Race to the Top Evens Playing Field, Challenges Teachers

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Steph Long teaches a math lesson at Longfellow Elementary School in Belle Plaine.

Steph Long teaches a math lesson at Longfellow Elementary School in Belle Plaine.

BELLE PLAINE – Big changes are in store for Iowa’s nearly 470,000 students.

For Steph Long’s third graders at Longfellow Elementary School in Belle Plaine, those changes mean learning multiplication and division six weeks sooner and covering more chapters in their math textbooks.

“We’re actually getting through chapter 8,” one of Long’s students shouted in class.

And if a third grader moves to Belle Plaine (or Des Moines or Davenport) from Sioux City or Keokuk or anywhere in between, she and her parents can be assured that she will have learned the same skills as her peers.

That has not always been the case.  Some students could not get the same quality of education as others, depending on which school district they lived in.  The changes are supposed to fix the problem, and that makes teachers and administrators excited about the benefits for Iowa students.

Not good enough

Starting in 2012, Iowa’s schools will have to follow state standards in certain subjects and national standards in others.

“Good enough for Iowa isn’t good enough anymore,” Jo Ellen Latham, director of instruction for the Des Moines Independent School District, said.  “The world is changing.”  Competition in the job market is now global, and uniform standards across the state—and eventually across the nation—will help give Iowa’s students an edge, Latham said.

But question marks remain, and some teachers and lawmakers are nervous. First, the changes have come quickly.

“We’ve never moved this fast on anything in our lives!” Latham said.

The changes started back in May 2008 when then-Democratic Gov. Chet Culver signed a law implementing a landmark education program called the Iowa Core.  For the first time, the state would establish education standards for all Iowan children enrolled in public schools from kindergarten through high school in the four courses that educators consider the core of a person’s education.  Those courses are math, science, language arts and social studies.

It also created standards for “21st century skills,” which include financial skills and ways to best use the ever-changing Internet in daily learning.  The law mandates that high schools implement the standards by 2012, while elementary and middle schools have until 2014.

But then the state decided to change the changes.  In July 2010, the Iowa State Board of Education voted to replace state standards in math and language arts with national standards created by the National Governors Association.  Moreover, national standards for science are also expected within the next year or two.  And finally, teachers and administrators were not given any additional time to implement the changes.  The original 2012 and 2014 deadlines stayed the same for adopting both state and national standards.

Race to the Top

This move to participate in the national standards [officially known as the “Common Core”] was part of a national trend.  So far, 48 states have adopted all or part of these national standards.  The reason?  The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” program.

“They put some big carrots out there for states,” Latham said, referring to the administration’s $4 billion competition.

One of the ways states score points in the competition is doing exactly as Iowa did: adopt both state and national standards.  So far, 11 states and the District of Columbia have won funding in two rounds of competition.

Iowa has not even been a finalist, and thus the state has not seen the tens of millions of dollars in aid that other states have won.  However, four Iowa schools with high poverty and low achievement rates did receive grants from the Race to the Top legislation.  Being committed to adopting state and national standards was key for those schools to receive the grants, Latham said.

However, if Iowa is serious about competing in the next round of Race to the Top (which has not yet been announced), it will have to do more than adopt state and national standards.

“Iowa is not predisposed to compete well with Race to the Top,” said Peter Hlebowitsh, professor of teaching and learning at the University of Iowa College of Education.  States score a significant portion of Race to the Top points by opening up charter schools and pegging teacher pay to student performance—two features that are common in New York and D.C., but are virtually nonexistent in Iowa.

Charter schools receive public funding, enjoy a certain degree of autonomy in their curricula and are often founded by private individuals or organizations as an alternative to traditional public schools.  Iowa has seven charter schools.  New York City has 125, and Washington, D.C. has 52.

A bill allowing for easier accreditation of charter schools in Iowa is currently being debated in a Senate education subcommittee.  Iowa Department of Education director Jason Glass is in favor of both increasing the of charter schools in Iowa and implementing a merit pay system for teachers, according to reports.

Question Mark: Implementation

Proponents of state and national standards argue that such standards still will benefit Iowa students even if they do not lead to millions of Race-to-the-Top dollars. They allow a student in Clearfield (Iowa’s smallest school district) to be taught the same skills as a student in Des Moines, Seattle, and Boston.  Now this Clearfield student will be better prepared when he enters a global job market, Latham said.


However, now that the standards have been set, teachers want to know how to work them into what they have been teaching under local control, which is a second question mark that the rapid changes pose for teachers.


“From the alignment perspective, I think some teachers are a little anxious,” Matt Townsley, director of instruction and technology for the Solon Community School District, said.  “Teachers really want to know, ‘what should I be teaching?’”

Matt Townsley speaks to teachers in Solon about the Iowa Core in April. Photo by Brett G. Johnson

Some teachers may be asking that question more than others due to a stark difference between the national standards for math and reading and the state standards for science and social studies.  The national standards are prescribed by individual grade level, while the state standards are listed by grade spans, say 4th through 6th grade.

“Sometimes it’s confusing,” Lori Grimoskas, a first grade teacher at Solon’s Lakeview Elementary School, said.  Grimoskas says she knows exactly what she must teach her first graders in math, but with science and social studies she says kindergarten through second grade teachers at Lakeview have had to meet to discuss which grade should teach which requirements.  Determining who teaches what is not difficult, but it is an extra step that the Common Core eliminates, Grimoskas and her Lakeview colleagues say.

The new standards also mean teachers may have to give up teaching favorite lessons in order to keep up with the faster pace of new standards.  Steph Long recently finished teaching her family biography lesson in which students interviewed grandparents and great-grandparents and shared their stories with classmates.  Long says students loved the lesson and families praised it for bridging generation gaps.  But she does not know if she can incorporate it into national standards for language arts.

Question Mark: Standardized Testing

Another major question mark for the transition to new standards is how to measure students’ learning.

“The assessment piece [of the Iowa Core law] is rather vague and standardless,” Representative Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia and chair of the House Education Committee, said.

Forristall is referring to the fact that the 2008 law mandates what teachers should teach and when they should teach it, yet it does not specifically mandate how those standards should be tested.  The reason is simple, according to Kevin Fangman, administrator for pre-K-12 education for the Iowa Department of Education: the newness of national standards means no test exists yet that the state can mandate.

However, when a new national test does become available, it will be expensive.  Fangman estimates a new test will cost the state $9.4 million per year, more than triple the $3 million spent in 2010-11.

Despite the question marks, Townsley and Latham believe the Iowa Core is a step in the right direction for Iowa’s students.

Iowa Senate education committee

(l-R) Cindy Yelick, Kevin Fangman and Julie Hartlan testify before the Iowa Senate education committee, February 14, 2011. Photo by Brett G. Johnson

“I used to be someone who wasn’t sure about the state or the feds coming in and saying here’s what we should teach,” Townsley said.  “But what have we gained from all our local control?  We’ve just gotten districts that have grown farther apart.”

“In all honesty, a lot of these things [in the Common Core] have not been field tested yet,” Latham said.  “But I kind of appreciate the approach of ‘let’s not wait until it’s all perfect.  Let’s jump in.  We’ve got to do something different than we’re doing right now to stay competitive.’  You can’t learn it unless you do it, and you can’t test it until you do it.”

Long has been pleased with how her students have handled the accelerated pace in math.

“They’re kinda proud of what they’ve done,” she said.

(Brett Johnson is a spring 2011 graduate of the Master of Arts-Profesional in Journalism program at the University of Iowa and a contributor to IowaWatch. brett-johnson-1@uiowa.edu.)