After decades of reform, schools across the country still haven’t learned to prioritize their improvement efforts. Instead of focusing on the most vital, game-changing actions, we are implementing an abundance of initiatives simultaneously—which often ultimately leads to failure.
So, if we truly want record numbers of students who receive a rich, life-changing education, which methods should we turn our limited time and attention to? Let me suggest three key areas, for which I believe there is unrivaled evidence of effectiveness. Each of them passes the test of being easy to understand and implement, especially with sustained focus and opportunities for teachers to practice and refine them in professional development and in team-based professional learning communities. They are:
- Consistent, schoolwide implementation of a coherent, easily understood, content-rich curriculum that tells a teacher approximately which skills and concepts to teach—and when. Such a common curriculum should constitute the majority of the curriculum, but not all of it. It should focus on what is taught—not how. This may be the single largest factor that affects both student achievement and reading proficiency.
- Mastery, by every teacher, of the fundamental moves and components of effective, explicit instruction—which hinges, more than anything, on the continuous (sometimes minute-to-minute) effort by the teacher to adjust the pace and nature of their instruction on the basis of frequent formative data. This basic structure applies to the majority of instruction; it is integral to, and the prerequisite for, effective project- and problem-based learning.
- An intensive, curriculum-wide emphasis on fairly traditional literacy. We have overcomplicated instruction in reading, speaking, and writing. To succeed, students simply need vastly more time to purposefully read, discuss, and write about worthy, substantive literature and nonfiction across the curriculum (as often as possible, in the interpretive and argumentative mode).
The evidence base for these three methods is immense. Their power is endorsed by a legion of our most eminent researchers. But ironically, only a small fraction of schools currently implements them consistently.
Those schools that do implement them consistently have seen huge gains. Brockton High School in Massachusetts implemented these with an intense, near-exclusive focus. As a result, this school—the largest in the state—went from being the lowest scoring in the Commonwealth to the top 10 percent, where it remains. Its largest gains came in the first year of its focused effort.
Where to go from here
Begin your own process for maximizing focused, effective effort in your school or district. It has to begin with an honest search to determine priorities on the basis of the best available evidence. These must be more than “research-based.” If we value time and logic, we owe it to students to seek out and implement only that which the evidence points to as the most effective actions and initiatives we can find.
These critical determinations must be followed by a campaign of highly focused, unabashed repetition, review, and practice. Mastery and consistent implementation—not mere exposure or training—must become our new goal. And as Brockton and other schools have found, active leadership is critical. We must sensibly monitor and adjust our leadership efforts based on evidence of implementation. To the greatest possible extent, this should occur in a climate that emphasizes helpfulness and growth, rather than evaluation.
Less is more. Simplicity and priority are jealous taskmasters. But if we exercise the discipline to stay focused on what is indisputably effective, students will benefit enormously—and soon.