What Research Says About. . . / Pacing Guides - ASCD
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October 1, 2008

What Research Says About. . . / Pacing Guides

Curriculum
Assessment

In today's high-stakes education climate, pacing guides are becoming a mainstay of teachers' professional lives. Will pressure to cover everything before the next test undermine deeper learning?

What's the Idea?

Pacing guides are created by school district leaders to help teachers stay on track and to ensure curricular continuity across schools in the district. These guides serve a purpose similar to that of traditional scope-and-sequence documents, which lay out expectations of the material to be covered in each subject at each grade level. But today's pacing guides are different because they map out the topics that are expected to be on the annual state test and schedule these topics before the spring testing dates. In fact, many pacing guides are tied to benchmark assessments that take place quarterly or even more frequently, further delineating what teachers must teach and when they must teach it. Some pacing guides specify the number of days, class periods, or even minutes that teachers should devote to each topic.

What's the Reality?

Whether the amount of material to cover is determined by a textbook, scope and sequence, or pacing guide, teachers today face heightened pressure to cover all the topics likely to be on the annual state test before the spring testing date.

Teachers do not want to handicap their students—or their school's ranking—by skipping topics. For new teachers, pacing guides are often the primary source of information on what their school expects them to teach. Yet most teachers confront the inescapable reality that they simply don't have enough time to cover all the material adequately, particularly if students need remediation. Teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place: Slow down and risk lack of coverage, or speed up and sacrifice depth of learning.

What's the Research?

Research suggests that pacing guides intensify pressure on teachers to cover all the material specified and that teachers attempt to meet this demand in several ways. One is to devote more time to subjects that are tested (Louis, Febey, & Schroeder, 2005), giving less attention to science, music, art, and social studies.

Another common response is to rely on teacher-centered lessons that seem more efficient and predictable than student-centered lessons. Engaging students in more time-consuming, cognitively demanding activities that nurture deep understanding tends to fall by the wayside. Long-term projects, such as reading and analyzing entire books, are similarly bypassed. Breadth of coverage trumps depth for all topics. In an evaluation of efforts to introduce more rigorous algebra lessons to Los Angeles high school students, teachers reported that pressure to keep up with the pacing guide frustrated their attempts to immerse students in challenging tasks (David & Greene, 2007).

Teachers also respond to time pressure by making adaptations to programs that can lessen their benefits. For example, a study of Success for All found that teachers dropped some activities that the program designers deemed important because they lacked time (Datnow & Castellano, 2000).

Although all teachers are pressed for time, teachers with predominantly low-performing and minority students are far more likely to drop cognitively demanding activities than are other teachers. The former feel more stress and are more likely to focus on traditional forms of teacher-centered instruction (Wills & Sandholtz, in press).

These findings are consistent with research on the influence of high-stakes testing on curriculum and instruction, as well as studies of the role of pacing guides in specific reform efforts. Au (2007) reviewed 49 such studies and found that 75 percent documented a curriculum narrowed to tested subjects, knowledge fragmented into test-related pieces, and an increase in teacher-centered instruction.

Some districts use pacing guides as a tool to monitor teachers' adherence to a prescribed, centralized curriculum. This monitoring tends to further narrow content and instructional strategies (Wills & Sandholtz, in press). Cobb, McClain, de Silva Lamberg, and Dean (2003) found that in the United States, most guides do not address the development of student reasoning and that teachers rarely deviate from the guides. In contrast, they found that the pacing guides that Japanese teachers use describe student solutions to problems and explain how teachers can build on them in their instruction.

The quality of pacing guides and how teachers respond to them vary greatly, however. Research on new teachers, for example, points to their need for curricular guidance. One study finds that new teachers can benefit from resources such as pacing guides designed to help them figure out what to teach and how to teach it (Kauffman, Johnson, Kardos, Liu, & Peske, 2002).

What's One to Do?

Pacing guides are not an inherently bad idea. Their effects depend on their design and how district and school leaders use them. The best pacing guides emphasize curriculum guidance instead of prescriptive pacing; these guides focus on central ideas and provide links to exemplary curriculum materials, lessons, and instructional strategies.

Guides like these embody what many experienced teachers do when they plan their curriculum for the year: They chunk it, put topics in a sensible order, determine what resources to draw on, and develop a good sense of how long different elements will take. They also allow for some unpredictability depending on their particular mix of students.

Constructive pacing guides assume differences in teachers, students, and school contexts. They adjust expectations through frequent revisions based on input from teachers. Most important, they encourage instruction that challenges students beyond the content of the test.

References

Au, W. (2007). High-stakes testing and curricular control: A qualitative metasynthesis.Educational Researcher, 36(5), 258–267.

Cobb, P., McClain, K., de Silva Lamberg, T., & Dean, C. (2003). Situating teachers' instructional practices in the institutional setting of the school and district. Educational Researcher, 32(6), 13–24.

Datnow, A., & Castellano, M. (2000). Teachers' responses to Success for All: How beliefs, experience, and adaptations shape implementation. American Educational Research Journal, 37(3), 775–799.

David, J. L., & Greene, D. (2007). Improving mathematics instruction in Los Angeles high schools: An evaluation of the PRISMA pilot program. Palo Alto, CA: Bay Area Research Group.

Kauffman, D., Johnson, S. M., Kardos, S. M., Liu, E., & Peske, H. G. (2002). “Lost at sea”: New teachers' experiences with curriculum and assessment. Teachers College Record, 104(2), 273–300.

Louis, K. S., Febey, K., & Schroeder, R. (2005). State-mandated accountability in high schools: Teachers' interpretations of a new era. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27(20), 177–204.

Wills, J. S., & Sandholtz, J. H. (in press). Constrained professionalism: Dilemmas of teaching in the face of test-based accountability. Teachers College Record.

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