Monday, January 10, 2011

Is the Iowa Core Rigorous?

If you read my last blog post on "Iowa Core Foundations are What Matter," you will know that I am a big fan of developing common definitions/understandings about key concepts and terms we throw around in education. I had a very interesting exchange on Twitter about what the word "higher" means. I'm starting to think that Twitter is going to be my inspiration for many Heartland Alignment Services blogs.

Briefly, I responded to a statement about how "high" the "standards" of the Iowa Core were. Turns out I was somewhat misinterpreting the original poster's statement, so I'm glad he clarified for me. The tweeter did follow up with a great question:

"you ask key question about "higher". is it test scores, graduation rate, ability to think critically, problem solve, etc?"

I actually wasn't thinking about any of these when I asked him the question. Perhaps I'll spend some time on these issues at a later date. For now, I will focus on whether or not the Iowa Core is more or less "rigorous" than other similar documents around the country or world.

Let me start with my conclusion: There are no publicly available data about the Iowa Core that indicate it's "highness" or "rigor." All we have are the documents themselves and a lot of opinions. This is not enough to either endorse and condemn the Iowa Core in my opinion. So let's take a few steps back and explore this issue.

The Iowa Core describes what students are supposed to know and be able to do across the K-12 system (as well other things, but that's for another blog). These are called "standards" now for Literacy and Math since the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by the state board of education. For Science, Social Studies, and 21st Century Skills, these are called Essential Concepts/Skill Sets and Details. There are several methods of determining how "high" these statements are. And by "high," I mean challenging for students.

The method I prefer to use for determining how "high" these learning statements for students are is to determine the cognitive complexity called for by the statements. For educators, this has historically meant where do the statements fall along Bloom's Taxonomy, particularly the Cognitive dimension. This is by no means the only way to examine cognitive complexity, but it tends to be the way most educators are familiar with.

Scoping out how to determine the cognitive complexity/"rigor"/"highness" of the Iowa Core is well beyond getting into right now. What I can is this: it is possible to determine how "high" or "rigorous" the Iowa Core is. We can do so with relatively objective, evidence-based methods. These processes are not new, just underutilized. To carry on a theme of mine, making sweeping public statements about how "high" or "rigorous" things like the Iowa Core, Common Core, or anything else are does not move our work forward in the best interest of students. It is somewhat informed opinion at best, and grandstanding without merit or foundation at worst. We can do better than that. Our students deserve significantly better than that.

In the field of alignment, curriculum analysis, and policy analysis, the following are the sorts of things we should all expect if we are going to start making statements about how "high" or "rigorous" the Iowa Core is, in no particular order.

1. Content Experts: If you want someone to determine how rigorous curriculum documents or assessments are, you need people that understand the content inside and out, straight and simple. These could and should include teachers, administrators, state-level content consultants, and university personnel.

2. Standardized Procedures: The process by which content experts determine curriculum or assessment rigor needs to be standardized. That means there are directions and steps that apply to everyone involved.

3. Multiple Raters: There should be multiple sets of eyes independently reviewing and rating rigor of the curriculum documents. Depending on the nature of the work and who is doing the rating, the number of reviewers of each document should typically be between 3 and 7 people.

4. Consensus Steps: The main reason there need to be multiple raters is that it is necessary for consensus decisions to be made about the document's rigor. This helps increase the reliability and validity of the results.

5. Numerical and Visual Results: Although narrative commentary is welcomed and typically necessary, alone it is not enough. The results should be quantifiable. If they are, then they are also capable of being visually displayed. This makes interpreting and using the information significantly easier, including the use of any collected narrative data.

6. Public and Transparent: The design of the process, the participants, and the results should all be available to the public for scrutiny and discussion.

Until we have a process that includes at least the six characteristics listed above, any statements about how rigorous the Iowa Core is or is not, standing alone or compared to something else, are nothing more than shallow, unexamined statements. Let's do better than that for our teachers and students.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Iowa Core Foundations are What Matter

When I logged into TweetDeck this morning, I expected the usual: some nice quotes, a few helpful links, and a few questions. What I found instead was my name tied to a very heated conversation. It appears that there is some proposed state legislation to eliminate the Iowa Core. After jumping into the fray on Twitter this morning, these are the big things I took away from that conversation:

1. Defining words matters. Words like "content," "rigor," "improvement," and "assessment" get tossed around. Sometimes for cheap attention. Sometimes in an effort to understand and improve. If these terms, or more importantly the concepts they represent, are really that important, we need make sure of two things: (a) we are all talking about the same things when we use them, and (b) the claims we are making about the nature of their existence in our school system are accurate. However, point "b" is impossible unless we have accomplished point "a." Furthermore, it is possible to examine these things systematically and objectively. We can do better than throwing words at each other, let's get on the same page and work together towards real solutions.

2. Alignment matters...a lot. I've seen and heard a lot of conversations over the years, well-intentioned I assume, talking about why how we teach is more important that what we teach, and vice versa. I find this debate to be relatively fruitless at best, and cannibalistic at worst. I appreciate the sentiment, but in my opinion, these two elements go hand in hand, and must influence each other. With that said, my main gig is focusing on the "what" of instruction. I will certainly blog about the research behind this area in the future, but for now, I'll state my perception briefly: alignment of the intended, enacted, and assessed curriculum matters, and usually it matters a lot.

3. The Iowa Core is more than just content. The content of the Iowa Core is what receives most of the attention in schools and in the press. But the Iowa Core is about much more than that. My friend and colleague Bridgette Wagoner speaks very eloquently about this here. Check it out.

I will advocate from the top of my lungs the importance of content, but if that's all we deal with, writing down what we want students to know and be able to do in a set of content standards, we've fallen well short of helping teachers and students improve. For example, read this.

4. The Iowa Core may go away someday, but the foundations should not. The names and acronyms of the latest and greatest solutions for improving our public schools change on a regular basis. But the foundation upon which many of these are built on rarely does. The Iowa Core is about providing equity in the opportunity to learn a rigorous and relevant curriculum, yes. But it's also about quality pedagogical and assessment practices, leadership, and collaborative learning amongst all educators.

It is what we have learned from research and experience that should fuel innovation and change, not the loud arguments we hear from all corners. The Iowa Core is built on a solid foundation. Can it be better? Yes, and I hope it does get better. Or, more importantly, I hope we get better, even if the Iowa Core goes away.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Alignment Resources for the Iowa Core

I get questions daily about alignment work and the Iowa Core. I love this, of course, being the "alignment guy." One of our running mantras about alignment work is that "it isn't just an event, it's a process." Quality alignment work is ongoing. To support district, AEA, and Department of Education staff, we have been busily developing a wide range of tools and resources. I hope to blog about many of these resources and time goes on. Below are some links to resources, as well as a brief description. Click on the purple links to visit the resources.

The Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit: Otherwise known as the I-CAT, this web-based tool allows teachers to quickly record what they taught over the course of the school and how it relates to the Iowa Core. The I-CAT also allows teachers and administrators to generate reports that can be used to help districts work on improving equity in opportunity to learn for all students. This work is the focus of Iowa Core implementation Outcome #4. The I-CAT is free (that's right, $0) for districts to use. Staff at every AEA have been trained on how to provide districts with I-CAT support.

Heartland AEA 11 Alignment Website: Heartland has developed a website to provide Iowa educators with access to tools and information on alignment research and best practices. Included are opportunities to Skype, collaborate online using Adobe Connect Pro, and participate in discussion groups, just to name a few features. Although some information is Heartland-specific, most of the information is applicable and usable for any educator in Iowa.

Check these out and let me know what you think!

Brad Niebling
Heartland AEA 11 Alignment Specialist