33. Subject Area Mastery Statement and Foundational Discussions

Transforming the district’s existing curriculum into a succinct mastery statement was a challenge.

The standards movement of the last three decades, with its patchwork approach to school improvement, made it difficult to succinctly identify a purpose for American public schools.

Because of that piecemeal influence, eight grade levels of the current curriculum were broken into isolated competencies, meant to be measured both formatively and summatively.

That curriculum was a carryover from the Common Core scope and sequence created in 2012. Its design, while based on the philosophical rationale behind NCLB, was meant to be more flexible.  Controlled by states.

The Common Core curriculum in language arts was limited to grades one through eight. It was broken into measurable competencies associated with categories such as: literary reading, informational reading, writing, speaking, listening and language usage.

While those grade and topical divisions made sense, the piece-by-piece manner of teaching and assessing student proficiencies were mindboggling.

For example, second grade reading literature included the following competencies:

Reading Standards for Literature: Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how. Demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.

  • Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures. Determine their central message, lesson, or moral.
  • Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges.
  • Describe how words and phrases supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem or song.  
  • Describe the overall structure of a story. Describe how the beginning introduces the story and the ending concludes the action.
  • Acknowledge differences in the points of view of characters. Speak in a different voice for each character when reading dialogue aloud.
  • Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text.  Demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.
  • Compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story by different authors or from different cultures.
  • Read and comprehend literature, including stories and poetry, in grade appropriate text complexity, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

All these competencies for second grade language arts were for literary reading. More competencies were listed for informational reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language usage.

The problem was clearly one of excessive minutiae, presented to be regularly assessed.

Each portion of every competency was meant to be tested in some fashion, thereby assuring students would do well on standardized tests containing similar challenges.

Good teachers have always felt accountable for ensuring student proficiency, especially when following their own processes for meeting that goal.

But these standards were meant to dictate teaching methods and types of interactions with students.

Consider the last competency in the list. The first operant verb is merely an activity (“read”). Another is vague (“comprehend”). Then it mixes two literary forms (stories and poetry).

It refers to “grade appropriate text complexity” as if that were an established standard unto itself. Then it refers to “scaffolding” as a kind of grade-to-grade building block to achieve an optimum level within a range of complexity.

Like training and testing a prospective bridge engineer and worker to perform every conceivable function, no matter how different the challenge or size of the task. Like “Examine all bridge designs, understand their functions over both creeks and major rivers, explain how they are different in complexity, and incorporate maximum safety features in bridges of all types.”

People trained to work with bridges, or any other structure, are admitted to preparation programs because they are bright and demonstrate acute problem-solving skills. They are not automatons that require behavioral programming to meet challenges associated with every future contingency.

In like fashion, teachers are not meant to be automatons. Like other professions, such as engineering, teachers recognize the uniqueness of each situation and make appropriate decisions. In other words, they have the capacity to solve problems no matter how unique they might be.

Training and public-school education involve human beings with the potential to exercise insight and common sense. Trying to micromanage their professional work is both insulting and fruitless.

Adult trainees solidify learning through on-the-job training. Second graders do the same with immersive classroom experiences. In contextual interactions between and among teacher and classmates. In strategies often referred to as project learning.

Teachers and instructors should have in mind objectives found in a standard. But not held accountable for ensuring that every student respond well to standardized summative tests.


Other reasons for not using standards and high stakes tests to micromanage schools:

  • Inadequate contact time between students and their teachers. There is not enough time per school year in onsite classrooms. Time and opportunity are also inadequate in online or hybrid programs.
  • Reinforcing individual learning through grade-to-grade articulation is difficult. While curricular articulation is essential, grade-to-grade knowledge and skill building requires tracking via individual progress charts. An intricate, time consuming and expensive process.

Barbara and Mary’s Story – Part 8

We designed the first meeting of the K-12 language arts subject area committee to be as straightforward as possible. Rebecca gave a brief orientation to teacher members selected by the curriculum council.

She told them they were chosen because of their classroom competence, intelligence, and interest in improving the district’s curriculum. The initial process would be an intensive two-year commitment.

Rebecca also said the new learning infrastructure model was different because external standards and high stakes tests were not used as starting points. Instead, there was an emphasis on what teachers believe, know, and do in their classrooms.

With an acceptance that beliefs, knowledge, and methods would become more sophisticated over time. Because intentions for student learning must align philosophically, structurally, and contextually with the district’s mastery statement.

In the first SAC meeting Rebecca struggled to help teachers born and raised in the era of external standards and high stakes tests accept what she was suggesting. Like turning everything upside down.

Teachers entering the profession within the last 25 years might be shellshocked by the new learning infrastructure.  Or amazed that the work for which they had long been held accountable now featured WHO they were as much as WHAT THEY DID.

Rebecca helped lay the foundation for that new way of thinking and becoming. In discussions prior to examining the nuts and bolts of curriculum content and design. In meaningful interactions about what learning really is.

Learning is acceptance of how we as human beings get better. Become more effective in terms of proficiency. Build societies that are inclusive, innovative, and purposeful.

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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