Power Standards

I first wrote about “Power Standards” 15 years ago in response to the concerns of teachers who, when faced with the emerging blizzard of state standards, found that they could not possibly address all of them.  Robert Marzano famously analyzed one state’s standards and found that coverage of all the standards was entirely reasonable, as long as teachers had more than two decades to address the standards designed for a K-12 system.  In a still-important article in Educational Leadership (September, 2001) Marzano said, “if you cut the standards down by two-thirds, you've made it possible for teachers to cover the essential knowledge in the time allotted.”  About the same time, I suggested three criteria for winnowing down academic standards:  endurance (the standard will be foundational for student learning over several years), leverage (the standard will help students achieve in many disciplines), and standards which are essential for the next level of learning.  In addition to Bob Marzano, other authors, including Larry Ainsworth and James Popham, added to the call for a focus on fewer standards with greater impact.  Despite these calls for focus, the authors of standards – at that time state departments of education – were less than enthusiastic about suggesting to teachers that anything less than comprehensive coverage was acceptable.  Said one state official, “I’ll tell you what the Power Standards are – all of them!”

            When the Common Core State Standards were introduced, one of the key claims by their proponents was that they were “fewer and focused,” something that many people – most of all classroom teachers – welcomed.  So where are we after more than a decade and a half of talking about the need for focus in academic standards?  Ask a teacher near you, and you are likely to find the same phenomenon as in the past – too many standards and not enough time.  Although the claim that the Common Core represents “fewer and focused” standards is true – particularly compared to some of the voluminous state standards – the Common Core still rests upon the very flawed assumption that teachers need to provide one grade-level of standards to each class in one year.  In many educational systems, however, a significant number of students require two or more years of grade-level learning – all to be learned in a single academic year. 

            If we fail to prioritize the standards, then each classroom teacher will make the decisions for what is covered – and what is not.  This can lead to curriculum by default rather than by design.  The three principles of Power Standards remain essential today. First, consider the issue of endurance – those standards that students use year after year.  The Common Core does an excellent job of this, and a very useful exercise is to highlight the common themes that occur in the two years before and after the grade level you are teaching.  Second, identify those that have leverage – nonfiction writing is a good place to start, as emphasizing this critical skill will help students in every subject.  Third, in a dialog with teachers at the next grade level, identify the knowledge and skills that are absolutely essential for success next year.  I’ve never heard a 5th grade teacher advise a 4th grade colleague, “You really need to cover everything.”  Rather, teachers in the next year can provide a brief and focused list of essentials. While I find much to admire about the Common Core, there remains much work to be done to make the practical implementation of these standards a reality.    Establishing Power Standards in every district would be a good start.