Category Archives: Learning Supports

Does your school have a guaranteed and viable curriculum? How would you know? (Infographic)

graduatesA few months ago, we began working with a new principal who was in the process of getting to know her school. She knew that students came to school ready to learn, teachers were prepared to teach, and families were supportive of their school. The school was a welcoming place that served as a focus for community activities. But despite these positive supports, she explained, students were not meeting learning expectations. Academic progress in both English language arts and mathematics were below the state average, and she was concerned that families might soon lose confidence in the school’s ability to prepare students for the next level of learning.

During our consultation with this principal, we asked her if she knew whether the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum (GVC). She wasn’t sure how to answer, so she responded with a question, “How would I know if the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum?”

To determine whether a school has a GVC, we must first describe it. A “guaranteed” curriculum is often defined as a mechanism through which all students have an equal opportunity (time and access) to learn rigorous content. This requires a school-wide (or district-wide) agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all students need to know, understand, and be able to do. The word “all” needs emphasis; a guaranteed curriculum promotes equity, giving all children equal opportunity to learn essential content, and to provide this opportunity, curricular materials and instructional approaches must be grounded in research, implemented with fidelity, and must include vertical as well as horizontal alignment. Curriculum development is often regarded as a district function. However, schools (through teachers) implement the curriculum, and, if implementation varies significantly from teacher to teacher, then student outcomes will also likely vary significantly from classroom to classroom. These days, teachers have access to a variety of curriculum resources, such as open educational resources, playlists, digital textbooks, and teacher-developed curriculum. Having access to options is a good thing, but having many choices does not ensure all choices are well aligned to the school’s GVC.

For a curriculum to be “viable,” there must be adequate time for teachers to teach the content and for students to learn the content. A viable curriculum eliminates the supplementary or “nice to know” content. Does this mean that a GVC is a scripted, rigid curriculum? No! Does this mean that students and teachers are confined to a lockstep process of teaching and learning? Absolutely not! Teachers must have the flexibility to meet student needs through different methods of content delivery, helping students dive deeper into their passions. At its essence, a GVC represents the core non-negotiables of student learning. It’s what schools and teachers commit to providing for all students.

GVC infographic


To help school leaders and leadership teams self-assess the “guaranteed and viable” status of their curriculum, my colleagues and I developed the following questions that can be used by any school.

1. Does our school have an agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all of our students need to know, understand, and be able to do?
A principal might find written guidance, such as scope and sequence charts, aligned common assessments, and instructional guidance to help answer this question, and although written documents offer a good place to start, these documents might not reflect implementation in the classroom. Learning how teachers plan for instruction might be more informative. Are teachers involved in collaborative planning and is student work discussed during grade-level or department meetings? Additionally, during classroom visits, are students engaged in learning experiences requiring similar levels of rigor? During collaborative planning meetings teachers ask questions such as: 1) How will this learning activity help students access the essential content?; 2) Does this activity require the level of cognitive rigor described in the standards?; and 3) How will we know that students have learned the essential content?

2. Are performance criteria established and communicated to all of our stakeholders?
Having a mutual understanding among teachers as to what student performance demonstrates mastery, partial mastery, or entry level learning of essential content is a critical component of a GVC. Without this common understanding of performance criteria, students across a grade level or course could have widely different performance expectations.

As with question 1, a principal might look for written documentation and observe teacher practice to inform this question. For example, do teachers use common tools, such as learning guides and rubrics, to share performance criteria with students/families? Do students track their own progress toward learning goals and understand their strengths and areas for improvement? Do teachers engage in calibration exercises where a group of teachers assess one piece of student work individually and then discuss variations of teacher interpretations of performance?

3. Does our school have a process for monitoring implementation of the GVC?
To answer this question, a principal might look for established routines and processes. For example, are regular meetings established to review student progress data? During student data discussions, teachers might ask questions such as: 1) Are we on track to help all students learn the essential content?; and 2) What evidence shows we’re on track? If we’re not on track, what steps should we take?

Additionally, mechanisms should be in place to obtain teacher feedback on implementation of the GVC. Feedback can be gleaned through surveys, polls, or through collegial meetings in which teacher teams discuss implementation challenges and review student progress. Most importantly, when teacher feedback is collected, how is it addressed? Teachers must know that their input is valued and acted upon.

4. Does our school have structures that provide ongoing support to our teachers and school leaders for implementing the curriculum with fidelity?
For many teachers, implementation with fidelity can be a nebulous concept, and this is where a tool such as an innovation configuration (IC) map can be quite useful. IC maps clearly articulate stages of implementation so that teachers can distinguish between high, moderate, and low implementation levels. This tool helps teachers identify their own personal level of implementation and then take steps to increase implementation fidelity.

Ongoing implementation support for teachers and school leaders might also include allocated time for collaborative planning with colleagues. In fact, such support might be in response to feedback provided by teachers. For example, if teachers find that students perceive certain curriculum topics as lacking relevance, ongoing support might include collegial time for a deep dive into that section of the curriculum. Teachers could identify ways to better engage students and help students connect personally with the topics and underlying concepts.

Establishing and maintaining a GVC is a collegial process that requires established protocols and routines to keep the GVC agreement alive and meaningful to all stakeholders. It requires open dialog about learning activities, performance criteria, and student progress as well as the willingness of each stakeholder to reflect on their contribution to the process.

Kathleen_Dempsey2016websiteKathleen Dempsey has more than 30 years of experience as a teacher and administrator. At McREL, she helps schools, districts, and state education agencies with strategic vision, program development, and delivery of training and coaching focusing on academic standards, curriculum, and instruction. She is also the director of the North Central Comprehensive Center, a federally funded regional center operated by McREL that builds states’ capacity to implement and sustain improvement initiatives.

A quality curriculum review will help your school or district refine its areas of effectiveness and identify high-leverage opportunities for improvement. McREL can help you ensure alignment of your curriculum, instruction, assessments, and standards, and can help you build the processes and protocols to make a GVC a reality in your schools. Learn more.

Differences, not disabilities

learning differences

Students who learn differently from most have often been defined as having disabilities, which has a profound effect on their experiences in school, their relationships with others, and even their sense of identity. But a growing movement is seeking to shift the paradigm from learning disabilities to learning differences—recognizing that no two students learn exactly the same and that all students deserve an education based on their strengths, not their deficits.

In the April issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine these differences through the lens of learning styles, which focus on the ways students gather, process, and evaluate information—and how that can inform curriculum, instruction, and assessments.

Learning styles have been around for decades, the authors explain, but little hard evidence proves their existence, let alone their impact on learning. However, the concept continues to influence educators. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, calls for states to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for developing flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences—when planning assessments and instruction. Why?

Perhaps it’s that the research has yet to catch up with an idea that, at its core, makes common sense. Learning styles have been hard for researchers to pin down: More than 70 different frameworks exist, much of the data relies on unreliable self-reporting, and the styles themselves appear to be changeable (i.e., people can have multiple styles and switch among them). However, say Goodwin and Hein, a new generation of neuroscience studies are using brain scans and eye tracking to support different learning preferences.

The key takeaway for educators, the authors conclude, is to reflect on their approach to instruction planning. Do you plan based on how you prefer to learn, or on how your students prefer to learn? Do you consider the preferences of some of your students or all of them? Getting inside your students’ heads is, ultimately, what learning styles—and effective teaching—is all about.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

Four tips for using nonlinguistic representations

nonlinguistic learningToday’s learners are continually fed linguistically presented information, such as lectures, videos, directions, math chants, and reading assignments. Most opportunities for students to interact with peers happen primarily with words.

It’s all too easy, while employing various aspects of instructional design and delivery, to overlook ways that students might also engage in learning through nonlinguistics.

When used intentionally and consistently, nonlinguistic representations are powerful instructional tools that can have a positive effect on student achievement. They provide varied ways for students to process new information without solely relying on language.

McREL’s analysis of research for the second edition of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) provides these research-based classroom recommendations for use of nonlinguistic representations:

  1. Use graphic organizers.
  2. Use physical models or manipulatives.
  3. Generate mental pictures.
  4. Use pictures, illustrations, and pictographs.
  5. Engage in kinesthetic activities.

Tips for engaging in nonlinguistic learning

  1. Consistently use each type of nonlinguistic representation.
    It’s important that students learn several ways to represent information nonlinguistically. This means providing students at every grade level with multiple opportunities to use kinesthetic movement, draw pictures and pictographs, use their senses and emotions to form solid mental images, be fluid in the use of several graphic organizers, and create or use physical models to denote their learning. Consistent use is key; if you use these strategies only occasionally, it will limit students’ ability to grasp the possibilities associated with learning both linguistically and nonlinguistically, preventing them from developing automaticity in their use of all the representations.
  2. Help students engage in conversations with peers to explain their choice and use of a nonlinguistic representation.
    When students engage in peer discourse to explain why they chose a certain nonlinguistic representation for the content being studied, they deepen their understanding of the content and are better able to make connections between types of information. Peer conversations help students elaborate on their learning; they describe their thinking and listen to others do the same, helping them extend and apply their learning. When students engage in peer and classroom conversations, it becomes easier to expose and correct any confusion about or misinterpretations of the content. Using sentence stems and guiding questions may also help students become more proficient in speaking with, listening to, and understanding one another.
  3. Students can use multiple nonlinguistic representations to learn or represent a concept.
    It would be a mistake to believe that students should select only one nonlinguistic strategy to represent a piece of content. Nothing could be further from the truth. When students are encouraged to combine and use multiple nonlinguistics to represent their learning, the probability of deeper understanding and longer retention increases. For example, students learning the vocabulary word defenestrate, which means to throw something out the window, might kinesthetically demonstrate the word, followed by sketching what it looks like to defenestrate. Ultimately, students should be given time to create a mental picture of how they look defenestrating an object.
  4. Students should be encouraged to use nonlinguistic representations on their own.
    Nonlinguistic representations can be used to learn new vocabulary words, take notes, capture information along a timeline, symbolize information that is difficult to see—such as parts of an atom or solar systems—depict historical events, connect new learning to previously learning information, and demonstrate understanding beyond linguistics. When students consistently represent their learning using a nonlinguistic approach, they internalize useful methods and multiple ways to process and make sense of new information. Ultimately, the goal is to create a desire in students to use these learning tools without teacher insistence.

Applying the tips to instruction

As with the implementation of any instructional strategy, teachers who wish to improve student learning need to intentionally plan for and consistently use nonlinguistic representations in their lesson design and delivery. Setting a purpose for using these important instructional strategies, along with a willingness to stay the course in their application, will go a long way to establishing routine use for teachers and the students they have the privilege of serving.

Bj StoneConsulting director Dr. Bj Stone is a co-author of the second editions of McREL’s Classroom Instruction that Works (2012) and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2012). A former middle and high school science teacher and central office administrator, she now trains, coaches, and consults with K–12 educators and district leaders on research-based instructional strategies, vocabulary instruction, curriculum development, and assessment design.


Additional resources

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement, 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


Unrealistic expectations for ELLs reflect deeply ingrained “deficit thinking”

Despite years of trying various approaches to reduce the achievement gap between English language learners (ELLs) and their non-ELL peers, the gap has remained virtually unchanged since the late 1990s. Why? Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine this question—and what can be done about it—in the February Research Says column for Educational Leadership magazine.

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A step-by-step guide to building your intervention system

The vast array of intervention programs is staggering, and sifting through the options to determine which will be most successful can be overwhelming. School and district leaders often feel paralyzed by the intricacies of selecting and implementing interventions in their settings as they contemplate myriad options.

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Student identity in the classroom: Building purpose, potential, and persistence

We often think that identity—both our present- and future-oriented conceptions of the self—motivates and predicts behavior. In education, when we think of student identity, most of us would agree that we want all students to believe a positive future self is both possible and relevant, and that student belief in this possible future self motivates their current behavior. But, when we really investigate that belief, is it actually true? When I see data that shows 95 percent of students say they want to go to college, but only 80 percent actually graduate from high school, I see a disparity between what students want for their futures and the behaviors in which they engage.

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ALL for all: Reviving academic language in classroom conversation

“I times’ed 12 and 140 and I got 1680.” Sound familiar? While visiting a middle school math class recently, I heard more than a few students use language like this when explaining their work to their peers and to their teacher. While their answers showed they understood the academic concepts they were learning, the way they expressed their ideas revealed a need for academic language development.

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Should we teach kids to be more mindful?

Kids come to school with all kinds of emotions—and the school environment can supercharge those emotions, whether they are positive or negative. To head off negative behaviors and instead foster optimism and self-determination, more and more schools are incorporating mindfulness practices and programs into their already-full school days.

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RtI, PBIS, and MTSS: An evolution, a revolution, or roses by other names?

If your state is anything like Colorado, Florida, or Michigan, an educational revolution is occurring—or perhaps it would be more apt to say, an evolution is occurring—with districts making the shift from using Response to Intervention (RtI) and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), to using Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).

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