What Should We Teach? 5 Steps for Keeping Kids on Track This Fall

—Getty + Emma Patti Harris/Education Week

Prepping curriculum during a pandemic doesn’t require the logistical gymnastics of organizing socially distanced school buildings or designing hybrid schedules. Still, instruction this fall will have to look different, experts say.

And though adjustments to a scope and sequence may feel less dramatic than some of the other changes to school this year, they’re no less urgent.

Less time in the classroom means instructional leaders will have to streamline curricula, focusing on just the essential standards. And then there’s the big question of unfinished learning. Some researchers have predicted that learning loss from spring’s school closures will be much greater than what usually occurs after a normal summer. How can districts make sure students stay on track?

Even if students had little access to instruction in the spring, experts say schools should fight the impulse to go back and reteach whole units from last year.

“There’s an opportunity cost to time that is not spent moving students forward,” said Emily Freitag, the co-founder and CEO of Instruction Partners, a nonprofit consulting organization that works with districts on teaching and learning. If students who are already struggling start the year in remediation, while students who thrived during the closures are given grade-level work, that widens equity gaps, she said.

“We don’t want people to go back and say, ‘I have to teach quarter four from last year,’ because then those students are going to be farther behind,” said Danielle Neves, the deputy chief of academics for the Tulsa district in Oklahoma.

Now more than ever, schools need to give all students access to grade-level work, experts say. At the same time, they need to create a range of entry points into the curriculum—scaffolds for students, and places where teachers can refresh or reteach concepts from last spring that students need in order to succeed this fall.

How to do this? Education Week distilled advice from curriculum experts, district leaders, and teachers into this five-step process for getting started:

1. Focus on the most important work of the grade.

Faced with the possibility of rolling school closures or hybrid schedules, students and teachers may have less time together this year than in the past. Daviess County Schools, in Kentucky, is starting the year later than usual, and will have fewer instructional days as a result, said Jana Beth Francis, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the district.

“It’s going to change the flow of instruction quite a bit, because any curriculum map that we had that says ‘Spend seven days on this unit, 15 days on that unit’ has to be revisited and really examined. We’re going to have to really think about how to be tight with what we’re teaching,” she said.

To make the best use of limited time, experts suggest streamlining the curriculum to cover only the essential standards. Some state departments have put out lists of these priority standards, while organizations including Student Achievement Partners, the Council of the Great City Schools, and TNTP have released guides designed to help schools and districts adjust their curricular maps.

These guidelines advise focusing on skills and understandings that are going to be most important to students’ future success—and prioritizing depth rather than breadth.

For example, the Common Core State Standards say that 1st graders should learn how to tell time to the hour and the half-hour in math lessons. “We’re probably not going to do that this year,” said Bailey Cato Czupryk, a partner for practices and impact at TNTP.

Getting rid of lessons on analog clocks frees up time to make sure that students have a deep understanding of foundational concepts—like adding and subtracting within 20, another 1st grade math standard, Czupryk said.

In English/language arts, this prioritizing looks slightly different, as the standards spiral more. Students develop many of the same reading, writing, and speaking skills in greater complexity and sophistication as they progress through grade levels. It’s important that students get lots of time to work with complex text, practicing these skills in context rather than in isolated activities or worksheets. This might look like choosing fewer texts for close reading and analysis, so that students can spend more time thinking about, writing about, and discussing the ones that are selected.

There’s one area where the traditional scope and sequence shouldn’t be pared down, though: foundational reading skills in the early grades. Research has shown that explicitly teaching students which sounds match up with which letters, in a systematic sequence, is the most effective way to teach them how to decode words. Skipping sounds or skills in the sequence can lead to gaps in students’ knowledge that hinder fluent reading.

2. Figure out what students will need to know and be able to do in order to successfully complete grade-level work. Then, identify places where teachers might need guidance on how to revisit these prerequisite skills and content from last spring.

The goal is to deliver “just-in-time” support, equipping students to tackle grade-level content while avoiding re-teaching whole units from the spring.

What might this look like? An example from the Student Achievement Partners guidance demonstrates:

In 7th grade math, students are supposed to learn how to find the area, volume, and surface area of two- and three-dimensional objects. This work builds on concepts that are in the 6th grade standards—understanding how to find the area of polygons and the volume of right rectangular prisms.

A 7th grade teacher would first need to assess whether her students know how to find the area of polygons. If they don’t, she might have to revisit this 6th grade skill as part of her lesson. But that doesn’t mean that she has to review every single 6th grade math skill before she can start with 7th grade content—she’s paying attention to the connections between grades as she goes, so she only has to review when necessary.

In English/language arts, students may need scaffolds to engage with grade-level text. For example, if a 6th grader is having trouble following the main points in a reading, her teacher may need to pre-teach relevant vocabulary or concepts, so students can build background knowledge about an unfamiliar topic.

It’s easier to plan where students might need just-in-time support if all teachers within a school or a district are using the same, high-quality materials, said Mike Magee, the CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national network of district leaders and state education chiefs. In the spring, he said, these districts were at an advantage. “At a minimum, their teachers, their students, and their parents were speaking one language when it came to content,” Magee said.

Some curriculum providers, too, have outlined where teachers should check for students’ understanding of previous content, and embed review if necessary.

3. Have teachers play a major role in curriculum mapping for the fall.

Even if schools are using districtwide curricula, teachers are still the people in the school system who are most likely to know what students did or didn’t get to this past spring, said Robin McClellan, the supervisor of curriculum and instruction for elementary schools in Sullivan County public schools in Blountville, Tenn.

In her district, teachers were paid a stipend to be part of the team streamlining the districtwide curriculum this summer, she said.

Teachers in consecutive grade levels should be having conversations about how content builds, said Dale Winkler, the vice president for school improvement at the Southern Regional Education Board.

That’s what teachers did in Daviess County, said Francis. At the end of the school year, the district used the remaining teacher contract days to conduct a “gap analysis.” Sixth grade teachers, for example, could meet with 7th grade teachers and outline what they didn’t cover. The 7th grade teachers could then evaluate what of that content would be a necessary “building block” for the coming year, she said.

In Holmen, Wis., 5th grade teacher Cathy Burge participated in a similar session with the 4th and 6th grade teams at her school, going over the multi-grade map her district’s instructional leadership created.

Last year’s 4th graders missed their geometry unit, so the teachers talked about setting up a station in the 5th grade classroom this year where students could learn how to use compasses and protractors to measure angles. The skills come up again in middle school, Burge said, “so they need to get it.”

4. Understand that just-in-time support should be determined by students’ needs.

Even with all this planning ahead, teachers won’t know exactly which students will need what support until they’re in the (physical or virtual) classroom. For more on how to determine students’ prior knowledge, and what this process of formative assessment should look like, see this article in our series.

5. Curriculum and instruction must support students’ social-emotional health.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to accelerate learning if we don’t engage kids,” said Cato Czupryk of TNTP. Even “the most beautiful scope and sequence” falls short if students don’t feel safe and supported, she said.

Creating this kind of environment presents special challenges this year, as teachers may have to build relationships and create classroom culture virtually—or in a socially distanced classroom that doesn’t allow for the same kind of student collaboration as years past.

Schools should think about developing these relationships as deeply connected to teaching and learning, not as a separate goal, said Freitag of Instruction Partners. In practice, that might mean starting the first day with an exciting, tricky problem that teachers and students can dive into together, rather than a formal diagnostic test, she said.

It also means making space to talk about the realities of students’ lives right now, shaped both by the pandemic and the movement for racial justice. “There’s no way to engage students authentically right now that doesn’t include both of those topics,” Freitag said.

Making time for students to have authentic conversations with each other—whether that’s through synchronous classes, message boards, or even phone calls with classmates and teachers—is more important than ever.

“Learning should be fun, and it should be a challenge,” said Francis, of Daviess County. “And if we take away all that time for inquiry, and how you think about something, and how you’re creating something, and we take away the experiments in science, then we are taking a group of students who have experienced a major trauma, and not reviving their joy of learning.”