Teaching Standards vs Teaching Textbooks

Are You Teaching Standards or Teaching the Textbook?

For many educators, the textbook is our primary tool for teaching standards. But is a textbook-based approach best for our students? Is there an alternative that doesn’t require endless hours of planning?

When I began teaching, I didn’t really understand the connection between textbooks and standards. In fact, during my first five years of teaching, I never even looked at the standards.

The word sounded so important, so official. Standards. I imagined they were produced by doctors of education and signed into law by governors and presidents. They were none of my business at any rate.

When I started teaching a new course, another teacher would give me the book (or books) I was to teach, and I pretty much took it from there. 

When I taught English, my “curriculum” consisted of a few novels, a grammar book, a vocabulary book, and a reading comprehension text.

I really enjoyed the novels, so that’s where I focused my energy. The grammar and vocabulary quizzes were useful for filling up the gradebook. And the reading comprehension text sat on the shelf.

In a way, I was creating my own curriculum plan. And my passion for the content I was teaching certainly made class more enjoyable; for me, and for my students.

But how well were they learning to read? To write? To be honest, I couldn’t be sure. The piecemeal approach made it difficult to accurately assess my students. As a result, it was nearly impossible to tailor my teaching to their needs.

Teaching the Standards vs Teaching the Textbook

Given the limitations of my rough-hewn curriculum, you might think I’d advocate for a textbook-based solution.

Indeed, textbook proponents like to ask, “Why should every teacher reinvent the wheel? Let the ‘experts’ design the curriculum, and let the teachers teach it.”

But here’s the problem. Textbooks are not designed for the students in your classroom. They’re designed for the “average student.” And since this average student doesn’t exist in any actual classroom (or Zoom meeting), textbooks require a bit of tailoring to meet the needs of real students and teachers.

One of my greatest professional joys is crafting customizing curriculum (don’t judge). I started creating curriculum guides for my school while I was a classroom teacher, and the process helped me to better understand my own standards.

Over the years, whether I was customizing for my own school or for outside clients, there was never a case where the textbook-provided pacing matched the needs of the students. Here are some problems with out-of-the-box curriculum that can be solved by creating your own curriculum plans:

Content Overload 

Most schools have around 180 school days. So if you’re a textbook publisher, you’ll want to make sure you have at least 180 lessons. Better yet, why not make it 200 just to be safe?

In reality, few teachers will need over 100 lessons per course in a given year. Some lessons take more than one day. Some periods are lost to assemblies, snow days, pandemics, and so forth. Not to mention that you won’t be teaching every single lesson from the text. Right?

But when teachers receive a massive textbook, we feel obligated to “cover” it. So even when a grade’s core content could be covered in 30 or 40 high-quality lessons, teachers end up rushing to “get through the book.”

Remediation

In theory, standards describe the “minimum” level of mastery students should have at each grade level. But in reality, only ⅓ of students in the US read proficiently at grade level. [NCES Reading Data] Only 40% of 4th grade students in the United States are proficient at grade level. The number drops to 34% by grade 8. [NCES Math Data]

This means that our “minimum standards” are more like hopes and dreams. But textbook publishers must play along with the pretense that most students are at or above grade level. 

Whenever I design a custom curriculum plan, I start by reviewing student data. If most students are on-grade level, we can start teaching standards according to the textbook-provided plan. But more often, we need to build in months of remediation to prepare students for grade level content.

Sequencing

The order that we teach standards is incredibly important. Certain topics are helpful for engaging students. Others provide important foundations for later topics. 

Yet the sequencing of many textbooks makes the content unnecessarily dry and complicated.

My favorite example is in 8th grade math. Most books start the year with Scientific Notation. I can hardly think of a better way to convince students that math is boring than to start with this topic.

Functions and geometric transformations are highly engaging topics that can also serve as a conceptual backbone for most 8th grade content. Why not use one of these to bookend the course?

Indeed, the biggest sequencing challenge for any curriculum is coherence. Standards are meant to be analytical – to best assess students’ mastery, we break big concepts into smaller, measurable bits. When assessing language skills, we want separate measures for fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and so on.

But learning is a holistic process. And standards make poor learning objectives. Students become better writers by reading. And they are better at division when they see how it connects to multiplication and repeated subtraction. 

Planning for this type of learning requires many things (differentiation, SEL, PBLs) that don’t come from textbooks.

Enrichment

Every teacher I know supplements their curriculum in some way. It’s how we put our mark on our classrooms. I loved using debate as a way to teach expository writing.

projects build student engagement while teaching standards

Others incorporate music, art, or technology projects to make their subjects come to life. These projects engage students, and teach skills like collaboration and problem-solving. 

And while many texts are building-in inquiry-based activities, it’s still hard to find a text that does a great job with PBL. These learning experiences demand that teachers draw on their passions and personal experiences.

But to add projects on top of our curriculum, we need to skip some things. Careful planning is required to ensure we don’t skip important foundations and core standards.

Teaching Students and Teaching Standards

A good curriculum plan is like a bridge (three bridges, actually). At one end, is our students’ understanding when they begin the year. At the other end, are the standards we need them to master.

A traditional curriculum builds a single, one-size-fits-all bridge. Create lessons and assessments for each standard. Sequence them across a school year, so teachers can follow along.

This approach leads to the range of problems mentioned above. To address these issues, teachers need to focus on teaching students and teaching standards.

This means cultivating familiarity with the standards as written, not just the textbook’s interpretation of standards. 

When teachers are intimately familiar with their standards, the textbook can be a powerful tool. They can use data to decide which lessons are critical for their students. Or choose which lessons are useful for a select group. 

These teachers make the right decisions about which lessons to skip, and which to combine. And they know when to use supplemental resources. 

Teaching Standards with The Three-Bridges Design for Learning

This approach is known as The Three-Bridges Design for Learning. The first bridge consists of content-coverage. Teachers and supervisors select the lessons best suited to direct instruction, with the goal of spending 50% or less of their instructional time teaching from the text.

The three bridges design for learning balances differentiation with a focus on teaching standards

The remaining time is used for personalized learning (bridge two) and/or inquiry-based learning (bridge three). For bridge two, students work on an adaptive platform that assesses their strengths, and targets instruction at the edge of their understanding.

The third bridge consists of problem-based and project-based learning. These activities emphasize application, conceptual understanding, and social emotional learning. They help students deepen their understanding by seeing connections between multiple standards.

Where to Learn More About Teaching Standards

Educators who see the connections between their lessons and their standards are more effective than those who only know standards via their textbook.

The former are able to communicate the ‘big picture’ ideas to their students, and they can better meet students’ individual needs.

The great part is that any teacher can become adept at teaching standards. Here are some ways you can deepen your understanding of the standards you teach.

Read the Standards

The first step to mastering standards is to read them. The language isn’t always easy, so it can take time to break them down. Eventually, you’ll even become familiar with the standards from the grades before and after the one(s) you teach.

Math: Achieve the Core’s Coherence Map is my favorite resource for understanding standards. It serves as an interactive, visual guide to the Common Core math standards. You can search by grade level and domain. And you can see the progression of standards across grade levels. They even have free, hands-on tasks aligned to most standards.

Language Arts: I haven’t been able to find a tool for language arts standards that is as user-friendly as the Coherence Map. The best I’ve found is the Common Core website itself. There doesn’t seem to be a way to see all the standards from a grade level at once. Instead, it’s organized by domain (reading: literature, reading: informational, reading: skills, etc). But it does provide a thorough and accurate guide to all the reading and writing standards found in the Common Core.

Science: Most states in the US have either adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, or have created their own standards based on the NGSS. These standards take a similar approach to the Common Core State Standards in emphasizing conceptual understanding, task-based learning, and real-world applications. The NGSS website offers a searchable database and downloadable .pdfs of all the national science standards.

Other: While there have been efforts to create national standards for history, the arts, and other subjects, none has yet achieved widespread adoption. The standards for most subjects in most states can be found with a google search.

Attend a Workshop

While reading standards is a start, reading alone may not be enough to incorporate your standards into your planning and teaching practice.

Like our students, we learn best by doing. Interactive, conceptual, and collaborative learning experiences make it easier to build deep and lasting understanding.

Our workshops are designed to provide just such opportunities to adult learners. Every session takes place in real-time, with an expert facilitator.

You can schedule a private session for your school on topics including Unit Planning, Curriculum Mapping, and More: Private Sessions.

We also offer open sessions on specific math and literacy topics, such as Visual Models, and Project-Based Writing. You’ll learn how each of the hands-on activities we explore relate to your grade-level standards. Browse our upcoming sessions and register: Open Sessions.

Work with an Instructional Coach

Perhaps the best way to align your instruction with standards is to work with an instructional coach.

A coach can provide the one-on-one support you need to apply your understanding of standards to your planning, teaching, and assessment.

Our coaches are experienced classroom teachers who will support you in achieving your goals and making the most of your curriculum: Learn more about instructional coaching.

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About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff

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