Since the dawn of the standards movement, bitter controversies have divided educators, leaders, and policy makers about standards. But there is one issue on which almost everyone agrees - there are too many standards and not enough to cover them.
Even the Common Core, and its many variations from one state to the next, suffer from the fatal assumption that each student needs only one year of learning. In the vast majority of schools where we work, students need two, three and sometimes more years to meet grade level requirements. Absent a 24-hour school day, this leaves teachers with the necessity of making choices about which standards to address and which ones to cut.
Two extremes prevail. First, teachers resolve to commit to high expectations, providing only grade-level instruction in a sink-or swim environment. I’ve been looking at data sets from the past two semesters in both large and small systems, and it’s not unusual to see 60-80% failure rates in core classes, the inevitable result of this Darwinian practice. But the other extreme is no prize either. Under the banner of “we must meet the students where they are,” teachers wind up with what I describe as the “eternal scaffold” in which students never catch up.
The only reasonable way to address these challenges is the use of Power Standards (or many variations on the theme, such as Priority Standards, Essential Standards, etc.). In addition, school administrators must acknowledge that if students spent 14 years getting into a literacy mess, they won’t emerge from it with a schedule that continues to depend upon the mythology of one period per day of English and one period per day of math. If they’re years behind - and many are - they need more time. Not after school, not Saturday school, not evening tutoring - they need more time during the school day.
Power standards meet three criteria: endurance, leverage, and necessity for the next level of instruction. By endurance, I mean that the standards recur year after year. For example, argumentative writing occurs in the elementary grades and continues to gain in importance every year thereafter. The same is true of using tables, charts, and graphs to display information. These are clearly Power Standards and deserve an exceptional amount of attention, well beyond a single unit of study. By leverage, I mean that the standard has applicability to more than one discipline and can be simultaneously emphasized by teachers in different classes. By necessity for the next level of instruction, I mean what students really need to excel at grade level. Every spring, 5th grade teachers frantically cover forty or more math standards to “get them ready for 6th grade,” but I’ve never heard a middle school math teacher request frantic coverage. They all need focus on about half a dozen essentials. The same is true of students going from 8th to 9th grade. They can safety punt the rhombus and parallelogram, but absolutely must master fraction and decimal operations.
I would not expect any state or provincial jurisdiction to identify Power Standards, because the political pressures at the state level are for coverage. Only schools and districts can make the tough choices to say out loud what we all know to be true - not every standard is important, and there are too many standards for the time we have available in the classroom.
If your educational system would like to learn more about practical ways to focus the curriculum, we’re happy to have a video conference to discuss it and learn more about the specific needs of your students and schools.