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Building a Powerful State Instructional System for All Students

This is the third in a series of blogs describing our proposals for states interested in taking advantage of the flexibility provided by the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to build a truly world class education system.  In this blog, I describe what NCEE has learned about the design of the instructional systems used by top-performing countries and suggest ways in which U.S. states can adapt those lessons for use in their own state system.  By "instructional system," I mean a system that combines standards for student achievement with curriculum frameworks, course syllabi and examinations to shape what students are expected to learn and provide the support needed for students to learn it. 

The story begins with the standards themselves.  "Standards" in top-performing systems combine three elements: first, narrative statements about the content that students are expected to learn, the sort of statements you will find in the Common Core State Standards; second, examples of student work that meet those standards accompanied by commentary on that work showing in detail why the work meets the standard; and third, performance levels, which are usually represented by cut scores or pass points on  examinations setting tasks calling mainly for performances and short-and-long essay-type responses, based on courses set by the state and tied to the standards. 

The idea of having standards that combine narrative statements of what students should know and be able to do with examples of student work that meets the standards and a commentary explaining why they do so is crucial to the design.  The same written standard can mean very different things to different teachers.  And that means that two teachers looking at the same standard can set very different expectations for different students.  Big differences in expectations account for much of the difference in student performance in the United States.  But when the standards are accompanied by examples of work that meets the standards and commentaries explaining why the standard has been met, the ambiguity virtually disappears and the expectations for different students converge.  Nothing could be more important, both for equity and for high achievement.

The Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards are a good start on at least part of what is needed, but few would argue that English literacy, mathematics and science are all that are required to become an educated person.  Most top-performing countries add at least their own history, world history, technology, art and music to this list.  Many include economics.  Finland adds philosophy.  All go way beyond subject lists of this sort to specify analytical, synthesis, problem solving, and collaborative skills needed to organize one's work and get it done, and other non-cognitive skills, abilities, values and dispositions that are required in the modern workplace and modern life.  One of the best descriptions I have seen of what it might now mean to be an educated person is provided by Charles Fadel and his colleagues in their paper entitled "Four-Dimensional Education - The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed."

Most of the top-performing countries take all of these aims and use them to frame a set of core courses required of all students in their secondary schools, to be completed by the time those students are 16 years old, or the end of their sophomore year in high school, which, in most of these countries, is the end of the common educational experience.  In most top-performing countries, the course sequences are designed so that most students can complete all the required courses by the end of what would be our sophomore year in high school.   The average student in many of the top-performing countries leaves high school two to three years ahead of the average student in the United States. 

The course sequence in these countries is designed to fit in a curriculum framework that specifies the sequence in which the topics in the subject will be taught, usually grade span by grade span.  This sequencing is based on the logical development of the subject as well as the research on student learning and development.  Because we often lack such frameworks, it is typically the case in American classrooms that students enter the classroom of any given teacher many grade levels apart in their knowledge of the subject, which makes it virtually impossible for the teacher to help all children make good progress.  When all the students are in about the same place, all students can make much more progress.


The standards and curriculum frameworks are used to develop common course syllabi for all teachers of the subjects in the common core curriculum.  These syllabi spell out what students are supposed to learn in the course, what materials will be used, what activities (like projects) the students will be engaged in, how the students will be assessed and so on.  The syllabi do not, however, include daily lesson plans, which are developed, often jointly, by the teachers in the school to suit the character of the student body.

Examinations are then developed for each course for which there is a syllabus.  Sometimes the courses last more than one year, and, in such cases, there would be only one examination for the whole course, which would be given at the end of the second year.  Examinations are usually essay-based.  The essay questions assume that the student has learned what the syllabus said she should learn, has read the materials specified in the syllabus and carried out the kinds of assignments laid out in the syllabus.  This is, of course, directly counter to the typical American experience, in which the test is supposed to be "curriculum neutral," meaning that it is not based on a particular curriculum.  Our tests are usually multiple-choice, which means that only a small range of demanding standards can be tested.  Top-performing systems often include in the syllabus descriptions of assignments to be given by the teacher that result in major pieces of the student work that could not be produced in a timed test, such as a painting, a robot or a 15 page history research paper, which is graded by the teacher but checked by the testing organization so that it can become part of the certified final grade for the course. 

But there is more to it than that.  When the examinations are marked and graded, the examination questions are released, along with examples of student responses that received a high grade and commentaries from the graders explaining why they received a high grade.  This is in stark contrast to American practice.  We never release all the test questions and often release none of them, much less a commentary on what earned high grades.  It would not mean anything if we did, because, in American practice, the grade is a number which corresponds to filled-in squares on a multiple-choice form.  There is no student work to look at.  The result is that neither the student nor the teachers knows what it takes to produce work that earns a high grade and neither the student nor the teacher has any idea what the student has to do to produce better work more likely to get a high grade the next time.  Our system is designed simply to sort students out.  The top performing countries' systems will certainly tell us which students do better than others, but, most importantly, they are designed to help both students and teachers perform at high levels.  The teachers learn what they are doing that is working and not working and the students learn where they are weak and strong and have a clear image of what they need to strive for.

In the United States, a system of this kind could be used to align the content standards and the performance standards for graduating high school students with the expectations of colleges and employers.  States would no longer be sending their high school graduates to college to do high school level work. 

States would not only be making their expectations clear, but would also be making sure that every student gets a curriculum that will prepare them to meet those expectations.

Because the state will have made it clear what teachers are expected to teach, they can make sure that the teachers colleges prepare them to teach it.

The new curriculum frameworks would make it possible for teachers to plan their lessons knowing what their incoming classes know and can do, which is not the case now.

Because the exams will match the courses, teachers will not be torn between teaching for mastery of the standards or teaching for success on tests that are not matched to the standards, which is commonly the case now.

Because the exams will be essay and performance-based, they will be able to measure a wide range of the skills that teachers think it is important to teach, which is not the case now for the multiple choice tests in wide use.

Because students will know what they have to do well on the courses they take to reach their dreams, whatever those dreams are, they will have an incentive few students now have to take tough courses and work hard in school.

Because many more students will go though school in a well-designed curriculum teachers are well prepared to teach, many more students will be prepared to succeed in very demanding college prep programs as well as very demanding vocational programs.

This is what the top performers do.  State policymakers now have the opportunity and authority to do likewise if they want to increase student achievement with equity.

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