Once upon a time, Iowa districts created their own local standards and benchmarks.  While local control seemed like a good idea, it was a potential headache for curriculum directors and teams to agree on what should be taught at each grade level and discipline.  Iowa is a little "behind the times" when it comes to embracing statewide content standards....until recently.

Educators are deeply entrenching themselves in the Iowa Core (that is unless, it's dropped, but that's a different topic of discussion) as a result of a new state mandate that includes both what and how.  In other words, Iowa school districts now have a framework for what essential skills and concepts all students should learn and how the instruction should happen:

Beginning with the 2009-2010 school year, each district was required to complete a "self study" (more information here) based on the six outcomes of the Iowa Core.  This permits districts to annually review their work in each of the six areas.  Each local education agency chooses which outcome(s) to focus on in a given year, however several alignment-related deadlines have been mandated by the legislature.

In general, I think the Iowa Core is a really great idea and am thrilled to be leading my district's professional development right now rather than several years ago when it seemed to be raining initiatives in Iowa.  I do have a bone to pick with Outcome 6 and that's the reason I'm writing this post.  Before the nasty comments come in, I should say that I've previously shared this information with two members of the Iowa Core statewide network, so in my opinion, this is not an unfair public rant. :)

The purpose of outcome six is...
Educators implement effective instructional practices to ensure high levels of learning for each and every student.
Sounds good so far.  When digging deeper into the self study for outcome six, things get a little shaky.  Target 6a says:
Educators deepen their understanding of the Iowa Core’s characteristics of effective instruction through collaborative teams.
and the action steps are...

  • 6.a.1 - Educators form and maintain collaborative teams.
  • 6.a.2  - Educators acquire awareness of the characteristics of effective instruction.
  • 6.a.3  - Educators engage in dialogue about practices that support the characteristics of effective instruction. 
  • 6.a.4 - Leadership Team facilitates a process to determine the degree to which practices that align with the characteristics of effective instruction are in place in classroom instruction. 

Target 6b says:
Educators study and implement instructional practices that support the characteristics of effective instruction.
and the action steps are...

  • 6.b.1 - Leadership Team makes decisions about how to strengthen the district/building professional development plans to address the Iowa Core. (See Outcome 5.)
  • 6.b.2 - Educators engage in professional development that follows the Iowa Professional Development Model (IPDM) to implement instructional strategies, models, and/or approaches supportive of the characteristics of effective instruction (see Outcome 5).
  • 6.b.3 - Educators implement with fidelity selected instructional strategies, models, or approaches that demonstrate the characteristics of effective instruction.
To summarize, teachers should be forming and maintaing collaborative teams so that they can deepen their understanding of the Iowa Core's characteristics of effective instruction. It all sounded fine and dandy until I took a step back and compared this to what I knew about Rick and Becky DuFour's professional learning communities (pdf) philosophy.  The three big ideas of a professional learning communities are....

  1. Focus on learning. (What do we want students to learn? How will we know if they have learned? What will we do if they already know it?)
  2. Build a collaborative culture. (Teachers working together are more effective when working in isolation)
  3. Focus on results. (Results rather than intentions.  Results are based on student learning)
Outcome 6 misses the mark in two of these three areas.

It focuses on teacher behavior (implementing five research-based instructional practices) rather than student learning (results).  I'm familiar with school districts around the state spending lots of time and resources digging into the characteristics of effective instruction, but how is this progress being measured?  Walk throughs?  Self-reporting?  Surveys?  Those all make sense, but these measurements focus on the teacher and do not ensure students have learned better/more/pick-your-phrase as a result of the modified instruction.  John Doe can "teach for understanding" using "formative assessment" as a part of a "rigorous and relevant curriculum" while "teaching for learner differences" in his "student-centered classroom" as shown in his observational walk through template, but if student learning hasn't improved, it was likely done in vain. 

We should instead be looking at both the art and science of teaching, but through the lens of "Is it working?"  Russ said:
 Have I taught if my students haven't learned?
It's the age old "I taught it, but the kids didn't get it" staff lounge conversation we've all heard from time to time. 

For every problem that's raised a solution should follow, so here's my proposal.  Outcome 6 should more closely align with the DuFour's three big ideas, specifically results and students learning.  The fuel for Iowa's collaborative learning teams needs to shift towards students and away from teachers.  The input becomes areas where students are not learning so that instruction changes and in turn results, as measured by student learning, are positively impacted.  The metric for success is student learning rather than implementation of specific instructional strategies.   In this solution, teachers become more concerned about little Suzie "getting it" than they do the specific strategy used to get her there.  

Any of this make sense?

Thanks to everyone who was able to make the first #iowacore chat on Twitter.  Our next one will take place on Monday, January 17, 2011.  Your input is appreciated to set the time and topic.