As long as schools continue with the traditional emphasis on breadth over depth, coverage over mastery, and teaching over learning, we will continue to have students requiring intervention, students receiving failing grades and being retained, and students being identified with a disability who have, in fact, simply been denied a guaranteed and viable curriculum. We can and must think differently and do better. The foundation of any school must be a belief in all students, a belief that working together is the only way to get it done, and a belief that in highly effective schools teaching and learning are inextricably linked. It starts with carefully and completely defining this guaranteed and viable curriculum (the “need to know” essentials for all students) and core instruction accessible by all students. Why must we define this key content?  Here are some thoughts from key researchers in our domain:


 Learning, and the curriculum we determine is most essential for students to learn, will only be guaranteed and viable if teams of educators define it clearly (Marzano, 2001).
 There are too many standards, even in light of new or proposed initiatives (DuFour & Marzano, 2011; Schmoker, 2011).
 Standards must be unpacked so that educators and students know what mastery looks like, so instruction can match these expectations, and so teams of educators can backwards plan (McTighe & Wiggins, 2005).


The deeper our understanding of content and the more collaboratively we unpack and unwrap standards, the better our instruction and assessment of student learning. This should lead to more accurate identifications of the needs of students, more specificity in diagnosing these areas of need, and more targeted interventions to close the gaps.

Given the needs of students and realities of schools, it is highly unlikely that that we can cover all of the content on hand in any curriculum guide or standards document. Moreover, we cannot intervene and provide more time and differentiated supports on all standards with students at risk. We must identify essential learning (prioritized standards and outcomes) for both behaviors and academics; how do we systematically, carefully, and completely define key core content? We must harness the power of collaboration. By collaboratively prioritizing the behavioral and academic learning most critical for all students, unpacking these standards so all teachers and students understand the level of rigor and format associated with mastery, as well as the types of learning that logically precede and follow mastery of the essentials, and unwrapping standards to ensure that we are assessing student mastery as accurately and authentically as possible, the curriculum and related instruction – unit by unit, grade by grade, and ultimately to the next phase of their lives post secondary school.


When core instruction focuses on depth over breadth, all students benefit. Students with lower levels of prerequisite skills will have time to receive pre-teaching and re-teaching within the unit of instruction. Students currently performing on or above grade level have more opportunities to engage with complex tasks of greater complexity. More students will be responding to a greater degree to initial instruction.

Collaborative systems of support more generally, and core supports more specifically, will only result in high levels of learning for all when staff frequently and cooperatively collaborate. Common units of study and common assessments (assessments from which we backwards plan and assessment results that we analyze to continuously refine our craft) are simply not an option. They are a research-based moral imperative.


Fundamentally, core supports, and the teams that the take the lead on the teaching and learning of academic and behavioral priorities for all students, focus on the following elements. School teams will go a long way toward ensuring that all students are on track to graduate future ready by addressing these key elements to craft a highly differentiated set of supports all learners:


 Identify the behavioral and academic priorities that all students will master.
 Clearly define what mastery of these behavioral and academics skills and concepts “looks” and “sounds” like.
 Architect learning experiences that nurture these skills and concepts and identify proficiency scales, pedagogies, practices, and strategies that will promote deep learning.
 Explicitly teach and model – and strategically facilitate learning experiences – that guide students to develop the thinking habits and skills that we want to see and hear displayed and employed.
 Prepare and plan for differentiated supports, because we know that some students will need additional time and alternative supports to master priorities; others will have mastered priorities before instruction begins and deserve enrichment.
 Assess student mastery of prioritized behavioral and academic concepts and skills so that we can determine the efficacy of our instruction and identify the areas of need for intervention.
 Frequently check for student understanding to provide immediate and specific corrective feedback regarding students’ successes and temporary shortfalls as they relate to achieving mastery.
 Involve students in self-assessment, so that they take more and more ownership for their learning journey, and so that we all move from assessment of learning (through assessment for learning) to assessment as learning.


In our experiences, systematically applying (and revisiting) these steps to design learning experiences for both behavioral and academic concepts and skills will lead to better teaching and better learning.


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