Schmoker on Achievement

Mike Schmoker, “The Real Causes of Higher Achievement.”  More common sense:

Too many educators suffer from the assumption that student achievement is largely a function of factors over which we have little or no control. The logic of this assumption is compelling: well-situated schools perform well; poor and minority schools don’t — and can’t.

It is time to dump this assumption. It should be replaced by a new one: Achievement is primarily a function of two things: (1) What we teach and (2) how we teach.

There is great hope in this for students and educators alike. If true, then we can’t dodge the fact that from the district level to the classroom, opportunities abound for us to achieve better results — confidently, inexorably — with our students. How strong is the evidence for this assumption?

. . . For all our so-called common curriculum, very little has been done — let’s be honest — to ensure that the taught and the tested curriculum are aligned.

Prominent researchers have noted this discrepancy, including John Goodlad and colleagues who wrote that “behind the classroom door” all bets are off on what actually gets taught (1970). Judith Warren Little noted the discrepancy as well, finding curricular differences among English teachers to be so wildly divergent that even to call these courses by the same name — “English” — made no sense to her (1990).

Susan Rosenholtz found that teachers teach a self-selected “jumble” of different topics and that getting them to teach to common standards is perhaps the toughest challenge schools face (1991). David Berliner detected the same pattern in his studies, that in the same grade and in the same school, one teacher taught 27 times as much science as her same-grade counterparts. No one in the school knew this until researchers came into the school (1979). . . .

Teacher supervision has made its bargain with this “anything goes” culture. It typically does almost nothing to ensure — or to monitor — a commitment to a common, assessed curriculum. The results can be dismaying. I once interviewed a “teacher of the year” at one school who bragged that her social studies students did almost no reading or writing. She scoffed at writing — learning in her class was all interactive and hands-on. Did her principal know this? I closely observed a team of teachers known for a particularly engaging month-long language arts unit they had developed. In what was supposed to be an English class, students watched movies, worked with paper and fabric, and prepared food together. But actual reading during that month was kept to a minimum, and there was no writing instruction whatsoever. . . .

I recently completed a study of five school districts and a number of schools that do something startlingly simple but effective: They carefully examine their year-end or state assessments and then, very deliberately, build most of their curriculum around these assessed standards (Schmoker 2001). One of the first discoveries teachers in these districts make is that even norm-referenced tests largely consist not of irrelevant “lower-order” skills, but of incontrovertibly essential, core standards—all of which are best taught in meaningful, authentic contexts. Even Grant Wiggins, a prominent voice for authentic performance assessment, points out that the very best kind of education promotes success on state and standardized tests (1998, 320).

In these five school districts, teachers create, share, and refine lessons and strategies that are deliberately aligned to the assessed standards. They take pains to ensure that teaching is aligned with instruction. All of them get exceptional results.

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