Written by the Atlas Team featuring resources prepared by Janet Hale, Education Consultant and Author

Standards aid teachers in designing aligned curriculum that represents what students need to know, understand, and be able to do in each grade level or course. Janet Hale, education consultant and author, recognizes the importance of ensuring that teachers are able to interpret, understand, and build their curriculum around education standards. Her proven process of achieving cohesive and aligned curriculum is three steps: developing standards fluency, thinking about standards systemically, and considering standards with respect to other instructional resources.

Develop Standards Fluency

To become fluent in education standards, teachers need to be aware of and understand both the structure and function of the standards. Understanding the word choices and structures of the standards helps demystify the intent of each standard. Just learning how to recognize, interpret, and analyze standards based on structure-and-function can help teachers increase their standards literacy, which will aid them in making better choices when designing student learning, as well as resource selection. Below are some components to keep in mind.

“How are standards talking to us?”

Sometimes there are guides (or keys) for standards.

Be sure to orient yourself to understand how standards are formatted before beginning. There are often guides at the top or bottom of the page, but sometimes they are found in ancillary documents. A guide or key might clarify, for example, that words in italics are defined in the glossary, or bulleted items are required to be learned.

Know that the parenthetical use of e.g. means for example (e.g.).  When (e.g.) appears within a standard, it means that the examples that standard contains are just that: examples. Teachers should not feel limited by what is included in the example when developing curriculum. There is room for additional learning, if appropriate.

The use of “such as” or etc. is the same as (e.g.).  Some standards-creators prefer to use the terms “such as” or “etc.” rather than an e.g., abbreviation within parentheses. The message and purpose are identical: providing readers with examples.

The use of (i.e.) “that is” indicates something that must be done or included.  No wiggle room here. The information listed in the parentheses must take place or be included in the student learning expectations. In most cases, the i.e. is left out and the requirements are simply within the parentheses.

The word “including” means the same as (i.e.).  When a standard uses ‘including…’ it is conveying that what follows this term must be part of the learning expectations. This does not mean that the learning is limited to what is “included,” it simply indicates that what is included is non-negotiable.

The use of “or” in a standard may signify choice.  “Or” is tricky when reading and interpreting standards. If the standard is for a grade-level band (e.g., Grades K-2), it indicates an opportunity for teachers to select which grade level, or potential grade levels, will be responsible for the standard, or portion thereof. The use of and/or is also tricky because it depends on the context used in the standard. In this case it needs an agreed-upon interpretation to determine how teachers will choose to design the learning based on the requirement of the standard.

One standard may be composed of multiple standards.

For example, a standard reads, “AP.1.3 Describe the importance of proteins in cell function and structure. Give specific examples of proteins and their functions and describe how proteins are synthesized.”  There are actually three mini-standards in this one standard:

  • Describe the importance of proteins in cell function and structure.
  • Give specific examples of proteins and their functions.
  • Describe how proteins are synthesized.

Therefore, this standard may appear in multiple units of study, each time focusing on one or more of the three standard components. The decision will be based on the curriculum the teachers are designing. It is important for teachers to be aware that there may be times wherein several different requirements will be contained in what appears to be, at first, one standard directive.

To support standards fluency and elevate curriculum alignment, we offer standards-specific professional development.

Think About Standards Systemically

Standards are oftentimes created for K-12, while considering pre-K and college implications as well. Therefore, they need to be read and understood from a systemic perspective. When reading standards, focus is often too narrow when only looking at standards for our individual grades or courses. Consider this metaphor:

In an Oak grove, each tree and its corresponding root system is separate and independent.  This is similar to many individual classrooms where teachers independently develop curriculum and teach in isolation. In contrast, an Aspen grove is comprised of one root system that appears to be multiple trees, when in actuality they are interdependent; all of the trees stem from one seed. Standards are like an Aspen grove. The learning outcomes sprout from the standards, which take root in PreK or K and progress through the years to what students need to know, understand, and be able to do upon graduation.

This systemic lens requires teachers to read the standards collaboratively to build a comprehensive and aligned curriculum for their students. The realization that each course a student takes has a set of standards that builds and relies upon what comes before and after leads to the intentional scaffolding of skills within and across all grade levels. The following protocol aids in supporting a systemic approach for interpreting standards:

Establish context and goal(s).

If teachers are not intimately familiar with the standards, start with the standards themselves based on the context: what do our students really need to learn from a systemic lens? If teachers have developed standards literacy and truly command what the standards are conveying in and among grade levels or courses, the context and goals will vary based on current strategic planning or goals. For example, a context may be a STEAM lens to aid in designing new or revised units of study.

Ensure standards literacy.

Make sure teachers have the tools and literacy for reading and interpreting the function and structure of the standards. The more complete and in-depth their understanding when reading the standards, the more teachers will be able to collaboratively and systemically take ownership of their curriculum alignment and instruction.

Explain a planned timeframe.

Create a pre-planned meeting timeline that allows teachers to meet across grade level or courses to read the standards together. Analyze and discuss their meaning and nuances as part of the to-be-designed or revised curriculum. The reason for including “overlapping grades” in each successive mini-team meeting is to ensure that prior-and-future learning is known and understood by all grades to eliminate learning gaps or redundancies.

Consider Standards with Respect to Instructional Resources

Standards do not indicate how students should be taught. Based on the architecture of curriculum, teachers have the empowered freedom to select the best resources and learning activities that will bring the curriculum alignment to life. To do this, however, it is important to remember that teachers must be able to read, understand, and interpret their standards with confidence so that they can take ownership of their resource selections.

When teachers have a comprehensive understanding of their standards, they begin to say: we have power over our resources instead of them having power over us. As professionals, teachers are better equipped to select and use resources effectively to achieve our learning goals. Without an intimate understanding of the standards, there is a danger that we will see our resources (such as textbooks) as “the curriculum.”

Teachers need to “own” their standards systemically and with fluency now more than ever due to the ever-increasing Open Educational Resources (OER) and for-profit “standards aligned” resources. While these materials can be great resources, it’s critical that teachers are able to determine, based on informed decision-making, if the resource(s) fit seamlessly into the larger framework of the curriculum in and across grade levels or courses.

Teachers need to listen closely and collaboratively to the standards speaking to determine if there is a gap between what the standards are truly asking of our students versus assuming that the current resources or potential resources are accurately aligned with our agreed-on standards interpretation. Teachers both design the systemic and aligned curriculum and use their expertise to build the best teaching environments and experiences that will make learning meaningful, powerful, and lasting.

Elevate the work of teachers with professional development designed to improve standards fluency and systemic thinking for aligned curriculum.

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