George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Focus Lessons and Learning Goals

November 9, 2009

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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  • Formative Assessment
  • English Language Arts

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