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September 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 1

Tools for Teachers

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Five useful tools help teachers make sense of the standards, design classroom activities and assessments, and differentiate achievement levels.

In state departments of education and content-area councils, educators have had passionate discussions about standards. Missing from the discussions, however, have been classroom teachers, the people who are responsible for implementing the content and performance standards. The majority of teachers haven't had an opportunity to discuss standards—to own them, breathe life into them, and incorporate them into the curriculum.
During a two-year period, we worked with 80 teachers from three districts in Rhode Island who had not had the opportunity to engage in discussions about standards. In their case, however, the state department that developed the K–12 standards also funded a professional development component to help teachers understand the new standards. Through a state-sponsored grant, Crossing Boundaries, volunteer teachers from Coventry, West Warwick, and Westerly worked together to improve their understanding of the state standards documents. Using the five tools that we developed, participants were able to think their way through the standards and understand how the intent of the standards could be incorporated within the curriculum.

Tool 1: The Sentence Diagram

Anyone who has ever read a standards statement knows that a single sentence can include a complex aggregate of content knowledge. When some teachers read standards for the first time, their initial reaction is "I haven't got a clue what this means!" or "Why can't they write in plain English?"
The first tool, diagramming, helps teachers clarify and simplify multifaceted standards statements. We patterned the tool after the base diagram that many of us remember using in grammar courses to illustrate relationships among words in a sentence. The subject of the standard, often assumed, is the student who is expected to attain the knowledge. The verb generally describes how we teach or assess the learning goal. The direct object of the verb explains the most important part of the standard—the content. Diagramming helps practitioners identify the core knowledge embedded in the lengthy statement.
For example, the following sentence is a complex standard in language arts for students in grades 5–8: "Identify and use main ideas and supporting details in informational texts or elements, such as key events, main characters, and setting in narratives" (Connecticut State Department of Education, 1998, p. 59). Embedded in this standard are components of two learning goals: one that deals with the elements of fiction and another that deals with the elements of informational text. The diagramming tool helps teachers distill crucial pieces of learning goals from this standard.
During a professional development session, the diagramming activity prompted such questions as "What am I supposed to emphasize?" and "Where is the new learning in this statement?" When the process works well, it prompts teachers to make sense of the standards.

Tool 2: A Roll of the Die

We might think that designing standards-based lessons would be simple once we clarified the learning goal. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Recent studies by Robert Marzano and Robert J. Kendall (1996), Lynn Erickson (1998), and Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (1998) point out the crucial role that teachers play in selecting what kind of knowledge to emphasize. Take, for example, the previous standard statement. One teacher might choose to emphasize the concept of main idea. Another teacher might decide to teach students how to find the main idea. Still another might decide to have students use the skill to write strong paragraphs.
To help teachers see the aspects of knowledge that could or should be emphasized in a lesson, we first explain the six categories of knowledge: factual knowledge, knowledge of concepts, major principles, knowledge of skills or strategies, habits of mind, and the application of knowledge during problem solving. To distinguish among these categories, we designed a professional development activity that uses the six sides of a die to represent the categories of knowledge. During this activity, teachers look at a specific performance standard from each of the six perspectives.
Teachers who used this tool expressed surprise: "I never thought that I could teach main idea as a concept and as a skill!" Others saw the six-sided die as a way to increase the quality of student learning outcomes: "Now I see how I can make my learning outcomes more challenging for my students. I need to incorporate all types of learning for students, not just facts." Still others saw a spectrum of learning opportunities open up for their students:I could teach this piece of knowledge from six different perspectives. It's just a matter of deciding what to pick for my particular group of students within the time frame. All of a sudden, I have a whole new educational wardrobe to try on.

Tool 3: The Mannequin

The wardrobe metaphor is an apt way to think about the next professional development tool, the mannequin. When we pick out our clothes each day, we make a series of decisions, each informing the next. We start by choosing an essential article of clothing, such as a skirt or trousers. With that in mind, we pick out a blouse or shirt that matches. Finally, we add accessories—a tie or jewelry—to make the right fashion statement.
A content standard is like a semiclothed mannequin. It contains one aspect of a "fully dressed" standards statement—the content knowledge that students should acquire. The content standard needs at least two other components to be fully dressed: an assessment technique and performance criteria that describe various levels of student expertise.
To develop these two components, teachers create assessments that are aligned with knowledge goals and performance criteria. In this phase of our work, teachers make three decisions, just as we did when we picked out our clothes for the day. First, they identify the content knowledge and category. Second, they select an aligned form of assessment (a quiz, reader response, or lab report, for example). Finally, they match the assessment with criteria for student performance.
Our challenge, as we move from a general content standard to a clear and specific performance standard or benchmark, is to carefully select items of "apparel" that fit our students and the curriculum. To illustrate, let's use a content standard from Kendall and Marzano's (1997) compendium, Content Knowledge. One of the content standards for K–2 economics is "Knows that goods are objects that can satisfy people's wants and services are activities that can satisfy people's wants." This content standard is not fully dressed because it contains no assessment strategy or performance criteria.
After reading the content standard, a 2nd grade teacher identified the content knowledge as goods and services. She designed an assessment that asked students to define these two terms in their own words and to list three original examples. Her performance criteria included aspects of accuracy and originality. By attending to these three elements—content knowledge, assessment techniques, and performance criteria—the teacher transformed a general standards statement into a measurable benchmark.

Tool 4: Twenty Questions

We've all heard the expression, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." That saying also applies to students and standards. Although teachers can agree on powerful learning goals, appropriate forms of assessment, and criteria for student performance on those assessments, engaging students is quite another matter.
  • Do all writers organize their writing around main ideas?
  • What is "main" about a main idea?
  • How do we know when a detail is supporting and when it is insignificant?
  • How do people use main ideas in their everyday lives?
  • Is theme the same as main idea?
  • Can a protagonist ever be a main idea?
  • How do people locate the main idea?
  • Can a piece of writing have more than one main idea?
  • How do you find a main idea in a lengthy passage?
Teachers would probably never use an entire set of 20 questions. Individually, however, the questions function as advance organizers, reflection questions for journal entries, topics for class discussions and conferences, diagnostic assessments, and the basis for performance evaluations. They promote relevance, student thinking, engagement, and active learning—all prerequisites to enhance student achievement.
Teachers who use this tool during professional development sessions have remarked on the ability of the questions to promote student inquiry. In fact, the questions are intriguing to the teachers themselves.

Tool 5: The Ladder

Common concerns we've heard about standards revolve around issues of standardization, differentiation, challenge, equity, high expectations for all students, and developmentally appropriate learning. We share these concerns. To address them, first we must accept the premise that potential differences in students' prior knowledge should not only influence our selection of appropriate learning goals, but also drive the differentiated opportunities that we create for student learning around those goals. This guiding principle can create a challenging, standards-based curriculum and offer growth to all learners, not just those "in the middle."
The ladder helps teachers provide all students with the opportunity to address the same learning goal, but at escalating levels of complexity or sophistication. A simple diagram of a four-rung ladder provides the visual metaphor for such tiered learning (Tomlinson, 1999).
At the top of the page, teachers write the standard. Then, teachers consider students' prior knowledge at the lesson's onset. On the lowest rung, teachers describe what all students already know about this standard. On the second rung, teachers describe knowledge that many students already have about the standard. On the third rung, teachers describe knowledge that few students possess. On the fourth rung, teachers describe what no one in the class knows.
At this point, teachers often remark, "Look what we wrote on the few rung. It's the same as our grade-level benchmark." We usually follow this observation with a discussion about the need to extend teaching and learning opportunities for students who are on different rungs of prior knowledge. In some classrooms, students who are either above or below grade level make up at least 30 percent of the class. Without such changes, they would be —alized by standards-based education.
Teachers' comments about the ladder are revealing. "Now I have a starting point for some of my beginning learners," said one teacher. "I don't have to guess about where to begin with my advanced learners anymore," said another.

Including Teachers

Standards will have an impact on equity and student achievement only after teachers have the time and opportunity to understand them, to own them, and to reshape curriculum and instruction through discussions with their colleagues. These tools can open critical dialogues and lead to reflection about the meaning and intent of the standards. Teachers tell us that these discussions take time, but it is time well spent. As one teacher reflected, the discussions "offer hope for raising expectations and making education better for all students."

Connecticut State Department of Education. (1998). The Connecticut framework: K–12 curriculum goals and standards. Hartford: Author.

Erickson, H. L. (1998). Concept-based curriculum and instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Kendall, J. S., & Marzano, R. J. (1997). Content knowledge: A compendium of standards and benchmarks for K–12 education. (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (1996). Designing standards-based districts, schools, and classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Deborah Burns has a 44-years background as a K–8 classroom teacher and pull-out program provider, as well as experience with district, regional, and university administrator positions. During her 17 years as a district central office curriculum administrator, Burns worked closely with teacher leaders to redesign the district's curriculum to align with standards. She has authored district-level Response to Intervention, gifted education, English language, and formative assessment systems and designed a blended, standards-based, and continuous progress instruction and assessment system. Her teaching and administrative experience involves all K–8 subject areas, with an emphasis on differentiation, intervention, gifted education, and remediation. She has delivered presentations at international, national, state, and regional conferences and institutes but spends most of her time facilitating district- and school-level professional learning and program redesign sessions and meetings.

Burns has authored and coauthored books and journal articles related to curriculum design, standards-based teaching, higher-level thinking, differentiation, and problem-based learning.

ASCD Faculty Expertise:
  • Differentiated Instruction Cadre Member

  • Curriculum Design

  • Assessment

  • Response to Intervention

  • Gifted Education


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