Content Standards for Core Subjects


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