116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Educators in the Mount Vernon Community School District will begin reviewing their language arts and science curriculum this summer, having “rich discussions” about how to meet the needs of their students, said Michelle Boyden, Mount Vernon Community School District Prek-12 teacher leadership instructional specialist.
Many Iowa school districts adopt curriculum through a process led by district administrators with input from teachers and even students. In the Cedar Rapids metro region, the Grant Wood Area Education Agency curriculum consultants work closely with school districts to help a district consider how well a potential curriculum matches the Iowa Core standards.
Iowa’s process of reviewing curriculum varies greatly from the process used in Florida, which made national headlines last month when its state education department rejected 54 submitted textbooks — 41 percent — saying the materials did not align with the state’s Bench marks for Excellent Student Thinking (B.E.S.T.) Standards. The highest number of books it rejected were for grade levels K-5.
Mount Vernon’s Boyden said she values Iowa school districts’ autonomy in making curriculum decisions themselves.
“Really knowing your students” helps make those decisions and keep learning engaging for all students, she said. Mount Vernon schools are on a five-year cycle to review and replace curriculum.
Florida rejects ‘woke’ content
In Florida and other states including California and Texas, instructional materials are adopted by subject area to meet the state’s needs and priorities.
In Iowa, however, the adoption of curriculum is a decision made at the local level by each school district using a district-specific process, so each district’s adoption process is different, Grant Wood Area Education Agency spokeswoman Renee Nelson said.
Florida’s education department said the rejected textbooks contained prohibited topics including references to critical race theory and unsolicited additions of social emotional learning in math textbooks and other “woke content,” according to a news release from Florida’s education department.
The idea behind critical race theory is that race is a social construct and that racism is embedded in legal systems and policies. It was created by legal scholars in the late 1970s as a framework for legal analysis. The theory “doesn’t exist in the K-12 system,” said Melissa Peterson, government relations specialist for the Iowa State Education Association.
Social-emotional learning — which is becoming a focus of many Eastern Iowa school districts including Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Mount Vernon — is the developing of healthy identities, managing emotions, setting and achieving goals, showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining friendships and making responsible and caring decisions.
A math textbook rejected in Florida included a bar graph showing the differences among age groups on the Implicit Association test, which measures levels of racial prejudice. In another math lesson about adding and subtracting polynomials, a paragraph included this sentence: “What? Me? Racist? More than 2 million people have tested their racial prejudice using an online version of the Implicit Association Test.”
In response to Florida’s education department rejecting their textbooks, publishers are changing the instructional material submitted there to align with Florida state standards, according to a news release from Florida’s education department.
Curriculum adopted by the Florida education department includes that from publishers Accelerate Learning, McGraw Hill, Savvas Learning Company, Big Ideas Learning, Carnegie Learning, Ed Gems Math, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Math Nation.
Aside from giving a few examples, the Florida department has not said what curricula from which publishers it rejected.
Iowa schools choose curriculum
Iowa school’s curriculum adoption process is driven by the Iowa Core standards from the state Department of Education, which describe what students should know and be able to do from kindergarten through 12th grade in math, science, English language arts and social studies. The Iowa Core also sets learning goals for skills in areas such as financial and technological literacy.
Grant Wood Area Education Agency can inform districts about effective teaching practices and suggest how a curriculum may or may not support those practices. The consultants can also help the district reflect on its specific student achievement data and how a proposed curriculum can meet the needs of students, Nelson said.
Grant Wood Area Education Agency is “paramount” in helping schools identify quality instructional material, said Kelsey Feldmann, K-6 math resource specialist in the Iowa City Community School District.
Iowa City schools is currently reviewing its math curriculum, and Feldmann is going on a lot of classroom visits to observe math classes. She also is talking with teachers and students about how the curriculum is leading to “meaningful growth” in students’ knowledge and what aspects are not as effective.
“It’s important for teachers to feel that their voices are being heard,” Feldmann said. The process gives teachers “ownership” over the curriculum, said Feldmann, who taught elementary and middle school math for 10 years.
Feldmann also visits districts who are using instructional material Iowa City schools are considering implementing and takes time to “do authentic research,” she said.
“I think it’s really exciting to know our district is able to look at our unique needs here, and take the time to figure out what is going to fit our needs the best,” Feldmann said. “What’s right for our district isn’t necessarily what’s right for other districts.”
The Iowa City Community School District has an eight-year cycle to review and replace curriculum. Adopting a new curriculum costs between $1 and $1.5 million, said Diane Schumacher, executive director of teaching and learning for Iowa City schools.
A new math curriculum will be adopted in fall 2023 for Iowa City elementary schools and in fall 2024 for middle and high schools.
Math does change, Schumacher said. A few decades ago, students were expected to memorize algorithms they weren’t expected to understand, she said.
“Now, we’re asking kids to understand why the algorithm works. Those are some of the shifts Iowa Core standards asked us to make.”
Iowa City educators are also considering equity in their math curriculum adoption process. Does the textbook include only white mathematicians or who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds? Schumacher asked. Are the students pictured solving math problems from diverse backgrounds?
Iowa City high schools are working to eliminate lower-track math courses, which have a disproportionate representation of students of color, that aren’t addressing the needs of students, Schumacher said.
The curriculum review process for elementary math begins with Iowa City school officials working with Grant Wood Area Education Agency consultants to identify good curriculum and preview materials from eight companies, Schumacher said.
A team of elementary teachers review the curriculum, and a rubric is developed to rate the material on how it aligns with Iowa Core standards, its rigor, coherence, conceptual understanding, the quality of instructional support for teachers and support available for differentiation — from students of high ability to students who need additional instruction, Schumacher said.
Teachers also consider the curriculum’s real-world application: Are students actively learning or only “passively receiving” information, Schumacher asked. An example of active learning is blocks that show young students why the number five is bigger than three.
The eight curricula are then narrowed down to four based on the rubric, and all teachers have the opportunity to provide input on the curriculum options, Schumacher said. This helps district officials narrow the curriculum down to two options, which will be piloted at all 24 elementary schools.
There’s a “huge benefit” for schools being able to make their own choices about their curriculum Schumacher said.
“We’re choosing what’s right for us and for our students,” Schumacher said. “It wasn't chosen by someone in Des Moines who is trying to make a choice for all students across Iowa.”
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