Why the Iowa State Board of Education Should Not Set Standards

One of the complaints that a staffer with the Iowa Department of Education had during Monday’s subcommittee meeting on HF 2140  (which unfortunately did not pass as Salmon voted in favor, Forristall and Steckman voted against) expressed was that it took the ability of the State Board of Education to set standards in response to a change in Federal law or regulation.

The federalist in me would like to point out to said staffer how wrong that mentality is as the Federal government does not have a legitimate role in education.  Iowa should reject any attempt by the Feds to change standards as they are prevented constitutionally and by federal statute from doing such a thing.

Put that aside for a moment.

The State Board of Education had legal standing to adopt the Common Core State Standards due to a change in the code in 2008 giving the board authority to align the Iowa Core with any “nationally or internationally recognized standards.”  They demonstrated why they shouldn’t have been given that authority and it is not wise for the legislature to continue to grant them that authority in the future.

For instance, we’ve documented the problems with the process to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards and that was meant to be a more open process.

Even a process like that did not exist when the Common Core was adopted.

State Representative Cindy Winckler (D-Davenport) insinuated that the development of the Iowa Core and the Common Core dovetailed with one another.  That is simply not true.  Also they claim this was an open and transparent process.  That isn’t entirely true as a review of the timeline of the Common Core’s development and adoption in Iowa will show.

The Iowa Core was first developed in 2005 when the Iowa Legislature passed SF 245 which set voluntary standards for high school students in literacy, math and science.  The Iowa Core was made mandatory for public and accredited non-public schools, expanded to K-8, and added social studies and 21st century skills in 2008 when the Iowa Legislature passed SF 588.

In March 7, 2009, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Race to the Top “national competition” to distribute the Stimulus money through two rounds of grant awards.  RTTT application & process It directed judges to award a state “high” points if the consortium includes a majority of the States in the country,”  but “medium or low” points if the consortium includes one-half of the states or fewer.

On June 1, 2009, National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers had formally launched their Common Core State Standards Initiative to develop and implement national K-12 academic standards.  They commissioned Achieve, INC. to develop the standards.  The first draft of the Common Core is released in March and drew more than 10,000 comments on the CCSSI website.  Only a summary of those is made available on the corestandards.org.

On March 11, 2010, the first Iowa State Board of Education meeting, around the time the first draft was released the public agenda made no mention of the Common Core State Standards.  Looking at the minutes for the meeting that month we see that Judy Jeffrey, the director of the Iowa Department of Education, mentioned them during her report.

Jeffrey indicated that the National Core Standards document is open for public input at www.corestandards.org. Department staff members have been continually providing comments to earlier drafts.

Jeffrey mentioned there are concerns with the document. One concern deals with categorization by grade levels rather than age ranges or grade spans. Another concern is the stipulation by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the NGA that states need to adopt the standards word for word. Another concern deals with “skill and drill” in the language arts section.

Jeffrey stated that the Department is extremely supportive of the movement and believes that National Core Standards are essential for all of the students in the nation. Jeffrey told State Board members that if they are in agreement with these concerns, they should weigh in during this time of public comment either as a Board or individually. (emphasis mine)

We come to May 13, 2010, the final draft of the Common Core State Standards were released, and there is no mention of the Common Core on the agenda, but it was mentioned during the director’s report according to the minutes.  Acting Director Kevin Fangman gave the Board an update on the status of Iowa’s Race to the Top grant application:

Fangman stated the Race to the Top (RTTT) Memorandum of  Understanding (MOU) for school districts to submit if they are planning to  participate in the RTTT application is due Friday, May 14. The Department has currently received MOUs from 70 of the 361 school districts. It is anticipated over 200 districts will sign on. Currently, four of the eight Urban Education Network districts have signed on; however, it is anticipated that all of them will sign on. The RTTT application will be submitted by June 1 and finalists will be notified in July. Fangman explained the process used to award the grants. There is approximately $3.5 billion left to be disbursed during this round of RTTT.
As part of the RTTT application, Iowa must adopt the Common Core Standards by August 2. Therefore, it is likely that the Board will be asked to take action at the July State Board meeting. During the June State  Board retreat, time will be taken to help build an understanding of what  this means with regard to the Iowa Core.
Fangman reported that there is an assessment consortium competition for $160 million (two consortiums will be awarded for a total of $320 million).  Iowa is in the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium with 31 other  states. This consortium is focused on a Balanced Assessment System around the Common Core Standards. Fangman provided additional details about the consortium.
Fangman also indicated that institutes of higher education are now being asked to sign on and say they will accept certain scores for summative assessments that are given in high school that measure college and career readiness. As a result, students would not be required to take remedial classes in math and reading.

There was discussion about whether there are alignment issues, concerns  that the Common Core Standards and assessment model are so complex that they won’t produce the desired end results, how information will be reported to the general public, the role of Board members to communicate this information in plain English, and how the Department can manage these initiatives with limited staff. (Emphasis mine)

Does anyone remember some PR push about the Common Core after that meeting?  I sure didn’t.  I remember the original Iowa Core being debated and discussed, it made the news, but crickets on this.  The Common Core and Race to the Top was on the public agenda for the Board’s retreat listed as an hour-long presentation given by Fangman on June 23-24, 2010, but there are no minutes for that meeting available on the Department’s website.

Their next meeting was on July 29, 2010 it was listed on the agenda.  Looking at the minutes we find there was no public comment given.  In attendance there were three reporters: Staci Hupp of the Des Moines Register (now the communications director at the Department), Patrick Hogan of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and Lee Rouse of WHO-TV.   Did media coverage go beyond a news cycle?

Here is what the minutes record:

The Governor urged the Board to adopt the Common Core Standards. He stated that he feels good about the fact that the State Board, school districts, educators, and the Department have worked collaboratively in trying to find the best pathway to excellence in education for the future…..”

….Kevin Fangman introduced Rita Martens and Judith Spitzli, Department Program Consultants. Fangman indicated that an in-depth comparison was done comparing the Common Core Standards and the Iowa Core. He recapped the development of the Common Core Standards and future plans. If the Common Core is adopted, it would become part of the Iowa Core and not a separate document.

Martens described the process used in the alignment. She indicated that the Achieve organization created an online tool for states to compare their state standards with the Common Core Standards. With the help of Brad Niebling, an AEA alignment specialist, it was decided to use Achieve to conduct the study. Work teams were convened in English language arts and mathematics. Martens explained the make-up of the work teams and the process used with the Achieve tool. She also reviewed the research questions used during the alignment process and the results of the English language arts questions.

Judith Spitzli reviewed the results of research questions that related to mathematics. She reminded the Board that states are allowed to add 15 percent of their own standards in addition to the Common Core. She indicated that the Department was very pleased with the results and now has a process to fall back on.

There was discussion clarifying information on the additional content that will need to be added to the Iowa Core, difference in specificity between the Iowa Core and the Common Core Standards, clarification of inclusion of instructional strategies, and the types of delivery mechanisms other states that have adopted the Common Core are using to help equip teachers.

A few observations.

First, during the subcommittee meeting I heard at least two people mention the alignment study.  This study was done by Achieve, INC. the same organization who developed the Common Core State Standards.  Conflict of interest anyone?  Second, note that the board’s minutes clearly show that the Common Core is part of the Iowa Core.  So can we dispense with the notion that Iowa doesn’t have the Common Core?  We do.  Governor Branstad’s executive order did not undo what was done on July 29,2010.

Third, I want to point out is that in the minutes it says “states are allowed to add 15 percent of their own standards.”  Does that sound like the state has control over the Common Core to you?  Fourth, this is obviously a Department directed initiative.  The board was simply a rubber stamp, and it seems like that process may repeat itself with the Next Generation Science Standards.  Fifth, there was no public comment – none.  No mention in the board minutes of a forum being held to solicit public comment from Iowans.  There was no dissent offered that we can see from the minutes.  What we have here is an echo chamber within our educational establishment and bureaucracy.  Sixth, we seen in the March minutes that they expressed the concern the standards would need to be adopt the standards word for word and they did it anyway.

Unless this process is radically changed to include dissenting points of view, actual debate and a robust process of allowing public comment it is painfully obvious to me that the Board should no longer be a steward of this process.

So we see a flawed process.  More than that we have a constitutional issue at play.  I believe the Iowa Legislature abdicated their responsibility when they granted the State Board of Education the authority to align standards.  This violates the separation of powers.  The Iowa State Board of Education is part of the executive branch, and their responsibility is to carry out the laws and statutes of the state as they relate to K-12 education.  They also should provide leadership for the Department, not the other way around.  They should not also function as the legislative branch which is how they function when they adopt standards.

This is executive overreach that is off the chain and the Legislature allowed it, and they continue to allow it by their lack of action.  The Iowa Legislature must provide a check on the State Board of Education.

About Shane Vander Hart

Shane Vander Hart founded Iowans for Local Control in 2012 which later merged with Iowa RestorEd. Shane also is the founder and editor-in-chief of Caffeinated Thoughts and the founder and president of 4:15 Communications, LLC, a social media & communications consulting/management firm.  You can connect with Shane on Facebook or follow him on Twitter and Google +.


  1. […] math, English-language arts, social studies, science and 21st Century learning standards.  In 2010 our math and English-language arts standards were largely replaced by the Common Core.  That is a simple fact.  The National Governors Association and Council of Chief State […]

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