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Author Interview: 'The Essentials for Standards-Driven Classrooms'

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Two co-authors of the new book, The Essentials For Standards-Driven Classrooms: A Practical Instructional Model For Every Student To Achieve Rigor, agreed to answer a few questions.

Michael D. Toth is founder and Chief Executive Officer of Learning Sciences International (LSI), author of Who Moved My Standards? Joyful Teaching in an Age of Change: A SOAR-ing Tale, and co-author, with Robert J. Marzano, of Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference: A New Model for Teacher Growth and Student Achievement.

Carla Moore, MSEd, is Director of Professional Development Services and Product Development at LSI, specializing in teacher and leader effectiveness, and author of The Essentials for Standards Driven Classrooms, and Creating and Using Learning Targets and Performance Scales.

LF: In the book, you explain the need for the kind of instructional model you recommend by sharing the results of research suggesting that in schools "a large majority of lessons (94 percent) was devoted to activities that require relatively little complex thinking and autonomy (interacting with new content, practice, and deepening), while a mere 6 percent were devoted to lessons that demand a high level of cognitive complexity and autonomy, such as generating and testing hypotheses."

Assuming the research is accurate, what do you think the reasons are behind this classroom reality?

Michael D. Toth & Carla Moore:

It's important to note that the new standards call for a level of rigor that most teachers haven't been trained or coached to implement. College and career readiness standards were designed specifically to emphasize a type of high-level thinking and learning that has not been, historically, the reality in most American classrooms. The teachers we work with often believe they're implementing the new standards as intended, but they haven't yet made the instructional shifts necessary to truly get students to the level of thinking required. The classroom observational data we've gathered at LSI tells us, furthermore, that teachers are generally not receiving feedback from coaches and school leaders on how to implement strategies and tasks most aligned to the majority of the standards. If teachers are not receiving feedback on these most critical strategies, how can their pedagogy improve or grow?

To reach the full intent and rigor of the standards, teachers need professional development in how to implement rigorous standards in their classrooms. Most PD-related to standards is at the 50,000-foot level. Teachers tell us that they get the "what" but not the "how." There aren't many opportunities for teachers to get "in the weeds" of classroom implementation.

Effective professional learning for standards-based classrooms requires not just traditional PD, but also implementation support. Teachers and school leaders really need to be walking classrooms to observe planning and instruction and then analyzing student outcomes of lessons. When teachers receive this kind of support, they begin to see that true instructional shifts require students to do the thinking, to work with their peers to solve problems, to make decisions, and to appreciate the various perspectives and knowledge their student peers bring to the classroom as they learn and work together. Educators need to know what a truly rigorous, standards-based classroom looks like. As one principal we know says, "Once you see it, you can't un-see it." With this type of support teachers make instructional shifts that reignite their passion as educators.

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LF: You suggest thirteen specific instructional strategies that teachers can use to increase that level of "cognitive complexity and autonomy." Can you give a brief summary of the concepts behind them, as well as highlighting a few?

Michael D. Toth & Carla Moore:

These thirteen essential instructional strategies are a teacher's basic "toolbox." Teachers can use these tools to elicit evidence of student thinking around the lesson's critical content. This student evidence, in turn, helps the teacher determine if students are on track to reach the standards.

In the same way that a golfer will spend years working on specifics of their craft to get the ball in the hole--choosing the right club at the right moment, etc.--teachers must also hone their craft, choosing the right strategy for the right educational moment. Teachers choose a strategy based on student needs and the level of thinking required for the chunk of the standard.

Identifying critical content, for example, is a non-negotiable strategy. Students must know what content is important. Teachers identify critical content during planning by unpacking the knowledge and skills required by the standards into lesson-size chunks. During the lesson, the teacher lets students know,  "this is what we are going to learn in this lesson," or identifies a learning target. A focus on critical content helps students monitor their tasks during the lesson and track their progress toward the learning target. Teachers plan and prepare lessons, but the real impact happens when students understand their learning targets and take responsibility for meeting them.

The key to using these 13 strategies is to align them to the taxonomy level of the standards-based learning target. Once teachers can identify the level and type of thinking the learning target requires, they can make the link to an appropriate instructional strategy.

LF: You talk a lot about data in the book. However, I was impressed that the book seems to give equal weight to lots of different data-- not just the computer-generated information that many of us are used to seeing. Can you talk about your definition of data, how it can best be compiled and analyzed, and, then, how it should be used?

Michael D. Toth & Carla Moore:

Data is everywhere! Teachers are inundated with data; but it's mostly lagging data, like end of unit assessments. Lagging data is only accessible once the teacher has moved on to teaching new content. While lagging data is important and certainly serves to assist teachers in reflective thought on how well they have aligned their planning and teaching to the standards, lagging data comes too late for teachers to support students who did not meet standards taught in that unit. This may mean more costly interventions.

The most powerful and useful data is formative; it allows teachers to make quick adjustments and adaptations within a lesson. Teachers can collect student evidence from work, artifacts, and live discussions, for example. Student evidence is great data! And that data becomes even more useful when teams of teachers come together and analyze the effectiveness of a lesson by looking at student evidence. Based on that data, they can determine the best support to give struggling students the next day, which leads to more students meeting their learning targets.

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LF: Planning and collaboration are two other essential components you discuss as pre-requisites for upping our game in the classroom. Both take time. How would you recommend that Districts find and create that time for educators?

Michael D. Toth & Carla Moore:

This is such a critical question. Teachers need time to collaborate for standards-based planning, analyzing student work, and developing their pedagogy. Unfortunately, many teachers don't get more than 30 minutes a day for these activities, and that 30 minutes competes with other daily necessities: parent communication, meetings, and even meal and bathroom breaks. Teachers desperately need adequate time to delve into learning and implementing standards; it's imperative for school districts to recognize this. While each district varies in funds and time allotted for teachers to work together, here are a few of the solutions we've seen:

    • Establish common planning time
    • Build time into the calendar, e.g., early dismissal days or late start days, professional development days
    • Adjust arrival or dismissal times to create additional time
    • Hire substitute teachers to cover classes
    • Schedule nonacademic classes into blocks
    • Pair teachers, so one teaches while the other works with their team
    • Remove non-instructional duties for teachers and use that time for focus on instruction
    • Create summer academies for learning and planning
    • Spread existing professional development days throughout the year for more frequent opportunities

LF: Thanks, Michael & Carla!

 

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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