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The Iowa Core lays groundwork for school districts and teachers to develop curriculum around core standards and work with students to achieve proficiency when meeting those standards. A well-designed instructional unit developed around the standards propels teachers to then use their creativity in designing learning opportunities to take students to higher levels.

Having served in the heterogeneous classroom for much of my career, I do understand its complexities. Still crystal clear in my mind is the daily routine of working with 150-plus students as a teacher of English, language arts, reading, and history. Educators have said for years that we “see our clients in groups,” and I was no exception. The thing is, our minds need to shift to the reality that we are working with individuals grouped in the same room. This way of thinking isn’t how most educators were initially taught, but developing this mindset is an early step to gaining traction in providing a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) framework.

MTSS recognizes first, that each student is an individual learner and then second, that personalizing instruction and educational opportunities to that learner is in his/her best interest. Differentiation serves as the foundation of the core curriculum. Those next steps are planned and meaningful – not busy work until the next unit comes around.

So what steps can a teacher in the regular classroom take in order to break down those large groups of students and interject tiers of support? First and foremost, we must find out what the students already know and can do. One option for finding that information is through pretest:

  1. Determine first what you would consider as passing the pre-test. Whether you identify success somewhere between 50-90 percent, that’s your call, or work collaboratively with your Professional Learning Community (PLC) to establish that passing score. The key here is to maintain consistency.
  2. Don’t pretest every detail of a unit. It does not necessarily work well to use a post-test as a pre-test, as post-tests are often too content specific. Pretest the main concepts, as indicated by the standards. Remember, it isn’t about the book, or even about the results of a particular experiment, per se. The vehicle through which the lesson is delivered is not the focus. Note: If your district uses common assessments that are standards based, they could be appropriately used here.
  3. Chunk the pre-test scores into 1) scores that indicate students can move on to other material, and 2) those that indicate the students need more opportunities to develop their learning. You may even form three groups if scores deviate enough from each other that you see those chunks emerging. You now have what are called flexible groups. Students won’t stay in these groups throughout their semester or year with you, just during this unit or cycle of learning.
  4. Your flexible groups will determine the next steps – those students who need more rigor than the baseline standards indicate, those students who are on target with grade-level learning, and those students who are challenged by grade-level curriculum and need some remedial support. During the next learning cycle, each group’s makeup may be slightly-to-very different, as determined by the students’ readiness to learn the next pre-tested standards.

Take a look at one science teacher’s account regarding her pretest practices:

The process, though loosely described, is based on the concept of “compacting,” a strategy that is found widely in references regarding differentiation. Compacting can be considered part of a district’s tiered system of opportunity. This graphic represents one district’s tier structure. 

Pretesting may be considered a high-prep approach to the MTSS landscape especially if the test needs to be created before being administered. With that in mind, sound teaching practices that involve frequent checks for understanding may help us get our footing in MTSS. This list offers some no-to-low-prep strategies to put your developing mindset into practice.

The Iowa Core represents knowledge and skill that all students should know and be able to do – and should be considered a launch for further learning. Students meet the standard and have the opportunity to advance in their learning and to enjoy enriching opportunities they otherwise might not have a chance to experience. In order for this to happen, teachers should pretest students when possible, frequently check for student understanding against the standards, and use the data to create flexible learning groups. It is important that students and parents know and understand what you are doing and why, and an important reminder is that the flexible groups are temporary until the next learning cycle. 

Making data-driven decisions by first finding out where students are in their learning and then taking pragmatic steps to move them forward in your tiered options is logical and respectful of that student as a learner. With Iowa Core standards used as a base, not a ceiling, students can clearly understand the expectations that need to be met before moving on in their learning. A multi-tiered system of supports acknowledges that students have varying needs, and those needs must be considered to optimize the learning time we have with them.

Posted by : Lora.Danker

If your district is like many others, “equity” may be a buzzword that you’re starting to hear more and more frequently. What is equity, why is it the focus of so many initiatives right now, and how does it relate to social studies?

Equity-oriented classrooms and schools are ones in which educators work to ensure fairness and justice for all students. Kids and families who have not historically been served well by public schools (e.g., the differently abled, girls, people of color, working class families, non-Christians, and LGBTQ students, for example) have long known about and struggled against inequitable education – schools that are segregated, that discriminate against them, that forcibly assimilate them, that denigrate their home cultures and traditions, that impose deficit beliefs of their worth or abilities. Because of these families’ activism over generations, conversations about how to ensure equity have become more common among administrators and classroom teachers today.

To some degree, these conversations have also picked up steam because of policies and legislation like No Child Left Behind that have forced districts to disaggregate achievement data by different “sub-groups.” In most districts across the country and in Iowa, there are clear and troubling gaps showing that kids from marginalized groups are at higher risk for disciplinary action, not graduating, not matriculating, scoring poorly on standardized tests, not engaging in advanced coursework, and not participating in extracurricular activities.

While some people may see these gaps as proof that some kids or families are simply not smart, lazy, apathetic towards school, etc., decades of research not only debunk those theories but show that the gaps are actually evidence of deep and systemic inequities that both intentionally and unintentionally reproduce social inequalities.

Quite simply, equity-oriented educators see it as their professional obligation to disrupt that.

Unfortunately, districts’ responses to these gaps have often been to try to “fix the kid” with no attempts to examine how the school systems themselves are producing these outcomes through policies, classroom practices, and curriculum. It is very common for administrators to ditch or downplay “non-essential” content areas (like social studies!) to focus exclusively on test prep in reading and math. Again, decades of research shows that this is absolutely, no doubt about it, the wrong response. In fact, a rich and rigorous social studies curriculum is what has the best potential to connect kids from all backgrounds to schools, to engage them in interesting and relevant critical thinking, and to result in better test scores, graduation rates, and all the other data that districts feel so much pressure to improve. As one example, check out the documentary “Precious Knowledge” for a fantastic story of how a high school ethnic studies program in Tucson did just that.

It is worth noting that this approach to social studies is beneficial not just for kids from marginalized backgrounds, but for kids from dominant backgrounds, too (e.g., boys, white students, straight students, Christians, able-bodied children, wealthy kids, etc.). These young people need to be cognizant of historical and contemporary social inequalities, demonstrate empathy towards people from non-dominant communities, be self-aware, and have the ability to engage in their community in non-oppressive, thoughtful, and inclusive ways. These kids need social studies rooted in equity just as much as kids from marginalized backgrounds. Frustratingly, what is more common are social studies that teaches them (whether implicitly or explicitly) that their voices are the only ones that matter, that their experiences are “the norm,” that oppression is in the past, or that they have been the sole and/or most valuable contributors to our communities.

Again, equity-oriented educators see it as their professional obligation to disrupt that.

Hopefully you’re on board and asking yourself, “How do I do that?” Consider a conveyer belt of sorts with four “stops” on a factory floor that you have at least some control over. First, equity-oriented educators ask themselves about access – do all kids have genuine access to materials, opportunities, spaces, etc.? In social studies, this means we differentiate or scaffold or offer support services to students who may need it (e.g., include lots of images as primary sources for students struggling to read or who are learning English). We look for ways to de-track or remove barriers to advanced placement coursework – and then work hard to actively recruit kids who may not believe that they are truly welcome in those spaces. And we make sure that our physical space is as inclusive as possible (e.g., posters and artwork that reflect the diversity of the school and broader community). This is especially important in schools that are more or less homogeneous. Check out the wonderful “What If All the Kids Are White?” for more ideas.

The next step is the curriculum itself. What is it that we are giving kids access to? If it’s oppressive (e.g., racist, sexist, classist, etc.) curriculum, then forget it. As social studies educators, we must constantly scrutinize our materials and lessons to make sure they are as inclusive as possible. If we teach a U.S. history survey course, for example, are we focused on a chronological march through wars and presidents? If so, talking about women or people of color will always seem like something “extra” that we tack on or read about on the literal margins of a textbook. Equity-oriented educators reframe their courses so that fundamental issues, social movements, and diverse communities are at the center of the curriculum (e.g., units about immigration, women’s rights, and foreign policy throughout US history). This is important at the elementary level, too. At the most basic level, we must ensure there are windows and mirrors in the books we read our students. Are we only reading about “white boys and dogs” as young educational activist Marley Dias asks, or are we including stories about people from all backgrounds and walks of life? Are we making space for kids’ questions and curiosities about the world, including current events and “hot topics”? Are we teaching kids about active citizens who are identifying problems and working to make change? If so, then we are equity-oriented. Check out this website for more ideas about how to integrate this content with specific Iowa connections.

Next up is our teaching practices or pedagogy. We could have the most equitable curriculum ever that is inclusive and thoughtful and multicultural, but if we teach it to students through lecture, popcorn reads, or worksheets, then we are not being equity-oriented. Instead, the National Council of Social Studies calls for teaching that is “powerful and purposeful”. This means using strategies that are constructivist and student-centered (“active”), connected to other disciplines (“integrated”), responsive to students’ questions (“meaningful”), tapped into students’ critical thinking rather than rote memorization (“challenging”), and rooted in dialogue that is inclusive of multiple perspectives (“value-based”). If all the desks are facing the teacher and students are discouraged from asking questions, discussing topics with their peers, and challenging each others’ ideas, then our classroom organization and pedagogical strategies are implicitly conveying the message that good citizens are compliant, uncritical, and obedient. Of course, a healthy democracy demands the opposite and classrooms K-12 must provide students opportunities to engage with ideas and each other. It may take some time to help acclimate students to a classroom with the expectations that their voice, ideas, and questions matter – that’s OK. Equity-oriented educators help students practice these skills and hold high expectations for all members of the class.

Last, but not least, equity-oriented educators pay attention to outcomes. They use kids’ scores on tests, summative assessments, formative assessments, comments in class, conversations outside of class, and even many different forms of resistance to reflect on what might need adjusting in the first three categories: access, curriculum, and pedagogy. Rather than “fixing the kid,” they look first to making adjustments in these three areas and consider how their actions may be contributing to inequitable outcomes. It’s not that every student will get an A+ in every class or exceed every standard and benchmark – but, at the very least, equity-oriented educators are watchful of patterns and trends that make it all-too-easy to predict who will fail and who will succeed.

As you commit to being an equity-oriented social studies educator, keep in mind the fundamental value of public schools in a democracy: to prepare citizens who can and want to engage in their communities in order to improve them. If we lived in a monarchy or a dictatorship, having educated citizens would be less of a concern other than for economic reasons – in those types of societies, the voice of “the people” is irrelevant in decision-making. In our collective efforts to build and sustain a healthy democracy, however, it is vitally important that young people learn how to identify and solve social problems, think critically about multiple perspectives, analyze evidence, and engage in constructive dialogue across difference. What better place to do this than public schools? And what better discipline than social studies? As equity-oriented social studies educators, we must commit to ensuring access to rich and rigorous curriculum and instruction that will equip all students with the necessary commitment, skills, and knowledge to be the kind of citizens that our democracy needs.

For more information about orienting towards equity as an educator, check out “Equity Literacy for All” by Paul Gorski and Katy Swalwell.

Posted by : katy.swalwell

Future Ready and Iowa Core are critical components within the Sioux City Community School District – components that work together and impact student outcomes.

The Sioux City Community School District has been designated a #FutureReady district by the U.S. Department of Education. The characteristics of #FutureReady districts include:

  • Building the right infrastructure;
  • Imagining the classrooms of the future;
  • Ensuring teachers are ready to utilize and benefit from technology;
  • Preparing administrators to lead and support teachers as they utilize technology; and
  • Including parents, community members, school board members, and others in discussions.

Learn more about the U.S. Department of Education’s #FutureReady program.

We know that the future for our current students will include technology. There is a great demand within the United States for skilled workers with degrees in computer science. Gary Beach, in CIO, recently reported that there are 120,000 new jobs created each year in the United States that require a computer science degree and there are 49,000 individuals acquiring the degree annually. There are three programs in the Sioux City Community School District that address technology skills for students (and teachers) and prepare students to be Future Ready.

We took what we learned from the U.S. Department of Education about being #FutureReady, combined that with industry needs to prepare students to be Future Ready when entering the workforce and purposefully integrated quality instruction rooted in the Iowa Core standards.

Career Academy

Sioux City Career Academy offers 30 pathways for students. Each pathway is a career-focused sequence of high school courses that integrates core academic knowledge with technical and occupational skills to provide students with a pathway to post-secondary education and careers. Students can follow a pathway from start to finish or can explore a variety of possible career opportunities. Visit our Sioux City Career Academy website.

Computer Programming Specialty Elementary School

Students at Loess Hills Computer Programming Specialty Elementary School learn, beginning in kindergarten, fundamentals of computer programming. Core subject material taught while infusing learning with technology skills, concepts and tools, prepares students to be productive citizens in an ever-increasing technological world. Teachers incorporate interdisciplinary teaching and daily technology instruction emphasizing programming (the process of writing and maintaining the source code of a computer), offering students opportunities to develop creativity, analytical thinking, and problem-solving. Students master the Iowa Core standards in a collaborative, multi-disciplined approach, with technology continuously woven into every aspect of a child’s learning. Recently Loess Hills Computer Programming Specialty School developed a Blueprint for the State explaining the steps taken to become a Computer Programming Specialty Elementary School.

The “Computer Science is Elementary” grant through the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council plans to replicate the success of Loess Hills Computer Programming Specialty Elementary School. Six high-poverty elementary schools will be transformed and showcased as they develop computer science education. The Loess Hills Blueprint serves as a resource for Iowa educators to use as they develop an application.

#FutureReady Cohort Program

Since 2017, the #FutureReady Cohort program provides teachers from elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the Sioux City Community School District with training on instructional approaches that highlight the use of technology to personalize student learning. Selected teams of teachers participate in intensive summer training where they work in teams to outline tangible ways of incorporating digital tools with instructional units they create and/or revise. At the end of the summer, the teachers have new lesson plans and instructional materials aligned with the Iowa Core standards.

At the elementary level, teachers have created lessons on sequencing, estimation, foundational reading skills and problem solving that incorporate robots. Using a grid with numbers, pictures or text, the teacher creates the basis for problem-solving challenges. Students then use coding to program a robot known as a Bee-Bot to hover over the cell in the grid they think correctly solves the given problem. At the high school level, geometry and physics are merged in one course. To expand students’ learning beyond the classroom and engage the community, teachers offer authentic project-based learning opportunities to the students based on their interests. One of the learning experiences culminated in the students developing proposals for local businesses on ways to save energy and reduce costs to their businesses based on an energy audit that was completed.

The Sioux City Career Academy, Loess Hills Computer Programming Specialty School and #FutureReady Cohort program start with an understanding of the Iowa Core standards. The skills and concepts contained in the Iowa Core standards form the foundation for instruction. Tools, such as Bee-Bots, and instructional strategies, like inquiry-based learning, engage students in a new way. Students are taking charge of their own learning. Because students are engaged in more meaningful learning, it is leading to deeper learning outcomes. Sioux City Community School District students will enter college and/or careers a step ahead of the competition and Future Ready.

Posted by : kim.buryanek