By Michael Schrimpf
Ensuring that teachers understand what hides inside each standard is a first and crucial step to helping students master each standard.
My wife and I have very different ideas about vacations, especially when it comes to packing and unpacking while travelling. I come from the, “why bother making the bed every morning, it just gets unmade again every night” school of thought. So, naturally, when it comes to packing and unpacking during a trip, I look at the weather reports, decide what I need to bring and stuff it in a suitcase. When I arrive, I typically unzip my suitcase and live directly out of it until it is time to go home. My wife on the other hand dutifully unpacks her suitcase when she arrives and puts everything in the correct drawers in the hotel room, just as she would at home. Regardless how many times I’ve been unable to find matching socks or something else I needed from my suitcase, I’ll never admit that my wife’s approach might be better than mine. But when it comes to the process of unpacking the Common Core State Standards, she just might be on to something.
When adopting new learning standards, one of the most common first steps is to unpack those standards and define in very specific terms exactly what students should know and be able to do to master a given standard by the end of the year. In a way, this is like my approach to packing. I look at the weather forecast, decide what I need, and make sure everything is in the suitcase. But unless I take the extra step of organizing everything when I arrive, things still get lost.
So what does this look like when we switch from socks and underwear to the Common Core? The process is fairly simple, though not necessarily easy. In a nutshell, it begins by unpacking each of the Common Core standards into statements of knowledge and skill that define student mastery by the end of the year. But even when unpacked, the standards are rigorous and complex. Students need to wrestle with them in different contexts and with decreasing levels of support until they are capable of mastery. Done properly, this takes students at least an entire school year, if not longer. This reality has significant implications on the process of unit planning. To meet the complex demands of the Common Core by the end of the school year, students are going to need to work towards them in multiple units throughout the year. So the second step in the unpacking process is to identify which standards appear in each unit. Once these units have been identified, the final step is to define exactly how much of a standard needs to be mastered in each unit so that students master it completely by the end of the year. For example, if I want students to be able to conduct research on a topic of their choosing and to use their research to write an argument essay, I might want to make sure that by the end of unit 1 students have read a number of argument essays and can identify techniques that the authors used to make their arguments effective. Perhaps in the next unit I would want to make sure that my students knew and were able to use techniques to conduct effective research and evaluate the credibility of their sources. Essentially, it is a process of defining a particular standard by unpacking it, then developing benchmarks based on how that standard was unpacked and the units in which it appears.
This is one of the approaches that we use at Premier Charter School (PCS) to help our teachers plan and deliver rigorous instruction and help our students master the content they need to become college- and career-ready. PCS serves nearly 1,000 students in grades K-8 drawn from across St. Louis. Over 70% of PCS students receive free or reduced-price lunch, nearly 20% receive special education services, and more than 20% are English language learners. When students arrive at PCS, typically less than two in 10 are reading and using math at grade level. Yet by the time they graduate, the gap has closed and our students have met or exceeded state proficiency averages. In fact, 79% of last year’s 8th-grade algebra students passed the state’s high school algebra 1 exam. This far exceeds the state average of 62% of students who pass this exam, even though most students who take this exam are in high school. Most important, upon graduation from 8th grade, over 95% of our graduates are accepted into the competitive-entrance high school of their choice.
So how exactly does this unpacking process work? Let’s take a look using an example from math. In 7th-grade math, the Common Core wants students to “identify the constant of proportionality (unit rate) in tables, graphs, equations, diagrams, and verbal descriptions of proportional relationships.” Our first task is to unpack this standard so we understand what students need to know and be able to do to meet it by the end of the school year. Countless resources are available to help with the initial unpacking process. At Premier, we typically use the Instructional Support Tools for Achieving New Standards from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (http://www.dpi.state.nc.us/acre/standards/common-core-tools/) and the Progressions Documents for the Common Core Math Standards from the University of Arizona (http://math.arizona.edu/~ime/progressions/). Using these tools, we determined that to meet this standard, students would need to understand and be able to define the concept of a unit rate, be able to determine the unit rate in a proportional relationship that is given in multiple forms (table, graph, equation, etc.) and be able to describe a given proportional relationship in terms of its unit rate.
Math is a particularly difficult subject to plan for because we need to understand exactly what each standard calls for, but we also need to understand best practices related to how students build understanding of given topics. We use the previously mentioned Progressions Documents. These resources helped us determine that the standard in question — finding a unit rate in a proportional relationship — is only one of many strategies students can use to solve proportional situations. Thus, instruction on this topic needs to occur as part of a broader unit on solving proportional situations using a variety of strategies.
Once we developed a very thorough understanding of this particular standard, how to define student mastery of it, and what role it should play in instruction, we were ready to unpack it into units. We found that the best way to do this is to begin with what you already have. Particularly in math, most schools use a math text series of some kind. So start there, and look at how each standard is covered throughout the year. At Premier, we use the Connected Math Project 3 as our math text in the middle school. So once we understood our standards and how they should be taught, we audited our texts to determine how they are taught. In the case of the unit rate standard, we found that in unit 2 students study shapes to determine if they have a common scale factor. In unit 3 they compare different rates of increase and decrease in proportional situations, and in unit 4 students determine linear relationships using tables, charts, graphs and equations. Armed with this information, it wasn’t very difficult for us to determine that in unit 2 students need some additional time building a conceptual understanding of the idea of unit rate. In unit 4 they also needed work solving proportional situations presenting in a variety of ways using unit rate and other strategies. So when we began the process of unit planning, we were able to implement this additional instruction where needed. Incidentally, Elementary and Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally is a wonderful resource to use because it is full of specific and practical strategies and activities that can be used in the classroom to develop conceptual understanding of mathematics topics.
Admittedly, all this sounds like a lot of work and it is. But I can also say that everyone at Premier understands the standards much more thoroughly as a result. With this understanding also has come knowledge of what students need to be doing on a regular basis to master these standards. I meet with teachers weekly to discuss their curriculum, and I frequently hear teachers say that for the first time, even since they were children and first learned about it in school, they completely understand a particular concept or topic. Not only do they understand it, but they now are able to find ways to make it come to life for students so that everyone will be able to understand.
The most significant advantage of this approach to mapping curriculum is that it allows anyone to see exactly what students should know and be able to do at the end of the year to master a given standard, when instruction will be focused on that standard, and what students will be doing with the standard each time they work with it. Once standards have been unpacked in this way, planning units of study and lessons becomes much clearer. This approach also helps us ensure that no standards get lost in the shuffle and are taught well enough that students will be able to master them by year’s end.
This approach also lets us further unpack standards in order to differentiate instruction for students who need extra time and support to reach mastery. Once a standard has been unpacked, placed in units, and mastery has been defined for each of the units, teachers can identify the most critical information and skills for students to master in each unit and provide additional instruction and support focused primarily on these essentials. At Premier, we have an extensive after-school program for students who need extra support, and we’ve been able to use these essentials as the basis of instruction for this program.
This process is also very helpful at the end of the year when we receive assessment data. We can quickly and easily look at the data, identify skills students have and have not mastered, then go directly back into the curriculum and determine how often each standard was taught, when it was taught, and exactly how students interacted with the standards each time they were taught. This makes the yearly process of adjusting curriculum much quicker and more effective.
While this process is very straightforward, doing it effectively can be challenging. At Premier, we’ve learned a few things that might be useful to another school interested in this undertaking.
Getting the initial unpacking right is critical. Without a clear picture of where students need to be at the end of the year, it is virtually impossible to identify the things they need to do in each unit to get there. We found that this initial unpacking is best done in vertical teams. It would be best to complete this work with a team that represents all grades in a school or district. However, there are a number of reasons why this may not be practical. At Premier, we used grade bands to create our teams. For example, our 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-grade teachers worked together to unpack the 6th- to 8th-grade standards. On a related note, we found that beginning by unpacking the 8th-grade version of a standard was most effective. Once we defined what an 8th grader could do at the end of the year, we were able to modify that description for a 7th grader and again for a 6th grader so that by the end, we had a clear picture of what students at each grade should be able to do to meet the demands of the Common Core by the end of 8th grade. Once complete, representatives of elementary, middle, and high school teams can meet to share expectations at the various transition points (5th grade to 6th grade for example).
Resist thinking about instruction until you have first defined mastery. When defining what a particular standard would look like in a given unit, thinking in terms of inputs rather than outcomes was pretty easy. Time and again, teachers found themselves identifying activities they wanted students to do. This is definitely a step in the process. But that step comes during unit and lesson planning. The goal of unpacking is not to create a year-long set of lesson plans but to create a blueprint that shows what students should know and be able to do and when and how often they are going to be doing these things to meet a particular goal by the end of the year. It is also meant to define how teachers’ expectations for students will change throughout the year so they can eventually do what is called for independently.
While this process makes sense to the teachers who plan lessons and assessments, it also must make sense to students. Students have to understand what they will be expected to know and be able to do by the end of the year. They also need to know that they will be working toward these goals a little bit at a time, and they need to see that what they learned in unit 1 and in unit 3 go together to help them reach mastery for that particular standard. The best way for students to do these things is by making processing and reflection a regular part of each unit. One way would be to start at the beginning of the year by giving students a list of standards they will be expected to master during the year and how they have been unpacked. These could go into a journal that students keep with one standard per page. At the end of each unit — or even periodically throughout each unit — students could be asked to consider the things they learned during the unit and how they align to the standards. They could then turn to the page of a particular standard and write a brief summary of what they did during the unit that connected with that standard and how. By the end of the year, students should have a clear picture of why they did everything they did that year, how the different pieces fit together and how they fit with each standard. This way, when a student is asked to write an argument essay or determine unit rate for example, he or she can think back to everything that connected to the standard of writing an argument essay and pull from all of them to complete the task. This also gives students the opportunity to evaluate themselves throughout and at the end of the year to determine whether they know and can actually do everything the standards call for them to know and be able to do.
Seek expert help. We were fortunate to partner with two curriculum experts. Linda Henke of the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership has provided guidance and training on unit planning and unpacking standards. We also have gotten a great deal of support specifically in the area of mathematics. Amber Candela from the University of Missouri-St. Louis is an expert in mathematics instruction and has been working with teacher teams to both understand content and study best practices of math instruction. We also benefit greatly from having a full time math coach, Christy Wohlgemuth, to provide support, guidance, and professional development. Without their expertise, work of this kind would be far more difficult.
The odds are pretty good that I’m going to continue wearing mismatched socks and a black belt with brown shoes while on vacation for the rest of my life. But this approach to curriculum planning has been very useful in helping Premier Charter School develop a thoughtful, rigorous, and well-aligned curriculum that we’ll be able to use to help students master the demands of the Common Core State Standards for years to come. Just don’t ask if I remembered to pack a toothbrush.
MIKE SCHRIMPF is assistant head of school at Premier Charter School, St. Louis, Mo.
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