December 4, 2013

By increasing the complexity of schoolwork and simultaneously linking the lessons to real-world situations, the Iowa Core seeks to enable students to do just that.

"Whether in kindergarten or a senior in high school, the state has mandated that we raise the bar," said Brent Jorth, principal in the Coon Rapids-Bayard school district.

In the district, educators have seen the math concepts shift. For several years, accelerated students were sent to high school algebra classes. Today, all seventh- and eighth-grade students are expected to participate in algebra classes.

A similar effect has been seen in the reading curriculum. At East Sac High School, English teacher Melissa Salgado said she now teaches her high school students books she didn't encounter until she reached college, such as "One Hundred Years of Solitude" or "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" by Gabriel García Márquez.

Those higher expectations can be traced all the way back to kindergarten. It used to be a year focused on children's socialization, explained Jefferson-Scranton superintendent Tim Christensen. Now, kindergarten students are expected to learn to read, while the job of teaching letters and sounds has fallen to preschool teachers.

"Some people might equate (increased rigor) with more work, but we're not looking at more work, we're looking at more complex work, more complex thinking," explained Margie Schwenk, curriculum coordinator at Coon Rapids-Bayard.

One way educators are increasing this critical-thinking component is by requiring more analysis from their students.

"Instead of tell me where it's happening and when it's happening and just give me surface kind of things, now it's tell me what would happen if the setting changed, and you look at that idea through six or seven books, and so they're not only getting exposure to all kinds of genres but to this big idea along the way," explained Abbie Julin, elementary teacher at East Sac. "It's not just dates and facts but connecting things and how they would change, and that's a way we haven't looked at reading and writing before."

Salgado agreed, adding that she believed high school English teachers in particular were "guilty of teaching books" as opposed to concepts. The Core requires her to incorporate tougher nonfiction pieces, from news articles to research papers, to draw connections with fictional pieces. It has also forced her to teach argumentative writing, again prompting students to analyze the text and find evidence for a position rather than simply summarizing a story.

"We want our kids to leave high school and be able to analyze situations and products and not get manipulated," Salgado said.

The incorporation of nonfiction and informational pieces helps increase the relevance of school lessons in the real world, said educators.

"How many textbooks do you pick up after college? You don't. You read newspapers, magazines, watch news, see video clips on television," said Julie Neal, reading specialist for the Jefferson-Scranton district. "You've got to be able to take in what the media have to offer you and be able to know whether it's a relevant source. Those are the kinds of skills the Core is trying to teach you. No matter what piece of text you're working with, can you evaluate it, make a claim, back it up with evidence?"

In math this focus on relevance often manifests itself in the form of story problems. Life rarely gives you only two numbers to work with, so rather than asking a student to plug X and Y into an equation, a scenario is proposed, such as planting a garden, and the student must determine which variables are X and Y - the number of rows and types of plants, or the number of rows and the number of plants in each row?

But the Core goes beyond just story problems to promote problem solving overall, explained Karen Sandberg, director of curriculum at Jefferson-Scranton. A key part of problem solving is to persevere when there is no simple answer, and recognize that a problem can be solved more than one way.

Teachers also incorporate more discussion of current events. In geography, the question isn't just which countries have mountains, but how do those mountains affect the countries' economies? In Salgado's world literature class, the question isn't just what themes are in the book, but how do those themes relate to individuals of different cultures?

Educators agree that advancing technology has played a key role in increasing the relevancy and rigor of lessons. Students have more access to individuals across the globe, whether it's an author willing to Skype with a class, or fellow students in a different region of the world, a modern version of pen pals. It also allows them to create products, such as a blog, that can demonstrate abilities to colleges or employers.

"I find that we haven't given kids enough credit in the past for what they can do," said Julin, referring to the Iowa Core's higher expectations. "They'll reach that bar if we just give them a chance and support them along the way."

Of five area schools, only Kuemper's officials said their curriculum didn't change much with implementation of the Core.

"(The Core) is a minimum. You can go above it, and we do in some areas," said Ted Garringer, elementary principal. "We've always had high expectations. I would just say it has been less of a shift."

Meanwhile, Salgado said she is eagerly waiting for the current middle school class at East Sac to reach the high school.

"They've had this sort of deeper level thinking stuff since early on," she said. "I'm excited to see what that will look like."

But each student moves at a different pace, even though all are expected to learn the same minimum standards. This requires teachers to incorporate differentiation techniques into their classrooms to make sure the slower-learning students receive the extra help they need and that the faster-learning students continue to be pushed, even if they are already on track to meet a standard.

"You have a (goal) that you want all the kids to get to, and some get there differently than others, but they still get there," said Julin.

In elementary reading classes, this differentiation is often achieved by giving students a common lesson from a common text, then allowing them time to read either on their own or in small groups. During this latter time, the teacher can pull aside different groups of students to give mini-lessons to those struggling with particular concepts, often referred to in education circles as "response to intervention." In other classrooms, students may read different books based on their reading levels but study a common theme throughout their different texts. In Salgado's high school class, she accomplished differentiation by setting up individual writing conferences with her students, allowing her to better understand how they learn and pinpoint what concepts each individual needs to focus on.

"We're trying to meet the needs of kids with a deficit and close that gap, and also extend the learning of those upper kids so that every student grows," said Sue Ruch, curriculum director and elementary principal in the Carroll Community School District. "We don't want any student to stay at the same level."