Focus on the focus

I am a huge believer in standards based instruction. I believe when we give kids a clear understanding of the target, they can always rise to the challenge, when we are able to provide guidance, feedback, and opportunity. I believe we must make our expectations clear. That we must be focused. That we must be intentional.


In my current role I have a job title of Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Pretty fancy, huh? But what does it mean? In essence, my task is to help teachers identify what to teach and how to teach it. It’s a pretty big job, with a lot of moving parts, but luckily, determining the “what” does not occupy nearly as much time as it would have even ten years ago. A decade ago, local districts and buildings, for that matter even individual classrooms, often had their own ideas about what was important and what should be taught to who and when. With the enactment of federal legislation such as NCLB, Race to the Top, and ESSA, along with the accompanying assessments, states have taken the opportunity to determine the “what” for local control, for the most part, and have created standards, or learning expectations, for all students. It no longer has to be debated and argued about at the district or school level….or does it.?

Here in the state of Michigan, where I work, according to the standards adopted by the Department of Education, there are 162 total standards for a 6th grade student (the grade smack in the middle of the K-12 spectrum) in his/her core classes. With a typical school year lasting 180 days…IF THERE ARE NO SNOW DAYS…this means that a 6th grade student is expected to master a standard every 1.08 days. Not just be introduced to it, but master it. And because the core subjects of Math, ELA, Science, and Social Studies are not all that matters, if we also include the standards associated with the three most popular essential areas of Art, Music, and PE, the number of standards increases to 1431. Yup, that means students are expected to learn 7.95 standards per day. There is simply no way….and that is OK.

As educators, our job is to focus on the focus. Our job is to prioritize. We know that not all standards are created equally, so we make strategic judgments about what matters most and spend our time and energies teaching those concepts and skills. In my role, my job is to ensure that we are making decisions based on PRIORITY over PREFERENCE. My job is to help teachers determine which standards provide the most opportunities for leverage to other subjects, endurance beyond the current year, and depth for continued learning. (This is the focus of A LOT of my work with districts around the country).

But my question today is, do we allow teachers to also focus on the focus when it comes to their own growth and mastery as professionals?

Over the last ten years, in conjunction with the standards based movement, there has been an increased focus on the teacher evaluation process. In my current district, our teacher evaluation process is rooted in the Danielson Framework and her 22 indicators of quality teaching. Many of us have also read the research (or at least the summaries) of John Hattie and his macro-study that examined 256 influences related to teaching and achievement. As a school leader my job is to help teachers, and principals, improve in their craft. My job is to help them grow as educators, and often my go-to is to identify the Danielson and Hattie standards that are research based, as a reference point, but the reality is, it is next to impossible for a teacher to really grow in each of these measures, whether it be Hattie or Danielsons, even with the most explicit, focused feedback available, simply because of the shear number of indicators (standards) being presented. It doesn’t work for kids. It doesn’t work for teachers either.

Here in Michigan, the law written by state legislators describing the teacher evaluation process is 2833 words long. THAT IS CRAZY! 2833 words to say what I can say in four words “HELP MAKE TEACHERS BETTER”. Evaluations must no longer be something we, as leaders, do to teachers, but must return to being something we do with teachers. We must help teachers focus on the focus and eliminate all of the extra (stuff) that gets in the way. Here is what we are doing in my district this year, and I encourage you to do something similar to help your teachers grow, focus, and prioritize.

Put simply, this summer I went through our Danielson framework and identified the effect size (impact on achievement) of each indicator according to the research of John Hattie. What I found is that only ten of the twenty two indicators have an effect of greater than .56 (the closer to 1, the bigger the impact), so this year, our evaluations of teachers will only include those top ten indicators. To make it even clearer for teachers, when they are given feedback in a quantifiable method at the end of the year, those ten indicators will be weighted according to effect size. For example, “Using assessment in instruction” will be multiplied by its effect size of .9 while “Selecting instructional outcomes” will be multiplied by its effect size of .56.

How much will it cost a teacher in her evaluation if she comes to school wearing jeans…NOTHING.

What about a teacher’s ability to rearrange her furniture…NOPE- not included in the score.


By helping our teachers focus on the focus, we are trying to help them prioritize, to get out of the weeds, and really place an emphasis on what matters most. Just like with Standards Based Instruction, a teacher can still introduce topics to students that are not a priority, they simply will not grade and assess them,. The same is true with teacher evaluations. Principals can feel free to have conversations about professional dress, about meeting deadlines, and about writing learning targets on the board, but they just won’t include it as a part of the formal teacher grade. As we all know what we grade is what we value and what we value is what we teach.

This year, we are committed to not only helping our students focus on what matters most, but we also want to cut out the red tape and eliminate as many hoops as we can for our teachers and I challenge you to do so too. After all, if it’s all about the students, you better make it all about the teachers. They are the ones who make a difference every single day.

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Want to read more of my thoughts: Blog posts below…

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