There is, perhaps, no greater obstacle to all students learning at the levels of depth and complexity necessary to graduate from high school ready for college of a skilled career than the overwhelmingly and inappropriately large number of standards that students are expected to master – so numerous in fact, that teachers cannot even adequately cover them, let alone effectively teach them to mastery. Moreover, students are far too often diagnosed with a learning disability because we have proceeded through the curriculum (or pacing guide or textbook) too quickly; we do not build in time for the remediation and re-teaching that we know some students will require; we do not focus our efforts on the most highly prioritized standards and ensure that students learn deeply, enduringly, and meaningfully.
We must focus our content and curriculum, collaboratively determining which standards are “must-knows” and which standards are “nice-to-knows.” This does not suggest that we will not teach all standards; it guarantees that all students will learn “must-know” standards because we will have developed a viable plan. To those who would suggest that all standards are important or that non-teachers can and should prioritize standards, we respectfully ask: Will teachers feel a sense of ownership if they do not participate in this process? Will teachers understand why standards were prioritized? Will they stay faithful to first ensuring that all students master the “must-knows,” or will teachers continue, as they have for decades, to determine their own priorities and preferences regarding what is taught in the privacy of their classrooms?
Focusing content and curriculum also requires that we collaboratively create clarity; that all teachers have the same interpretation of the meaning of standards. The “educationese” in which standards are typically written must be interpreted by the teacher teams that will provide the instruction that ensure that students master the standards. There are processes that can guide teams in this process – a process that will guide instruction and instructional decisions, while also informing the selection of common formative assessment items.
Once prioritized, teacher teams determine the number of must-know standards that can be viably taught so that all students can deeply master them. This step often involves teams flexibly placing standards within maps or calendars, that ultimately define units of study. Optimally, the process of mapping academic content is conceptually-organized and articulated vertically, from grade-to-grade or course-to-course.
The word “fidelity” continues to challenge our decisions when concentrating instruction. While we recognize the benefits of, and necessity for, curricular materials, we believe that fidelity to standards and student needs is the very best way of ensuring a guaranteed, viable curriculum.
We are stressing educators and students with the overwhelming number of standards that fill most sets of state standards and textbooks. While this stress directly impacts student learning, it also impacts the depth of mastery at which learning can occur. There is an overwhelmingly amount of research and policy positions that advocate depth over breath (see TIMSS reports and the work of William Schmidt and Robert Marzano as a start). Until we address a lack of focus…for the outcomes that we expect all students to master…the high levels of learning that we expect of all students to ensure that they graduate ready for college a skilled a skilled career will elude us.