When my state began the Common Core Curriculum shift, we examined and mapped out standards. I soon realized there was no way we had enough time for our students to master all of the reading, writing, speaking and listening standards for their grade level. With such a broad range of standards and topics, it was hard to know where my students needed help as we had to quickly move through standards and skills. There was no systematic way to identify what I should prioritize.
As an inexperienced teacher with many students struggling to meet benchmarks, I needed help prioritizing the standards that were essential for my students’ current and future learning. I needed a map of the most efficient route to make a difference for the diverse needs of my students.
A strong Multi-Tiered System of Supports requires high-quality, evidence-based Tier 1 Core Instruction that moves all students toward proficiency in grade-level standards, with K-12 cohesiveness. However, without an intentional focus on specific standards and curriculum, teachers are left with the job of deciding on their own what is most important for learners. Teachers across grade levels and subject areas may also try to cover as many standards as possible without diving deep and helping their students reach mastery. By prioritizing the critical standards, or “Power Standards,” the core curriculum is targeted to maximize teachers' time with students.
With the limited time and urgency that many educators feel in a school year, establishing power standards can help educators and schools develop tiered supports that provide targeted and individualized instruction and intensive interventions to support the needs of all students. When schools’ universal screener data reveals large numbers of students needing more targeted support and intensive intervention, it can seem daunting and impossible. Prioritizing and focusing instruction with power standards can help address unfinished learning and maximize the Tier 1 core curriculum.
Additionally, prioritized instruction allows students who are struggling to receive additional support focused on the most essential knowledge and skills necessary for success. And, excelling students may receive enrichment activities that deepen their understanding of those concepts.
Power standards refer to the critical knowledge and skills in a particular subject or discipline that are designated as essential for students to master in order to be considered proficient or college- and career-ready. These standards often form the basis for curriculum development and assessment in education. They are designed to ensure that students deeply understand the most important concepts and skills in the subject.
The term “power standards” was coined by lifelong educator and Executive Director of Professional Development at the Leadership and Learning Center in Englewood, Colorado, Larry Ainsworth. He says that “Prioritizing the standards has nothing whatsoever to do with “lowering the bar,” and everything to do with focus. It is about “less” being more. The difference is in the degree of focus given to certain standards over others.” (Ainsworth 2015) This is about prioritizing, not eliminating standards, and creating a hierarchy of concepts from the most important concepts to those that are supporting concepts.
Recently, power or priority standards have become more important as schools strive to help students recover from disrupted and unfinished learning. (Student Achievement Partners 2020) Many states established priority standards to aid recovery in the 2020-21 school year and beyond and developed accelerated learning protocols.
Power standards can help educators in several ways:
Focused instruction: By prioritizing the most essential and impactful concepts, power standards help educators focus their instruction on what is most important for students to learn, what is most relevant for future curriculum, and the skills needed.
Effective assessment: Power standards provide a concise basis for assessment, allowing educators to evaluate student understanding of the most critical learning. This can help ensure that assessment accurately reflects student proficiency and provides meaningful feedback for students and teachers.
Curriculum development: Power standards can guide the development of curriculum materials and resources, ensuring that they align from K-12. This can help ensure that students receive a comprehensive and coherent education that prepares them for future success.
Improved student outcomes: By focusing instruction and assessment on the most essential learning, power standards can help ensure that students receive a meaningful and relevant education.
When my district established power standards, a team of instructional leaders began by analyzing common threads of skills through the grade levels. We focused on what skills and standards built on one another, prepared students for the next level of learning, and were important life or career skills they might need. Power standards are typically developed through a collaborative process involving various stakeholders, including educators, subject matter experts, and representatives from higher education and business. The process relies heavily on teams of K-12 teachers and instructional leaders to determine power standards for each grade level.
Ainsworth outlines four guiding principles in developing power standards to build your curriculum. (Ainsworth 2015)
Endurance: Will mastering this standard provide long-lasting knowledge and skills beyond this grade level? For example, learning to cite textual evidence when reading fiction and non-fiction texts is foundational for learning to write
Leverage: Does this standard cross over or impact other content areas of study? For example, reading graphs and charts affects learning in science and math.
Readiness: Will proficiency in this standard provide the necessary knowledge for future learning? For example, learning basic math facts builds a foundation for more complex mathematical concepts.
External Exams: Will this be a concept that students will encounter on a standardized test, college entrance exams, or even occupational competency exams?
There are many ways to organize power standards, but one example is creating a curriculum outline for each subject area based on each quarter and determining 2-3 power standards with several supporting standards within the quarter. The supporting standards connect with the skills necessary for mastery but are assessed later.
Quarter 1- 8th Grade ELA
*RL.8.1- Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
RL.8.2- Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
RL.8.3- Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
W.8.4- Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
RL.8.4- Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.
The model above allowed for the differentiation of materials, interested based text, and scaffolding based on the needs of the students in the classroom. It helped create a focus for the many ELA standards outlined within the Common Core Standards. Within ELA, adding higher-level texts for students who excel and or create specifically targeted supports is easy. Each of these standards encompasses many different skills. Providing deeper knowledge will set students up for success for the rest of the year, not only in ELA but Social Studies and Science courses.
This process can vary depending on the subject or discipline, the educational system or organization involved, and the specific goals and objectives of the power standards. However, the goal is the same: to ensure that the power standards accurately reflect students' most critical and essential knowledge and skills and provide a foundation for focused and effective education. When teachers actively participate in this process, this helps create a deeper understanding of content and assists in creating or adopting curriculum materials. Many states might already have worked to prioritize standards, and others have left it up to the districts' discretion.
Within the process of implementing MTSS, after examining Tier 1 health, it may be clear that the core curriculum needs revising. There may be an “upside-down pyramid,” but power standards can help refine and clarify that core curriculum. If implementing Accelerated Learning, or learning recovery, power standards help teachers plan and focus on what is most important for students to master within the time frame.
For me, it was a relief when I had a guide to plan my instruction. With textbooks and resources that sometimes fell short of my students' interests and needs, I used power standards to create a cohesive curriculum with my grade-level colleagues. I felt empowered as a teacher to know the standards I dug into with my students were essential to their academic careers.
As with any type of work, a clear direction will ensure efficient and more successful outcomes. Ultimately, many teachers are bogged down by the overwhelming daily tasks of running a classroom, how to address all the curriculum standards, and the vast needs of their students. Making the job of an educator more effective should always be the aim of instructional leaders; helping create clear, focused instruction can do some of the lifting for teachers as they plan and address the needs of their students.
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Ainsworth, Larry. 2015. “Priority Standards: The Power of Focus (Opinion).” Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-priority-standards-the-power-of-focus/2015/02
Student Achievement Partners. 2020. “Priority Instructional Content in English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics.” Achievethecore.org. https://achievethecore.org/page/3267/priority-instructional-content-in-english-language-arts-literacy-and-mathematics
Larissa Napolitan is the Digital Content Creator for Branching Minds and the host of Branching Minds' podcast "Schoolin' Around." As a former middle school English teacher and instructional coach, she has over 13 years of experience building systems for improvement, training and coaching teachers in new technology and instructional methods, and leading efforts to build curriculum and literacy initiatives. She holds Masters's degree in Curriculum and Instruction and Education Administration from Emporia State University. Not only is she passionate about using her experience and academic knowledge, but loves to use her writing and voice to make a broader impact on education, teachers, and students.