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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

In the coming weeks, I'll share tips guaranteed to increase student achievement. This guarantee is based on my own teaching and experience as an instructional coach, as well as on research compiled by education experts. I'll cite those references when applicable, but I won't inundate you with Who Said What.

The first suggestion will seem obvious, but it isn't necessarily what happens in most classrooms. Strategy number one is simply to focus -- like a laser beam -- on a few key, high-priority standards to teach really well.

Selecting Standards

Robert Marzano, a leading education researcher, analyzed standards in many states and determined that in order to cover them all, schools would have to add ten years onto our current system. We'd have to go "from a K-12 to a K-22," writes Marzano in several of his books. (The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction is a great book to start with.)

To deal with the fact that there are too many standards, that they are too dense, and that they aren't all equal in importance, some school districts have selected certain ones to focus on and named them power standards (not to the complete neglect of the other standards).

Many districts have also developed benchmark exams that are given a few times a year to measure students' progress towards mastering these power standards; that way, schools don't have to wait until August to find out how students did on the big, standardized state tests.

Focus, Focus, Focus

In Oakland, California, where I work, the number of power standards still feels like too many. This fall, I coached teams of teachers in a couple of schools on focusing their instruction on no more than three of the English Language Arts Power Standards for grades 10-12 that would be assessed on the first benchmark exam.

In early September, in their grade-level teams, teachers determined which of the power standards to focus on based on this criteria:

  • The chosen power standards are a priority. They are skills that kids will really need in secondary school (for example, determining main idea in nonfiction text, or identifying vocabulary words in context) and that are essential in science or history.
  • Two of the three focal standards introduce new content. The other standard builds on skills that students have already been introduced to.
  • The three standards come from different strands in the English Language Arts standards (one from vocabulary development, one from reading, and one from writing or conventions).

Unpack those Standards

The next step was to unpack, or break down, the selected standards. Teachers listed what students would have to know and be able to do in order to master the standard. For some standards, there were eight to ten subskills to learn. (Marzano has more to say about unpacking standards, as do Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design).

Plan, Teach, and Assess

In their teams, teachers then discussed the instructional strategies they'd use to teach the standards, and they planned a number of lessons together. They also created at least one formative assessment to administer after three weeks of instruction. Every week, when these teacher teams met, they discussed how they were teaching the standards, and what evidence they were collecting that indicated that kids understood it.

After they gave the formative assessment halfway through -- a ten-question assessment modeled on the upcoming benchmark exam -- they analyzed the results and planned how to reteach the components of the standards students were struggling with. They also got insight into the test-taking skills students needed instruction on and practice. Then these teachers went back to the classroom and kept on teaching. It felt so simple.

The Results Are In

Today, the benchmark results came out. I was blown away by how well students had done in the classes that I've been assisting in this process. The majority of students in these classes benchmarked on the Focus Power Standards. A first-year teacher had 87 percent of her fifth graders benchmark on three standards. And as a whole, her class is only a few percentage points below benchmarking.

A veteran teacher who struggled miserably last year and had hit an all-time low in morale had similar results. When informed, his eyes welled with tears. "He really needed that," said his principal as she took a deep sigh of relief.

I should note that I work in schools that are "underperforming" and serve low-income children, many of whom are English-language learners. Budget cuts have slashed resources and support staff this year, and administrators are feeling hopeless -- and some of their jobs on the line.

My role this fall was not to supply teachers with curriculum or instructional strategies. They knew enough already. My role was to keep them focused on being focused. When conversations plummeted into a tirade against testing or veered into rants that "our students can't learn, because they don't come to school/don't speak English/have special needs," and so on, I redirected them back to the basics: What are you teaching? How are you teaching it? How do you know if they're getting it? And I made sure they talked to each other.

I will admit that there was a lot more going on that led to these small successes (and I'll talk about some of those in upcoming posts). But I believe that a critical factor that boosted the results was the focus -- the sharp, laser-beam, unwavering focus -- on a few slices of content, on strategic instructional planning, and on assessing students as they learned that content and specific skills. If you want to read more about this, I recommend the book Common Formative Assessments: How to Connect Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment, edited by Larry Ainsworth and Donald Viegut.

So, that's my first tip. Try it and let me know how it works.

I'd also love to hear from visitors: What have you been doing lately that works to increase student achievement? What are you doing differently that you hadn't done before? I look forward to your comments!

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

D Alexander's picture

The reference to "power standards" is unique in my learning experience. It validates what I have thought and implemented in my classroom. Too many times times have I come across multiple layers of standards without guidelines on how to use or even interpret them. I have long advocated this sort of approach in my school, but receive little response. Thanks for giving me a starting point for my next approach in school.

Matthew Kennedy's picture

I have read a lot of great comments and posts that talk about standards. I am a 5th grade New York City public school teacher and standards is a big focus for us. It helps the students get ready for tests while allowing the teachers the opportunity to have support to guide instruction. We also use student data and test scores to teach. While it helps the students succeed on state exams, I feel like the rest of the year suddenly falls short. Everything is so focused on standards and test prep that student performance in the classroom is overlooked. As long as the student passes the test according to the standards, they get to move on. What about the classwork? How about teacher assessments, homework, and projects? It is a terrible feeling, but it is almost like all the other learning that is supposed to go on is neglected by the department of education because of a state exam. It now becomes hard to see student engagement and critical thinking and discussions because 3/4 of the year is standards and test prep.

Jenn Falk's picture

Standards are important; they serve a purpose for providing guidelines to what is deemed necessary to teach. That being said, STOP teaching to the standards, but instead, use the standards to guide your instruction. Enhance lessons through additional resources, projects, and technology. Technology in the classroom can aid with critical thinking and drive student motivation to higher levels. Choose the major strands of learning, aka power standards, and use iPods, Smartboards, and other technology to allow students to move at paces that meet their particular levels of success while pushing them into the next level. Use more integrated studies and project learning. Don't allow the complexity of the standards to dictate HOW you teach. Standards alone cannot guarentee success or mastery of concepts.

Jill Jacques's picture

So glad to know that others are doing the same thing. My school did something very similar at the beginning of our school year. We looked at our science grade level expectations (GLEs) from the state. We had to "unwrap" the standards and prioritize the grade level expectations. It took a while to understand exactly what to do and how to do it, it made alot of sense to us. Especially when it comes to planning. We talked about teaching units that an inch wide and a mile deep, rather than a mile wide and inch deep. In other words, if we had to adhere to all our grade level expectations, we would be breifly touching on all skills and objectives and students would not really get anything out of it. Rather, we would spend more time teaching one or two concepts that students would get more out of and comprehend. Prioritizing these standards was a great excercise for us, but unfortunately in our district, we are given such little professional development time to do these kinds of things. I teach 2nd grade so therefore I have all subjects that have many standards and grade level expectations.

I am currently working on my masters degree in integrating technology at Walden University. I enjoy using technology in my classroom - especially my Smartboard. I am always trying to find new and innovative ways to incorporate these GLEs. But there are many obstacles such as many of our teachers do not have Smartboards, properly working computers, or are even willing to use technology to enhance/supplement lessons. My district does not offer us much PD time to for technology and all PD has to be done on our own time.

I am looking forward to see more of your ideas and checking back at your blog.

Sarah Nofo's picture
Sarah Nofo
2nd Grade Teacher

It seems that simplifying the standards is becoming a widely adopted practice among teachers. I really like the idea of focusing on "power standards" rather than attempting to approach every single standard listed. I agree that we would have to extend the school years to grade 22. Being a second grade teacher I have a different book of standards for each subject, which is quite overwhelming. As of recent, my district has asked that teachers familiarize themselves with the standards they are teaching and rewrite them in kid friendly language. These learning targets are then to be posted in the classroom and referred during instruction. The kids like knowing what each lesson's focus is and it keeps me on track as well. My struggle, however, is finding the time to update my written learning targets each day. Does anyone have any suggestions for simply posting standards in the classroom? It's my goal for 2010 to make sure I am keeping up with this task.

B Duncan's picture

I think picking standards and teaching those standards to mastery instead of "covering" concepts is the only way to actually give the students the education they deserve. It seems as though some concepts are "covered" at every grade level and students are exposed to so many standards every year that they are never required to take their knowledge to another level. I use the standards as a guide and try not to join others in the rush to "cover" material before the assessments.

Nathan Rosenberry's picture
Nathan Rosenberry
6th Science and Social Studies Teacher from Shippensburg, PA

I really was interested to read the opinions of other teaching professionals around the U.S. I am getting my M.S. ED from Walden University and this has been a great topic about how to bring up morale and standards based testing. I think it is really interesting in how that at the begginning of the year districts must test students right away to see where they are at after a summer vacation. The only thing I question with this is, how can one test tell about a students day? What if the student had a bad day, or something else on their mind? This is just a tough part of the process, but I know that you need to move forward from this. I also thought some of the blogs were interesting and in fact from checking out some of the comments and the other things posted I certainly will be able to use the information to help me out in the classroom. I know I struggle with how to increase morale in the classroom at times, and I let it get me down. I realize that this is not the proper way to handle things, but everyone has their bad days. I really look forward to improving on this. I also look at the expectations that I have set out in my district for Social studies and Science. The one thing I have seem to notice is that it is not a huge list and is in fact broken down very well.

Juan M. Martinez's picture
Juan M. Martinez
Teacher of ESL and foreign languages

That is very important. To try to divide the class in different levels of expertise and progress. Since there are several learning styles, we try to plan and teach accordingly and that is how we have differentiated instruction.

JohannaRamos-Dawson's picture

I believe that planing with your grade level team ie very important and neccesary. We as teachers must collaborate to assure every student's success. I agree with the practice of breaking down the power standards to be able to focus on so many at a time and make sure students are mastering and internalizing in it. I work in a school that promotes the team collaboration, but not all teacher are on board, I wish I could do something to change their selfish mentality. I believe we need to change the mentality to only impact the students in our classroom and keep in mind that a school performance does not get evaluate in one class, but all the students' scores and success. I feel that sometimes districts tend to give the students too many standards and is very overwhelming for the students and also to the teachers, sometimes by the end of the day I feel like I have run a marathon and the kids have not been impacted in the way I wanted to. Nevertheless, we must evaluate our lesson and teaching practices to be able to change and evolved to offer the students excellence and world class education.

Ramkishan's picture

As an Administrator of a chain of International schools in India, I find a disconnect between the teacher and the taught when it comes to using the tech tools available for use in class rooms. On the one hand teachers, atleast most of them, seem to be grossly ignorant about the educational tools available at their disposal e.g. social net working sites and their role in connecting students across the Globe Or they suffer from inertia in trying to use the technology at the point of instruction. While on the other hand, we find students eager and excited to assimilate any knowledge which is passed on to them neatly spiced with technology. This dichotomy is the current paradox in our educational system delivery

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