The missing link between standards and instruction

Previously, I posted about the perils of applying standards-driven instruction to reading classrooms. The point was that reading standards typically don’t articulate the content that students need to learn to become good readers; they merely list the skills and habits exhibited by already good readers. Therefore, using standards to plan lessons results in ineffective reading instruction—those skills and habits can’t really be taught, practiced, and mastered in the abstract.

The truth is that while the problems are most acute in reading, standards for any subject are most effective when used not to drive lesson planning on any given day, but rather the selection of a clear, teacher-friendly, coherently developed curriculum. That’s because even the best standards don’t help teachers figure out how to ensure that all students master the requisite content and skills. They describe the destination, but they don’t provide a roadmap. Curriculum is the missing link.

One might then ask why we are even talking about standards. Rather than debating the Common Core State Standards why not debate a “Common Curriculum”? In fact, that is how it works in many countries. Even Finland—the country that most reform critics want us to emulate—began their now-famous transition to international education superpower by, first and foremost, writing and adopting a national curriculum.

In other nations, state-developed curricula go further than American standards. Here, states list content and skills, but stop short of defining pedagogy or prescribing curriculum. Abroad, governments prescribe a particular course of study; they detail curriculum and pedagogy. American standards stop well short of that. They are meant to serve as a pragmatic response to the dual need to establish a common set of expectations in core subjects­—something necessary to ensure schools are serving all students—while also respecting our longstanding history of and belief in the power of local control.

Given our country’s unique mixture of democratic values, diverse populations, and sheer size, this use of standards has been a wise approach to bridging these two needs. Local education leaders and school boards still largely drive curricular decisions. Teachers and schools retain the flexibility to select and adapt resources to meet the particular needs of the students they serve. But states preserve the ability to set a high bar for all students and to provide transparency and accountability for parents and communities.

Of course, like any policy solution, standards have led to a number of misuses, chief among them the idea that teachers should use state-standards documents, rather than curricula or textbooks, to drive their short- and long-term planning.

Today, it is common practice for school and district staff to lean too heavily on standards by “backmapping” them into a scope and sequence or a pacing guide, crafting their own interim assessments aligned to the scope and sequence and the summative state test, and using guidance from the standards and interim assessments to build their own daily and weekly lessons.

This approach, which sidelines the central role of expertly crafted curriculum, has led us astray in at least two ways.

1.) Teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum

The now-common brand of standards- and assessment-driven instruction has resulted in the epidemic of “teaching to the test” and the curriculum narrowing that has become a hallmark of the standards era. That’s because standards aren’t textbooks or programs; they are merely lists of content and skills that students should learn at each grade level. Lists are useful things—they prioritize content and skills, and they can help ensure that content coherently builds from year to year. But they typically stop well short of providing the context teachers need to figure out how to help students learn the content or master the skills.

Worse, the summative assessments that are used to inform school-level accountability and transparency (and the district-level “interim assessments” that are often forced on schools regardless of their alignment to school curriculum or instruction) only measure a small subset of what students should be learning.

A well-designed curriculum, by contrast, takes learning outcomes and crafts a carefully sequenced series of lessons and units that provide teachers a roadmap for teaching essential content and skills. And that roadmap contains much that the standards lack—from cumulative review to pre-tests that help teachers gauge what prerequisite knowledge students might lack to extra practice and enrichment for students who need it to multiple methods of formative, summative, and performance assessments, and so on. In other words, a curriculum provides a more robust and thorough interpretation of what students need to learn than a list of standards ever could.

2.) Reinventing the wheel

Curriculum development is like any complex project: It benefits from building upon the successes of the past. By giving teachers little more than a list of standards and a few tests as the foundation for their planning, we are asking each individual teacher (or school) to reinvent the wheel. Teachers then need to fill in the gaps independently; to become masters not just of instruction and data analysis, but curriculum development itself. And the reality is that curriculum development is hard. Very hard. To do it well, developers need to know not only what’s needed this year, but what was learned last year, how it was taught, and what gaps need to be filled in in order to help all students meet expectations.

More than that, developers need the time and space to carefully cull resources; to write problems and questions; to make decisions about how best to scaffold and sequence those resources; and to provide guidance about differentiation, about the prerequisite knowledge and skills needed to achieve mastery, and about how best to assess student learning.

Of course, curriculum development alone won’t bridge the gap between standards and student learning. Teachers need to take coherent curriculum and adapt programs and resources to meet the needs of the students they teach. But adapting existing programs is a far cry from developing from scratch something entirely new.

We have had a long and worthy debate over the need to have rigorous standards in every state. But it would be an enormous mistake to assume that the adoption and defense of these rigorous standards is the end point. The next step must be to ensure that the selection of these strong standards is followed by the selection of strong curricula. Only then will we ensure that students receive the strong instruction they deserve.

Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.