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How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Provide an Engaging Broad-Based Liberal Arts Curriculum

by Bill Honig

A major component of every successful educational improvement effort is addressing the issue of what will be taught. Specifically, world-class educational performers provide all students with a challenging and engaging broad liberal arts curriculum—precisely the type of curriculum envisioned by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which have been adopted by more than 40 states. Many conventional reformers have supported the CCSS, seeing them as a mechanism for their high-stakes accountability agenda. Their position has been to establish national standards, assess performance against those standards, and attach consequences to low performance—the Test-and-Punish approach. I stand with a vast number of educators who, while rejecting an emphasis on test-based accountability, support the CCSS and the promise they hold for improving curriculum and instruction. The standards are consistent with what our most knowledgeable teachers and researchers have been advocating for years.

Why the Common Core State Standards Are So Important

The California Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts & Literacy (which almost identical to the national Common Core Standards) and the state’s framework explicating them (listed below) are based on the deeper learning that is taking place in our best schools and classrooms—reading, writing, and discussing literature and complex text and ideas; synthesizing those texts and ideas to construct arguments; reading widely; and mastering core academic content in history, science, civics, and humanities to enhance comprehension and better understand the world.

Deeper learning entails mastering more complex thinking and applying twenty-first-century skills. Deeper learning also produces higher learning. For a scholarly treatment of the concept of deeper learning, see the work of Maggie Lampert, the Learning Deeply blog, and Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine.

Mehta and Fine define the term this way:

There is no consensus on exactly how to define deeper learning. For example, it has often been described as the integration of academic, inter-, and intrapersonal skills and knowledge. Recent research findings strongly suggest that in order to succeed in college, careers, and all aspects of adult life, young people require more than just a command of academic content. They also need to be able to solve complex real world problems, collaborate, communicate effectively, monitor and direct their own learning, and develop an academic mindset.

Among many cognitive psychologists, however, deep learning—or what they might call learning for understanding—refers to the ability to transfer knowledge. The idea is that knowledge becomes deeper when one can use it not only to address a problem in the context in which it has been taught, but also to understand or explain something in a different but related context. Rather than seeing isolated facts, deep learners see patterns and connections because they understand the underlying structures of what they’re exploring.

The authors of this paper suggest that deeper learning requires the ability to transfer knowledge, and more. It often emerges at the intersection of mastery (knowledge of substantive content, including the ability to transfer), identity (driven by relevance to the learner), and creativity (the ability to act or make something from the knowledge).

However one defines it, though, deeper learning poses a multipronged challenge to current classroom practice and educational systems. It will require a major increase in the cognitive demand of the tasks that most students, particularly in high-poverty schools, are asked to complete.

The Common Core State Standards and the frameworks explicating them envision a substantial instructional shift to this type of enriched learning. (These frameworks are discussed in greater depth later in this article.)

I caught a glimpse of the future back in 1985, when I was California superintendent of public instruction and visited a seventh-grade classroom in Santa Barbara. The students were presenting research papers on college-level questions such as “What effect did the Galileo trial have on scientific investigation in southern and northern Europe?” I was amazed as teams of students presented their papers and then engaged in a sophisticated discussion with the rest of the class. Almost every student contributed. Discussants were serious, used sophisticated language, asked perceptive questions, and responded appropriately to what was being said. Afterward, when I met with their superb teacher, Naomi Johnson, it became apparent how much work had gone into creating the conditions that allowed the students to successfully participate in such an erudite academic discussion. She assured me that these advanced behaviors and abilities were also the result of several years of sustained learning in previous grades and tremendous efforts by the entire faculty at the middle school to assure that each class reinforced the skills students need to conduct research and actively contribute to academic discussions.

The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics are also internationally benchmarked—reflecting what math educators have been recommending: go deeper into fewer topics, incorporate practices such as modeling, discussion both in class and with peers, problem solving, and a greater emphasis on procedural skills, conceptual understanding, and application to increasingly complex situations. Both sets of standards, English language arts (ELA) and mathematics, build on existing best practices but demand significant changes in instruction. In addition, California combined the ELA Common Core Standards with state-adopted English Language Development (ELD) standards to create a framework that integrates both sets of standards, the ELA/ELD Framework.

The recently developed Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) offer similar pedagogical approaches in science, combining content and practices. These science standards have also been adopted by numerous states.

Similar documents have been developed to create national standards for history-social science such as the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. In addition, many states have drafted and implemented their own standards for history-social science. The importance of science and history-social science content is also emphasized in Common Core’s ELA and mathematics standards.

Why Support the Common Core State Standards?

Most teachers in California are excited by the educational promise of providing an active, engaging curriculum, as called for in the new standards. They have long believed in and have expressed a strong interest in bringing the ideas to fruition. One of the most exciting aspects of the CCSS is that they incorporate the complex instructional expertise and practices that make up effective teaching. This means that implementing the CCSS can become the catalyst for every school to address each of the crucial components of effective instruction. It has been shown that failure in any one component affects successful practice and outcomes. Moreover, the shift to the more complex and active instruction envisioned by the CCSS requires schools to build collaborative teams and provide the support needed for continuous improvement in individual teacher and school performance. Each school can decide how to tailor its implementation strategy based on the needs of its staff. Depending on the teacher or school program, some proficiencies will become second nature while others may need constant attention. For more on the topic of effective teaching, see the companion article Provide High-Quality Instruction. For more about team building, see the companion article Build Teams and Focus on Continuous Improvement.

I know that the CCSS are controversial and that many people strongly object to various aspects of the standards. Some concerns do not relate to the standards themselves but to unwarranted classroom practices and misguided implementation policies. Examples include over-scripted instruction, assigning inappropriate activities to kindergarteners, or abuses at the state level such as New York State’s decision to arbitrarily set cut levels so high that huge numbers of students failed the tests. Criticisms of the standards are often based on a misinterpretation or misreading of what they actually say. For example, many people decry the devaluation of literature, basing their objections on the standards’ recommendation that 70% of high school reading materials should be informational text. However, a closer reading of the language in the standards reveals that the 70% refers to all high school reading, which means there would still be plenty of time in English classrooms for a full literature program. At the same time, incorporating some powerful essays, biographies, and nonfiction books such as The Double Helix into the English curriculum promotes the deeper learning educators seek.

I should mention that not all of my fellow Build-and-Support advocates believe in the value of the CCSS, as I do. In addition to opposing the Test-and-Punish approach, “market-based reform efforts,” privatization of schools, and corporate overreach, Anthony Cody, Diane Ravitch, and a few other respected thought leaders reject the Common Core State Standards themselves. They think the standards are so entwined with high-stakes accountability that they are unsalvageable and not educationally warranted or legitimate. I disagree on both counts. Diane graciously allowed me to plead my case on her blog. I began my post with “Common Core Standards, YES. High-stakes Testing, Rewards and Punishments, and Market-based Reforms, NO. The California Story.” My comments engendered quite the discussion.

For an intelligent critique of the Common Core State Standards, see also Thomas Newkirk’s Postscript: Speaking Back to the Common Core. California made a concerted effort to address many of his criticisms in its adoption of the Common Core Standards, in the frameworks based on them, and in its implementation strategies, which divorced the Common Core rollout from test-driven high-stakes accountability. For more on this topic, see the companion articles in The California Context.

The Crucial Role of Content Frameworks

In California and other states, content frameworks translate the CCSS into guides for curriculum, instruction, professional development, and adoption of materials. They are critical in turning the standards into a workable curriculum. Ideally, the effort of schools across this country to implement a curriculum that reflects the content frameworks aligned with the CCSS or other comparably ambitious standards can be the centerpiece of an alternative Build-and-Support reform movement. The key is to detach implementation of the Common Core Standards from the high-stakes, test-based punitive measures too often linked with them. This is what California and a few other states have done.

Useful California Content Frameworks and Support Documents

The Common Core State Standards Are Not a Curriculum

Before I discuss the California mathematics and ELA/ELD standards as examples of the complexity of curriculum and the discipline-based instruction proposed, one clarification is needed. The most successful districts spend time, effort, and thought in translating standards into a coherent and sequenced curriculum and thus avoid the trap of thinking that standards alone will improve educational performance.

The CCSS delineate what students should master, but they are not a curriculum. Jumping from the standards to create lesson plans misses the crucial middle step of developing a sequenced, coherent curriculum. Creating a local curricular framework for the district or utilizing one from the state informs the sequence and breadth of instruction. Developing this “scope & sequence” is complex. And without it, implementation of the CCSS is destined to fail.

For example, one of the seventh-grade math standards is to use proportional thinking and percentage to solve problems such as “If $50 is 20% of your total funds, how much do you have?” The standard does not say how much instructional time should be invested in helping students master the requisite skills (actually quite a lot) nor does it list which strategies will be effective, recommend a progression of learning, or explain how instruction should correlate with previous units.

The same is true of Common Core’s ELA & Literacy Standards. They stress the need for a coherent curriculum and a systematic buildup of knowledge through broadly defined literature and the disciplines. But the standards do not specify the actual content that should be used to reach those goals.

Unfortunately, many districts have not undertaken this crucial work. The Common Core State Standards Implementation Survey surveyed 818 districts in California, which represent 83% of state public school enrollment. In late 2013, only about one-third of the districts had created a scope and sequence for the CCSS in either English-language arts or mathematics for at least some grades. More than one-third of the districts reported that this work is planned “for the future,” and about one-quarter reported that they are not planning to engage in this work at all. At the same time, only about half the districts were creating units or lessons, or aligning existing units or lessons with the new standards. The situation has improved since 2013, but many districts still have not adopted a coherent standards-based curriculum including essential materials.

Resources for Developing a Coherent Scope & Sequence

First, existing framework documents such as the one developed by California provide essential advice on how to structure the curriculum, including the order in which standards should be taught; how much time should be spent on each standard; how a standard fits in the larger context of the grade-to-grade buildup of knowledge; strategies for instruction, intervention, and assessment; links to resources; and illuminating vignettes. Teachers need this broader context to maximize the effect of adopted or available materials.

Second, many proprietary core reading and math programs offer a well-constructed scope & sequence. Among them are those adopted in California in mathematics and in ELA/ELD. Some open-source education materials also have sound scope and sequences. All materials have undergone extensive reviews and have translated the CCSS and state frameworks into a serviceable curriculum for teachers. The programs also allow flexibility so that our best teachers and districts can enhance their materials with a variety of open-source educational materials such as those listed by ISKME—a mix-and-match strategy. Also see a network of states devoted to sharing open-source material.

Third, many of the nation’s best districts have developed their own scope and sequences, although many still incorporate basal texts in many disciplines based on their criteria. For example, Long Beach’s scope and sequence documents provide a comprehensive “blueprint” for strategically sequencing and operationalizing the grade level/course standards in ELA and mathematics. The critical attributes of each document are units laid out in sequence by theme/title; an indication of how much time to spend on each unit; a narrative description of each unit explaining its focus and purpose; a description of the standards to be assessed for each unit; an assessment narrative detailing the formative assessment strategies and practices included in each unit so teachers can monitor how well the students are learning; a notation of formative assessment lessons to be included in each unit during the second half of the unit with time allowed for reteach/review; an explanation of the structure and purpose of the interim or end-of-unit assessment; a list of item types that may be included, along with the rationale; and finally the reading-level range of the texts used in each ELA unit. Long Beach provides very detailed advice. Other districts may wish to offer more general guidelines.

Fourth, many websites offer progressions and scope and sequences for instruction such as Achieve the Core and Illustrative Mathematics. A November 2013 report by Hanover Research contained an exhaustive list of Common Core curricular resources and planning tools that are used by various states. Another list of resources is available at the California Department of Education (CDE) website, and a national open resources list aligned to the Common Core can be found at OER Commons. Finally, an online Internet tool for California educator collaboration and resource sharing, My Digital Chalkboard, contains supporting links and resources. Many states have also produced curricular planning guides. For example, the Colorado Department of Education has posted its own guide (Colorado’s District Sample Curriculum Project), as has New York. Many district scope and sequence efforts and units of instruction for standards implementation are available at the CDE, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA), and county office of education websites. Most districts are willing to share their work.

The Role of Core Basal Programs

One question that is troubling educators is how much they should rely on traditional prepackaged, comprehensive basal programs. With the availability of online and open-source materials, some people are predicting the demise of these programs. We are not quite there yet. Textbooks can be very useful in certain instructional areas, if they are part of a broader curricular approach and supplemented by digital or niche resources. For example, in addition to oral language development and reading books aloud, teaching beginning reading in English requires an organized, systematic presentation of letter/sound correspondences, progressing from the easier to the more difficult. Children need practice reading “decodable text,” or material that follows the letter/sound correspondences they have been taught. Designing such materials is complex, time consuming, and usually better left to knowledgeable sources.

Many textbooks have become too hefty—emphasizing coverage of content over depth. The new CCSS and corresponding frameworks propose deep learning, in which students learn how to read, evaluate, and create a range of multimedia. This requires differently designed materials. For example, Asian math textbooks are thinner and organized around challenging questions. In the US, publishers are creating hybrid programs that use both print and digital supporting materials. The recently adopted ELA/ELD materials in California are of high quality and reflect the values of the Common Core State Standards and California’s 2014 English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework.

While relying only on traditional basal programs would be a mistake and deprive teachers of engaging, effective options, refusing to take advantage of some organized materials would limit and diminish instruction for most teachers. The vast majority of teachers resist demands that they develop a full curriculum on their own—they have neither the time, expertise, nor inclination. Striking the proper balance with a mix-and-match strategy offers the best approach.

Unfortunately, reformers have neglected the crucial role of curriculum and instructional materials in improving educational performance. Linda Diamond, one of finest reading educators in the country, uses the metaphor of a three-legged stool. Teacher’s content and pedagogical knowledge of a strong, liberal arts curriculum is the first leg. Excellent instructional materials are the second leg. Doctors need the best tools, and so do teachers. Effective teams, support structures, and leadership are the third leg.

Improved Mathematics Instruction

As an example of the Common Core’s consistency with powerful research, the mathematics standards aim for deep content understanding—both procedural and conceptual—and the ability to apply such knowledge in increasingly complex situations. Instruction envisions a more interactive classroom that marries content with practice standards such as asking yourself if the answer makes sense, modeling, questioning, and explaining.

While delving into each discipline in detail is not the purview of this article, I will attempt to provide the flavor of the changes in each discipline. As an example of an instructional shift in mathematics, Jo Boaler proposes that students work on provocative questions. In What’s Math Got to Do With It?, she provides this example for third graders: “How would you solve 15 times 6 without pencil and paper?” This type of question stimulates a deeper understanding of the number system before students learn the algorithm and become procedurally fluent. Students can work in groups or individually to develop multiple ways of solving the problem and report back to the class for discussion of the pros and cons of each approach, all of which advance number sense.

Students might come up with these ideas: 6 times 10 and then add 6 times 5; 2 x 15, 3 times; 6 times 30 and divide by 2; 5 times 6, 3 times, and so on. Boaler challenges sixth graders with this math problem: A man on a diet can only eat ¼ of a pound of turkey a day. The market only sells packages of three slices, which is ⅓ of a pound. What fraction of the three slices can he eat? This question takes some thought, and there are several ways to solve it. (Spoiler hint: How many slices in a pound?) Or, a large cube that is painted on the outside that comprises smaller cubes of equal size, 10 by 10 by 10. How many cubes have one side painted, two sides, and three? Professor Boaler has collected scores of these engaging questions on her website. A steady diet of working on such problems produces deeper understanding and problem-solving abilities. For more on this topic, see “Not a Math Person: How to Remove Obstacles to Learning Math.”

I would add another example. Most adults have difficulty with proportional thinking, especially percentage. Many try to solve problems by rote application of the cross-multiplication rule, which is complex, prone to error, and precludes thinking about the underlying relationships. If you give students a problem such as “2 is to 3 as what is to 9?” (in the form of a 2-inch-high stick casting a 3-inch shadow, and a tree casting a 9-foot shadow—what is the height of the tree?) and ask them to figure out as many ways to solve it as they can, they will develop a deeper understanding of proportional relationships. Students could approach the problem as:

  • 2 is ⅔ of 3, so what number is ⅔ of 9?, or conversely
  • 3 is 1½ times 2, so 9 is 1½ times what number?, or
  • 9 is 3 times 3, so what number is 3 times 2?, or
  • the standard cross-multiplication procedure 2:3=x:9, so set up the equation 2/3=x/9, solve by cross-multiplying: 3x = 2 x 9 or 3x=18, 18 ÷ 3 = x, which leaves x alone and the answer is 6.

All of these methods work; each develops an understanding of proportional relationships. Outside the classroom no one proficient in mathematics would use the more complicated formulae in this situation. Instead, they would think about what is being asked and use one of the simpler relationships to determine the answer. Vignettes demonstrating examples of active classroom instruction are included in the California mathematics framework, and videos and grade-level content are available from numerous sites.

I know some people will question this approach, asking “Why waste all this time: Why not just teach students the most efficient procedure first?” Eventually, they need to learn to be automatic with a procedure so they can think about new material, but initially the opportunity to struggle with a question, to think about the relationships and concepts, and to communicate and listen to ideas is too beneficial to miss. Ask the Japanese who have perfected this method and lead the world in math performance. Often, learning to rely exclusively on applying a rule or procedure precludes deeper thinking about the problem: Which procedure makes the most sense?; which data is important or superfluous?; and does the solution comply with a reasonable estimate? Of course, some procedures just need to be eventually memorized such as multiplication facts. This is what the California Mathematics Framework advocates, although even in this case, there are proven strategies and patterns to facilitate the effort.

Jo Boaler argues that the way math has been taught in the US as a set of rules to apply—show a procedure, work a problem in front of the class, have students practice and do homework, and then test—is ineffective for many students. They forget the steps, plug in the wrong numbers to the formula, and don’t know which procedures to use when they encounter a more complex problem, which is key to being able to use numbers. Classroom instruction usually masks this point by making it obvious which procedure to apply (a student will know that all of the day’s problems are about multiplying fractions). For many students, when they encounter a problem without the clue they are stumped. Instead the CCSS standards of content and practice emphasize conceptual understanding in addition to procedural knowledge and application. Finally, a steady diet of a rigid instructional routine—get the answer by following the rules—alienates many students.

Facility with percentage provides a perfect illustration of the problem. Percentage is probably one of the most useful mathematical tools in everyday life. Yet only about 45% of the US population can use percentage effectively. Sal Khan has commented that Khan Academy collects data from millions of people around the world. They have discovered that percentage problems rank among the most difficult for large numbers of adults. This finding was explained years ago by Parker and Leinhardt in a 90-page article entitledPercentage: A Privileged Proportion.

According to these and later researchers such as Susan Lamon, fourth graders are better at solving percentage problems than sixth graders. Since they have not been taught the algorithm, they think creatively using benchmarks. For example, when asked “What is 60% of 40?,” fourth graders think: “I know 50% of 40 is 20, and 10% is 4, so it must be 24.” Many students in later grades stop thinking and just attempt to apply a rule. (Witness the difficulty people have with tipping 15%.)

What is hard about percentage is that the tool is actually shorthand for conceptually complex relationships and meanings tied to a 100th scale, which was historically developed over thousands of years. The key issue is determining the base for comparison and the ability to flexibly shift bases. For example, imagine that your boss tells you that owing to financial difficulties, she has to cut your monthly salary of $1,000 by 10% for one month, but she will raise it 10% after the month is over. You won’t be back to your previous level because the first base for the cut is $1,000, while the second base for the increase is $900. Or, a more common situation: The graduation rate in your school is 50% and increases to 60%. Is that a 10% increase or 20%? It is both, depending on what you are attempting to communicate. Ten percent more than 50% is a 10% increase compared to 100% (entire student body)—a standard way of evaluating schools, but the pool of graduates (represented by 50%) rose 20% (10/50). Tricky.

In middle grades, solving percentage problems is usually taught procedurally in a few lessons using the cross-multiplication rule. This results in massive failure rates. On assessments, significant numbers of eighth graders could not answer the question “What is 100% of 8?” If five to six weeks of class time are invested with heavy language mediation and numerous examples of comparing this to that and that to this, about 95% of students will become proficient in using percentage. This is an example of the CCSS approach—fewer topics taught more in depth.

Many students want to know why a procedure works and desire to tackle more complex problems using the practices delineated in the new standards. Direct instruction definitely has its place, and many successful teachers use it predominately and still manage to encourage deeper student thinking. But for most practitioners, posing complex questions and providing open-ended tasks should be added to their teaching routines. The California mathematics framework calls for teachers to determine a proper balance between direct instruction and more engaging activities.

What is mathematically most useful for the vast majority of people is the ability to figure out how to set up a problem and decide which data are relevant and which procedures to use—a skill that is developed through practice by encountering large numbers of problems and completing activities that require thinking. This idea was brought home to me when I was participating in a review of potential test questions for the CCSS-aligned Smarter Balanced assessments. At my table was Mike Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education and a professor from Stanford. Also present was the then chair of the University of California’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) committee who was an engineering professor at one of the UC campuses. We were given several questions to rank for difficulty. The one we all agreed was the hardest required only adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing but was challenging to think through, set up, and decide which procedures and practices to use and when.

The math used by most adults except for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations is the application of math learned through eighth grade such as fractions, rates, proportions, and percentage applied to complex or unique situations. Also important is the ability to reason quantitatively such as reading charts and extrapolating data. Andrew Hacker maintains that that ability is missing from most secondary math courses.

A 2016 study from OECD sheds some interesting light on strategies that help low-performing math students. The authors found that students don’t necessarily hate math but have high levels of anxiety. Extracurricular activities, which don’t need to be math based, help. A major finding is that the right amount of homework is crucial. Six hours of math homework a week reduces the odds of becoming a low performer—a whopping 70% compared to those doing little or no homework. Beyond six hours, homework becomes stressful and further results stall. Finally, in a controversial finding, in the US and a few other countries, ability grouping actually increased performance of struggling students.

For an in-depth analysis of implementation issues, see the reports produced by the Math in Common (MIC) network, which is devoted to the successful execution of the California Common Core State Standards in Mathematics. Owing to the complexity of this more demanding math instruction, many districts are shifting to have upper-elementary math taught by math specialists.

More Comprehensive and Engaging Language Arts

Reading, writing, discussing, and analyzing text in a more active manner are hallmarks of the English Language Arts (ELA) Standards. The California ELA/ELD Framework integrates two sets of standards: state Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) Standards and state English Language Development (ELD) Standards.

Following is a short excerpt from a 2014 summary of the ELA/ELD Framework authored by JoAnn Isken, Carol Jago, and me, which explains the ideas behind the framework:

The outer ring of the graphic identifies the overarching goals of ELA/ELD literacy and instruction. By the time California’s students complete high school, they should have developed readiness for college, career, and we added civic life; attained the capacities of literate individuals; become broadly literate; and acquired the skills for living and learning in the twenty-first century.

California has grounded the framework in these broader purposes of the language arts. We want students to be able to understand complex text and ideas as well as reason, analyze, persuade, and problem solve. We also wish them to encounter a rich liberal arts education—learning about the world, civic life, and the human heart, being well read, and helping them reach their potential. We would like our youngsters to encounter a significant representation of the best classic and contemporary literature including novels, biographies, essays and plays as well as coherent content informational text in science, history, and the humanities. We would like them to experience the joy of reading engrossing stories and fascinating material.

So the ELA/ELD framework is about two main thrusts: First, attention to the totality of what students read both on their own in independent reading and in school in their liberal arts disciplines (including literature) during their school years, and second, the analytical, reasoning and literacy skills necessary to comprehend and apply knowledge gleaned from a variety of text structures. Both ideas are stressed in the multi-state Common Core ELA standards. To this end, the framework also recommends an organized independent reading program for each student to supplement what is read in school and provides advice on how to implement such a strategy in Chapter 2.

The developers of the ELD standards made a crucial decision from the start. They designed the standards to aid the large number of English-language learners (ELLs) in mastering the CCSS, which greatly facilitated the integration of the two sets of standards. They organized the ELD standards around five overarching themes—foundational skills, language, written and oral expression, content knowledge, and meaning-making strategies such as drawing inferences and making connections. The integrated ELA/ELD Framework adopted this architecture. All five themes work together to develop student comprehension.

The first strand is foundational skills. To understand the ideas in a text, the reader needs to automatically recognize almost all the words. For words already in the reader’s speaking vocabulary, that is the role of foundational skills—to teach them a process for becoming automatic with a growing number of words. Foundational skills address how to teach them these skills and include phonics, word attack skills (learning how to sound out new words, handle multisyllabic words, and recognize word structures such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots), and fluency instruction (the rationale and more details are covered in the companion articles The California Context). The foundational skills in the California framework are summarized in an extremely well-written white paper by Hallie Yopp, one of the authors of the framework.

For a useful compendium on research-based reading instruction and strategies, see Honig, Diamond, and Gutlohn’s Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Updated 2nd Edition and its companion book Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures, 2nd Edition. Both books were produced by the Consortium on Reaching Excellence (CORE), where I am president. The Sourcebook was one of only 10 publications endorsed by the National Council on Teacher Quality to cover beginning reading adequately. Of the 10, it was the fourth most used publication for preservice teachers.

In 2015, Louise Spear-Swerling wrote The Power of RTI and Reading Profiles and David Kilpatrick wrote Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Along with the Sourcebook, these two books are among the best research-based books on how to teach children to read. They also explain some current misguided reading approaches that are still in widespread use. The companion article How the California Reading Wars Got Resolved: A Personal Story goes into further detail on the issue of the importance of foundational skills.

The second theme, language, deals with the crucial topic of vocabulary, text structure and syntax, and academic language—all critical to understanding text. Academic texts in English contain a large number of words that appear infrequently but are essential to understanding. To successfully complete high school, students need to understand approximately 65,000 words, although some words are members of the same word family. Consequently, from the outset, there must be a rich vocabulary development strand coupled with an extensive independent reading program. This is particularly crucial for the large numbers of low-income or ELL students who start school knowing far fewer words than their middle-class and English-speaking peers. For a valuable resource, see CORE’s Vocabulary Handbook and Word Intelligence, which is a vocabulary program for middle-grade students. In addition, as material and sentence structure become more complex and demanding in upper elementary, students must learn to handle challenging elements such as complex sentences with multiple dependent clauses. Finally, different disciplines such as history and science organize information in different ways and students need help in navigating these varied text structures.

The third theme enhances comprehension by concentrating on a student’s ability to express ideas in writing and speaking. This strand also includes spelling and writing conventions such as grammar. Often, until you have tried to explain something, you really don’t know it.

The fourth theme deals with the vital role content knowledge plays in comprehension and the importance of a systematic buildup of disciplinary and cultural knowledge through organized class work and independent reading. See the vast work on this subject at Core Knowledge and Liana Heitin’s blog “For Reading, Knowledge Matters More Than Strategies, Some Experts Say.” See also Vicki Cobb’s article “Why Reading to Learn Is Seldom Taught.”

And, finally, meaning making addresses the meta-cognitive skills of self-monitoring, drawing inferences, and thinking about what is being read.

Similar to math, English-language arts shifts to a more active instructional program including book discussions, projects, research, and making arguments and taking positions both in writing and speaking.

History, Civics, Economics, Geography, Humanities, and the Fine Arts

Changes in history/social science instruction follow a similar pattern as math and English language arts. The new California History-Social Science Framework and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards encourage a more active curriculum. For example, in sixth grade, instead of marching through the growth of empires in Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, India, China, Africa, and Mesoamerica, teams of students may be assigned a particular area. Groups then investigate the history of their area, report to the class, and discuss the similarities and differences. Or, a teacher may pose the question: “Why did the Industrial Revolution start in England?” As in the other subject areas, understanding a combination of factual, conceptual, and historical processes seems the best mix, supported by powerful motivational content such as stories, narratives, historical fiction, biographies, projects, and performances.

Science

Similar to the other disciplines, the new Next Generation Science Standards and the new California Science Framework elucidating them stress the marriage of content in physics, chemistry, life, and earth sciences, including health; evolution and human origins; practices such as modeling, explaining, and observing; active investigations and hypotheses generation; understanding historical science; the incorporation of larger cross-cutting themes such as energy; and motivational efforts such as biographies of leading scientists and stories of the fight to conquer various diseases. For a wonderful compilation of engaging and motivating stories of scientists, see Joy Hakim’s Science Stories: Proof That Informative Can Be Engaging.

Other Crucial Student Learning

Similarly, teachers need to know the latest research and best practice related to how students learn and retain knowledge. Many of the works cited above will help. In addition, I recommend:

  • Building Blocks for Learning: A Framework for Comprehensive Student Development
  • How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which discusses the importance of personal and relational skills
  • Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which covers the importance of self-monitoring and self-testing strategies
  • Mindset, which explains the importance of students believing that effort will lead to their success
  • Teacher and Student Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform
  • Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, which reviews the research on which strategies produce the largest effect size such as just-in-time intervention and actively involving students in the educational process

Practitioners should know where to go to obtain answers to key questions that arise from their efforts to improve instruction. High on the educational agenda should be making pedagogical wisdom available in a usable format to the professional learning teams at each site. School teams could then adapt those ideas to their individual students.

This article has dealt with the what of teaching and learning—the curriculum. See also the companion article, Provide High-Quality Instruction, which explores how teachers can best deliver that curriculum in the classroom.

BBS Companion Articles

How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Ground Efforts on Unassailable Research
Provide High-Quality Instruction
Build Teams and Focus on Continuous Improvement
The California Context
California Policymakers and Educators Shift from Test-and-Punish to Build-and-Support
How the California Reading Wars Got Resolved: A Personal Story

Reference Notes

Why the Common Core State Standards Are So Important
Bitter, C., & Loney, E. (2015, Aug). Deeper Learning: Improving Student Outcomes for College, Career, and Civic Life. http://educationpolicy.air.org/publications/deeper-learning-improving-student-outcomes-college-career-and-civic-life

Lampert, M. (2015). Deeper Teaching. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. http://www.studentsatthecenter.org/topics/deeper-teaching

Amarillas, M. (2016, Feb 4). Deeper Learning, Metacognition and Presentations of Learning. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning_deeply/2016/02/deeper_learning_metacognition_and_presentations_of_learning.html?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campdfaign=learningdeeply

Mehta, J., & Fine, S. (2015, Dec). The Why, What, Were, and How of Deeper Learning in American Secondary Schools. Jobs for the Future. http://www.jff.org/publications/why-what-where-and-how-deeper-learning-american-secondary-schools

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. http://www.nextgenscience.org/

Heitin, L. (2016, Feb 23). Curriculum Matters: Eight Things to Know About the Next Generation Science Standards. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2016/02/next_generation_science_standards_8_things_to_know.html?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=curriculummatters

California Department of Education (CDE). (2013). Next Generation Science Standards for California Public Schools: K–12. http://www.cde.ca.gov/pd/ca/sc/ngssstandards.asp

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). (2013). College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K–12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. Silver Spring, MD: NCSS. http://www.socialstudies.org/c3

California State Board of Education. Content Standards. http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/

Why Support the Common Core State Standards?
Ravitch, D. (2014, Jan 7). Bill Honig: Why California Likes the Common Core. http://dianeravitch.net/2014/01/07/bill-honig-why-california-likes-the-common-core-standards/

Newkirk, T. (2013). Postscript: Speaking Back to the Common Core. https://www.heinemann.com/shared/onlineresources/E02123/Newkirk_Speaking_Back_to_the_Common_Core.pdf

The Common Core State Standards Are Not a Curriculum
Honig, B. (2014, Jan 29). Coherent and Sequenced Curriculum Key to Implementing Common Core Standards. http://edsource.org/2014/coherent-and-sequenced-curriculum-key-to-implementing-common-core-standards/56704 See also Tucker, M. (2016, Feb 11). Building a Powerful State Instructional System for All Students. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/top_performers/2016/02/building_a_powerful_state_instructional_system_for_all_students.html

California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSEA). (2013). Common Core State Standards Implementation Survey: Statewide Summary of Results. http://ccsesa.org/common-core-implementation-california-status-report/

Resources for Developing a Coherent Scope & Sequence
California Department of Education. (2014, Jan 15). 2014 Mathematics Adoption. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/ma/im/sbeadopted2014mathprgms.asp

California Department of Education. (2015, Nov 4). 2015 ELA/ELD Adoption. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/rl/im/sbeadoptedelaeldprogs.asp

OER Services. http://www.iskme.org/services/oer-support

Zubrzycki, J. (2026, Feb 26). 13 States Join Federal Open Resource Initiative. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2016/02/open_educational_resources.html?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=curriculummatters

Long Beach Unified School District. Scope and Sequence Documents. http://www.lbusd.k12.ca.us/Departments/Curriculum/ELA/curriculum_docs.cfm

Achieve the Core. www.achievethecore.org

Illustrative Mathematics. https://www.illustrativemathematics.org/

Hanover Research. (2013, Nov). Final Report–Common Core Implementation Tools. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1009965-commoncore-implementationtools-gates1113.html

California Department of Education. All Curriculum Frameworks. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/cf/allfwks.asp

OER Commons. https://www.oercommons.org/

My Digital Chalkboard. https://www.mydigitalchalkboard.org

Colorado Department of Education. Colorado’s District Sample Curriculum Project: Introduction. https://www.cde.state.co.us/standardsandinstruction/samplecurriculumproject

New York State Education Department. New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum. http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/cores.html

California Department of Education. http://www.cde.ca.gov/

California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. http://ccsesa.org/

The Role of Core Basal Programs
Dobo, N. (2015, Nov 4). The Federal Government Urges K–12 Schools to Try Open Educational Resources. http://hechingerreport.org/the-federal-government-urges-k-12-schools-to-try-open-educational-resources/

California Department of Education. (2015). English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework for California Public Schools: K–12. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/rl/cf/elaeldfrmwrksbeadopted.asp

Boser, U. (2015, Oct 14). The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform: Do States and Districts Receive the Most Bang for Their Curriculum Buck? https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education/report/2015/10/14/122810/the-hidden-value-of-curriculum-reform/

Consortium on Reaching Excellence (CORE). The CORE Approach to Building and Sustaining Lasting Academic Excellence. https://www.corelearn.com/About-Us/Our-Approach.html

Improved Mathematics Instruction
Boaler, J. (2015). What’s Math Got to Do With It? How Teachers and Parents Can Transform Mathematics Learning and Inspire Success. New York: Penguin Books.

YouCubed. https://www.youcubed.org/

Schwartz, K. (2015, Nov 30). “Not a Math Person”: How to Remove Obstacles to Learning Math. http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/11/30/not-a-math-person-how-to-remove-obstacles-to-learning-math/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+kqed%2FnHAK+%28MindShift%29

Heitin, L. (2015, Aug 13). Common Core’s Focus on Concepts Is Key to Improving Math Education, Report Says. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2015/08/common_cores_focus_on_concepts_key_to_improving_math_education.html?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=curriculummatters

Parker, M., & Leinhardt, G. (1995). Percent: A Privileged Proportion. Review of Educational Research Winter 65. http://rer.sagepub.com/content/65/4/421.abstract

Hacker, A. (2016, Feb 27). The Wrong Way to Teach Math. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/opinion/sunday/the-wrong-way-to-teach-math.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

Cuban, L. (2016, Mar 10). The Wrong Way to Teach Math (Andrew Hacker). https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2016/03/10/the-wrong-way-to-teach-math-andrew-hacker/

Heitin, L. (2016, Feb 11). What We Know About Struggling Math Students According to PISA Results. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2016/02/what_we_know_about_students_who_struggle_international_math_test.html?r=1820170230&utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=curriculummatters See also OECD. (2016, Feb 10). Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed. http://www.oecd.org/edu/low-performing-students-9789264250246-en.htm

WestEd. Math in Common Evaluation. https://www.wested.org/project/math-in-common-evaluation/ See also Fong, T., Perry, R., Reade, F., Klarin, B., & Jaquet, K. (2016, Jan). Many Pathways to Student Success in Mathematics: Middle and High School Math Course Sequences and Placement Decisions in Math in Common Districts. https://www.wested.org/resources/many-pathways-to-student-success-in-mathematics/ and Perry, R, Finkelstein, N., Seago N., Heredia, A., Sobolew-Shubin, S., & Carroll, C. (2016, Jul). Taking Stock of Common Core Math Implementation: Supporting Teachers to Shift Instruction Insights from the Math in Common 2015 Baseline Survey of Teachers and Administrators. https://www.wested.org/resources/taking-stock-common-core-math-implementation/ and Flaherty Jr., J., Sobolew-Shubin, A., Heredia, A., Chen-Gaddini, M., Klarin, B., & Finkelstein, N. (2016, Sep 26). Under Construction: Benchmark Assessments and Common Core Math Implementation in Grades K–8. https://www.wested.org/resources/under-construction-benchmark-assessments-and-common-core-math-implementation-in-grades-k-8/ and Perry, R. R., Seago, N., Burr, E., Broek, M., Finkelstein, N. (2015, Jan 26). Classroom Observations: Documenting Shifts in Instruction for Districtwide Improvement. https://www.wested.org/resources/documenting-shifts-in-instruction/

Disare M. (2016, Feb 16). 75 Schools Will Overhaul Math Teaching, a Move Fariña Says Will Reduce Inequity. http://ny.chalkbeat.org/2016/02/16/75-schools-will-overhaul-math-teaching-a-move-farina-says-will-reduce-inequity/#.VsYgQ4-cE2w

More Comprehensive and Engaging Language Arts
Isken, J. A., Honig, B., & Jago, C. (2014, Nov 15). California’s Recently Adopted English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework: Translating the Common Core State Standards to a Coherent and Sequenced Curriculum for All Students. California Department of Education. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/rl/cf/resourceselaeld2016.asp

Yopp, H. (2015). Resource Guide to the Foundational Skills of the California Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. California Department of Education. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/rl/cf/documents/foundskillswhitepaper.pdf – search=Yopp 2015 Resource guide&view=FitH&pagemode=none

Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2013). Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Updated Second Edition. Novato, CA: Arena Press. http://www.corelearn.com/Products/Publications/

Diamond, L., & Thorsnes, B. J. (Eds.). (2008). Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures. 2nd Edition. Novato, CA: Arena Press. http://www.corelearn.com/Products/Publications/

Consortium on Reaching Excellence (CORE). http://www.corelearn.com/

National Council on Teacher Quality. (2014). Standard 2: Early Reading. What Consumers Need to Know About Teacher Preparation. http://www.nctq.org/dmsView/Teacher_Prep_Review_2014_Std2

Spear-Swerling, L. (2015). The Power of RTI and Reading Profiles: A Blueprint for Solving Reading Problems. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Diamond, L. & Gutlohn, L. (2006). Vocabulary Handbook. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes. http://www.corelearn.com/Products/Publications/

CORE. Word Intelligence. http://www.corelearn.com/word-intelligence.html

Core Knowledge. www.coreknowledge.org

Heitin, L. (2015, Oct 29). For Reading, Knowledge Matters More Than Strategies, Some Experts Say. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2015/10/for_reading_knowledge_matters_more_than_strategies.html?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=curriculummatters

Cobb, V. (2015, Jul 21). Why Reading to Learn Is Seldom Taught. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-cobb/why-reading-to-learn-is-s_b_7841040.html

History, Civics, Economics, Geography, Humanities, and the Fine Arts
National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). (2013). College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. http://www.socialstudies.org/c3

Science
NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. http://www.nextgenscience.org/

Hansel, L. (2015, Aug 27). Joy Hakim’s Science Stories: Proof that Informative Can Be Engaging. http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2015/08/27/joy-hakims-science-stories-proof-that-informative-can-be-engaging/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TheCoreKnowledgeBlog+%28The+Core+Knowledge+Blog%29

Other Crucial Student Learning
Stafford-Brizard, K. (2016). Building Blocks for Learning: A Framework for Comprehensive Student Development. Turnaround for Children. http://www.turnaroundusa.org/what-we-do/tools/

Tough, P. (2013). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Lavigne, A. L., & Good, T. L. (2014). Teacher and Student Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform. New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York and London: Routledge.

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