Taming the Standards: A Commonsense Approach to Higher Student Achievement, K-12
reviewed by Launcelot Brown - 2004
Title: Taming the Standards: A Commonsense Approach to Higher Student Achievement, K-12
Author(s): Janet Hurt
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325005923 , Pages: 136, Year: 2003
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In the book, Taming the Standards: A Commonsense Approach to Higher Student Achievement, K-12, Janet Hurt uses her vast experience to offer a practical guide to aligning the school curriculum to state and federal mandated standards. The book is organized by chapters each beginning with a quote from a teacher. As the author explains, “each chapter is organized around the step being addressed, scaffolding learning from the previous chapter and spiraling into the next” (p. xvi). Throughout the book each procedure is illustrated by practical examples from teachers who have worked through the process. To the author’s credit, these examples represent application of the procedure in the elementary, middle, and secondary schools. The chapters end with the author highlighting the pitfalls to avoid as you implement the various steps in aligning the curriculum to the standards, a vocabulary list to facilitate common understanding among readers, and a selection of texts and articles for further reading.
This publication is timely, for it addresses an issue that is current and of importance to all educators. As argued by Hurt, the variability among the different state mandated standards is such that the standards present teachers with an extremely challenging task as they attempt to translate the standards into curricula and lesson plans that facilitate students’ successful performance on the state assessments.
It is within this sometimes amorphous situation that teachers find themselves. They have no choice. They do not create the standards; however, state assessments are attached to the standards. It is the responsibility of the teacher to prepare students to be successful on these assessments. Some teachers attempt to resolve the issue by teaching to the standards. But as Hurt contends, taking into consideration the variety of formats in which standards are organized, and the variance in quality among standards, ranging from states that develop standards demanding higher order thinking to those based only on more basic skills, it is necessary to teach beyond the standards if students are to be academically successful.
Hurt posits that to teach beyond the standards, one must first truly understand what each standard entails, and based on that evidence, determine what each standard requires of the learner. Of course, this argument is not novel. However, she cites many examples of teachers’ struggles with aligning the curriculum to the standards, or at times not fully addressing standards because of failure to discern concepts that are hidden within the standards. According to Hurt, the way forward is in deconstructing the standards to identify the broad or cross-curricular concepts, what she refers to as umbrella concepts, as distinct from content or subject specific concepts.
The author places much emphasis on the importance of this first step of uncovering the concepts within the standards, and specifically identifying the concepts that are common to a number of standards. These umbrella concepts provide the headings under which the standards are grouped. She explains that the advantage of placing the standards under the umbrella concept is that this strategy allows teachers to identify the cross content ‘fit’ for the concept, and it allows students to apply the concepts in different content areas. To quote Hurt, “student s are thus encouraged to make connections to concepts in other content areas and outside of school that have always existed, but that have not always been apparent” (p. 22).
From the identification of the umbrella concepts and the bundling of standards under the various concepts, the author addresses the content-specific concepts, and introduces a discussion of the inter-relationships among topics, concepts, and the standards. She refines this in Chapter 4, “Refining the Concepts Through Questions.” Here she introduces the linkages between umbrella concepts and umbrella questions, and essential questions that focus topics and content-specific concepts. As she states, “meshing the umbrella questions, umbrella concepts, and the topics into a seamless framework [allows] students to see the bigger picture. It is taking students to a deeper level of understanding” (p.58). No one can really disagree with that assertion, and Hurt provides examples and cites the opinions of practitioners in support of her conclusions.
Chapter 5 looks at the standards-based unit. In this chapter, the focus is the unit framework, the organized structure through which the concepts will be taught. Contrasting with the views of many, if not most administrators, Hurt, with reference to her experience working with teachers, contends that “to ask teachers to create both a unit and lesson plan is asking too much, especially when we ask them to repeat that process every year” (p.68). She introduces the concept of the skeleton unit which she describes as “a unit framework organized on a specific format” (p. 68). This unit framework “stays relatively constant,” thus eliminating the need for the yearly process of creating a unit. Instead, teachers develop lesson plans which they can refine or adjust as they meet the needs of their students. The author details the structure of the skeleton unit, gives the rationale, and as is common throughout the text, presents examples of the finished product and the pitfalls to avoid.
From the discussion of the skeleton unit, the author moves to a discussion of curriculum mapping, and shows how this can be developed through the skeleton unit. She presents very strong arguments in support of this format and, I think being cognizant of the time demand of the overall process, suggests “it shouldn’t take more than twenty to thirty minutes” (p. 97) to reorganize a skeleton unit into a curriculum map. This is the final chapter in the book, and again examples are given. The book ends with the author appending templates for bundling standards, concept worksheets, curriculum maps, and skeleton units.
The strength of the book is in its practicality. While the author has relied on her extensive experience to rationalize her approach to dealing with the state mandated standards, more importantly, she has cited the experiences, and presented work samples from practitioners to demonstrate the potential of the approach to impact educational outcomes. Much of what Hurt says resonates with the opinion of Reeves (2001) who has argued that there is a relationship between standards and student achievement through the influence on classroom assessment; a view which certainly finds support within the education establishment where it is an accepted belief that standards lead to improved teacher quality and student academic performance (Britton & Johannes, 2003; Nave, Miech, & Mosteller, 2000). However, Hurt with reference to Adairville Elementary School is careful to attribute the school’s higher test scores to “several factors” one key factor being the majority of the teachers “frequently and systematically [revisiting] the integration and alignment” of the curriculum to the standards (p.33).
The author recommends a collaborative team approach to selecting the standards and identifying the concepts, and suggests the use of templates designed on a database to facilitate the bundling and cross-bundling process. These are excellent recommendations which would certainly reduce the upfront time demand of the process. According to Britton and Johannes (2003), standards-based assessment is demanding both in time and effort, a fact that all teachers know. I think that while the author was careful to be very clear and systematic in presenting her approach to tapping the potential of the standards, I don’t think the issue of the initial time demand was adequately addressed. But to be fair, it is possible that with complete adoption of the approach, there would be an eventual reduction in teacher lesson planning time.
Overall I think Hurt presents a cogent argument for looking at standards differently and adopting her recommended approach to aligning the curriculum to the standards. As she says, “we know that standards drive our lesson designs, instruction, and assessment. If students are judged on the standards, then we teachers must provide them an opportunity to study what is within and beyond the standards and not just the next page in our textbook” (p.21). Reeves (2001) concurs with that expressed sentiment when he insists that taking students beyond the standards both vertically and horizontally results in improved academic achievement. This is exactly what Hurt attempts to achieve through “taming the standards.” However, as yet there is not much empirical evidence to lend support to the merits of her claims. I can still say that intuitively, what she proposes makes sense, and for that reason alone, I think that the book deserves to be read.
Britton, K. L., & Johannes, J. L. (2003, October). Portfolios and a backward approach to assessment. [Electronic version]. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 9(2), 70
Nave, B., Miech, E., & Mosteller, F. (2000). A lapse in standards: Linking standards-based reform with student achievement. [Electronic version]. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(2)
Reeves, D. B. (2001, January). Standards make a difference. The influence of standards on classroom assessment. National Association of Secondary School Principals. NASSP Bulletin, 85(621), 5-12.