“100% of students will receive a score of 70% or above on unit tests 1-6.” This was my math SMART goal for the year. Not the one I originally went for, but my principal challenged me to raise it from where I had written it, which was 80% of students. This was more challenging than my last year’s goal, but I (somewhat reluctantly) agreed. All students must be given the supports to succeed, I had just not yet thought I could accomplish this expectation. And if I could do this for math, could I do this for reading and writing as well?
Our elementary school sits at the crossroads of RTI and Common Core. In my ten years, change is constant, and these educational policies have extremely impacted what we do. These two items have pushed us towards the most change. We are in our third year of “Enrichment,” (Our answer to RTI) and our first year of blending into Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
The impacts of these two are many. First, is there is a scheduled enrichment period for each grade level. During this time, two staff members join our fifth grade teaching staff as aides, so there are “more people who can help” and we have expanded the notion that all students are ours (Samuels & Farstup, 2011). We all share in their instruction, progress, and celebrations of success. During enrichment time, we use flexible groupings with the additional staff, and this reduces our class sizes for that period. On top of that, we have control over the group sizes, and who works with the smaller groups. We use data to screen and group students, plan instruction, and determine the success of the interventions. We have increased our progress monitoring this year, which has become a mandatory part of our enrichment. In turn, this impacts how we teach our subject areas, where we now monitor progress. All of this has impacted content delivery, and above that, student achievement. Overall, it is a process that becomes more like RTI each year.
For me, the Common Core has been a paradigm shift in the works for many years. I have been working to focus and deepen Grade Level Content Expectation standards for the last five years, but now the whole of education seems to be moving in this direction. We use Everyday Mathematics, which is a spiral curriculum. I have backed this curriculum decision each year, and I still use it as one of my main resources, but the CCSS has changed my point of view on its use as a tool rather than my program. Each unit has a handful of secure goals. I plan lessons that focus on these goals, along with monitoring student progress on these goals. In time, I am cross referencing these goals with the CCSS and instruction and assessment. In class, I run a math workshop format, similar to reader’s workshop where I can use assessment data to group students into different groups of interventions. This way, my struggling students receive what Samuels and Farstup (2011) call systematic and explicit instruction. For instance, students struggled most on adding fractions, but the unit as written only spent 2 days out of the two weeks on that goal. By adjusting this up, all students made their goal, with the exception of one (who missed it by 3 percent). No problem, that student continued work with support until passing. Based on our monitoring, we spent 5-7 days out of the 10 on this adding fractions goal, whereas most of Everyday Mathematics lessons were based on data landmarks, which the students already know. This switch to a planned and direct curriculum helps them to avoid spiraling all around the main objectives, and students become successful on the ones that count.
I ask myself what can be applied from the above to see similar gains in reading? What about the fifth grade student who struggles to read beginning third grade texts? By universal screening standards, she would be in a Tier 3 group, and snapshots of decoding and fluency could be a measure of progress monitoring. She is not the only student in this situation, and students reading below grade level are a school-wide concern for standards mastery. Using the CCSS, I am able to spend more time on specific standards such as “5.RL.1-Quote accurately from a text…” when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text (CCSSELA). The concern is, how can I achieve the deep level of understanding that the CCSS expect, especially with so many standards? On top of this, we observe a degree of student learned helplessness, at a time when the standards require deep collaborative and independent thinking. Our observation is, we have held their hands too long, helped too much, and it has become a challenge to push their thinking. They have a perception of what it means to engage in school activities, such as get a question, answer it, and then move on. It is a tender and challenging area to get them to think, apply, and extend in the way the standards, and we, require.
In reading, I use explicit instruction. Each lesson is paired with a standard, a student friendly “I can” statement, and an assessment. Students know what they are learning, and they get feedback on that learning. I am using a reader’s and writer’s workshop model for whole, small group, and individual instruction to meet the goals. At the same time, I’m integrating content such as Social Studies with Reading, and Science with Writing. My instruction is explicit, but my struggle is planning systematically (Samuels & Farstup, 2011). So many roads join here, sometimes it may seem difficult for my students to either see which road they are on or where they are going. Planning for appropriate whole group instruction is a challenge, but then small group and individual instruction on top of that increases the challenge. Maybe you are getting the feeling that I’m overwhelmed? No, but I’d say appropriately challenged. Mandel and Morrow (2011) state that “The teacher with vision is able to stand firm in the belief that, with knowledge and clear, evidence-based best practices can be selected and adapted to meet the needs of each student every day.” That is a noble charge for us as educators, one that also keeps us up at night, and on our toes.
So when I completed the Unit 6 math test, all students, including special needs students, passed their smart goals for all unit tests. I have never had this level of success before. Why? Through training and experience I find that what we measure tends to get accomplished. So now it is time for an even bigger goal. Something like “100% of students will read at or above fifth grade level.”
Mandel-Morrow, L. & Gambrell, L., Eds. (2011). Best practices in literacy instruction (4th edition). New York: Guilford Press.
Samuels, S.J. & Farstrup, A.E., Eds. (2011). What research has to say about reading instruction (4th edition). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.