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VOICE FROM THE FIELD

Iowa’s new social studies standards...Now what?

winding roadFor 15 years, I taught high school social studies at North Scott Community School District in Eldridge, primarily in the subjects of geography, sociology and psychology. During most of those years, our curriculum was guided by the previous Iowa social studies standards. Those standards helped to guide my instruction and frame my courses in meaningful ways for my students, and gave me a framework for assessment of the student learning in my class.

However, as we begin to embark on a new trail with the passing of the new Iowa Core Social Studies standards, I cannot help but be envious of my colleagues who are still in the classroom. The new standards will bring about some positive changes to the “whats” and “hows” of Iowa social studies instruction. Among some of the changes which will have the largest positive impact are:

  • A focus on student inquiry, engaging students in the process of inquiry as the new inquiry standards outline skills such as developing compelling and supporting questions; analyzing primary and secondary sources of information to generate claims; drawing and evaluating arguments to claims; and communicating conclusions to inquiry rooted in evidence.
  • Deepening student learning by driving home higher order thinking through student-centered inquiry challenged by engaging in primary and secondary sources.
  • A renewed effort for intentionally addressing Iowa’s connection to social studies through standards addressing Iowa history.
  • A three-year implementation planned which includes professional development and learning on how to effectively implement curriculum using the Iowa Social Studies standards, along with an abundance of resources and tools that teachers will be able to easily access and utilize.

However, with change comes uncertainty and uneasiness. As a secondary instructional coach for the past two years, I have helped several teachers across multiple disciplines with their standards. Whether the work was individual, teach alike teams, or department-wide Professional Learning Communities (PLC) teams, the same questions seemed to surface every conversation:

  • Why do these standards matter anyway?
  • How can I cover all these standards?  I only have so much time and too much content.
  • Which standards are the ones I/we HAVE to cover?  
  • How do I break down these standards so the students can understand what it is asking them to learn?

As I prepare to help our district and potentially other districts implement the new Iowa Social Studies standards within the next three years, I anticipate the same types of questions. Here are some of the answers and insights into implementing the new standards.

  1. Should we prioritize and pick certain standards? This simple and complex answer to this question is no. The bottom line is this: If the standards are there, they are already deemed as important. As a part of the state of Iowa Writing Team for the new Social Studies standards, I know the research, time, and effort it took for that team to create the new standards. And then a second team of dedicated educators reviewed those standards through a lens of public feedback and revised and edited those standards into the document that the state of Iowa has today and was approved by the State Board of Education. It is now part of state law that ALL standards MUST be covered and mastered by the time a student graduates with a high school diploma. So for any district or teacher to eliminate the standards as being unimportant to their curriculum is a dangerous path to travel. It can lead to gaps in learning, and opens the door to different students in different classrooms getting a different education. I stated earlier that this is a simple and complex question to answer. Within any given unit of study for any grade level and/or course, you will have standards that are assessed and given a high priority, while other standards may be supporting standards that are covered but not necessarily to the same depth within that unit. However, ALL of the new Iowa Social Studies standards need to be covered and assessed at some point and time within the grade level and/or course.
  2. How can I include content standards, new “inquiry” standards, and Literacy in Social Studies standards? Over the past two years, there has been professional development available on the instructional shifts within teaching and implementing the Literacy in Social Studies standards. This professional learning is still available (contact Stefanie Wager at the Department of Education, or your local Area Education Agency for more information). As the state of Iowa released the new standards, they also released a three-year implementation plan. During year one, professional learning will be available through AEAs on the new Inquiry Standards, and eventually information and resources will be available on how to incorporate all three sets of standards into content units within each grade level/discipline.
  3. Unfortunately, school districts across the state are feeling the pinch of less time, less resources, and less finances to spend time on training teachers on curriculum development and planning. Many teachers and districts then fall into a trap of attempting to save time and money by simply fitting standards into their current curriculum. While this may be the fastest and easiest path to take with the new standards, it could lead to “watering down” the standards in a best case scenario, and worst case could lead to standards being misplaced or omitted from curriculum. As a teacher leader in our district, I have had to advocate for time and resources to help teachers and teams to work on aligning their standards and curriculum both within a class and across grade levels. Time and time again, this has led to discovering gaps in learning, content that is missing or needs to be eliminated, and a refined product where teachers can ensure that what they are teaching and what their students are learning is exactly what is being assessed.

The Social Studies State Leadership Team has spent countless hours developing and creating both resources and professional learning that will assist teachers, teacher leaders (such as instructional coaches), administrators and school districts as a whole implement the new Social Studies standards. Here are a few suggestions to prepare for this process in order to implement these standards with fidelity.

  • Take...your...time! This is a three-year process, and in order to implement the standards in the best way, teachers need to truly take their time and study the standards. What are they asking? What content do I need to adjust to support these standards? How can I make these standards accessible in order for all students to achieve proficiency?  
  • Seek help! Whether it be from a teacher leader who can research ways to unpack the standards and develop protocols for teacher teams to develop the curriculum, or from state of Iowa resources like the newly-revised Social Studies Resources webpage, or even from several professional learning opportunities that will be available on a local, regional, or state level, there is a wealth of resources and information accessible to all teachers and districts to assist with this important work.
  • Keep your focus on students! While this work in implementing the new standards will be difficult and time consuming, ultimately the new standards will help teachers and school districts provide a clear, consistent, relevant and challenging curriculum that will prepare all students for college or career education. It will allow teachers and school districts to challenge students to think in new and innovative ways that will prepare those same students to be productive citizens of our communities.

 

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