Iowa Academic Standards Hold Teachers Hostage

By Joye Walker

I retired more than a year ago, giving me many months to process the discomfort I felt in my last few years of teaching. It was a difficult time for many reasons, but one big reason stands out: a problematic curriculum that holds teachers hostage.

The Iowa Academic Standards is a set of “Clear and rigorous learning standards educators use to ensure all students are college, career, and future ready.” They are “required for all students by state law.” (

While the intentions of the Standards are admirable, the administration of actually delivering a curriculum that satisfies these Standards is fraught with problems. Teachers are required by state law to deliver a curriculum that consists of topics strictly outlined by grade level in the Iowa Academic Standards. Teaching math is an art that requires great flexibility on the part of teachers. Most administrators do not understand what is involved in teaching mathematics or how mathematics should be taught. Within a single classroom, students demonstrate a wide range of abilities and degrees of mastery of content previously taught to them. Teachers are faced with the monumental task of figuring out how to present content in order to bring each student forward in learning new concepts.

The Iowa Academic Standards consist of some major content domains, and within each domain are found specific standards. This is a simplistic view of school mathematics. It implies that mathematics can be reduced to a finite list of topics to be taught at each grade level. Realistically, mathematics is a complex intertwining of all math and other studies learned since elementary school, including reading, science, and social studies. Mathematics builds upon previously learned skills, including reading skills, language skills, computational skills, and logic skills. At any given grade level, the Iowa Academic Standards are written with the assumption that all students have some mastery of previously taught math standards. The reality is that no two students are at the same place in terms of concept mastery, in any given classroom. The skill of teaching is to bring students along, weaving previously learned skills and concepts with new ones.

Mathematics learning is a continuum. It makes no sense to have a finite list of standards to be taught one at a time when students encounter many skills and concepts that appear within a single problem. A teacher needs to determine where students are deficient in their skills and figure out how to address such deficiencies, which vary greatly within a given classroom. It should be the teacher’s call how to determine when this is accomplished and when they are ready to go on. School administrators frown upon reteaching concepts and skills for which students have incomplete learning, with the argument that such skills are below grade level and have already been taught. A teacher knows that not all students learn at the same pace and not all students master all topics. In fact, sometimes students struggle with a first exposure to a concept, but come to understand it much better after several more encounters with that same concept. Then, mastery can and will follow. The fact that students learn at different rates should not be a problem in school math classes, but teachers are discouraged from providing necessary remediation. Teachers also have to hurry students to learn more concepts when they have had woefully insufficient practice, most particularly with basic computation including with fractions and decimals.

To just say that students should be learning grade level standards while ignoring the fact that many students are not prepared to do this is not going to help. Administrators believe that teachers should be focused on grade level standards and, if necessary, choose only those that are most important. To most math teachers, it makes no sense to try to select those topics that are most important because they ALL are important! If we must do this, then we must not pretend that students who only studied a few topics are getting a full course in algebra or geometry or precalculus and we must not pretend that they are prepared for college math or entry into a STEM field.

Administrators also discourage the use of textbooks, encouraging teachers to use online or other sources. A good textbook is written in a sequence that develops new concepts by leading students from what was previously learned to new and related concepts. Development is carefully done in coherent textbooks, and also happens with good teaching, so that students can move forward in their learning. If, instead, teachers merely look at the list of standards relevant to their course and select materials about this topic or that one from various sources, there is no guarantee of a logical and sequential progression. Instead, a choppy, seemingly unrelated hodgepodge of topics ensues with the absence of extremely careful, time-consuming and technical consideration by the teacher. Students are left confused and are often unable to make connections among seemly random topics.

The Iowa Academic Standards is not a set of performance standards. In other words, it does not spell out the level of mastery that students must demonstrate in the form of concrete examples. Take for example, standard A-REI.B.3, which states:

“Solve linear equations and inequalities in one variable, including equations with coefficients represented by letters (For educators, mathematics DOK 1)”

{DOK is an acronym for Depth of Knowledge, and has levels 1-4 with 1 being the lowest. It is a measure often used in test development by organizations such as ACT.}

If the Iowa Core would give examples of what is meant by a standard or the DOK designation, teachers might find it easier to use. For example, offer something like “Students should be able to solve a linear equation that contains variables on one or both sides, including numbers that may be fractional or decimal, such as − 3x − 5 = 7x + 3 or ax + b = c or 0.4x − 6(3x + 0.1) = 7 − 1/2x .” However, the Iowa Academic Standards are not presented this way, so it can be a mystery to determine what exactly is required of a student to demonstrate mastery of a given standard.

Instead, parents (and of course, teachers), reading the description above as stated in the Iowa Academic Standards in an effort to determine whether their child is being taught this particular standard, must first understand what is meant by linear and what is the meaning of the word coefficient.

Next, it is necessary to determine what is meant by DOK 1. Here is the description linked from the standard A-REI.B.3:

“Math Level 1 (Recall) includes the recall of information such as a fact, definition, term, or a simple procedure, as well as performing a simple algorithm or applying a formula. That is, in mathematics, a one-step, well defined, and straight algorithmic procedure should be included at this lowest level.”

Not clear, is it?

Here are a few equations that are linear in the variable x:

x + 3 = 5

2x + 3 = 5

2x + 3 = 5x + 7

2x + 3 − 8x = 4(3x − 2) + 5

2/3 (4x − 9) = 1/4 (5 − 7x)

4ax − 3bx = cx + d

Which of these equations are DOK 1, according to the description provided above?

The first equation sets a pretty low bar. The second one isn’t much tougher. Where does this list cease to offer equations of DOK 1? I have been in rooms with seasoned educators who cannot agree on what constitutes DOK 1. And therein lies the problem. It is not clear to what expectations students are (or should be) held. I would expect my students to manage all of these equations in a high school algebra class. As you can see, the fifth equation requires fraction manipulation, as well as calculation with negative numbers. The student who did not master fraction computation or rules for combining negative numbers in previous grade levels is going to struggle at this point. Anyone who has taught algebra has seen this time and time again, yet such under-prepared students continue to be placed in algebra. However, if it is deemed that the first two equations are sufficient to satisfy the standard for algebra students in high school, then I do not hold out much hope for their success in post-secondary education math or other quantitative courses and most certainly, no hope for STEM field entry.

Even if all students in one school district are held to common expectations, there is absolutely no guarantee that all students in the next school district will be held to the same ones, due to the nebulous descriptions offered in the Iowa Academic Standards. One problem that teachers all over the nation face is dealing with the movement of students from one school district to another. Part of the art of teaching is figuring out how to catch students up if they enter a school with higher performance expectations. Requiring teachers to use Standards, then, does not ensure an equivalent educational experience from school district to school district or even from building to building within a school district. It requires great skill on the part of the math teacher to properly place and take care of incoming students. School administrators want to place students with their age group, regardless of deficiencies that would inhibit success in any given course.

My last point is about honors mathematics classes, which are falling out of favor in many circles. The idea is that honors classes are not clearly defined and because of this, should not be offered. It is acceptable to have vague curriculum descriptions, but somehow, great precision is required in describing honors level classes. “Elitist” and “biased” are words used to describe honors classes. I wonder how it is that coaches are allowed to select the starting team without being accused of having implicit bias, but teachers are not deemed professional enough to select the students who can handle a much higher level of study taken at a faster pace.

Today, a great many disparate levels of capability exist in our math classes. For teachers, it is very difficult to work with so many levels in one classroom. Teachers need to keep their most able students learning and progressing at high levels while simultaneously addressing sometimes profound deficiencies of students in the same class. Factor in the Iowa Academic Standards, and it becomes a study in frustration.

Mathematics has been my passion for decades, and it was an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to teach students of all levels for twenty-three years. My experiences both in the classroom and in life have given me many perspectives on the application of the math that I so enjoy. I was once told by a high-ranking school administrator in Iowa that veteran math teachers should not be trusted to teach math right, and that they should all teach from scripts. If you haven’t been bothered by anything else I have written here, this should bother you.

Teaching has been reduced to a robotic kind of job that does not involve creativity, decision making, or professionalism. It is a micromanaged kind of work that stifles passionate teachers and takes away their opportunities to provide students with curricula that make sense. Teachers are kept from holding all students to high standards, academically and behaviorally. If we are to educate generations of people who must tackle increasingly difficult problems, then we should be providing our students with tools – the highest level of education that we can possibly offer. High level education includes opportunities to learn vocational and technical skills that are so valued in our workforce. Such skills can be infused into our daily classes. However, the Iowa Academic Standards hold teachers hostage as they prescribe a curriculum, which may not be the best one for everyone. High quality education should also include the expectation of adherence to deadlines, regularity of attendance, respectful behavior, and clarity of requirements for earning various grades, including failing grades. Teachers need to be able to have expectations in place, backed by administrative support for those expectations. It’s time to rethink what we are doing to our children, and start expecting the very best education that we can offer.

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