I’ve got a pretty sweet job title. During the day, I am the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction. It’s a fancy title, but what does it really mean? This is an actual question I took to co-workers, building leaders, teachers, and students. What’s crazy is nobody really knew. The bottom line is I work with teachers and principals to try and improve learning opportunities for kids. If I had the opportunity to change my title, I would prefer to be known as the Chief Cheerleader of Teaching, but I don’t have that luxury.
In my quest to determine what my job really entails, I have had numerous conversations with people to determine their definitions of the word CURRICULUM as it is a major component of my job title. Some have told me that curriculum is a collection of instructional resources, the books and supplies teachers are given. Some have told me it is a collection of the standards identified by the state. Some have told me it is the hidden agenda behind all that we do. But my favorite definition of curriculum I have heard is: The What that drives our How. I love that!
In my job, I spend a lot of time helping teachers embrace their innovative passions by developing engaging lessons. I help support their quest for supporting resources and technologies, but all of this is for nothing if we cannot first identify WHY we do what we do. We must first identify the goal, the What, before we spend our time developing an amazing How.
When I was a classroom teacher, each year I had the opportunity to teach at least a few sections of US History to 8th graders. I loved that class. During the course of the year I would spend months with my students discussing and debating the Bill of Rights. We would discuss legislative intent, judicial interpretation, and the evolution of societal norms. I would totally geek out on it. I would have amazing lessons that engaged and inspired my students, but as a result, by the time June rolled around, each year I was left to plow through my instruction on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Conversely, on the other end of the school, the other 8th grade US History teacher in the building absolutely loved teaching about The War Between the States. He would captivate his students in lessons about battles, strategy, and negotiation. It was his passion. As a result, however, his students missed out on the depth of learning surrounding the establishment of the Constitution.
I have no problem saying, students in both of our classes learned a ton. They all had great experiences, were engaged in lessons that pushed their thinking and helped them grow, but it is also safe to say that at the end of the year, students from our classes left with much different foundations of knowledge. To some degree that is OK, however, our 9th grade peers who received our students the following year often had a difficult time moving forward as students came to them with vastly different understandings and knowledge bases.
Here in the state of Michigan, where I work, we have adopted our own version of The Common Core Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again… a standard is only standard if it’s standard. The reason Michigan, like every other state has adopted standards is to try and create consistency in learning goals. The hope is that teachers within buildings, across districts, and around the state will all be able to more easily identify what is essential without drifting towards their own biases and interests, like what I did when I was in the classroom. The goal has been to eliminate the need for teachers from 3rd through 10th grade all teaching the definition of a main idea, to eliminate the need for every elementary teacher to have a unit on dinosaurs and volcanoes, and to help each teacher better understand the needs for both their students today, as well as how to establish a foundation for the future. On the surface this makes a lot of sense, however, there are still a few problems.
Here in Michigan, there are 162 standards identified for a 6th grade student. These standards come from the subject areas of English Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science (The Core 4). Assuming there are no snow days, there are 180 school days in a given school year. What this means is that students are expected to master a standard, every 1.08 days. (Next week’s post will discuss the idea of concept mastery). Keep in mind, again, a standard is only standard if it is standard. This means we have a base expectation for ALL students to reach. This is not an expectation to simply cover content, but for students to learn content. Because, here in Michigan, we also believe in the value of well rounded students, when we include the “elective” courses of Art, Choir, and PE ( the three most popular courses) our number of standards for a sixth grade student leaps to 1431. That is the equivalent of mastering a new standard every .125 days, or every hour of every day.
Teachers know how impossible this task is. Administrators know how impossible this task is. Everyone knows how impossible the task is. But our solutions to the problem have very rarely helped. We have developed pacing guides (ahemmm, mandates) that require teachers to all be in the same place at the same time, regardless of student understanding. We have preached the word “fidelity” requiring teachers to all cover material and utilize resources in the same way in order to fit everything in. And it is no shock, that despite these efforts, student achievement results have shown no change in the last 15 years, statewide, and I am sure the same is true in whatever state you are in.
What is super cool, however, is that I have been blessed to work in a few places that have defied those trends. From 2011-2015, I led a school that jumped 799 other schools in state Top to Bottom rankings. From 2015-2018, I led a school, in a different state with the same struggles, in which we doubled our student learning gains. In my current district we also showed double digit gains last year. Now I would love to sit back and say this is all because of me, but I know the truth. It has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with the teachers and their ability to focus in on the focus. When teachers are able to identify WHAT really matters, the HOW becomes that much more meaningful. So how have we done it?
It’s actually pretty simple. What I try to do is re-purpose the box teachers live in. Teachers know that it is up to them to decide what gets taught when, but I also ensure that they are not given the freedom to randomly dream up anything to be taught. They must choose from the menu presented to them by the state. We use our list of standards like a dinner menu and collectively work to determine what has the most nutritional value for our students. We don’t decide by only picking those items we enjoy and are palatable to our tastes. We decide based on what we determine to be the most substantive.
We begin by looking at the verbs within each standard. Every standard in every state has a verb derived from Blooms Taxonomy (or Webbs Depth of Knowledge). This verb does not just discuss the content, but the skill. For example, main idea may indeed be taught every year from 3rd-10th grade as the content, but each year the verb in the standard changes requiring greater depth and cognitive demand as students move through the system. Students may begin by learning the definition of a main idea, but by the time they are in high school they may be synthesizing the main ideas from multiple texts to determine a central theme.
The belief being that the standards that require more cognitive demands (greater depth) have greater value, as research has also demonstrated that these skills have more lasting value. When we focus on recall skills, students cram for a test, then purge their short term memory to create space for new information. Items with greater depth get lodged into long term memory, however.
Teachers then read the standards a second time, this time looking for standards they believe have LEVERAGE. In this case we define leverage as items that provide value to other subject areas. Perhaps it is a reading standard that will also provide value to science or social studies. Perhaps it is a math standard asking students to create proofs that will allow for greater clarity in understanding how to analyze a text. Every standard that is believed to have leverage, gets a bonus point.
Lastly, teachers are asked to identify the standards that have endurance. If there are standards that will serve as prerequisites towards future understanding in subsequent years, again a bonus point is added.
What we have discovered, is that in every state, in every subject area, once these point totals are added up, we can easily create a top 10 list. We are able to determine which standards have the most value and should become the focus of all that we do. We have had a few instances where we have expanded our list to 12 standards, but that is a much more attainable goal than where we started off. These essential standards, our power standards, become our curriculum.
Teachers are now able to focus in for a month at a time on each standard, to make sure students truly master content. These standards become the focus of our assessment as we look to determine fidelity in learning. Giving teachers the ability to focus for a month allows their creative energies to really be devoted to HOW they want to deliver content as opposed to feeling the pressure to race to the next big idea. Teachers are encouraged to cover everything, but to FOCUS on the FOCUS. When we establish our WHAT, everything else falls into place.
Assessments now have a more targeted focus. Instruction, intervention, and collaboration all have central targets.
If your school is looking for the answers to keep moving forward, determining the WHAT, measuring the WHAT, then allowing for creative energies to revolve around the HOW, is your secret sauce for success.
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