Feature                                                       Pages 18-23


Aligning Common Core,

One Bite at a Time     

Based on his work inside districts, the author promotes local staff designs, contributing to buy-in and regular feedback


In a small suburban district in the Midwest, the superintendent was outlining his plans for aligning the curriculum to the Common Core State Standards. The process had begun, he explained, so he and his staff were set to spend the next three years on math, then three years on English language arts and so on.

I struggled with the concept of consuming that much time to do the alignment work, suggesting a first draft in all K-12 subject areas could be in place following three days of staff development. But I could tell my words were falling on deaf ears.

Joe Crawford
Joe Crawford

The Common Core State Standards are complex and enormous and will take longer than three days to develop comprehensive plans. They will have a huge impact on teaching and learning in public education. This superintendent, like many others working in the public schools, seemed convinced an elaborate, drawn-out process is requisite before moving forward on this initiative’s implementation.

While the Common Core’s complexity and enormity cannot be denied, it is much like the old adage about how to eat an elephant. Answer: One bite at a time. That is what we need to do — begin eating our elephant, the Common Core State Standards, one bite at a time and involve our entire staff in this great feast. I suggest involving the full staff or a representative group in following the proven research and practices of Larry Ainsworth, Larry Lezotte, Doug Reeves, Mike Schmoker and others to align the school district’s curriculum, instruction and assessments to the Common Core.

Staff must be allowed to focus on their own grade level or course and provided sufficient time to come to know and understand the standards. They can then design a curriculum based on those expectations that can be learned in the 175 days of instruction we are provided. Once the grade-level and course-level expectations are set, the expectations are vertically articulated, and the first draft of the document is ready for initial implementation.

Depending on the size of your district, this work will be done by a task force of teachers representing the entire district. In a small Midwestern rural community I worked with, the entire staff of about 80 teachers was on the task force, while another larger district with about 5,000 students appointed a cross-section of about 35 teachers from all grade levels, buildings and disciplines. The size and structure of the local district drive the design of the task force.

Defining Process
The process of aligning your curriculum, instruction and assessment to the Common Core State Standards is more fully defined in my books Using Power Standards to Build an Aligned Curriculum and Aligning Your Curriculum to the Common Core State Standards. This curriculum alignment process develops a product — a complete K-12 curriculum in English language arts and math (or any other subject) in about three days of staff development. That product, based on the CCSS and developed by your own teaching staff, includes within-year and end-of-year learning targets, which all students are expected to know and be able to achieve and all teachers will be held accountable to teach.

This alignment process, modeled after the Power Standards work of Reeves and Ainsworth, enables your teachers to begin the alignment conversation with the Common Core. The grade-level/course-level teams then go through the activities known as prioritizing (identifying the most important, most critical learnings), unpacking (identifying the explicit and implicit domain skills) and powering (identifying the essential skills).

These decisions are used to identify the most important, most critical learnings for the grade level or course. The task force members then use these prioritized learnings to write local Common Core standards, or end-of-year learning targets based on the Common Core and state assessment system.

The task force has defined a learnable (that is the key here — learnable) curriculum of the most important skills as outlined in the Common Core State Standards and state assessment system. To stress the point, I frequently quip that I took on an ambitious agenda — teaching my dog to whistle. The problem is he never learned it.

We smile. Yet today’s curriculum system is similarly flawed. We keep trying to teach kids the entire book even when they aren’t learning it. To fix this problem, the local teaching staff develops learnable end-of-year curriculum expectations that all students must learn in an allotted time.


An Early-Implementation District Promotes Staff Learning

Current textbooks and curriculum guides are not used. Instead, the task force looks at the CCSS and the state assessment system (at least until 2014, when the national assessment is due to be implemented) as the basis for identifying these most critical learnings, which will be the foundation for the new curriculum documents.

Which standards contained within the Common Core and assessed in our current state assessment system are so important and so critical that all students must master those skills? These become the end-of-year learning expectations that every teacher will focus on for the year and are called Local CCS Standards. As several of our partner school districts in Illinois discovered, while the math concept of probability may not be mentioned in the CCSS until 6th grade, it is assessed in Illinois beginning in 3rd grade, so accommodations need to be made. You will need to make those same judgments in your particular state, at least until 2014.

These particular CCSS-based skills are now assigned to specific grade levels and courses. Before finalizing these end-of-year learning targets, the skills must be vertically articulated with the grade level and course above and below the assigned grade level. First grade meets with kindergarten, then 2nd grade to ensure the learning expectations represent a natural progression of skills and the domains within the Common Core are adequately covered. Once the grade-level articulation is complete, the task force then finalizes its grade-level or course end-of-year targets.

The task force then deliberately sequences the end-of-year learning expectations into quarterly learning expectations. These quarterly learning expectations are deliberately scaffolded by the task force to best reflect the way students learn to ensure the end-of-year learning expectations will be met.

These instructional objectives deliberately define and sequence the learning, determining both what is to be learned and when it is to be learned. This helps to better ensure the end-of-year learning expectations will be mastered by all. This also standardizes instructional expectations across grade levels and courses.

Consistent Application
The school district now has a complete set of K-12 learning expectations, aligned to the Common Core and state assessment system. Additionally, all of these learning targets are in plain language that teachers, parents and students can understand. The targets represent a learnable number of skills, as Mike Schmoker advocates in his latest book, Focus, and are scaffolded or sequenced to best reflect how children learn, not how the chapters in the text are arranged.

The grade-level or course expectations generally are less than three pages long and address skills only, not content. The instructional materials, strategies and other resources are contained in the curriculum-mapping section and are shared electronically by teachers as they are developed and proven effective.

By deliberately involving teachers and administrators on the local level in this curriculum and instruction alignment process and allowing them the time and trust to develop curricula aligned to the Common Core, you maximize local expertise in the CCSS and the design of related materials. Their work begins with the CCSS, and this process enables them to use those standards to build realistic curriculum expectations. These learning expectations are standards-based and not content-based.

While the initial product takes just three days of staff development, that is only the beginning of the journey. Once the local curriculum documents are complete, the real work begins — consistently implementing those documents across the district in every classroom and regularly gathering feedback to improve the documents. Several of our partner school districts schedule quarterly meetings for the group of local experts to review feedback on the instructional objectives, assessments and every phase of the project. This ensures the plan, do, check, act cycle is followed and keeps teachers in the loop.

Onward to Assessments
The final link in building this system for curriculum, instruction and assessment then becomes the development of local common, formative assessments based exclusively on the within-year learning targets (instructional objectives). All teachers agreed to teach these specific skills, at this level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, to all of our students. Now we find out if that worked. Which students learned which skills, and which did not? Once teachers have these data, the design of the tutorial system makes sense. Which instructional strategies worked? Which did not?

The locally developed assessments based on the intended curriculum (instructional objectives) also close the loop on the curriculum-instruction-assessment cycle. The local curriculum was shared with parents, students, everyone. The same skills were taught at approximately the same time by all teachers, and now teachers will gauge the outcomes using the same assessments and criteria for mastery. By assessing students on skills that were just taught, on the level of Bloom’s Taxonomy at which those skills were expected to be learned, the playing field is significantly leveled. There are no surprises for the students or anyone else, just fair and honest assessment of the intended curriculum. This is something most national assessments cannot do because they are not aligned to the specific skills just taught.

A small school district in Illinois with whom I worked posted the instructional objectives on poster board in the front of every classroom. The objectives became the basis for instruction, and the assessments were known by all to be tied to these instructional objectives. The poster specifically showed all students the skills they will need to demonstrate on the next assessment.

One of our large high school partners found this tactic to be useful, leading to a sharp drop in the number of D’s and F’s.

Again, the whole point is to follow a process that allows your own staff to learn, grow, design and improve their own curriculum documents and build local expertise on the Common Core State Standards. By involving your staff at the local level in the design and structure of these new curriculum expectations and using a continuous improvement cycle of plan, do, check, act, you have improved the expertise of your own staff members and created buy-in through ownership of the work and constant feedback to improve. Let’s all get to work on eating our latest elephant and begin taking it one bite at a time, then sharing our feast with the entire staff.

Joe Crawford, a former assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, is an education consultant with Partners4Results in Mukwonago, Wis. E-mail: joe@partners4results.org


Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue