How not to get distracted by educational fads

DA CAO Summit speaker Mike Schmoker says leaders must focus exclusively on three key concepts
By: | September 4, 2019
Former administrator and DA CAO Summit speaker Mike Schmoker says three things that matter most in schools: the right kind of curriculum, literacy and effective instruction.Former administrator and DA CAO Summit speaker Mike Schmoker says three things that matter most in schools: the right kind of curriculum, literacy and effective instruction.

Have you been distracted lately by a hot educational trend? You’re probably not alone among public school leaders.

Author and former administrator Mike Schmoker offers this warning: Research shows little evidence that many of these fads have significantly improved achievement. Schmoker will discuss what curriculum directors should pay attention to when he delivers his featured talk, “Teaching and Leading with Focus,” at District Administration’s upcoming CAO Summit in Chicago, September 25-27.

With only so many hours in a day, what should leaders and teachers prioritize?

To lead with focus is to pay attention to the things that matter most—almost to the near exclusion of all else—or as much as you can. In schools, there are three things that matter most: the right kind of curriculum, literacy and effective instruction.

I can already hear some grumbling from our readers, but what falls into the category of “all else”?

There are a large number of popular but unproven programs and initiatives that populate the school improvement terrain—things like differentiated instruction, an overemphasis on new forms of grading, and reducing class size.

Reducing class size can have some benefits, but it doesn’t compare to the benefits of the things that I emphasize. I mention all of these things because there are pretty good studies on each one indicating that they are nowhere near as strong as we think they are.

So how do administrators and teachers reset to build a better curriculum?

For everything English language arts-related, start with a review of the state standards. You have to decide which ones are most important, and this job ought to get done pretty quickly. It can be done by a single team of teachers at a school.


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Once you do that, you can teach them any way you want, but make sure you don’t decide to teach more standards than can be meaningfully taught during a nine-month school year.

Then, the name of the game—and this brings us right up against literacy—is you want to see a far larger amount of text being read than we’ve ever had before. We’ve drifted away from an emphasis on text.

OK, let’s go back. Why did you single out ELA?

In English language arts, you have to stop and consider how different the curriculum standards are. We really would be smart to ignore the great preponderance of what are called “Engish language arts standards.” There are too many of them, and they are written in confusing language.

Some really profound landmark studies have found that the Common Core standards for English language arts , just like the state-level predecessors, are sending teachers in umpteen directions.

Now, let’s talk about—or, rather, focus on—literacy.

Everyone knows that literacy consists of abundant amounts of reading, and talking and writing purposefully about what we read. Those are supreme, and they almost form standards by themselves, which are vastly superior to the hyperparsed, hyperdelineated Common Core standards.


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We’d be so smart to specify right within the curriculum for English and every other course the proper amount of reading, discussion and writing. I don’t think we’re getting enough writing, which is one of the most vital elements for preparing students for college.

If we don’t spell out the number of writing assignments each year for every course, students will not write enough to prepare themselves for the future.

And how does that all come together to improve instruction?

A host of research has been telling us for decades that you can’t get around certain fundamental elements of good instruction, starting with what it is that’s going to be learned each day. When students know that, the odds that students will learn what they need to learn skyrocket. Give the students some sense of why what they’re learning for the day is worth learning.

That is followed by intentionally teaching the content or skill in small, manageable chunks, with an opportunity for the students to practice that skill, such as building a short list comparing and contrasting two literary or historical figures.

While students are doing this guided practice, teachers should be walking around, seeing how well they are doing, and getting a very quick sample of how well they are learning that particular step. If they aren’t learning it, we need to reteach and adjust, and break it down into simpler, clearer language so students have another chance to engage in guided practice.

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer