Special education teacher Rachel Kruse makes no bones about it: She likes the Iowa Core, or standards.
“The core is a guide for me to create relevant Individualized Education Program goals,” said Kruse, who teaches at Danville Elementary School in far southeast Iowa. “They are meaningful and aggressive goals, more so than in the past. We have upped our ante here with interventions. I expect my kids to be where their peers are in general education – and then some. I try to get them ahead of their peers.”
Kruse finds the standards to be a scaffold for instruction.
“In math, for instance, there are a lot of subskills,” she said. “The Iowa Core makes it very clear where the students need to go. It articulates where the kid should have been, where they need to go and how to get there.”
The standards, Kruse said, ensure rigorous instruction takes place every day. Just don’t tell her they are too hard.
“I don’t think anything is too hard, you just have to find a way for the students to learn them,” she said. “It’s not easy, but where there is a will, there is a way.”
Principal Steve Ita, who himself started as a special education teacher 33 years ago, said the Iowa Core represents a sea change when he first started teaching. (An interesting aside: Ita not only grew up and attended the Danville schools, so did a full five generations of his family; his grandson will soon be the sixth generation.)
“Back then, we were trying to use a curriculum that was more survival based: teach them how to use money, take them out into the community,” he said. “With the Iowa Core, it is very focused. It’s not like we threw everything out and started brand new. Yes, we have upped the ante. With special education kids, we are now taking them to a new level.”
For Kruse’s part, she has already seen a dynamic change in her students.
“I have seen a lot of success where we can move those kids through quickly in reading,” she said. “A lot of kids this year are surprising me. I didn’t initially know how it was going to go, but I kept pushing and they succeeded. It’s awesome to see those a-ha moments when a kid says, ‘I get it, I do get it!’”
A question-and-answer with Rachel Kruse
What was your initial reaction to the Iowa Core?
My initial reaction to the Iowa Core was “What exactly is Iowa Core and how will it benefit me being a special education teacher?” Of course I saw the benefits for general education teachers because it acts like a road map. New approaches and new strategies are always appearing in the education world; it is part of teaching. So when the Iowa Core came out, I researched it and tried to get to know it first before I passed any judgment (which is hard to do in a career that is constantly changing). A question that I frequently have asked myself is “Where do I want my students to be and how will I know when we get there?” In my opinion, the Iowa Core helps to answer this question.
How have the standards changed your practices?
I sometimes struggle creating reading, writing and math IEP goals. The Iowa Core has helped guide me into making meaningful and purposeful goals. When creating goals, I first think of the end and the Iowa Core has helped me see what the end might look like for students. I have high goals for my special education students and “I Expect Progress” (IEP) on a daily basis. Therefore I work backwards with the guidance of the Iowa Core to create IEP goals that each student can be and feel successful at.
How do you find the Iowa Core lends to a deeper subject-matter meaning among your students on IEPs?
Being a K-3 special education teacher, my reading instruction is often based around the foundational skills found in the Iowa Core. My thought behind teaching around foundational skills is that you have to learn how to read first before you can read to learn. Many times I do not get to work on other skills that involve comprehension and vocabulary, but because the Iowa Core is in place I know that these skills are also being taught in the general education classroom so I feel a weight lifted off my shoulders as a special education teacher because I know that I can hit on the foundational skills harder. The core has guided me to deeper, more purposeful, and more meaningful subject-matter that has made me more aware of the skills that students need in order to be successful 21st century learners. And isn’t our goal as educators to make our students successful adults?
Have you found the core difficult to unpack?
We, as a district, are working on unpacking the standards. We have been trying to do this for a couple of years now, but still have a lot of work ahead of us. The Iowa Core is deep and takes a lot of work to truly understand each standard and to be able teach to them. I have found it more helpful to work to unpack the standards as a small team. There are also many resources where the standards are already unpacked.
Have you had any a-ha moments as it relates to the core?
My biggest a-ha moment as it relates to the core is last year when I was struggling to create a math goal for one of my first grade students. I thought I knew what his math skills were but I was struggling to know where to go with his new goal. I started back at kindergarten and, looking at the kindergarten standards, checked to see if he had mastered every one of those skills. After doing that, I noticed some gaps in his math skills and I gained a better understanding of what his math goal should look like. I do believe that the core can be used as a road map for special education teachers to make sure students have certain skills mastered, as well as seeing where they need to go.
What would you say to dispel the notion that the Iowa Core is “too hard” for students on IEPs?
In my opinion, nothing is “too hard” for students with IEPs. Our job as special education teachers is to find a way for students to understand the content. Will that be challenging? Most definitely, but won’t the students and you feel pretty great when they understand the content that their peers are learning? If we don’t hold special education students to the same expectations as their peers then there will never be a chance for them to exit special education services. I wholeheartedly believe that special education is not a dead end.