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July 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 9

Instructional Planning After a Year of Uncertainty

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During pandemic recovery, schools must be especially intentional about planning and pacing.

Instructional Strategies
Illustration of a lightbulb and students at a table
Oh, how things have changed. I never thought we would be in a virtual teaching space for this long. One pandemic year down and another school year quickly approaching. As many educators prepare to return in-person full-time this fall, there is one thing weighing heavy on our minds: How are we even possibly going to mitigate the likely gaps in students' progress?
During the transition from brick-and-mortar to virtual learning, I visited Zoom classrooms every day as a turnaround instructional coach. I saw firsthand how teachers quickly adjusted their instruction to meet the new demands of pandemic teaching. I saw their creativity in the use of instructional materials and the presentation of instructional content. But I also saw the stress on teachers' faces as they struggled to keep up with the academic demands of a "typical" school year, although nothing about this past year has been typical. Even in the early months of the pandemic, teachers felt like they were falling behind (Mader, 2021). Schools struggled to keep up with pacing, and student participation—whether it was in the form of student engagement during class, work completion, or attendance—was dwindling.
Although there has been much debate about how we conceptualize "learning loss" and the degree to which the pandemic has affected it (Dickler, 2021; Jacobson, 2021; Strauss, 2021), one thing is certain: the pandemic has likely exacerbated the instructional gaps that students already had, especially in the case of those who attend under-resourced schools and whose families or communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Now more than ever, it is imperative that we are strategic and intentional in our instructional planning decisions. While there have been variables outside of our control, such as economic issues and technical difficulties facing families, a variable that we can indeed control is the quality of instruction we provide to students. Now especially, it is incumbent upon us to do so.

Planning Starts in PLCs

Since the beginning of last school year, I've been inundated with emails from education companies promoting their wares to help schools close pandemic-related learning gaps. When it comes to student learning, however, I can't help but think about the more pivotal role teacher collaboration will play in mitigating instructional gaps this school year. One way that schools can get instructional planning right is by implementing vertical and horizontal professional learning communities (PLCs).
As we know, PLCs are collaborative educator teams that ensure all students learn by establishing a common mission and vision and shared values and goals; building collective knowledge; centering work and discussions on continuous improvement, student learning, and results; and being action oriented.
These learning communities were critical to student success prior to the pandemic, and they will be even more critical in the years to come. Why, exactly? Because this will be the first time in our careers that we will be responsible for recovering from such an enormous academic disruption. The days ahead will require an unprecedented level of collaboration, intentionality, and intensity from school faculty. The synergy that happens among teachers in well-run PLCs, in particular, can facilitate the kind of knowledge sharing and collective problem solving that will be necessary to positively impact teaching and learning.

Vertical Planning Teams

Curriculum alignment requires teachers to collaborate with other teachers in grades below and above the grade they teach. The collaboration that takes place in vertical planning teams yields pertinent, qualitative information about instruction and student learning that teachers can only get from colleagues in different grades. In the case of planning for learning gaps and learning loss, in the immediate and long-term, vertical teams will play a critical role.
Vertical planning teams will need to spend more time this year planning to make up for lost ground. Specifically, they will need to:
  • Identify and discuss essential standards (more on that later) that connect between grade levels.
  • Identify and discuss gaps in the essential standards between grade levels. For example, a gap can occur when (1) content previously taught at one grade level is now included in the standards of an earlier grade level, (2) previous grade-level standards don't fully prepare students for mastery of the standards in the subsequent grade(s), and (3) content skips grades (like when something is taught in 5th grade and not taught again until 7th grade).
  • Discuss what needs to be done to strengthen the coherence in the standards between the two grade levels. This will help prevent future learning gaps from surfacing because of holes in the cohesion of the curriculum.
  • Discuss essential standards that were not taught in the previous grade due to pandemic-related disruptions. Teams can use this qualitative data when planning for gaps.
  • Discuss students' readiness—the challenges they had with grade-level standards, and misconceptions students had at the end of the school year. Did the students master the prerequisite content? Do they have the knowledge and skills needed to begin mastering new content?
Coupling the qualitative data from these vertical planning conversations with quantitative assessment data will give teachers a better understanding of what students know and can do, as well as what students will need to know and be able to do.
Vertical planning impacts learning for all students by providing horizontal, grade-level teams with the information they need to fill gaps. When horizontal teams don't collaborate with teams above and below the grade they teach, teachers are forced to make assumptions about what their students have learned, especially when quantitative data is the sole source of information. With vertical planning, however, horizontal teams can make better informed decisions.

Horizontal Planning Teams

Made up of teachers who teach the same grade level, horizontal planning teams engage in ongoing collaboration to strengthen teaching and continuously improve student learning. In thinking about the multilayered work that teachers will have to tackle this upcoming school year (addressing previous grade-level standards, current grade-level standards, and varying differences in learning loss), before developing specific instructional plans, horizontal collaborative teams must spend time answering these critical questions:
  1. What are students expected to learn (with a focus on the content that is essential)?
  2. How much time will we allot to teaching the essential standards?
  3. How will we address the non-essential standards?
  4. How will we know that students learned the essential content?
  5. What learning experiences will we plan to support learning the essential content?
  6. What will we do for students who struggle and those who excel?
  7. What can we do to stay on pace?
In my work as an instructional coach and teaching and learning consultant, I've found that schools that have a large percentage of students with learning gaps and/or schools that get far behind in pacing do so because they don't make time to reflect on these kinds of questions. Instead, these schools go into the year without a plan and end up scrambling to teach essential standards or complex concepts.

Back to the Essentials

So, what is essential content? First, it is important to note that the terms essential standards (or "power standards") and essential content are often used interchangeably. However, I believe a nuance exists between the two. For example, consider a representative essential standard: divide whole numbers using the standard algorithm. When teaching this standard, in addition to teaching the algorithm, some teachers might include a focus on (and assess) students being able to define the terms dividend, divisor, and quotient. While memorizing these definitions won't adversely impact student learning, being able to define them won't impact student mastery. Therefore, these definitions would be considered non-essential content (and teaching them might adversely impact pacing) when teaching the essential standard.
Essential content is the requisite knowledge and skills students need to demonstrate mastery of the standard. Teachers determine the essential content by unpacking the standard and determining exactly what it is that students need to know, understand, and be able to do to demonstrate mastery.
Horizontal teams can identify essential standards using the REAL criteria, created by Horrell and Many (2014). REAL stands for:
  • Readiness: Requisite knowledge and skills students need for subsequent grades, courses, or classes.
  • Endurance: Knowledge and skills students will be able to use beyond their schooling.
  • Assessed: Knowledge and skills that will be assessed on high-stakes tests.
  • Leverage: Knowledge and skills that can be applied across disciplines.
Identifying essential standards and content will give schools the information they need to effectively plan for the multilayered work and pacing of instruction. This doesn't mean that teachers don't teach non-essential standards and content; what it does mean is that these things aren't instructional priorities.
Determining essential standards and content shouldn't be an arduous process. It can, however, become difficult to do when teachers have differences in opinion about which standards have endurance, readiness, and leverage—and which standards don't. To minimize conflict, I recommend that PLCs have a process in place for making decisions when all parties are not in agreement. Regardless of how challenging identifying essential standards becomes, collaborative teams must do the work. As noted in Horrell and Many (2014), the "instruction of essential concepts and skills is more effective than superficially 'covering' every concept in the textbook."
Once horizontal teams identify essential standards and content, they can begin mapping out the year.

Mapping Out the Year

Developing carefully thought-out instructional calendars is a key way for schools to plan for the pacing of instruction. When schools don't plan for pacing, they inadvertently plan to get off pace. To increase the chance of staying on pace, horizontal teams need to map out the school year by creating instructional calendars that indicate what they will teach, when they will teach it, and for how long they will teach it. Unlike in previous years, developing instructional calendars might be a more complex undertaking this year, because teams will likely have to fit in some previous grade-level content. When creating these calendars, horizontal teams also need to build in days for reteaching.

Triangulating the Data

I sometimes hear educators say that "data tells a story." This is only partially true. In fact, data only tells a story when we consider more than one data source or data point; this is known as data triangulation (in this case, the prefix, tri-, doesn't mean three). Unlike what is gleaned from a single data source or data point, data triangulation yields consistencies and inconsistencies about what students know and can do, which is critical when it comes to planning for learning.
Too often students are placed in remedial classes or inappropriate reading and math groups due to specious conclusions that are made based upon one data source or data point. To avoid this, we must spend time triangulating data to ensure that we provide all students with appropriate instruction that is aligned to their needs. This means that we need to consider quantitative and qualitative data, including end-of-year test scores, universal screening data, pre-assessment data, and teacher input.

Pre-Assessment for Learning

This year especially, we don't have time to waste. And we need to use the time that we do have strategically. Reteaching material that students already know and teaching remedial skills before moving on to grade-level content are not best practices. Unfortunately, this type of instruction happens all the time, exacerbating delays in student progress. This school year—and for as long as we teach students—I recommend that we make pre-assessment a regular practice.
Teachers can pre-assess before they teach a new standard or unit that is composed of several standards. Pre-assessments don't have to be long. For example, in a subject like science, teachers can task students with explaining why some places have four seasons to determine what they know about the Earth's tilt and orbit.
A few questions or a well-designed task that addresses the standards can provide useful information to inform instruction, allowing teachers to answer the following questions:
  1. What do my students already know?
  2. What can my students do?
  3. What learning gaps and misconceptions do my students have that will interfere with their mastery of the upcoming standard(s)?
  4. How will I address misconceptions and close learning gaps so that my students experience success with the upcoming standard(s)?
  5. What will I do for students who already know the content?
These assessments for learning provide teachers with the answers they need not only to plan for whole-group instruction, but also to address students' individual learning needs.

Focusing on remediation before moving on to grade-level standards isn't the answer.

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Accelerating Learning

As I mentioned, focusing on remediation before moving on to grade-level standards isn't the answer. Instead, schools should focus on acceleration (Rollins, 2014). In this case, to accelerate doesn't mean to go faster; it means teaching remedial content or pre-requisite content in context—when it is needed—as opposed to teaching it in isolation before moving on to grade-level standards. Well-designed pre-assessments will give teachers valuable information to teach students the remedial skills they'll need to be successful with grade-level expectations.

Checking for Understanding

Have you ever created and implemented an engaging, standards-aligned lesson and discovered at the end that students just didn't get it? If so, it was probably because you didn't plan to check for understanding during the lesson. Waiting until the end of a lesson to check for understanding is too late. Checking for understanding throughout the lesson will provide formative, real-time data, enabling you to make quick instructional pivots that are intentional and aligned to students' immediate instructional needs.
Asking questions and having students demonstrate their learning by showing their work are two easy and effective ways to check for understanding during a lesson. Be sure to sequence the questions and tasks in a logical order so that students move along a progression of learning. Plan to ask essential questions or have students show their work after each critical idea, concept, or skill you expect them to master by the end of the lesson.
All that being said, checking for understanding at the end of a lesson is just as important. Be sure to collect evidence that shows what students know and can do at the end of the lesson. This is the data you're going to use to make adjustments to upcoming lessons and activities.
Successfully getting through each lesson is every teacher's goal. However, a lesson can only be considered a success when students demonstrate that they learned the intended outcomes—the lesson's objective.

PLCs were critical to student success prior to the pandemic, and they will be even more critical in the years to come.

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The Road to Recovery

Since the pandemic began, there has been much speculation about its long-term impact on student learning. While we don't quite know the extent of learning loss students will have experienced, we do know that we have to do something to address it. The instructional planning teachers do in PLCs will be crucial to pandemic recovery. With the positive interdependence and focus on planning and problems of practice that characterize professional learning communities, I am confident that we can recover what was lost and fill the gaps.

Key Strategies to Address Instructional Gaps

  • Implement skills-based, flexible groups in reading and math in addition to groups based on readiness.

  • Use morning work and homework as opportunities to address previous grade-level content that students didn't master.

  • Spiral previous grade-level content throughout the school year.

  • Plan in vertical teams at the end of the school year, at the beginning of the school year, and before planning new instructional units.

Reflect and Discuss

How will vertical and horizontal PLC planning play a role in making up for your students' pandemic-related instructional gaps?

How might the REAL criteria, described here, help you determine what essential content should be covered?

What planning can you and your colleagues do prior to next school year to address potential instructional gaps?


Dickler, J. (2021, March 30). Virtual school resulted in 'significant' academic learning loss, study finds. CNBC.

Harwin, A., & Sparks, S. D. (2017, April 18). How parents widen—or shrink—academic gaps. Education Week.

Horrell, T., & Many, T. (2014). Prioritizing the standards using R.E.A.L. criteria. TEPSA News.

Mader, J. (2021, February 4). 5 ways schools hope to fight COVID-19 learning loss. Hechinger Report.

Rollins, S. P. (2014). Learning in the fast lane: 8 ways to put all students on the road to academic success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Strauss, V. (2021, March 10). What 'learning loss' really means. Washington Post.

Craig Simmons is a turnaround instructional coach in Atlanta Public Schools and owner of CAP Curriculum Educational Consulting and Services, LLC.

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