Mike Schmoker Would Do Our Fidelity Checks . . .

Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

This book is a continuation of a theme that Mike Schmoker hits on in all of his work (i.e. Results Now), being that school leaders already know what works, but too often don’t have the courage to implement a sustained focus on it while ignoring everything else. It affirms the “less is more” leadership advice Doug Reeves gives in Finding Your Leadership Focus: What Matters Most for Student Results that I reviewed in my second post of this blog.  The “it” that Schmoker describes as essential and worthy of being prioritized across our schools is a short list.

Three simple things: reasonably coherent curriculum (what we teach); sound lessons (how we teach); and far more purposeful reading and writing in every discipline, or authentic literacy (integral to both what and how we teach). (p.2)

Basically, Schmoker argues that we don’t need any new initiatives, programs, or technologies to close the achievement gap. We just need to implement a sound and very focused (less is more) curriculum (see Larry Ainsworth’s concept of power standards), be very disciplined in our use of proven instructional strategies (basic good teaching which he reviews, not a fancy new model), and frequent engagement of students with authentic literacy activities (basically reading, writing, and speaking with a purpose, usually argumentative). For the rest of this blog post I’m just going to call these “The Big 3” (D-Wade, LeBron, and Bosh eat your heart out). Schmoker accuses the schools that don’t do “The Big 3” of having students whose attention is too attenuated to build enduring skills, and teachers whose work is too distracted by fad initiatives to provide outstanding “Big 3” lessons every day.

Schmoker puts together a powerful argument for “simplicity, clarity, and priority” which he argues should define all school improvement efforts. (p.12) He weaves together really impressive examples from other books (i.e. Pfeffer & Sutton’s The Knowing-Doing Gap), corporate America (Steve Jobs’ relentless focus at Apple), and a middle school he personally taught at that had a completely common curriculum and a unified and disciplined (yet formulaic) instructional model that achieved outstanding results for kids. He cites studies that assert that deep focus on “The Big 3” could eliminate the achievement gap in the United States in 5-7 years (p.1).

Schmoker also has a little fun arguing that until we have these three elements in place, we should not take on any new strand of program, workshop, or technology. In fact, he argues that any new workshop, training, conference, or book study should come with the following warning:

WARNING: If you or your staff do not already implement a reasonably sound, common curriculum that covers an adequate amount of subject-area content; that is taught with the use of the most essential, well-known elements of effective lessons; and that includes ample amounts of meaningful reading and writing, then please don’t sign up for this. This training will have no effect on learning in your classroom or school. Master the fundamentals first. Then, if you still need this workshop (and you might not), we look forward to seeing you. Have a nice day. (p.14)

The danger of this argument misapplied, of course, is that it could be used as an excuse not to innovate a school’s curriculum or instructional practice in a school system that did not already have “The Big 3” in place. Schmoker’s thesis could then be used as an excuse not to improve.

This, of course, would be a misapplication of Schmoker’s argument.  All of his examples of schools who had adopted this relentless focus on his “Big 3” did so with a dedication that in and of itself would need to be a major “new initiative” in your typical school.  So if a school made fidelity of “The Big 3” its only professional development and PLC focus, and did so with intensive continuous improvement efforts and collaborative reflection, I could agree with Schmoker that bringing in any additional school improvement fad or technology would be doing a disservice to their reform efforts. This would be a bold path to commit too, but he argues it would be extremely effective in accelerating student learning.

After providing the overarching argument for his call to action, Schmoker then outlines the action plan itself in the subsequent chapters. He has a concise chapter on“What” we teach that summarizes the best practices of curriculum design that should be applied to pare down our courses to “tasks that prepare students for college, careers, and citizenship: meaningful reading, writing, speaking, and thinking-around an adequately coherent body of content in the subject areas.” (p. 28) Schmoker also endorses my favorite author on the work that is required for unpacking the Common Core to identify “power standards,” Larry Ainsworth. (p.41) When selecting which standards will be the focus of our pared down curriculum, Schmoker prescribes Doug Reeves’ three metrics of Endurance (will kids need this later), Leverage (will this be valuable in other areas), and Readiness for the Next Level (p.47).

Reassuring to those of us who work in schools that have embraced the Professional Learning Communities model is Schmoker’s recommendation that this work is best done and monitored through a collaborative process in PLC teams. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as DuFour always emphasizes that a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” is a prerequisite to the PLC process, and the first of our four PLC questions is “What do we want students to learn and be able to do?

Schmoker also outlines the “how” of teaching by providing a primer on what effective teaching should look like. Nothing here is new either, but it still embodies what 95% of the great teachers I have seen work their magic do on a daily basis. Schmoker reviews the key components of good teaching we all hopefully learned as undergraduates: 1. Clear Learning Objectives, 2. Teaching / Modeling, 3. Guided Practice, 4. Checks for Understanding / Formative Assessment. He then outlines specific examples of what this looks like in a typical lesson, an example from Adlai Stevenson high school, and two in depth templates of how these components are implemented with the maximum impact.

Schmoker argues that although these components seem obvious, too many of our typical lessons are poorly built and do not hit on all of these components effectively. He then summarizes research by Dylan William (2007) that makes stark assertions about the impact effective lessons can have. Specifically, he cites the power of effective formative assessment and checks for understanding “would add between 6  and 9 months of additional learning growth per year.” (p.61) This is supportive of evidence Rick Stiggins has collected on the power of formative assessments summarized here in a previous post.

It is these sections of the book that really give you pause as someone passionate about leading positive change in our profession. Rededicating ourselves to supporting teachers in the hard work of delivering extremely sound lessons rife with formative assessment and authentic literacy is a serious commitment. It is also not a commitment that is “new and shiny” like a new packaged reading program or a 1-1 device deployment. After reviewing meta analysis work by Robert Marzano which also reinforces the power of chunking lessons with frequent segments of highly responsive formative assessment, Schmoker acknowledges that his prescription is not necessarily exciting.

Bored yet? Don’t be, despite the fact these elements of instruction are quite familiar. Because the payoff isn’t in knowing these components; the payoff comes from actually doing them. What would happen if we did design and implement this simple universally affirmed structure into our lessons? I’ll say it again: We would make educational history. (p.60)

Schmoker uses the subsequent chapters to go in-depth on what “The Big 3” look like in English Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, and Math. In each chapter, he begins by reviewing the need to reduce standards in that particular curricular area and discusses which type of skills should be emphasized when selecting power standards.

In English Language Arts he recommends tons of writing and assignments that emphasize “simple, redundant literacy” in which we teach vocabulary, establish a purpose for reading, and then lead the students in activities to work with the reading by annotating, discussing, and writing (p.126). Basically, what great English teachers do every day.

He describes social studies courses “with literacy at the core” that make reading the focus of all exploration and debate and utilize a “task, text, talk” approach to assignments where students are given a challenge, use the text to develop an argument, and then discuss the issue in various structures (p.141).

In science, Schmoker also prescribes the “task, text, talk” approach and cites studies that support “effective science inquiry through literacy.” (p.168) More controversially, Schmoker says we could afford to give up many of lab practicums which he claims are often too “cookbook” to make them as good for scientific inquiry as literacy assignments.

In mathematics, he summarizes research on the importance of “extensive practice” in mathematical reasoning, wherein students are asked to express verbally the meaning of the problem and the solution, and then write fluently to explain their reasoning (p.212).

While I agree that we need to replace more poster projects and group PowerPoints with close reading and argumentative writing, I don’t fully endorse all Schmoker’s prescriptions for what “The Big 3” should look like in each area. For example, Schmoker has a penchant for emphasizing literature and long papers in English, whereas I think current research identifies greater leverage in frequent non-fiction and short position papers. In most cases, however, Schmoker’s recommendations are right on and are buttressed by sound research, supportive case studies, and templates that are compelling.

Mike Schmoker would do our fidelity checks because he would challenge us to ensure that we were supporting the most important and most difficult work in our schools (great teaching) as a prerequisite to, and throughout the implementation of, any new initiative. He would constantly challenge us to apply and expect what we already know great teaching looks like, and in the process, accelerate the learning of all of our students.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Larry Ainsworth Would Select Our Standards . . .