Larry Ainsworth Would Prioritize Our Standards . . .

Ainsworth, L. (2003). Power standards: Identifying the standards that matter most.Englewood, CO: Lead and Learn Press.

As teachers everywhere are looking to adapt the curriculum of their courses and their daily instructional focus in order to prepare students for the new common core standards, I think it is a great time to revisit this concise handbook Larry Ainsworth published 10 years ago. Although one of the key advances of the common core standards is that they outline fewer, more rigorous standards, an examination of the ELA and Mathematics standards can still be daunting at first glance. These standards are indeed more rigorous and performance based, where students are asked to demonstrate progress towards discrete skills. Ainsworth’s work gives us a digestible perspective to start actually implementing these new targets in our classrooms, as he shares the power that can be leveraged by prioritizing key standards that can open doors to developing a broad array of skills. In this post, I will briefly revisit Ainsworth’s book and then provide an example of two “power standards” in the ELA Common Core Standards.

Ainsworth defines “power standards” as “prioritized standards that are derived from a systemic and balanced approach to distinguishing which standards are absolutely essential for student success from those that are “nice to know” (p. 2). A key hallmark of standards that qualify for the “power” distinction is that they “give students the ability to use reasoning and thinking skills to learn and understand other curriculum objectives” (p.5-6). Put simply, a key identifier for power standards is the potential that achievement of the standard has to be helpful in learning other key objectives in the future. When selecting which learning targets we should prepare students to hit first, we should pick those that when achieved, best prepare students for subsequently hitting another important target. On page 13, Ainsworth cites Doug Reeves, a favorite of this blog here and here, in identifying three key criteria and accompanying questions by which to select “power standards”. First, Reeves emphasize endurance, which carries with it the key question of “Will this standard or indicator provide students with knowledge and skills that will be of value beyond a single test date?” Second, we should look for leverage, for which we must ask “Will this provide knowledge and skills that will be of value in multiple disciplines?” Finally, we should consider Readiness for The Next Level of Learning, for which we must consider “Will this provide students with essential knowledge and skills that are necessary for success in the next grade or the next level of instruction?” Hopefully, when working in teacher teams to decide which of the common core standards to attack first, our finalists would speak well to each of these three questions.

Ainsworth simplifies these three components down to a consideration of “What do your students need for success–in school (this year, next year, and so on), in life, and on your state tests?” (p.14). For the rest of the book “school, life, and the State Test” is Ainsworth’s shorthand for choosing the standards that  are most worthy of focus. So this kind of prioritized focus sounds great, but how is it accomplished? Ainsworth argues that we must first change our perspective on what it means to teach something. He revisits the sad emphasis on coverage instead of learning that many other experts have lamented, quoting one teacher who, discouraged, admitted “I’ve stopped teaching. Now I’m just giving the kids worksheet and practice drills so I can at least cover the rest of the material they will be tested on” (p.8). Ainsworth calls this “The Frantic Coverage Model” which if widespread, neglects student learning in favor of “teaching” every objective (p.9).

“The Frantic Coverage Model” p.8

Ainsworth prescribes a new model, which he names “From Coverage to Focus” by which we develop a focused curriculum, assessed by performance-based assessments, to track student progress towards carefully identified power standards (p.9). Achievement of these power standards then prepares the students to more readily attack the rest of the key knowledge and skills they are expected to master.

“From Coverage to Focus” p.9

This indictment of the “mile wide and inch deep” problem is certainly not new ground being discovered by Ainsworth. However, the neat thing about Ainsworth’s handbook is that he not only identifies the problem, but he also provides a process for addressing it by laying out the conversation a teacher team should have when identifying power standards. This is followed by three chapters that provide an in-depth narrative of how three districts (one in each chapter) identified power standards, along with example artifacts from the curriculum they developed. The process Ainsworth identifies for discussing and identifying which standards should be prioritized begins with limiting the discussion to a specific grade level and content area.

Now, ten years after this book was published, the Common Core Standards have already done this for us (at least in English, Math, and Science) by identifying grade level specific standards for K-8 and grade band specific standards for 9-10 and 10-11.  The discussion then proceeds to “table talk” among the team to build consensus around which of these grade and content area specific standards best speak to the three questions (see above) (p.19). The next step is to discuss vertical alignment of courses in order to identify which of the power standards can be taught at each grade level, thereby developing an articulated plan for when the students will master each of these key understandings. Ainsworth and Reeves call this the “safety net” curriculum which was described in one of the school district artifacts as “a very limited set of academic standards organized for each grade and for each subject. It is not the total curriculum-just the “safety net” that every teacher should ensure every student knows” (p.89). Once this kind of safety-net curriculum is agreed upon, really engaging plans to attack the standards can be developed.

Chapter 9 of the book identifies one of these processes which Ainsworth calls “unwrapping the standards”, by which teacher teams develop interdisciplinary connections though which to attack the same power standards in different content areas, and then developing an engaging “hook” by which to get students excited about this work in more than one of their courses (p.108). Finally, I promised to pick out two standards from the ELA Common Core Standards that meet the “power standard” threshold of “enduranceleverage, and Readiness for The Next Level of Learning” or as Ainsworth quips, “school, life, and the State Test”. Here’s an easy one. The common core emphasizes critical reading of nonfiction text in order to identify perspective and argument. An example is the following standard for the 9-10 grade band.

RI.9-10.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
This clearly meets the “endurance” standard, as the ability to read critically is essential to active citizenry, success in careers, and managing the logistics and finances of a successful life. For a high school freshmen, meeting this standard clearly meets the “readiness for the next level” standard as these are key skills they will need in advanced social studies and english courses as juniors and seniors. What about “leverage”? Well, I don’t need to make an argument here. Just read the following corollary found in the 9-10 grade level band of the ELA Writing Standards.
W.9-10.1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
It would clearly be difficult to write this way without mastering the critical reading standard, while doing so would provide a significant head start to tackling this writing standard.
Larry Ainsworth would prioritize our standards because a prioritized order for attacking the common core will enable our students to leverage early learning for greater mastery later, making acceleration possible for all students.
Next On In A Perfect School . . .             Tony Wagner Would Do Our Global Readiness Audit . . .