The Real Causes of Higher Achievement

by Mike Schmoker
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 2, May 2002, Within Our Reach: Higher Student Achievement

 Too many educators suffer from the assumption that student achievement is largely a function of factors over which we have little or no control. The logic of this assumption is compelling: well-situated schools perform well; poor and minority schools don't — and can't.

It is time to dump this assumption. It should be replaced by a new one: Achievement is primarily a function of two things: (1) What we teach and (2) how we teach.

There is great hope in this for students and educators alike. If true, then we can't dodge the fact that from the district level to the classroom, opportunities abound for us to achieve better results — confidently, inexorably — with our students. How strong is the evidence for this assumption?

What We Teach

Let's take writing as an example. In the last several years, many states have seen dramatic increases in the proportion of students writing at or above grade-level standards. In Maryland, the percentage rose from 47% to above 90% statewide in an eight-year period. At high- poverty, high-minority Bessemer Elementary school in Pueblo, Colorado, the percentage of students who could meet state writing standards rose from 2% to 48% in one year (Schmoker 1999-2000, 1). Were these gains the result of the much-scorned practice of "teaching to the test"? Well, yes: Teachers were teaching writing with more frequency and vigor than ever.

There is a lesson here: We can't expect most students to do well on exams for which their preparation has been spotty or inadequate. But in too many places, it is just that. In some of our lowest-achieving schools, there is a patent mismatch between the real, taught curriculum and the actual standards that are assessed — by state, standardized, or district assessments. This shouldn't surprise us: For all our so-called common curriculum, very little has been done — let's be honest — to ensure that the taught and the tested curriculum are aligned.

Prominent researchers have noted this discrepancy, including John Goodlad and colleagues who wrote that "behind the classroom door" all bets are off on what actually gets taught (1970). Judith Warren Little noted the discrepancy as well, finding curricular differences among English teachers to be so wildly divergent that even to call these courses by the same name — "English" — made no sense to her (1990).

Susan Rosenholtz found that teachers teach a self-selected "jumble" of different topics and that getting them to teach to common standards is perhaps the toughest challenge schools face (1991). David Berliner detected the same pattern in his studies, that in the same grade and in the same school, one teacher taught 27 times as much science as her same-grade counterparts. No one in the school knew this until researchers came into the school (1979).

This pattern, which explains so much about differences in achievement, is still only tacitly acknowledged. But you can hear it in the knowing laughter that erupts when author Heidi Hayes Jacobs chides her audiences of educators by asking, "What is a curriculum guide?" Her answer: "A well-intended fiction."

Teacher supervision has made its bargain with this "anything goes" culture. It typically does almost nothing to ensure — or to monitor — a commitment to a common, assessed curriculum. The results can be dismaying. I once interviewed a "teacher of the year" at one school who bragged that her social studies students did almost no reading or writing. She scoffed at writing — learning in her class was all interactive and hands-on. Did her principal know this? I closely observed a team of teachers known for a particularly engaging month-long language arts unit they had developed. In what was supposed to be an English class, students watched movies, worked with paper and fabric, and prepared food together. But actual reading during that month was kept to a minimum, and there was no writing instruction whatsoever. I've toured hundreds of classrooms during the "reading period" with administrators who work hard and care about kids — but who, until these tours, didn't realize that less than half of what occurred during "reading" had any connection to reading or writing. In many of these classrooms, coloring activities took up much of the reading period. The predominance of coloring activities in classrooms has been corroborated by research teams from the Washington-based Education Trust. (Schmoker 2001).

Surprisingly, the standards movement itself has exacerbated the problem. Many of the state standards documents themselves are poorly written, far too lengthy, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, not truly aligned to state assessments (Wolk 1998). This results in what Bob Marzano has called "curricular chaos." He refers to the haphazardness that results when teachers are forced to individually navigate and select among an exhaustive and conflicting set of standards represented by standards documents, textbooks, and district curriculum guides — an array of topics no teacher could ever cover in a single school year (Schmoker and Marzano 1999).

The evidence is overwhelming that chaos reigns in an enormous number of our classrooms — especially, tragically, in disadvantaged schools. In them, students are not being taught what is on the year-end assessment; they are learning what the teacher happens to teach or likes to teach (the way I often taught my middle and high school charges years ago).

Successful School and Districts—and the Importance of Alignment

Now the good news: When what we teach—the real, taught curriculum—is aligned with assessments, success is close behind. Educational consultant and researcher Larry Lezotte has been saying for some time that children generally learn what we teach them, but "there is a huge gap between what is taught and what is tested" (Sparks 2001, 33).

I recently completed a study of five school districts and a number of schools that do something startlingly simple but effective: They carefully examine their year-end or state assessments and then, very deliberately, build most of their curriculum around these assessed standards (Schmoker 2001). One of the first discoveries teachers in these districts make is that even norm-referenced tests largely consist not of irrelevant "lower-order" skills, but of incontrovertibly essential, core standards—all of which are best taught in meaningful, authentic contexts. Even Grant Wiggins, a prominent voice for authentic performance assessment, points out that the very best kind of education promotes success on state and standardized tests (1998, 320)

In these five school districts, teachers create, share, and refine lessons and strategies that are deliberately aligned to the assessed standards. They take pains to ensure that teaching is aligned with instruction. All of them get exceptional results.

In Brazosport Independent Schools near Houston, Texas, teachers actually map out, week by week, which assessed standards will be taught. They then develop teaching materials and lessons that target these standards, with more time and emphasis being given to the lowest-scoring skills. More than 90% of every subgroup in every school—poor kids, minority kids, even special education students—now meet state expectations in reading, writing, and math.

Adlai Stevenson High School District in Lincolnshire, Illinois, has created homegrown, teacher-made, end-of-course assessments for every course they offer. These assessments are carefully aligned to assessed state and district standards. Adlai Stevenson teachers take pains to teach, directly but imaginatively, to these assessed standards. As a result, scores on these homegrown assessments have soared—along with scores on state and college entrance exams; the rate of success on Advanced Placement exams has increased by 800%.

If we want instruction to improve, the most effective, efficient way for this to happen is for teachers to meet regularly to examine and adjust their teaching in light of ongoing results.

Kerman Unified is a K-12 district outside of Fresno, California. It has an 86% poverty rate. Kerman staff began to focus on standards by carefully examining the invaluable but garden-variety data reports and interpretive guides that accompany every state and standardized assessment, in their case the Stanford 9. In a three-year period, Kerman kids realized gains at every level, K-12, particularly at the elementary level, where one school's achievement rose from the 20th to the 46th percentile in reading and from the 18th to the 61st percentile in math.

From "What" to "How"

The districts and schools mentioned above benefit hugely from aligning what is taught and tested. But there is another factor that accounts for their success. Because they have established common standards, they can now talk intelligibly and productively about how to most effectively teach these common standards. They are acting on what is increasingly recognized as the most effective way to promote higher levels of learning—having teams of teachers work regularly and continuously to create, adjust, and test methods and lessons collaboratively (Schmoker 2001; Glickman 2002, 4-6).

A 1999 study by the Education Trust found that hundreds of poor and minority schools have beaten the odds and succeeded with exceptional numbers of students, giving them life chances once reserved only for those who grew up in the "right" neighborhoods. How? By (1) teaching to assessed standards and by (2) continuously learning and refining better ways to teach to these standards. At the majority of these schools, teachers meet with colleagues regularly—and expressly—to discuss standards and how to teach them (Barth et al. 1999). Colorado's Bessemer Elementary was among the schools discovered in this study. In addition to their gains in writing, the proportion of students reading at or above standard rose from 12% to 73% in a two-year period, and did so on a state test recognized as among the most difficult.

The most enormous but peculiarly unsung benefit of common standards is that they provide the rich common context essential to focused, productive teacher collaboration, a sine qua non for improvement (Fullan 2000; Sparks 1998). Stated simply: If we want schools to improve, instruction—teaching lessons themselves—must improve (Stigler and Hiebert 1999). But there must also be a common set of standards. And there must be a commitment to reaching measurable achievement goals by making real adjustments to how we teach these common standards. There is no other way (Glickman 2002, 4-5).

The evidence that teaching itself can become the most important factor bearing on achievement is not new and continues to mount. In 1987, Mortimore and Sammons conducted a study of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds in England, finding that in the areas of reading and math, the school and its teachers had between six and ten times as much influence on learning as did all socioeconomic factors combined. A 1997 U.S Department of Education Study found that effective teaching accounted for as much as a 16-point difference in reading and math scores (Jordan, Mendroe, and Weerasinghe 1997). The groundbreaking value-added studies of William Sanders found that certain teachers achieve far better results than their same-school counterparts, which belies the notion that socioeconomic factors reign supreme (Archer 1999). And now we have the most recent Education Trust study (Mathews 2001) which found not hundreds, but thousands of schools that prove good teaching can in fact overcome demographic factors. Teaching matters — mightily.

What Shall We Do?

It is time we acted on these findings.

First, we must enjoin teachers to see that the assessment is not the enemy; the real problem is our failure to teach—as effectively as we can—to the assessed standards.

Second, we must begin to make systematic use of simple tools that promote both alignment and collaboration, such as the invaluable interpretive guides that accompany and demystify the contents of state and standardized tests. These guides contain detailed, precise lists of standards and sample items. Many contain rubrics for the writing component of the test, as well as exemplar papers with helpful annotations that clarify criteria and standards for both teachers and students.

Third, we must make targeted teacher collaboration our highest priority. Regular times must be established—even an hour a month could make a difference—for teachers to share and perfect lessons and strategies aimed directly at areas of low performance.

This combination of emphases virtually guarantees improvement on any kind of assessment.

Finally, it is time we radically recast what is currently known as "school improvement planning" to reflect the elements described here. Having reviewed hundreds of improvement plans, I see it is only too clear that the activities they typically set in motion compete with or replace the alignment and regular collaboration so essential to the improvement of learning. School improvement plans—and the outmoded templates and bureaucracies that drive them—are typically oversized, imprecise, and an obstacle to improvement. They set off a riot of activities—which supplant the work of teachers to create, adapt, and evaluate lessons and strategies aimed at helping higher proportions of students master essential standards.

The best news is this: There is nothing esoteric about what is needed for schools to make dramatic progress — even in the near term.

The best news is this: There is nothing esoteric about what is needed for schools to make dramatic progress—even in the near term. We need only to fix our gaze on effective, targeted teaching—and on mechanisms for promoting, replicating, refining, and routinely honoring such teaching. Providing our teachers with even an hour a month to create, refine, and assess the impact of new lessons and strategies could start a revolution.

We can start by looking within our own schools and districts for such teaching. It is there already. We need only to build on it.

It is time for new assumptions. If we believe these, and act on them, it will be enough—to improve schools, to change students' lives.


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Mike Schmoker is a writer and consultant living in Flagstaff, Arizona. His most recent book is The Results Fieldbook: Practical Strategies from Dramatically Improved Schools (ASCD 2001). He can be reached at

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