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Two weeks ago, I wrote that the Common Core State Standards was not just another flavor of the month, but must be used as a vehicle to drive an improved curriculum that will better prepare our youth for their post-secondary endeavors. After reading the post, one of my dear colleagues approached me and asked if I had read Michael Schmoker’s new book titled Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2011) because the blog post reminded her a lot of his thoughts on essential curriculum and instruction. I hadn’t, but I decided to buy a copy on Kindle and read it. I read Schmoker’s book Results Now (2006) where he focused on what really counts in schools and I learned from it.

His main message in Focus is quite simple:

There are three simple things that we must focus on to improve academic achievement; reasonably coherent curriculum, sounds lessons and more purposeful reading and writing.

Thus my title for this post KIS the Common Core. (Keep it Simple)

So, how can I merge Michael Schmoker’s message with Core 4 All’s mission?

I will answer this question with another question: Are we currently preparing the vast majority of our students for successful post-secondary opportunities? If we answered no, what can we do to ensure that our students become ready for their futures?

Four things that will improve student achievement

Focused standards

Teacher-teams must agree on the priority standards (Ainsworth and Viegut, 2006)that students will become proficient in during the course of a unit, quarter, semester, and school year. Standards-driven curriculum. It is the standard that is the core of the unit. A clear message to students that this is the standard we are working on will provide a focused direction in a given unit of study. There are just too many content and skills-based standards that we expect our students to know. It is time to cut-down the amount of standards and focus on ones that will prepare our students to be college and career ready.

Formative Assessments

How often do we really check for student understanding? If it is a test at the end of the unit, then that is too late. We should check for understanding between each phase of the lesson/unit to ensure students are on pace mastering the skill. We can then adjust our lesson based on these check-ups. We can make a determination if we need to re-teach or enhance the lesson. Also, keep in mind what the standard is asking the students to do because the assessment should match the skill. If the skill is asking students to identify the main idea of a narrative passage, we should create an assessment that matches that level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Asking students to analyze the main idea is a mismatch, much different from our original standard because it is a deeper level of thinking on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bottom line: Match assessment questions with the skill being learned.

Viable Content
I cannot say it any better than Michael Schmoker in terms of a viable content:

A viable curriculum includes:
-adequate amounts of essential subject-area content, concepts, and topics
-intellectual skills (argument, problem solving, reconciling opposing views, drawing one’s own conclusions)
-authentic literacy – purposeful reading, writing, and discussion as primary modes of learning content and thinking skills.

The Common Core provides a path for a viable curriculum as long as we give our students the opportunities to read rich text, produce coherent, well-developed writing, and critically think.

Effective Classroom Instruction

Teaching is a tough job and sometimes we may not have the time to read the most current books on education. I am here to say that there are researchers who have written plenty of quality books on learning. Here is a handful:

Robert Marzano, What Works in Schools (2003)
John Hattie, Visible Learning (2008)
Michael Schmoker, Results Now (2006)
Douglas Reeves, Accountability for Learning (2004)

I encourage you to begin reading some of these books because they will provide you and your teacher-team with a framework to create improved units of study that focuses on student learning.

As educators, we must continue to improve our teaching, just as any other professional needs to improve their skills. Complete this sentence: I am taking courses and professional development so I can_____. If we answered “Move up the pay scale” then.. (I refrain from expressing my thoughts.)

Effective classroom instruction brings student learning to the forefront.

If we just focus on these four pieces of a lesson, student learning will improve.

Begin with a clear learning objective and share it with your students.
Model the skill being learned.
Provide students with guided practice.
Check for understanding.

Maybe it is time to strip down the bells and whistles and focus on what our students need most; an effective teacher who helps prepare students to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Core 4 All’s Implementing the Common Core is an e-book that has synthesized the research and has created a unit design template that will help you build units of study around skills and standards. If you are ready to revamp your curriculum, Implementing the Common Core is for you.