The Common Core is impressing some Iowa educators.

Kim Jones, curriculum and instruction coordinator for Lewis Central Community Schools in Council Bluffs, said Common Core has changed the way her teachers think about learning and instruction.

In science class, for instance, teachers don't just spend a week talking about parts of a cell.

“We talk about systems.,” Jones said. “There are ecosystems. Our bodies are systems. There are systems in math, as far as numbers go.”

The Common Core national standards, a set of universal academic standards that have been adopted by 46 states, emphasize teaching on a conceptual level, and Jones said that helps kids organize their thoughts and learn better.

Iowa adopted Common Core in 2010, and since then the state's teachers have been figuring out how to teach it.

Nebraska did not adopt Common Core, preferring to write its own standards. For Nebraska educators, the Iowa experience provides some insight into what to expect should policymakers change their minds.

Prior to adopting the Common Core, Iowa districts developed their own standards.

“It was more about skill,” Jones said. “Now it's more conceptual, more broad-based.”

Jones said the emphasis on concepts hasn't pushed out content such as the Periodic Table of elements or math skills.

The standards, for instance, still ask kids to know how to multiply numbers, but the standards de-emphasize rote memorization, she said.

“It's more about where does multiplication come from even. It's repeated addition,” she said.

Jones said her district has always seen phonics as integral, a valuable tool. However, prior to Common Core, phonics teaching in Lewis Central K-5 classrooms would have been hit-and-miss, one classroom to the next, she said.

The Common Core gives consistency, she said. It calls on students in kindergarten through fifth grade to “know and apply grade-level phonics and word-decoding skills.”

Former Nebraskan Ann Mausbach, director of curriculum and instruction in the Council Bluffs Community Schools, said she's a believer in the Common Core.

“For me, the pros outweigh the cons,” she said. “And I actually think it's focusing us.”

If Iowa ends up adopting newly developed assessments linked to the Common Core, Mausbach is OK with that.

Those tests, which are in development, are purported to be more demanding, requiring high-level thinking from students.

“We might not look as strong as we look now, but it's because we would be doing it around some tougher standards and asking kids to think and analyze and justify their answers with text evidence,” she said. “It's no more regurgitation, and that's a good thing.”

In the past, English language standards tended to contain “everything and the kitchen sink,” she said.

There wasn't enough time in the school year to teach all those standards, which caused “curriculum chaos,” she said.

The Common Core emphasizes depth over breadth, she said.

With 46 states using the same standards, it allows valid comparisons between student achievement in different states and districts, she said.

“If you're in Millard and your motto is 'We're world class,' well, how do you know?” Mausbach said.

She said that if Nebraska adopted Common Core, she could compare her students with those in Omaha Public Schools, which has a similar poverty level.

“If OPS is doing better than us, I want to go over and find out what they're doing. And if we're doing better than them, we should be able to share,” she said.

The Common Core's emphasis on including informational texts is appropriate since kids are most likely to encounter that type of reading in college and careers, she said.

“We've narratived kids to death, especially in elementary school,” she said.

In the past, when students were reading a text, the teacher might ask how they felt about the text or the author's thinking, she said. But the Common Core asks that kids go back into the text and point to evidence to support their position.

“For so long, we have tried to shove all this information into kids' heads and get through the grand, vast curriculum,” Mausbach said.

By stressing essentials, such as number sense, where kids can compose and decompose numbers, when students come face-to-face with algebra “they are going to fly,” she said.

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