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September 1, 2019

Focusing on the Essentials

We're on the brink of a "Golden Age" in education. To get there, teachers must master these three indispensable competencies

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Earlier this year, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote that if schools zeroed in on high-leverage classroom practices, we could be on the cusp of a "golden age" of education (2019). He's right. But for this to happen, we must first acknowledge "the awful inertia of decades": our long drift into inferior instructional practices that now dominate the school day (Fullan, 2010). Then we must address its root cause: our equally unfocused preservice and professional training. If our schools are to enter an "era of unprecedented effectiveness" (Marzano, 2003), then teacher development must (1) end its addiction to novelty and embrace evidence-based priority, and (2) make practical, demonstrated mastery of best practices its urgent and explicit goal.

The opportunity for immense, immediate progress becomes clear when we take an unblinking look at what goes on in average classrooms. Brace yourself.

Ripe for Improvement

When I tour schools and classrooms with on-site administrators, we never lament the possible absence of instructional technology, personalized-learning strategies, or other popular (but largely unproven) "innovations." We do lament the omnipresence of worksheets; the startling disparities in the content taught by teachers teaching the same course in the same school building; the ubiquitous "cut, color, and paste" activities that masquerade as literacy instruction in the primary grades (Ford & Opitz, 2002); and the widespread inattentiveness among the students, abetted by the tradition of calling on only those who raise their hands—while the rest sit, passive and bored. We note the paucity of authentic reading and writing activities, even in courses where they should predominate. And we bemoan the near absence of the most critical elements of effective teaching, such as quick, frequent "checks for understanding," which can double or triple the success rate on daily lessons.

The ubiquity of these poor practices is made evident by decades of classroom observation research (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Good & Brophy, 1997). They amount to "hundreds of hours of wasted class time" every year, in the great majority of schools (Kane & Steiner, 2019). For researchED's Eric Kalenze (2014), these findings constitute an educational system that is "upside down"—in which the most potent, proven practices are the least implemented, even as ineffective, time-wasting practices are astonishingly common.

But take heart: These stark assessments also point to a system that is ripe for improvement—because even reasonably effective (but radically reoriented) teacher training could turn things right side up, and the impact on student learning would be both swift and decisive.

Let's begin by looking at the most vital competencies every teacher should acquire if we want this to happen. I would emphasize that none of them are particularly exotic or difficult to implement.

1. Clear, Coherent Curriculum

To end our addiction to worksheets and unproductive practices, every teacher should learn to develop a coherent, content-rich curriculum with their colleagues—a clear, easy-to-follow schedule of "what to teach and when" (Darling-Hammond, 2010, p. 295). So start with curriculum; all else issues from this.

And don't be duped by those who claim that curriculum can only be provided by some prominently endorsed (but unproven) commercial program (Schmoker, 2019). The most notable successes occur in schools and districts whose teachers build their own admittedly imperfect curriculum: That's how schools like Mather Elementary in Massachusetts, Adlai Stevenson High School in Illinois, and Brockton High School in Massachusetts realized immediate—and enduring—gains.1 Good home-grown curriculum respects teacher time and expertise, as well as state and local contexts, and it doesn't succumb to the exigencies of market forces.

A "mountain of evidence" attests to the fact that a reasonably coherent curriculum, liberally infused with reading, discussion, and writing assignments, is the single-largest factor affecting student learning (Marzano, 2003; Sahm, 2017). Just as important, it eliminates the most egregious, time-wasting activities that now occupy so much of the school day.

Once such a curriculum is in place, teachers can concentrate on the most impactful practices for delivering it effectively.

2. Sound Instruction

Every teacher should have in-depth training in the following instructional elements. They should learn how to:

  • Write clear, student-friendly learning targets, which clarify how the target will be assessed. By themselves, these ensure appreciably higher rates of success on daily lessons (Hattie, 2009).

  • Employ simple procedures (such as proximity) for ensuring that every student is attentive during instruction—with their eyes are on the teacher, ready to learn (Lemov, 2015).

  • Develop a compelling introduction for each lesson: a one- or two-minute preview or "pitch" to help students see the relevance of the day's lesson.

  • Deliver explicit, step-by-step instruction—in multiple, briskly paced cycles. For each step, teachers must learn to:

    • Introduce or model new knowledge or procedures in small, "bite-sized" chunks.

    • Follow with an opportunity for students to practice a procedure or process new information.

    • Quickly circulate while students practice—to determine if the class needs additional clarification or modeling—before moving on to the next step.

All this being said, of course there are times when we would modify—or even suspend—these procedures for certain independent work and projects. As Hattie (2014) makes clear, students should be allowed to work with less explicit guidance once they have acquired the knowledge and skills prerequisite to the completion of a given task.

But training in these essential elements of instruction can have an outsized impact. For years, the Flowing Wells Unified School District in my then-hometown of Tucson, Arizona, eschewed every regnant pedagogical fad in order to deeply train and retrain every teacher in these instructional elements. As a result, they had some of the greatest gains in the state for over a decade—and almost no teacher turnover (Schmoker, 2018). Harry Wong, the renowned expert on teacher effectiveness, once told me that Flowing Wells was the best school district he'd ever come across.

If such skill were brought to bear in more schools—just on literacy instruction alone—the results would be breathtaking.

3. Authentic Literacy (Reading, Discussion, and Writing)

For E.D. Hirsch, literacy is integral to curriculum and "the most important single goal of schooling" (2010, p. 31). To truly deepen literacy development across grade levels, teachers should be fully trained to provide instruction in the following key areas of literacy (though few are):

Phonics Instruction: There has never been more agreement that every K–1 teacher (at least) must be taught to provide systematic phonics instruction (Pimentel, 2018). Moreover, a larger proportion of this instruction should be taught to entire classes, all at the same time. Our current overreliance on teaching to small, ability-based groups is not only less effective, but it can "exacerbate achievement gaps" (Sparks, 2018). It has also greatly reduced the instructional time students receive during the all-important K–2 literacy block (Ford & Opitz, 2002).

Quantity of Reading and Writing: No educator should ever be allowed to forget that literacy requires that students read (and are read to) "a great deal more [emphasis added] than students read today" (Gewertz, 2010); that they must consume "a huge volume and range of texts," including grade-appropriate texts (Pondiscio & Mahnken, 2014); or that struggling readers must "read voraciously" to catch up with their peers (Gallagher, 2009, p. 43).

Students should read and/or be read to for a minimum of 60 minutes daily, across the curriculum, at every grade level. And they should write for at least 40 minutes (Allington, 2011; Shanahan, personal communication). In such amounts, reading and writing would have a game-changing impact on all learning.

Reading to Learn: Every teacher should know how to:

  • Scaffold to introduce every text with a brief review of the difficult vocabulary students will encounter, along with some amount of background knowledge. This simple step increases students' ability to comprehend text by multiple grade levels (Schmoker, 2018).

  • Craft a higher-order "guiding" question for the text (whether a book chapter, textbook section, poem, or article) to provide purpose—and promote concentration and comprehension.

  • Model and instruct students in how to underline, annotate, and take notes as they read (the frequency of which depends on the text; for example, novels typically demand less annotation than poetry or short nonfiction) (Gallagher, 2009). Notetaking itself ranks near the top of the most effective teaching strategies (Marzano, 2003).

Discussion: Virtually all text-based learning should be punctuated with—and then culminate in—focused talk, sometimes in pairs and at other times in extended full-class discussions or debates. All teachers should be able to instruct students in how to speak clearly, audibly, logically, and with civility. When I do demonstration lessons, it is often apparent to me that students aren't learning these essential communication skills, which rank at the top of what employers want (Gewertz, 2018).

Writing—and Writing Instruction: English classes are the primary province of writing instruction. But every teacher should know how to (1) incorporate appropriate amounts of writing into their subject area, and (2) teach students to write a claim, cite evidence to support that claim, and then satisfactorily explain how their evidence supports the claim. These simple skills, implemented regularly, have had a dramatic impact on both test scores and authentic writing ability in multiple schools (Schmoker, 2018).

These three essential elements—curriculum, sound instruction, and authentic literacy—and their subsidiary practices are the primary, fundamental drivers of schooling and its improvement. And yet they are rarely implemented (Schmoker, 2018). A major reason for this is that they aren't an emphatic priority for those who provide undergraduate teacher preparation and staff development. We have yet to make practical, demonstrated mastery of best practices the explicit goal of teacher training.

Reorienting Preservice and Professional Development

In a series of (somewhat awkward) conversations, I have discussed the above practices with university education professors, deans, and department heads. Interestingly, most of them concede, when pressed, that these competencies are amply supported by the evidence on effective teaching. But they admit that their programs aren't organized to ensure that graduates acquire even novice-level competency in these methods. Indeed, I never learned about—much less learned how to execute—any of these practices, right up through my doctoral studies.

The case against standard-issue professional development is similarly damning. A recent comprehensive study found that the impact of professional development is negligible (Sawchuck, 2015). It has not reduced the prevalence of the most common and egregious instructional practices, nor has it increased the use of the most powerful, proven strategies (Odden, 2009). Why? Because the professional development community insists on chasing innovation at the expense of best practice (Kalenze, 2014; Schmoker, 2018). It is still, by and large, "not an evidence-based community." Even two decades ago, it was apparent that staff development was dominated by "whims, fads, opportunism, and ideology" (Corcoran, Fuhrman, & Belcher, 2001).

To overcome such "awful inertia," we should unashamedly inculcate "moral outrage at ineffective practices" and their disastrous consequences for students (Barth, 2002). Then providers of preservice and professional development should radically reorder their priorities to ensure that the practices I've outlined are taught first and that demonstrated mastery becomes the explicit aim of training. To that end, all educational leaders and principals must ensure that we:

  • Provide intensive, repeated training opportunities in these high-leverage strategies at every faculty and department meeting, on all professional development days.

  • Ensure that trainers and school-based teacher leaders employ the same elements of effective instruction in teacher training that we want teachers to employ with their students: teach and model in small steps, followed by practice, checks for understanding, and adjustments to training—until our teachers demonstrate (at least) novice-level mastery.

We need to do these things routinely and obsessively in our schools and district trainings, in PLCs (with fellow teachers acting as proxies for students), and in undergraduate and graduate education courses.

Because if we do these things, we can expect more than mere incremental improvement. We can expect to see, as Michael Fullan (2010) writes, "stunningly powerful consequences;" We can dare to anticipate Marzano's "era of unprecedented effectiveness" in every kind of school in America.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Does your teacher development lean more toward novelty than "evidence-based priority"?

➛ How could your school or district's PD be reoriented to build teachers' mastery in the three essential competencies Schmoker describes?

➛ Do you agree that the adoption of these principles of sound instruction would lead to a dramatic improvement in education? Why or why not?


Allington, R. L. (2011). What at-risk readers need. Educational Leadership, 68(6), 40–45.

Barth, R. S. (2002). The culture builder. Educational Leadership, 59(8), 6–11.

Corcoran, T., Fuhrman, S. H., & Belcher, C. L. (2001). The district role in instructional improvement. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(1), 78–84.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world of education. New York & London: Teachers College Press.

Ford, M. P., & Opitz, M. F. (2002). Using centers to engage children during guided reading time: Intensifying learning experiences away from the teacher. The Reading Teacher, 55(8), 710–717.

Fullan, M. (2010). Motion leadership: The skinny on becoming change savvy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Gewertz, C. (2010, March 31). Little progress seen in student results on reading NAEP. Education Week.

Gewertz, C. (2018, September 25). Speaking skills top employer wish lists. But schools don't teach them. Education Week.

Good, T. L., & Brophy, J. E. (1997). Looking into classrooms, 7th edition. New York: Longman.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2014, September 16). The Hattie effect: What's essential for effective PBL? Edutopia.

Hirsch, E. D. (2010, January 7). First, do no harm. Education Week.

Kane, T. J., & Steiner, D. M. (2019, April 10). Don't close the book on curricular reform. Education Week, 38(28), 26–27.

Kalenze, E. (2014). Education is upside down. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Odden, A. (2009, December 9). We know how to turn schools around—we just haven't done it. Education Week.

Pimentel, S. (2018, October 26). Why doesn't every teacher know the research on reading instruction? Education Week.

Petrilli, M. (2019). Toward a golden age of educational practice. Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Pondiscio, R., & Mahnken, K. (2014, September 24). Leveled reading: The making of a literacy myth. Fordham Institute.

Sahm, C. (2017, January 10). Why curriculum counts. Flypaper. Retrieved from

Sawchuck, S. (2015, August 18). Study casts doubt on impact of teacher professional development. Education Week.

Schmoker, M. (2018). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Schmoker, M. (2019, February 20). The problem with literacy programs. Education Week.

Sparks, S. (2018, August 26). Are classroom reading groups the best way to teach reading? Maybe not. Education Week.

End Notes

1 For simple, step-by-step guidelines for building curriculum, see Learning by Doing by Richard DuFour and coauthors (Solution Tree, 2006) and Focus, 2nd Edition by Mike Schmoker (ASCD, 2018).

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