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Educators wonder about future of curriculum standards

Educators wonder about future of curriculum standards

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WAVERLY - Once a month a small group of Irving Elementary School teachers gather to talk shop.

It isn't just water cooler conversation about who's causing problems in class. They are comparing literacy strategies and best teaching practices. They bring samples of teaching resources and technology. They pick apart assignments and projects all in the name of developing "rigorous and relevant" lessons for their class. Similar roundtable workshops are happening in school districts across the state.

These teachers have always been motivated to do what they believe is best. But now they use state-developed curriculum standards to guide their discussions. The Iowa Core Curriculum, first mandated by the Legislature in 2007, identifies essential concepts and skills for all students in literacy, math, science, social studies and 21st century skills. The documents also provide direction for teachers regarding effective instruction and assessment.

"Basically, it's what we teach, how we teach it and how we know kids are actually learning it," said Bridgette Wagoner, the Waverly schools curriculum director and one of many state educators who helped develop the core.

Although the standards aren't mandated until 2012, Republican lawmakers and Gov. Terry Branstad already have set their sights on dismissing the existing core curriculum and recouping the money earmarked for its implementation.

During the first week of the legislative session Republicans introduced House File 45, better known as the Taxpayers First Act. The bill passed in the House Wednesday. The core curriculum is one of many programs caught in the crosshairs of the new bill, which aims to create a tax relief fund and cut millions from the current year's budget.

The bill is still being debated in the Senate.

Although Republican lawmakers say they don't want to completely do away with statewide standards, Rep. Greg Forristall, a Macedonia Republican who sits on the House Education Committee, believes there is plenty of room for improvement. He points to the National Core Curriculum - Iowa uses those standards for literacy and math - as a direction to move toward.

"I'm not convinced (the Iowa Core) is rigorous enough to set a standard for Iowa schools. We want to make sure that it is a rigorous standard coupled with clear assessments. If it is not clear and concise, I don't think you can consider it rigorous," Forristall said.

Forristall also took issue with the implementation time line. The standards are expected to be fully implemented in all school districts and accredited nonpublic schools for ninth through twelfth grade by July 1, 2012, and in kindergarten through eighth grade by the 2014-2015 school year.

"Four years and millions of dollars is too much and too long. I think it has been a failure of the system," Forristall said.

Jason Glass, Branstad's nominee to be director of the Iowa Department of Education, understands the sense the urgency coming from the House Republicans and the governor's office. In his first three days on the job he made learning more about the core curriculum one of his priorities. He believes the current standards are "a step in the right direction," but not perfect.

"I honor and appreciate the effort and work that has been put into it up to this point. There are a lot of people who have poured their heart and soul into trying to develop a really quality set of curriculum standards for Iowa ... but it has room to evolve and grow," he said.

Educators are trying to stay positive about possible changes coming down the pipeline. Even Wagoner, who helped create the existing standards, can see ways to improve what has been put into motion. One of Forristall's chief complaints about the core developed by Iowa educators was including grade span targets instead of targeting standards for specific grade levels. The National Core Curriculum, adopted in 42 states, spells out exactly what students at each grade level should know before moving one.

Wagoner championed those grade bands but has come to see the benefit of a more targeted approach.

"Let it be rewritten. Let it be revised. I'm not going to be heartbroken. I just don't want it to go away," she said. "It's so hard to get everyone moving in one direction and then to have the train jump the tracks."

While admitting there is "room to grow," she disagrees with critics who question the rigor of the core.

"I would be interested to see what they can come up with that is more rigorous," she added.

Jane Lindaman, associate superintendent for educational services in Waterloo, isn't as optimistic as Wagoner. She said there's little information about how the Republicans want to handle the Iowa Core.

"I appreciate the sense of urgency on making changes that will impact the lives of kids, but I also know that doing something fast and doing something well is not always synonymous. For now, I have to take a wait and see attitude, but I am going to advocate for what I think is right for our kids," she said.

Dan Conrad, the Cedar Falls director of secondary education, said his teachers will continue to move forward with their planned professional development topics this year, many of which focus on the core, until they are told otherwise. While he thinks changes are inevitable, he doesn't think progress already made will be for naught. It's early in the session. No decisions have been made. There's no guarantee anything will change. Even if it does, the steps the district is already taking - working to align curriculums and focusing on the "characteristics of effective development" - will still be relevant.

"I don't think any of the work we have done will go away, but will continue to get better," Conrad said. "We are going to continue to head in the same direction. Just because the funding may go away it won't change our direction."

Emily Christensen is a reporter for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, a Lee Enterprises newspaper.

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