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How to Focus Lessons and Learning Goals

| Elena Aguilar

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!

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Comments (27)

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Understanding The Standards

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I am a 5th grade teacher at an inner-city charter school. With the age of standardized tests we are in, it is imperative that we "unpack" the standards our students are required to master. The instructional coaches at my school work very closely with the teachers over the summer and during breaks to devise the best educational plan for our students in hopes to maximize student achievement.

I see the era of a teacher instructing a self-contained classroom on a daily basis continuing to fade away. At my K - 5 school, even our first grade students are departmentalized based on their abilities. Since all students have different educational needs, they need to be groups accordingly in order to provide them with a quality education. Often times students are in the same grouping for all content areas, but that it not always the case. Making sure every student is grouped properly for each content can require several teachers. For example, we have 75 students currently in our 5th grade. In the areas of mathematics and Literacy we have our students placed in one of five groups which range in class sizes from 25 down to 8. Fortunately my school is able to have the extra teachers on staff, but many schools are not so fortunate. A big problem we are currently facing is that there is just not enough time in our already extended school day to provide such services for Science and Social Studies.

Even though some schools have the ability to provide better services for their students than others, the best thing a teacher can do is to understand the standards they teach. Taking the time to "break" them apart is very important, and pacing your instruction accordingly will help assure everything is covered.

Focus and unwrapping the standards

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Elena Aguilar's simple, but imperative reminder to simply focus our attention with "a sharp, laser-beam, unwavering focus" on the selected standards when teaching is well directed at me. I teach first graders in Georgia and our little learners are subjected to the end of the year-standardized test. I do feel conflicted about whether this test is developmentally appropriate. That aside, we teach in standards-based classrooms and are currently "unwrapping" the standards as grade level teams. We do not have designated "power standards" though we did when I taught in SC.
The lack of "power standards" does create extremely dense and mangled collection of standards that are written in vague language. However, we are moving through the process of creating the stepping-stones of "sub skills" needed to master each standard, the lack of clarity of the language of the standards are getting in the way. I am not sure why the classroom teachers are asked to dismantle the standards, in each team of grade level teachers, at each school. It seems that a district level group who can devote the needed time and research to this matter would be better able to devise the instructional plan needed to: unwrap the standards, break down the sub-skills needed to master the standards, plan effective instruction, and develop common assessments. Does anyone work in a school system where you are tackling this endeavor with more efficient results? I am frustrated by this massive effort to all "recreate the wheel." I know the necessity of understanding the standards I teach, but I teach six different subject areas. Any suggestions on how to eat this proverbial elephant?

I am so glad I came across

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I am so glad I came across this article as I find it extremely interesting. I am currently a student at Walden University getting my M.S. degree. We have been discussing obstacles to effective teaching and the morale of public school teachers these days. Focusing on the top priority standards seems to be a good way to raise student success. With student success teacher morale will improve. The way I view it, focusing on these "power standards" will enable more students to learn. I do not see this as the "bare minimum" but the necessary skills needed to move on to other areas of learning. Here is my problem with this: I do not believe the general public would agree in putting less standards in place. People increasingly seem to want more standards, and teachers held accountable for not meeeing these. I am curious to know if there is a lot of support for this. This topic intrigues me; I am interested in reading more about it.

11th grade English teacher from Strasburg, VA

A General Focus

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Since I teach 11th grade English in Virginia, I administer the End of Course English Writing and Reading state assessments. Virginia releases a test blue print that breaks the test down for teachers and highlights what the equivalent of your “power standards” is. Focusing on those greatly helps student's success on the exam, but I am careful not to focus too much on just the standards. Students need to do more than the bare minimum standards to truly succeed.

Not just content

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This method of attacking standards and curriculum is gradually becoming the norm of education reform. At several of the charter schools (at least KIPP and Mastery models), this is how teachers are expected to plan every time, and generally following Madeline Hunter's lesson cycle (a cycle that takes some getting used to, but works with astounding results).

However, as a secondary English teacher, I have found that my students have excellent abilities for lower level Bloom's recall of content - character names and relationships, literary terms, plot elements. However, the challenge arises in the application and analysis, when suddenly the question "How do you know?" isn't enough to guarantee student success on any assessment. Thus, in the units and lessons, and especially breaking down the standards into learning objectives, we must always ask the question "How?" in addition to "What?". What will my students know, and how will they practice the skill so that they can analyze and evaluate and apply? What are the steps they need to take in order to be successful with applying content knowledge and critical thinking skills?

This is how we ensure that students can't just tell us what a simile is, but how it affects the meaning of a poem (which is how they are evaluated on state and teacher-created assessments).

-Helen Anderson

Professor Emeritus, Literacy Education/Cognitive Psychology

There is no such thing as Teacher Education UNTIL...

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In the evolving tradition of Freakonomics, there sometimes are very simple and cheap solutions to very complex questions to which an industry becomes blind. Educational reformers and especially Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could greatly advance educational practices in the USA as well as the rest of the world by taking one absolutely essential step prior to extending the school day or other such radical and expensive and dislocating proposals.
With may be asking the wrong questions or not realizing that the question has been raised but not answered but merely exploited.
The lack of an answer - or even a set of protocols - for determining which are our Best Methods leaves us without the most substantive seeds of content from which most all practical science proceeds. Logically it also leaves us without a core curriculum in basic pedagogy; in effect we have no grounds on which to claim that we are even capable of providing Teacher Education. Apart from a few very broad and somewhat ambiguous statements there can be, and is, a very great variation in what teachers are being taught about teaching from campus to campus and even classroom to classroom. I have been trying for many years to bring some greater level of awareness to the need for us to work collaboratively toward something of a dynamic algorithm that any and all can participate in for identifying Good, Better and Best Practices, and as importantly, the shaping of the means by which these determinations would be made generically and in specific situations. Progress in Professional Education should proceed at light speed from this point forward, for once all stakeholders - teachers, professors, school leadership, state and Federal Departments - will share some common referents. A new and real authority will exist, KNOWLEDGE.
Please consider my cobbled together, and admittedly relatively personalized, effort as a mere example of what is possible and necessary. It has provisions for empiricism, choice, situation and most importantly for putting the best methods now available in the hands of millions of teachers, K-16. It is not a one-size-fits-all equation but rather one that is a contract between project directors and teachers to better regulate a currently unregulated market, namely, identification and choice of teaching methodology.
Thank you,
Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
949 460 9648
Lake Forest CA

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Best Methods of Instruction
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