From the Editor

A Few Interesting Ideas

I happened to notice three news stories this week, published in various places, but all related (at least in mind). They provide some interesting glimpses into potentially successful school reform strategies. And you'll notice, as I did, that  this week’s news contains a number of headlines that cluster around distinct themes – distance learning, mobile computing, social networking.

The Gazette reports that the Iowa Board of Education approved the last elements of the Iowa Core Curriculum, a set of essential content and skills in the content areas of literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, and 21st Century Skills. All Iowa students will be expected to have mastered these core skills by the time they graduate from high school. The learning skills include civic literacy, financial literacy, technology literacy, health literacy and employability skills. The statewide Core Curriculum must be fully implemented in high schools by the 2012-13 school year, and in kindergarten though eighth grade by the 2014-15 school year.

The goal here is to raise student achievement and improve teaching, in part by assuring that every student is exposed to the same challenging and meaningful curriculum in which the essential subject matter is being taught and essential knowledge and skills are being learned. While the Core Curriculum concept is larger than a mere set of essential elements – focusing on the alignment of teaching, assessment, content and the desired depth of understanding at the classroom level – defining a set of essential content and skills is a good starting point and not a trivial task. Classroom teachers are free to embellish and extend instruction, but the essential skills provide a common floor and help move instruction away from the “mile wide, inch-deep” problem that plagues American education. Track the progress of this initiative at the Core Curriculum web site at http://www.corecurriculum.iowa.gov/.

Then I saw an op ed piece by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, supporting the idea of national standards. Weingarten points out that the countries that consistently outperform the United States on international assessments all have national standards and that research indicates that common, rigorous standards lead to more students reaching higher levels of achievement. Weingarten goes on to propose “that a broad-based group -- made up of educators, elected officials, community leaders, and experts in pedagogy and particular content -- come together to take the best academic standards and make them available as a national model.”

I’m not naïve enough to think that this process would be easy. And the resulting standards would only be a model, not a mandate. But a well-crafted set of national standards would establish a benchmark against which the states, like Iowa, could measure their own efforts to develop rigorous and world-class standards.

It will take more than standards to effect significant change however. That’s where the story of Colorado’s Adams 50 school district comes into play. Beginning next fall, the district is doing away with traditional grade level designations in all its elementary and secondary schools. Faced with a shifting population base and failing test score, Adams 50, a 10,000-student district in the metropolitan Denver area, will be the first large, urban school district to adopt the “no grade level” approach.

Ultimately the district expects to have 10 multiage levels, rather than 12 grades. Students might be in different levels, depending on performance, in various subject areas. Students will have to demonstrate mastery in order to move up in level. The district is also implementing a more student-centered approach to learning, one in which students take more responsibility for their own learning.

It easy to come up with multiple reasons why this won’t work, but I think it’s time to try more radical change. I’ve believed for some time now that out traditional age-based classroom system is a big part of the problem. Think about the children you know. They aren’t at all standardized. They don’t learn at an even, steady pace and they typically are better at some tasks than others. Though we have a picture in our heads of the typical second-grader, for example, there aren’t that many real children who are good matches for that picture. The challenges Adams 50 faces are very significant. It’s much harder to make this kind of change within the confines of a traditional school district than in a charter or experimental school setting. But the pay-off could also be significant. This one will be interesting to watch.