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AIMING HIGHERHow a Standards-Driven Approach AchievesEquity and Improves Student Learning

Written by Kerri A. KerrCopyright Literacy Design Collaborative, May 2020THANK YOUThank you to all who made this report possible. Megan Jensen and Suzanne Simonscontributed significantly to the insights shared in this report, and Kelley Pasattaand Jeff Archer provided excellent research and editorial assistance.In particular, we are grateful to the schools within the Los Angeles Unified SchoolDistrict and the New York City Department of Education that opened their doorsto allow us to observe their work and learn from their experiences: Glen Alta Span School, LAUSDJohnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School, LAUSDLockhurst Drive Charter Elementary School, LAUSDMelrose Elementary Mathematics/Science/Technology Magnet, LAUSDP.S. 48 The William Wordsworth School, NYC DOEP.S. 133 William A. Butler School, NYC DOEP.S. 182 The Bilingual Bicultural School, NYC DOERosa Parks Learning Center, LAUSDUrban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, NYC DOEVista del Valle Dual Language Academy, LAUSDThank you for all that you do to support your students in developing lifelongliteracy skills.The Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) is a national nonprofit working to advanceeducational equity for all students through high-quality curriculum, instruction, andprofessional development.LDC launched a decade ago as a collaborative of practitioners and organizations committed to raising rigorand improving teacher efficacy in order to impact student outcomes and address issues of educational equitywhile implementing new college and career-ready academic standards. Including teachers, literacy experts, andcurriculum specialists, LDC has spent over 10 years developing frameworks, tools, and professional learning forteachers in ELA, social studies, and the sciences. First piloted in a handful of districts across the United States,these resources and strategies were tested, refined, and validated through additional collaborations with statedepartments of education, performance task experts, and disciplinary partners.2

At Melrose Elementary Mathematics/Science/Technology Magnet in Los Angeles, CA, all teachersemploy common tools and strategies for standardsdriven instruction. The schoolwide use of thesepractices emerged out of early positive results in afew select grade levels of teachers implementing anew approach to instructional planning. Double digitgains in state test scores for these early adoptersmade others eager to integrate the same approachesinto their teaching. The school now sees a tightalignment to standards across grades and subjects,and expectations for all students have risen.At P.S. 48Q William Wordsworth ElementarySchool in Queens, NY, a group of teachers includingone from each grade work to compare instructionaltasks with examples of the resulting argumentpieces students have written. Referring to nationallycalibrated rubrics of desired student performance,they note how expectations progress from one gradelevel to the next, and how this looks in actual studentwork. This leads them to plan ways to bring morerigor and targeted differentiation to their instruction.At P.S. 133K William A. Butler Elementary Schoolin Brooklyn, NY, 4th graders bounce in their seatsBACKGROUNDWhen Teachers and Students Aim Higherwith excitement as they discuss an analysis of text.With arms raised high, they vie for the chance to shareevidence to defend their points of view. Asked by aclassroom visitor why standards appear on their classassignments, students respond without hesitation:“Those tell us what to think about and do!”Each of these snapshots captures a highly productivelearning environment—one defined by four importantcharacteristics:1The same high expectations for all students;2A focus on delivering standards-driven assignments;3A focus on assessing evidence of standards instudent work; and4Collaborative, data-driven inquiry cycles to monitorand respond to student learning.All three schools achieved these objectives through aresearch-based partnership with the Literacy DesignCollaborative (LDC), a national nonprofit working toadvance educational equity for all students throughhigh-quality curriculum, instruction, and professionaldevelopment.3

BACKGROUNDLDC launched a decade ago as a collaborativeof practitioners and organizations committed toraising rigor and improving teacher efficacy inorder to impact student outcomes and addressissues of educational equity while implementingnew college and career-ready academic standards.Including teachers, literacy experts, and curriculumspecialists, LDC spent its first years developingframeworks, tools, and professional learning forteachers in ELA, social studies, and the sciences.First piloted in a handful of districts, these resourcesand strategies were all co-created with teachers andtested and refined through additional collaborationswith a number of state departments of education,performance task experts, and disciplinary partners.Through a five-year federal Investing in Innovation(i3) validation grant, these three schools andothers like them in the New York City Departmentof Education (NYCDOE) and the Los AngelesUnified School District (LAUSD) transformedtheir classrooms into standards-driven learningenvironments by building authentic teacherunderstanding of academic standards and bringingliteracy-rich writing assignments to students withintheir existing curriculum. Based on extensiveinterviews and visits to LDC partner schools in bothdistricts, Aiming Higher describes the LDC modeland the on-the-ground methods schools used torealize significant learning gains for students as wellas transformative results for teachers and schools.Included are key insights from practitioners on howthey leveraged rigorous academic standards to raisestudent performance and close longstanding gaps instudent achievement.4

The UCLA Center for Research on Evaluation,Standards, and Student Testing’s (CRESST)independent evaluation of LDC’s impact on studentoutcomes found that students in both cities gainedfrom four to nine additional months of learningcompared to matched-pair peers when exposed tomultiple LDC teachers. In some cases, gains of three toseven months of additional learning were seen after justone year of teacher participation in LDC.1, 2Gains of this magnitude are unusual in education,especially in such a short time period. By somemeasures, they are greater than the gap in learningamong students with teachers in the top and bottomquartiles in terms of their teaching effectiveness.3The cumulative effect of such large improvements instudent learning has the potential to greatly narrow theachievement gaps between disadvantaged students andBACKGROUNDStudents and Teachers Rise to the Occasiontheir peers. This holds the promise of setting youthfrom marginalized populations on a new trajectoryfor significantly better life prospects.The results of the CRESST evaluation are supportedby established research that states, unequivocally,that “task predicts performance.”4 Studentsneed grade-appropriate assignments, effectiveinstruction, high expectations, and to be engagedin what they are learning in order to consistentlymeet grade-level standards. Yet, only 17% of theassignments that students currently receive meetgrade-level standards,5 solidifying the reality thatstudents will underperform those standards. Whenstudents are offered assignments with gradeappropriate expectations, they can meet their gradelevel standards and close the achievement gap withtheir peers by more than seven months.6LDC STUDENTS GAIN4-9 MONTHS OF ADDITIONAL LEARNING IN 1 SCHOOL YEARLDC STUDENTSOne School Year4-9 Months of Extra GrowthNON-LDC STUDENTSOne School Year5

BACKGROUNDLDC partners with district and school leaders toguarantee equity of access to rigorous and standardsdriven instruction across all classrooms. To meet thatguarantee, LDC works with school leaders to design animplementation path that utilizes LDC assignments,known as modules, and data inquiry cycles centered onteaching and assessing focus clusters of standards. LDCmodules aren’t random assignments. Rather, they arestrategically placed, scaffolded opportunities for studentsand teachers to gain valuable insight into the thinkingprocesses of different disciplines at different grade levels.LDC’s goal, and the goal shared by LAUSD and NYCDOE, was not only to offer grade-appropriateassignments to students, but to support teachers in writing and delivering exceptional assignments.LDC schools demonstrate the use of higher-quality and more rigorous student tasks, more effectiveinstruction, heightened expectations, and increased student engagement. Practitioners in partner schoolsdescribed myriad outcomes for students, teachers, and schools that all contribute to significant student growth.RESULTS BEYOND STUDENT TESTING for students for teachers for schoolsGrowing agency over learningand ability to engage withcomplex concepts and texts.Higher expectations for all students.Writing is infused into all corecontent areas, allowing studentsto experience comfort andsuccess with writing.Higher engagement inclassrooms and strongerunderstanding of assignmentexpectations.Improved writing quality,quantity, and stamina.Increased depth of thinking.Expanded discourse with peers,leading to deeper connectionsand applications of knowledge.Deeper understanding of thestandards and knowledge of whatmastery of specific standardslooks like.Ability to plan standards-drivenassignments and make moreintentional choices aboutinstruction and texts.Ability to effectivelydifferentiate to meet varyingstudent needs.Ability to anticipate studentthinking and respond withappropriate in-the-momentinstructional moves.Ability to assess student learningfor evidence of the standards,and to provide more meaningfulfeedback to students based onthat assessment.6Connections across classes andcontent areas emerge naturally,resulting in a more coherentlearning experience for students.Teachers have the knowledgeand planning tools to supportauthentic, content-basedcollaboration and connectionsacross grades and subjects.Teachers apply the knowledgeand instructional planning learnedfrom LDC to their lessonsbroadly, so using standards todrive planning, teaching, andassessment becomes the norm.Schoolwide coherence ofcurriculum and instruction tostandards increases dramatically.

MODELAiming for Standards-DrivenInstruction Across the SchoolLDC asks school leaders to think about questions of distributingrigorous instructional equity across all classrooms. School leadersinitially situate the LDC work within their own school improvementgoals by asking the questions: How can we increase our teachers’capacity to develop students’ ability to read and write with intentionaland deliberate purpose? And how do we make this happen systemically?LDC IMPLEMENTATION PATHLDC partners with school leaders to design an implementation path that utilizes LDC modules and data inquirycycles centered on focus clusters of standards.STEP1IDENTIFY A CLEAR PURPOSE School leaders identify current problems of practice they want to address (e.g. improvingthe rigor of writing assignments; increasing the volume of student writing; and aligningassignments to literacy standards across the curriculum).ENGAGE SCHOOL LEADERSHIP & STAFF PARTICIPATIONSTEP2 Working with LDC, school leaders outline an approach to launching and growing the modelwith an eye on eventual spread and sustainability. School leaders determine which staff members will make up the initial LDC teacher team(e.g. grade level teams, departmental teams, vertical teams) and how participation will grow. School leaders select an LDC Teacher Leader and work with LDC to determine a trainingplan to build leadership capacity. School leaders identify protected time for the LDC teacher team to meet weekly.STEP3EMBED LDC MODULES INTO EXISTING CURRICULUM Working with their LDC coach, school leaders and teachers determine when and where they willteach LDC modules within their curriculum scope & sequence. These modules form the foundationfor the standards-driven data inquiry cycles teachers implement throughout the school year withthe support of their LDC coach.IMPLEMENT ONGOING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENTSTEP4 Teachers, teacher leaders, and school leaders receive LDC job-embedded professional developmentas they implement facilitated data inquiry cycles. Teachers meet weekly with their LDC coach toplan LDC instruction, receive feedback from their coach, and review student work. Teacher Leaders meet monthly with the LDC coach, and meet monthly with their school leaderto share teacher progress and student outcomes.IMPLEMENT A PLAN FOR SPREAD & SCALESTEP5 As growth in teacher and student learning progresses, school leaders begin to enact theirplan for spreading LDC practices to classrooms throughout the school. School leaders continue to meet with the LDC Teacher Leader for ongoing data-basedprogress monitoring meetings. LDC supports school leadership in determining if and how their existing assessments alignwith the standards-based skills addressed in LDC modules.7

MODELElevating Teacher Thinking andStandards-Driven InstructionLDC’s approach is premised on the idea thatthe standards come first. Instructional plans andactivities—including all in-the-moment moves thatteachers make and how they assess student work—must be designed and executed using the standardsas a starting place. Teachers start with a cluster ofthree focus standards as the driver of their workwith students. Their instructional plans and practicesare then all designed in the service of answeringthe question, “How can I best teach these focusstandards?”FOCUS ARDThis differs from typical practice in many places,where the standards remain ideas that are superficiallyconnected to curricula or instructional activities, orwhere the standards may be tacked on to existinginstructional practices and therefore deemed tobe “aligned.” This is the result of a common butproblematic mindset in which the goal of standardsimplementation is to become “standards aligned” or“standards compliant” rather than standards driven.While many efforts to support standardsimplementation claim to “unpack” the standards forteachers, this often translates into merely naming thestandards and describing their goals and how they’reorganized. Too often the process stops at superficialexplanations of the standard’s meaning.PROGRESSIONAL RUBRICSA unique aspect of LDC’s model are progressionalrubrics for ELA reading and writing, NGSS, andC3 standards developed in conjunction with theStanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity(SCALE). LDC/SCALE also provides a double-blindpeer consensus review process that evaluates standardsalignment, rigor, and disciplinary authenticity inassignment prompts and instructional plans.

STANDARDS-DRIVEN DATA INQUIRY CYCLESLDC’s implementation utilizes a job-embedded, blendedcoaching model to support teachers through two tothree data inquiry cycles throughout each schoolyear. Those data inquiry cycles support teachers inrecognizing, refining, and delivering standards-drivenassignments. They leave behind topical teaching,disjointed teaching, and dissociated teaching, andcomplete these five steps repeatedly over the courseof the entire school year.Importantly, LDC’s data inquiry cycles requireteachers to select just three priority standards tofocus on in each quarter—one content, one reading,and one writing standard.9 These standards focusclusters help teachers learn deeply the ways in whichthe thinking work of those standards manifest inreading, writing, and speaking in various contentareas. Teachers are able to consider the type ofreading, writing, and thinking work students needto do in order to most deeply engage with thecontent. This often involves setting aside topics andstandards in order to deliver authentically disciplinaryinstruction based on specific standards pairings.10While teachers may initially question this tightfocus, LDC’s approach has shown what the researchrecommends—that teaching important things deeplyhas more impact on student learning outcomes thanteaching many things superficially.111MODELThis review process ensures that teachers and studentshave access to the high quality assignments thatresearch shows predict high student performance.7In the i3 LDC model, teachers submitted theirassignments to this review process and were also ableto select assignments to teach that have been reviewedand rated by SCALE, giving teachers confidence thatstudents would be spending valuable instructional timeon assignments designed to significantly impact theirperformance.8Select 3 focusstandards per quarterto teach and assess.5Select and/orrefine all assessmentsbased on the focusstandards, ensuringalignment betweenwhat was taught andwhat was assessed.LDC’SSTANDARDS-DRIVENDATA INQUIRYCYCLE4Meet 2-3 timesper month to examinestudent work usingLDC’s nationally-calibratedrubrics,13 assessingevidence of thefocus standards.2Give studentsassignments thathave been determinedto specifically teachthose three focusstandards.123Use only instructionand curricular materialsthat specifically teachthe 3 focus standards.9

IMPACTHow the LDC Model DrivesSignificant Student Learning GainsLDC IN PRACTICE: WHENSTUDENTS JUMP FOR JOYTO ANALYZE TEXTWilliam A. Butler Elementary’s LDC story demonstrateshow a standards-driven environment can have a significantimpact on student learning and engagement. The schoolstarted implementing LDC in grades 4-5, and in that firstyear saw students in those grades make larger one-year gainsin English language arts proficiency on state standardizedtests than similar students across the district. In fact, theyoutperformed district averages by 8 percentage points.Now in their second year of LDC implementation, participating teachers say they are confident that they’re on trackto realize further gains in student test scores, and they report even more improvements in student engagement,discourse, depth of thinking, and writing performance.The impact on students of LDC’s standards-driven assignments is clearly visible in a recent visit to the school’s 4thgrade classrooms. Students discuss the novel they have been reading, Maniac Magee, a Newbery Medal winner aboutan orphan who becomes a legend in a small, racially divided town. Students’ overarching task is to write a literary essayin which they analyze how Maniac responds—through thoughts, words, or actions—to challenging events in his life. Thetask was designed to teach two key state ELA standards.During a lesson where they are finding evidence in the text that shows how Maniac responded to the challenges, studentsremain deeply engaged in individual reading and reflection, group tasks, and full group discussion. Student attentionto their own work and group or classroom discourse is consistently high and focused on the text and task at hand. Whenstudents are able to share the evidence they have found in a class discussion, along with their analysis of how it describesManiac’s response to adversity, they have a hard time containing their excitement as they wait to be called on to shareand connect their ideas to their classmates. Some literally jump out of their seats to engage in this rich class discussionand share their evidence and ideas. When they do, they make clear connections to the writing task ahead of them.A deeper look into the transformation that has resultedat schools like Butler Elementary reveals more of whatstudents know and are able to do as a result of standardsdriven instruction. Interviews with teachers, instructionalleaders, and students—along with observations of classroomwork—suggest that as students take part in standardsdriven learning activities, they gain a fuller understandingof, and appreciation for, the practice of effective writing.Below are many of the key positive changes in studentbehavior and performance that participants say are theresult of their participation in LDC.10

and eye-opening tool for students to garner sustainedmotivation and focus.Improvements in student writing are reflected bothin state standardized test scores as well as in students’day-to-day work. Similar to the performance seen atButler Elementary, students in other LDC partnerschools outperformed matched students in non-LDCschools on standardized tests, with gains equivalentto 4-9 months of additional instruction, or nearly afull school year for some students. More than 80% ofLDC schools visited as part of this study saw a positiveaverage change in state standardized test scores ascompared to their local district.One LDC teacher noted, “If they know theintentionality of the work, what they’re shootingtowards, it builds excitement and rigor because they’remaking the connections from the very beginning ofa task through everything they’re asked to do alongthe way.” Another said, “The driving force is to knowthe end point and what your goal is as a writer orresearcher. Because LDC does this the kids really knowwhat’s expected at the end.” In particular, teacherscredit LDC’s SCALE rubrics with clearly showingstudents what is expected of them and what goodwriting looks like at the outset and throughout a unit.Looking beyond standardized test scores, teachersdescribe improvements in student writing as bothsustained and indicative of significantly richerand more rigorous learning. Teachers see greaterendurance or stamina on the part of students when itcomes to writing. Many said students have gone fromproviding responses of a few sentences to being ableto respond to a prompt with multiple paragraphs overthe course of a year of LDC instruction. They also saythe quality and rigor demonstrated in student writingis greatly improved. This means students can betterplan and organize their writing, state their beliefs andincorporate evidence to support their reasoning, andwrite with various objectives, such as to persuade ormake a scientific argument.Student depth of thinking reachesconsistently higher levels.Teachers see an increased depth of thinking andcomplexity in student writing as students “grapplewith big ideas” every day and show they can synthesizewhat they are thinking and learning, use evidence tosupport their beliefs, provide high-quality feedbackto peers, and ask and answer higher-order questions.As one teacher said: “LDC was instrumental in takingthe students into a higher level and caliber of writingand thinking, and into more collaborative work. It justpicked kids brains in a different way to create richerconversation and more rigor.”Students are more engaged in classroomsand understand what is expected of them.LDC’s instructional modules are designed to createan environment where students understand whatis being asked of them and why. Students also aregiven the opportunity to engage in content in morepersonally meaningful ways. With the standards clearlyarticulated at the beginning of the unit, teachers andstudents have a shared, clear understanding of theend goal of any lesson or unit, serving as an effectiveIMPACTStudents demonstrate improved writingquality, quantity, rigor, and stamina.Students display growing confidence intheir own abilities.Clear expectations and greater connections in theirday-to-day work boosts student confidence as well astheir independence and ability to take charge and leadtheir own learning. Teachers see growing confidenceon the part of students about what they believe theycan accomplish, with success meeting clear and morerigorous learning goals leading to an even greater desireto do more and learn more.Student discourse expands to richer conversationswith deeper connections for students.Instructional units planned with LDC’s standardsdriven approach include an increased reliance onstudent discourse and higher-order thinking skills todrive standards mastery. Students are taught how todeconstruct complex text, find evidence of their beliefsto support their reasoning, and critique peers’ writing.They practice these skills in structured ways, regularlyand across content areas, creating a comfort with thesetasks and ways of thinking and ultimately the ability toapply them to multiple contexts.As a result, teachers and school leaders report greatlyimproved overall student discourse and speakingwithin LDC-led classrooms. Students are seen as morewilling to speak out and share their ideas, and do soin conversations with peers that include a heightenedlevel of analysis and reflection about what they arereading, thinking, and writing. At Butler Elementary,4th graders were heard actively connecting their ideasto what classmates said. They explained why theyagreed or disagreed, and added on to others’ ideaswith well thought out analyses about how the textbased evidence they found supported the discussion.Importantly, teachers describe seeing these higherquality interactions across the board, from students atall learning levels and from all backgrounds.11

IMPACTHow Teacher Knowledge & Practice Changesin a Standards-Driven EnvironmentLDC IN PRACTICE: TEACHERSPUT STANDARDS UNDER THEMICROSCOPEWilliam Wordsworth Elementary School began its partnershipwith the goal of targeting student learning of central literacypractices. As the principal noted, the team wanted “scholarsto have an active role in becoming more proficient with theirwriting and being able to speak to writing excellence based onthe standards.” To accomplish this, a K-5 team was formedto serve as the LDC PLC with the mandate to take a verticalview of writing instruction and rigor across the curriculum.Organizing as a vertical team allowed teachers at Wordsworthto bring both a multidisciplinary and developmental lens to theLDC work. Even with just one lead teacher in each gradeutilizing LDC, students in tested grades outperformed district average gains in English language artsproficiency by 5 percentage points over the course of the 2018-19 school year.The school developed a schoolwide LDC Curriculum Map which identified two target standards foreach quarter and the common assignments to be used to teach those standards. All teachers wereexpected to teach those standards in the designated quarter. Thus, teachers were able to collaborateand compare student learning of standards across grade levels even while the content differed.WORDSWORTH CURRICULUM ALIGNMENT Reading Standard 6Writing Standard 1Reading Standard 7Writing Standard 2LDC ModuleK: Blueberries For Sal1: Retelling Frog and Toad Together2: Comparing and ContrastingCharacter Responses in Yeh-Shenand Rough Face Girl3: The Big Influence of One SmallCharacter4: Analyzing How Character TraitsDevelop Theme in "Fox", byMargaret Wild5: Wilma Unlimited: Character AnalysisK: Using Information to Make ChoicesBetween Wants and Needs1: Citizens Have Responsibility2: How Peoples’ Actions in HistoryHave Shaped Our World Today3: The United States Constitution4: Battle of Olustee: ComparingFirsthand and Secondhand Accounts5: Patriot or Loyalist?K: How Animals Live and WhatThey Need1: Discovering Patterns in AnimalParent Behaviors2: How Does an Animal's Habitat HelpSupport its Needs?3: Weather Design Solutions4: Save the Seagrass5: Life Zones Research ProjectContentELASocial StudiesScienceWriting ModeInformative / ExplanatoryArgumentativeInformative / ExplanatoryWriting ProductsLiterary AnalysisHistorical AnalysisPoster Presentation or InfographicAssessmentsLDC Student Work RubricLDC Student Work RubricLDC Student Work RubricDistrict Extended Response ExamFocus LiteracyStandards12Reading Standard 3Writing Standard 2MARCH—APRIL

IMPACTIn one PLC meeting we observed, teachers read their assignment tasks in grade level order, followed by excerpts oftheir students’ final writing products for those assignments. The first grade students were studying US governmentand fifth graders science ethics, but because the teachers were focused on the same pairing of two literacy standards,they were able to analyze student learning based on the ways students demonstrated those common standards.The PLC activity had an immediate impact on instructional planning. As teachers reviewed actual student work fromvertical grade levels, they consulted the LDC/SCALE rubric to understand and assess how thinking becomes moresophisticated as students progress through the grade levels:READING INFORMATIONAL TEXT STANDARDGRADE LEVEL &SCORING ECTATIONS2.53ADVANCED3.54Grade 3Describes theevents, ideas, orsteps in the textDescribes theconnectionbetween events,ideas, or steps inthe textDescribes therelationship betweenevents, ideas, or stepsin a text using somerelevant academiclanguage (e.g. wordspertaining to time,sequence, cause/effect)Accuratelydescribes therelationshipbetween events,ideas, or steps in atext using preciseacademic languageGrade 4Describes events,procedures, ideas,or concepts in thetextGenerally explainsevents, procedures,ideas, or conceptsin the textAccurately explainsevents, procedures,ideas, or concepts,including whathappened and why,using specificinformation inthe textPrecisely explainsevents, procedures,ideas, or concepts,including whathappened and why,using specificinformation inthe textRI.3.3: DescribeRelationships in a TextRI.4.3:Explain Events,Procedures, and IdeasRooting their conversation in the LDC/SCALE rubric criteria helped teachers to effectively target student learningof standards-driven literacy practices across the grade levels. Their conversation then turned to planning specificinstruction that they could provide to bring more rigor to each individual students’ learning.As one PLC member stated, “When you utilize the LDC work vertically, it’s like magic flying in

P.S. 48 The William Wordsworth School, NYC DOE P.S. 133 William A. Butler School, NYC DOE P.S. 182 The Bilingual Bicultural School, NYC DOE Rosa Parks Learning Center, LAUSD Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, NYC DO

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