Building a New Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment System

09/01/2014  |  Joe Crawford

(This is part one of a three part series.)

As we all struggle to meet the challenges of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) — or whatever new standards your state may have adopted — the new assessment system, and whatever new challenges lay ahead, the reality is that we must first have a system to address ANY issue that we face. Your district may have had a system to meet the old challenges of state standards and state assessments, but with the new CCSS and whatever assessment system ends up upon us, we must change our system to address these new challenges. Let’s address systems and how we go about creating a new system to meet the new challenges.

In order to build a curriculum, instruction, and assessment system, the district must first have a curriculum in place—a set of common learning expectations that the district has coalesced around and accepted as the expected learnings for ALL district students..

As Larry Lezotte taught us many years ago, education is not in trouble because we did something wrong—we are in trouble because our mission has changed. The old mission of education had mandatory attendance with optional learning—students had to come to school, but nobody had to ensure they were learning. Our new mission is mandatory attendance AND learning—ALL students are expected to be here and learn. WOW! What a fundamental paradigm shift. Now we must re-design our system to meet our new mission. While that is hard work, it is very doable, and research shows us it can and is being done by many, so let’s get to work and do that system re-design to meet our new mission.

Step One

In order to build a curriculum, instruction, and assessment system, the district must first have a curriculum in place—a set of common learning expectations that the district has coalesced around and accepted as the expected learnings for ALL district students. Absent those common learning expectations, there can be NO system. If the district does not know and enforce what skills are to be learned and when those skills are to be learned, then that district really has no place in this or any conversation about student performance or any other education discussion.

This writer believes that is the very first requirement, and, unfortunately, that requirement is not met by many school districts. There are NO common learning expectations in place and enforced within the district. This is tragic! Think about it. If there are no expected, defined, learned, and assessed set of common learning expectations, there can be no system. Without a system, there can be no systemic improvements made—everything is a random act, aligned to nothing — other than teacher preference or expectation or textbook chapter or novel or whatever.

So the first step in any improvement initiative is to ensure there is a common set of learning expectations in place, taught by all teachers. As the research tells us, if that curriculum is guaranteed — taught in every classroom — and viable — aligned to the standards and assessment system — then that can and will produce improvements of 25 to 40 percent, depending on whose research you read; Lezotte, Reeves, Schmoker, Hattie or others. The purpose of this article is not to study and interpret the research, so we won’t go into that research in detail, but we all know, both intellectually and emotionally, that a guaranteed and viable curriculum produces results, so let’s get to work on that piece of the solution first.

In building this set of common learning expectations, it is important to note the difference between standards and curriculum. Standards are deliberately void of curriculum — they address the academic performance expected of all students, what we want our students to know and be able to do. Read the CCSS or any set of standards and see the learning expectations for students.

The first step in developing these common learning expectations is to identify the standards that we want all of our students to know and be able to do and when, in their academic experience, we want them to demonstrate that mastery. CCSS has made a great start in identifying those standards and the grade level where those learnings should occur, but CCSS are end-of-year standards, not scaffolded within the year, and many would argue, too complex and too difficult for individual teachers to universally and correctly interpret, and too numerous to reasonably expect all students to master.

All that being said, it is the district’s responsibility to design a process (system) to ensure the district designs its own curriculum process and documents to ensure universal understanding and use of the agreed-upon standards in the development of the district learning expectations. In the system that we advocate, this process of identifying, interpreting, and scaffolding these learning standards takes three days and results in a Pre-K-12 set of end-of-year and within-year learning targets, aligned to agreed-upon standards, vertically articulated between grade levels, and understood by all teachers within the system.

NOW that the district has come to an agreed-upon set of learning standards, aligned to the CCSS or state standards, scaffolded, based on how children best learn and vertically articulated between grade levels, the district can legitimately begin the task of building a system to ensure those learning expectations are the basis for all curriculum, instruction and assessment within the district.

Next Steps

Using these end-of-year and within-year learning targets as the basis for this new system allows teachers to now plan the curriculum, instruction, and assessments to meet these new learning expectations. And that is the work that must now begin— build curriculum, instruction and assessments to ensure these learning goals are met. For example, if students are to master lowest common multiplier by this point in their academic career, what kinds of curriculum materials, instructional strategies, and assessments must be built to ensure that happens? This step will take time and support as teachers shift to these new, standards-based learning expectations.

I generally recommend some time for teachers to experiment with these new within-year learning expectations and to design their curriculum and instruction around these learning standards to help the teachers themselves grow and learn and become more comfortable with a standards-based environment. Teachers are now teaching standards — performance expectations — not content. Content must become a means to a performance end. This is a huge shift as teachers no longer teach “Hamlet”per se, but rather use “Hamlet” as a means to the agreed-upon performance, i.e. drawing inference from text. In a standards-based environment, it is possible - and probably better - for teachers to use entirely different content to teach the same standards and even use one content to teach the skill and another content to assess the skill. That is the nature of standards; we are now helping students learn skills that can be universally applied when they leave our schools and enter the real-world environment they will face.

While teachers are adjusting to these new standards-based lessons, I always recommend allowing/encouraging teachers to begin to experiment with standards-based assessments, directly aligned to the standards being learned (intended standards), not to the content or chapters of the book. This allows teachers the opportunity to try this new model, learn to use the new model, and provide leadership to other teachers in the transition. During this time, focused staff development and support should be provided to not only those teachers doing the new assessments, but also to all teachers making this transition to standards-based instruction and assessment.

That needed staff development and support, like all of this work, must have a laser-like focus on the problem at hand—implementing the new standards-based instruction and/or developing standards-based assessments aligned to the district’s intended standards. It is counterproductive to bring in staff development around any other issue. The district must now let them do their professional work, make the transition to standards-based instruction and assessment, and support them as they do.

Final Thoughts

In this first segment, we have considered the importance of a curriculum, instruction, and assessment system and the absolute imperative for a Pre-K-12 set of common learning expectations as the foundation for that system. Once those learning expectations are developed, agreed to, and articulated between grade levels, it is then time for teachers to begin to use those local standards as the basis for their curriculum, instruction and assessments.

This implementation process will take time, support, and hard work, but it is important that the district supports these efforts through on-going, focused staff development and support. Our future articles will discuss the Plan, Do, Check, Act Cycle and its use in the continuous improvement process to develop our curriculum, instruction, and assessment cycle and the other components and challenges of such work.

Again, as Larry Lezotte taught us, curriculum alignment is simple, but it is not easy. We will continue to share research-based, proven strategies to do this work and help your building/district ensure that more students will learn and students will learn more.

Next issue we will discuss:

  • Do what you said you would do—ensuring teachers are implementing the new curriculum documents
  • Plan, Do, Check, Act to ensure continuous improvement
  • Building aligned instruction and assessments
Joe Crawford is author of “Using Power Standards to Build an Aligned Curriculum” and “Aligning Your Curriculum to the CCSS,” published by Corwin. For additional information, email, [email protected].
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