As a Middle School Principal and Instructional Leader, I enjoy helping teachers create and develop curriculum. Part of the coaching process is ensuring that teachers are using backwards planning, starting from the standards in order to construct units and consecutive lessons that build towards mastery of specific state frameworks. Transitioning to the Common Core has pushed an old question back into the limelight: How do teachers ensure their unit planning is truly standards aligned? And how do instructional leaders evaluate if teachers have planned backwards from the new standards in order to effectively build curriculum that is based squarely in Common Core?
The initial step that we took as a school for standards alignment was to ask teachers to do a “Standards Audit.” Teachers were asked to scrutinize each standard, and decide whether or not current content curriculum adequately supported students’ development towards specific standard mastery. For example, in 2012, I was asked as the 8th grade reading teacher to evaluate my curriculum against the standards. See here (scroll left and right or expand the embedded file below):
From this analysis, I was able to deduce the standards in which my curriculum was strong, and the standards in which I needed to enhance my curriculum. It was clear that I needed to work on comparing/contrasting two or more texts as well as analyzing how the modern fiction we were reading connected to more traditional texts.
This “Standards Audit,” while helpful in allowing me as a teacher to dive into the specific standards I needed to spend more time teaching as well as think through my curriculum for its strengths and areas for growth, did not push me to true standards alignment. I tweaked a few lessons, added a few texts, and felt good about checking the box a few more times for the standards in which my curriculum was weak. But I did not start from the standards. I started from the curriculum I already had, and matched the standards to the objectives I already taught.
To be truly standards aligned, a teacher needs to start with standards, and build curriculum from that starting point. This is easier to do with teachers who are over-hauling curriculum, starting a new grade level or content specific class, or are new to the profession. One such example this year has been Melissa Frascella, our new 8th grade Algebra teacher. Melissa started her year not by looking at the curriculum she inherited, or by brainstorming the skills she felt were needed in an Algebra class. She did not peruse the internet for pre-packaged Algebra curriculum or decide to use a specific text book. Melissa printed out the Common Core Standards for Algebra, and began her planning by organizing the standards into a vertical aligned set of skills and concepts thoughtfully placing them in the sequence in which she believed they needed to be taught. She categorized these buckets into units, naming the consequential standards she would be looping back to in each subsequent unit, and from there decided the major objectives needed to be taught in each unit. Then, and only then, did she begin to think about the individual lessons needed to be taught under individual units in order to prepare students to show mastery on standards pre-determined as the main goals per unit.
Every lesson that Melissa develops can be traced back to the unit of study that she derived from the standards. On any given day, Melissa can tell me which specific standard the students are working towards. She is so clear with both her standards alignment and her daily lessons that any instructional leader, regardless of training in mathematics, can identify exactly which unit of study Melissa is in via Melissa’s initial curriculum work: her map of standards. For example, review the PowerPoint for a specific lesson here [each student has a note card that has a different coordinate on each side]:
Based off of the title of the lesson and the content the students are being asked to study, it is clear this lesson is being taught during Unit 5, focusing on the standards around systems of linear equations while looping back to the standards on linear functions. It was built specifically from A-REI.6, A-REI.10, and A-REI.11 arose directly from the skills and concepts detailed in those standards.
Building units of study around Common Core standards, instead of tagging on standards to units of study already written, is the key for teachers to demonstrate that their curriculum is truly standards aligned. It might mean pushing curriculum that is two, three, or fifteen years old, into being overhauled; however, through this process, teachers will become fully immersed in the standards and will feel a new sense of purpose in pushing student learning to meet the rigor of the new standards. I will be challenging my teachers to one task over the summer: can you start from the standards, and build a refreshed unit based solely on students acquiring the skills needed to master the standards chosen?