George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Kourtney's picture

I am curious as to what you all believe a literacy block should look like in order to meet the needs of all learners in the classroom and improve benchmark results. I would like to know how much time you allot for each component of a literacy block( reading, writing, spelling/word work) as well as what resources you use to meet the demands within your classroom. In my school, we allot 1 hour towards guided reading, 40 minutes towards writing and 20 minutes for word work. Guided Reading has been a very successful model in my current inclusion classroom. During the literacy block, I have a special education teacher in the classroom. Together we meet and pull groups of students of the same reading ability. We read leveled books together using a format that introduces the text or chapter, introduces key vocabulary, draws attention to visual information as well as a whisper train reading with follow-up discussion and activities. For Writing, I am in a pilot program this year with my students using the Lucy Calkins Writing Program, based out of Columbia Teachers College in New York City. Our word work uses Tim Rasinski and Spelling Connections as a means to teach patterns of words using phonemic awareness. In my school, I believe this is beneficial to the students. I have only taught in 1 other district and I was strictly a math and science teacher. For this reason, I am curious as to how other schools structure this teaching block as I know literacy is a critical component of the educational day. I am fortunate enough to have PD in my district to stay current but I want to know what your thoughts are on how the literacy block should be divided in terms of time and instruction.

Rachel Sontag's picture

I, too am a student at Walden and a realtively new teacher. Next year I will be teaching the second grade for the first time and I am eager to discover these power standards within the grade level that will give me the starting point that will trickle down throughout the year. I, by no means, look at this approach as teaching the bare minimum. Rather, addressing these core standards first and touching back and getting more specific within the standards as the year progresses is an excellent way to build information in the classroom,espcially when teaching new curriculum within a new grade level.

Blair's picture

This takes me back to my first year teaching. In college, I was not taught the literacy best practices my district teaches. The literacy coach who was at our school that year was awesome! She made me more confident in teaching reading because she was able to teach me the literacy best practices. For lessons, she showed me how to focus on certain standards and how to assess them. By focusing on the "power standards" I was able to see an increase in my students' comprehension, or their phonics, or vocabulary. By focusing in on our "power standards" we will have students who feel and are successful in the classroom and life!

Brenda Merritt's picture

Selecting power standards and focusing on on priority standards will be helpful to my first grade team. We currently do not have a math curriculum and are somewhat lost as to what skills to teach and when to teach them. The only direction we have been given by our administration is to "teach the standards". We are desperately in need of some direction and time to collaborate. I plan on bringing your ideas to my team and see if we can get some time to work together. Thanks!

Preston Webster's picture
Preston Webster
Education Consultant

I'll add a quick note regarding standards and focus. We work on design and materials for daily instruction. Our teachers feel so pressured to "cover" the standards, it takes a little processing to focus on a standard, and then narrow focus even more to one or two performance objectives. With an overwhelming feeling that there is not enough time to cover all the standards, focusing on one or two objectives can feel illogical. But when we get there, the payoff is almost immediate. Almost always, with this new focus, teachers discover content that becomes irrelevant. Without irrelevant content occupying precious instructional time, we have more time for higher-order processing of important ideas that are aligned to objectives. Something else happens. Now the objective-curriculum-instruction-assessment alignment is much clearer as well. Because of increased focus, and because of our collaborative capacity, teachers end up with classroom materials they hadn't yet imagined.

Amy Murillo's picture

Every meeting we have we are told to teach to the standards. It is hard to teach to the standards if you do not have any understanding or direction to help you along the way. We need time to sit down as a group and focus on what we are teaching our students and what is the best way to do it. I have shared with blog with my collegues and hope that we can work together to create a better teaching, working, and learning environment.

Brenda's picture
Multi-age Second and third Grade Teacher from Minnesota

A recent course I took in my Masters program focused on differentiation. We chose a unit that we teach that we felt could benefit form differentiation. I was surprised when the first three work of assignments had us looking at standards. We sorted, wrote questions, listed what we wanted our students to be able to do at the end of the unit, and mapped it all out. As I continued to work on this unit I was forced to tie every thing I had my students to back to this. The result was amazing. For the first time I knew not only what I was teaching, but why I was teaching it. I was not blindly following my math manual, nor was I pretending to teach the state standards. I was teaching my students what they actually needed to know. Not only did it feel great for me, but I could see the difference in my students learning.
The fallback-it took a lot of time, and that is one thing all teachers are short on. I am going to be realistic about what I can do, and have planned to go through this process for one new unit each semester. It is a small start-but one I can feel good about.

Andy's picture

I've seen the success of unpacking standards and focusing on those standards with my 6th grade classroom. The more time I spend unpacking and determining which standards are the most important, the better my students have been doing. Great article.

charles rathbone's picture
charles rathbone
Teacher from Burlington, VT

Here are the questions you ask to bring groups back to focus:
"What are you teaching? How are you teaching it? How do you know if they're getting it?" I can't help but think one more question is implicit in your list. It should be explicit because all your work is premised on its being asked: "Who are you teaching?" It's the question that brings the learners back to the center of the work.

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