Curriculum refers to the lessons and academic content taught in a school or in a specific course or program. Depending on how broadly we use term, curriculum typically refers to the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn, which includes the learning standards or learning goals they are expected to meet. We also sometimes use the term when talking about the units and lessons that are taught; the assignments and projects given to students; the books, materials, videos, presentations, and readings used in a course.Because the term can be used so broadly, it is important to clarify with a colleague what they mean when they use the term curriculum. For example, one teacher might refer to the Everyday Math Book as curriculum, where another might call that a resource.
Bloom’s Taxonomy has three hierarchical models used to classify educational learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity. Although all three domains relate to transfer of knowledge, we typically rely on the cognitive domain to create learning objectives, assessments, and activities.Using the cognitive domain to help plan for instruction, gives us a way to check that we are embedding rigorous expectation and application of learning. Bloom’s Taxonomy is one way to look at sequencing or scaffolding learning outcomes.
The distinction between standards-based and standards-referenced is often a source of confusion among educators —in part because the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but also because the distinction between the two is subtle. In brief, standards-referenced means that what gets taught or tested is “based” on standards (i.e., standards are the source of the content and skills taught to students—the original “reference” for the lesson).Standards-based refers to the practice of making sure students learn what they were taught and actually achieve the expected standards, and that they meet a defined standard for “proficiency.”In a standards-referenced system, teaching and testing are guided by standards; in a standards-based system, teachers work to ensure that students actually learn the expected material as they progress in their education.Another way of looking at it is that standards-referenced refers to inputs (what is taught) and standards-based is focused on outputs (what is learned). The following examples will help to illustrate the distinction between standards-based and standards-referenced:Assessment: Say a teacher designs a standards-referenced test for a history course. While the content of the test may be entirely standards-referenced—i.e., it is aligned with the expectations described in learning standards—a score of 75 may be considered a passing score, suggesting that 25 percent of the taught material was not actually learned by the students who scored a 75. In addition, the teacher may not know what specific standards students have or have not met if only the scores tests and assignments are summed and averaged. For example, a student may be able to earn a “passing” grade in a ninth-grade English course, but still be unable to “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking” or “demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings” (two ninth-grade standards taken from the Common Core State Standards.)
If the teacher uses a standards-based approach to assessment, students would only “pass” a test or course after demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills described in the expected standards. The students may need to retake a test several times or redo an assignment, or they may need additional help from the teacher or other educational specialist, but the students would need to demonstrate that they learned what they were expected to learn—i.e., the specific knowledge and skills described in standards.
Curriculum: In most high schools, students typically earn credit for passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D, suggesting that the awarded credit is based on a spectrum of learning expectations. In these cases, the curricula taught in these schools may be standards-referenced, but not standards-based, because teachers are not evaluating whether students have achieved specific standards. In standards-based schools, courses, and programs, however, educators will use a variety of instructional and assessment methods to determine whether students have met the expected standards, including strategies such as portfolios, rubrics, and capstone projects.
Grading: In a standards-referenced course, grading may look like it traditionally has in schools: students are given numerical scores on a 1–100 scale and class grades represent an average of all scores earned over the course of a semester or year. In a standards-based course, however, “grades” often look quite different. While standards-based grading and reporting may take a wide variety of forms from school to school, grades are typically connected to descriptive standards, not based on test and assignment scores that are averaged together. For example, students may receive a report that shows how they progressing toward meeting a selection of standards. The criteria used to determine what “meeting a standard” means will defined in advance, often in a rubric, and teachers will evaluate learning progress and academic achievement in relation to the criteria. The reports students receive might use a 1–4 scale, for example, with 3s and 4s indicating that students have met the standard. In standards-based schools, grades for behaviors and work habits—e.g., getting to class on time, following rules, treating other students respectfully, turning in work on time, participating in class, putting effort into assignments—are also reported separately from academic grades, so that teachers and parents can make distinctions between learning achievement and behavioral issues.
The term power standards refers to a subset of learning standards that educators have determined to be the highest priority or most important for students to learn. In most cases, power standards are developed or selected at the school level by administrators and teachers. On a practical level, it is often impossible for teachers to cover every academic standard over the course of a school year, given the depth and breadth of state learning standards.Power standards are the prioritized academic expectations that educators determine to be the most critical and essential for students to learn. It is important to note that power standards do not preclude the teaching of other standards—they merely determine the highest-priority material. For this reason, power standards may be limited to only a handful of standards, but these standards will typically require students to acquire and demonstrate strong understanding of a complex subject or sophisticated skill.
There has been a recent emphasis on best practice instruction, and many researchers have weighed in on what makes some instructional methods more effective than others. Sampling the literature on best practice, common themes emerge. A key theme is that instruction should begin with a high level of teacher support that is gradually removed until students work independently (Anderson 2000; Calkins 2003; Harvey & Goudvis 2007). This is commonly known as the gradual release of responsibility model (Pearson & Gallagher 1983). This model is sometimes explained in terms of the roles the teacher and students assume throughout instruction: I do (you watch); we do it (together); you do (I observe and assist); you do (I assess) (Pearson & Gallagher 1983).
The workshop approach utilizes the gradual release of responsibility model. Modeling and a short guided practice occur at the beginning of workshop during the whole group minilesson. During the workshop period, students work independently on their writing but receive additional guidance as they confer with the teacher in small groups or one-to-one conferences.
Teacher leads a mini-lesson in which s/he models the skill or strategy that is being taught.
Students practice the skill or strategy together with the teacher.
Students break out into groups that are formed based on similar needs as identified by teacher observation and assessment. The teacher works with each group in guided instruction addressing their needs.
Students work independently or collaboratively on a project/assignment that allows them to employ and develop the particular skill or strategy.
Students have an opportunity to share their work with the class and teacher and engage in class-wide discussion.
Often, teachers think this approach can only be used in writer’s workshop, but as we learn more about best practice we see that educators in all content areas are using the gradual release of responsibility model.
Proficiency Based Learning or Proficiency Based Education refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education.Proficiency-based learning is generally seen as a change from traditional educational approaches in which students may or may not acquire proficiency in a given course or academic subject before they earn course credit, get promoted to the next grade level, or graduate.For example, high school students typically earn academic credit by passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D. With grades ranging from A-D, this suggests that some students learned more than others. While the goal of proficiency-based learning is to ensure that more students learn what they are expected to learn, the approach can also provide educators with more detailed or fine-grained information about student learning progress, which can help them more precisely identify academic strengths and weakness, as well as the specific concepts and skills students have not yet mastered.Since academic progress is often tracked and reported by learning standard in proficiency-based courses and schools, educators and parents often know more precisely what specific knowledge and skills students have acquired or may be struggling with. For example, instead of receiving a letter grade on an assignment or test, each of which may address a variety of standards, students are graded on specific learning standards, each of which describes the knowledge and skills students are expected to acquire.