The Power of a Coherent Educational Improvement System to Ensure Curricular Rigor for All Students

Leadership in America's Best Urban Schools

Widespread access to curricular rigor resulted from carefully constructed structures, routines, policies, and norms. Access was carefully scheduled, planned, monitored, and adjusted. In the absence of this careful, systemic attention, it is likely that many students would not have enjoyed the opportunity to learn challenging academic content.

Leading stakeholders to feel valued and capable.

Teachers in high-performing schools experienced sufficient systemic support from their leaders and colleagues that they were willing to try to teach more challenging academic concepts. In many schools, teachers expressed their belief that they could risk teaching new, difficult concepts because failure was not punished. In fact, efforts to teach challenging concepts were respected and appreciated. As a teacher at Jim Thorpe Fundamental School in Santa Ana, California explained:

At my last school, I would have never tried to get my students to explain their thinking in writing, the way I do here. First, my principal would have said that I was wasting my time and the other teachers would have accused me of trying to show off. If I succeeded nobody would have appreciated it and if I failed, I would have been humiliated. Probably, I would have been humiliated, either way. Here, [at Jim Thorpe], if I try, my principal will leave observe me and leave me a note to congratulate me for trying, whether I succeed or not.

Support from colleagues in PLCs or other collaborative teams, support from leaders through observations and feedback, and support from a variety of sources through professional development were powerful in helping educators feel that they could safely try to teach more challenging academic skills to the diverse populations they served. Teachers were more willing to try to teach difficult concepts and, as a result students were more likely to learn.

Leading educators to develop a focus on teaching a set of important, challenging concepts and skills.

To ensure that all students (and all demographic groups of students) accessed challenging academic curricula, educators worked together to identify the rigorous standards they would teach and schedule when those standards would be taught. As a team, teachers (often working with administrators) identified the standards that would be the focus of instruction, developed a shared understanding of the learning outcomes students should be able to demonstrate and set a timeline that specified when students would demonstrate mastery of the concepts and skills. Sometimes this work occurred during teacher collaboration meetings or grade-level team meetings. At other times, the planning involved vertical teams of teachers who taught the same discipline.

Often, during planning meetings, teachers discussed the standards and the specific knowledge and skills specified or implied. Through these detailed conversations, teachers developed a common understanding of the content students would need to access. For example, in one planning meeting, an elementary teacher explained:

No, it is not enough for the students to label the numerator and the denominator. They need to understand that if the numerator stays the same and the denominator gets bigger, the fraction gets smaller. That’s a hard concept for third graders.

By developing a common understanding of the rigorous content students need to learn, teachers helped ensure that they would each give students similar access to challenging concepts. In the absence of these detailed discussions about the standards, it might have been easy for teachers to proceed with varying ideas about what their students needed to learn.

At Boone Elementary in Kansas City, Missouri’s Central School District, teachers took Common Core State Standards and developed clear “I can” statements that articulate what students are expected to learn. In order to generate these clear, short statements, teachers had to reach consensus about what the standards meant. Also, by translating the standards into “I can” statements, teachers were able to communicate the standards effectively to parents and students.

In many schools, vertical-planning structures enhanced access to curricular rigor for all students, connecting learning expectations horizontally within and across content areas and contexts, as means to develop accurate frameworks of knowledge (Dumont, Istance, & Benavides, 2010). At regular intervals, teachers met with their colleagues from different grade levels to examine each other’s plans for teaching academic standards. In elementary schools, teachers met with their colleagues in adjacent grades to discuss their plans for teaching standards associated with specific academic disciplines. For example, at Myrtle S. Finney Elementary in Chula Vista, California, teachers begin teaching close reading strategies to kindergarten students. At each subsequent grade level, teachers build upon this strategy in ways that have resulted in high rates of reading proficiency.

In secondary schools, teachers met in departments to discuss the standards they planned to teach across a sequence of courses. For instance, at James Pace Early College High School in Brownsville, Texas, math teachers worked together to help make sure that ninth-grade math offerings would lead high percentages of students to be prepared for high-level math offerings (including college algebra) by the time students entered twelfth grade.

Also, vertical planning helped teachers identify and question both duplications and gaps in their vertical articulation of learning expectations. For example, planning meetings might lead a group of elementary math teachers to discover that third-grade teachers were addressing several math topics with the same level of rigor expected by second-grade teachers. The discovery might move teachers to explore options for elevating expectations for the third-grade students.

Conversely, a planning meeting might lead high school social studies teachers to realize that their writing expectations for juniors and seniors were dramatically beyond the writing expectations for freshmen and sophomores. In response, teachers might elevate the rigor of writing expectations for sophomores so that students might have a higher likelihood of experiencing success when they reached 11th grade.

Vertical planning helped ensure that learning expectations were clear, public, and consistent throughout the school. Because of vertical planning sessions, teachers better understood what they needed to help students master in order to succeed in subsequent grades. It is important to note, that in many of the high-performing schools, these vertical-planning systems extended beyond the school. For example, upper elementary teachers collaboratively planned with the middle school teachers who were likely to serve their students, and middle school teachers engaged in planning experiences with high school educators. Similarly, we saw powerful examples of high school teachers reaching out to college professors to learn more about the learning expectations for college freshmen in various disciplines.

By systematically bringing teachers together to identify which standards would be taught, leaders in high-performing schools also helped ensure what Marzano (2003) referred to as a viable curriculum. Marzano explained that when teachers were expected to cover too many concepts or skills, teachers would not have adequate time to teach those concepts and skills well. In such a case, even though teachers might pursue the same guaranteed curriculum, the curriculum might not be practicable or worthwhile. In the high-performing urban schools, when teachers came together to identify key standards, they also made decisions about which standards they would omit, de- emphasize, or defer to later years. Therefore, through their collaborative planning, teachers were able to create a more viable curriculum.

As teams of educators developed clarity about what their students should learn, they also developed schedules to ensure that students had opportunities to experience and learn the breadth and depth of their schools’ curricula. In secondary schools, leaders used master schedules as a critical tool for ensuring access to curricular rigor. Often in high-performing schools, master schedules provided more opportunities for students to benefit from a rich variety of curricular offerings. Schedules were structured so that all students had opportunities to participate in programs such as drama, art, music, physical education, world languages, computer coding, and other highly engaging areas of study. This meant that schedules had to offer sufficient time slots to address core course needs, while also providing time for electives.

Also, in elementary schools, schedules were established to ensure that all students (not just academically talented students) had frequent access to exciting learning experiences with the arts, physical education, science, and technology.

Schedules allowed students to access academic support and intervention, while maintaining regular opportunities to participate in a broad array of enriching learning experiences. Additionally, in many districts (e.g., the Chula Vista Elementary School District) schedules provided sufficient, regular opportunities for teachers to meet for collaborative planning and review of student performance data. This contrasts with some schools in which students with multiple academic needs get pulled out of enriching learning experiences in order to receive academic support in reading and mathematics.

Leading educators to develop clarity about how they will assess student mastery of key concepts and skills.

Teachers further enhanced their common understandings about what needed to be taught when they developed common formative assessments, aligned with the standards they endeavored to teach. Often these small assessments gave teachers a quick way of knowing the extent to which students achieved mastery of the standard or standards they attempted to teach. These discussions helped teachers plan for instruction with a specific end in mind. Teachers could backwards map (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) from a common understanding of the learning goal and plan lessons that would have a high likelihood of helping students develop the depth of understanding required by the formative assessment.

By co-creating these assessments, teachers acquired an even stronger common understanding of what they needed their students to learn. The common understanding of key standards helped ensure that teachers would aim to teach the same content and objectives. Thus, as Marzano (2003) explained, teachers were more likely to provide a guaranteed curriculum, a curriculum that would guarantee all students an opportunity to learn key content, regardless of which teacher provided instruction.

Leading educators to improve the effectiveness of initial instruction.

To increase the chances that all students were able to access rigorous academic curricula, leaders in many high-performing urban schools helped teachers plan schedules that structured additional student supports into regular classrooms. For example, in these schools, students with disabilities often received support from specialists during regular class sessions. Specialists were less likely to pull students out of class and provide different curricula (pull-out model). Instead, the specialists were more likely to enter general classrooms and help students succeed with the same rigorous standards other students were learning (push-in model). Special educators used their training and skills to help students with disabilities (and other students who needed assistance) in a way that helped students learn challenging concepts. The special educators provided individualized or small-group assistance that maximized student engagement, clarified complex tasks, and provided essential accommodations. As a result, students with disabilities were more likely to demonstrate mastery of rigorous academic skills, because they were provided initial instruction with sufficient, high-quality support.

In many schools, similar in-class supports were provided to English learners. Using a push-in model, specialists helped individual students or small groups of students engage in conversations about important ideas and understand key concepts. The specialists helped ensure that English learners would not miss opportunities to learn challenging academic standards. The specialists helped ensure that access to challenging academic content would not be blocked by language differences. Initial instruction was more likely to lead English learners to mastery of challenging concepts because students had access to sufficient, high-quality support.

Leading educators to improve the effectiveness of intervention and enrichment.

As previously discussed, in high-performing urban schools, systems helped ensure that all students had access to challenging academic curricula, primarily through their general education classes. Scheduling, teacher planning, and in-classroom supports helped ensure that students had strong opportunities to learn rigorous, meaningful content. Additionally, in high-performing schools, educators developed systems for providing timely, effective intervention, as a way of further guaranteeing access to curricular rigor for all students.

When students did not demonstrate mastery of challenging academic content after initial instructional efforts, educators provided focused, timely, and effective intervention (additional access) that helped ensure that all demographic groups of students would excel. It is important to distinguish that in these schools, intervention provided additional access to challenging curricula. This is not the case in some schools where intervention is focused almost exclusively on lower-level learning goals. In the high-performing schools, teachers (often working in collaborative teams) utilized student work products or assessment results to identify the specific misconceptions that might have inhibited student mastery of their challenging objectives. They then designed intervention that would effectively address those misconceptions in a timely, efficient manner. Intervention was not a separate support or separate system; it was part of the system for ensuring that all students mastered the academic goals teachers had targeted for them. Often, the teacher who provided intervention was the same teacher who provided the initial instruction. When a different teacher provided intervention, the system provided for strong communication between the teachers, so that intervention would be tailored in a way that was likely to be effective. Groupings for intervention tended to be fluid because a student who needed help mastering one concept might not need assistance mastering the next concept. As well, the physical structure of interventions (time of day, location) was designed carefully to ensure that the students who needed assistance would have a high likelihood of receiving it, without risking their access to other important curricular content.


Teachers in high-performing urban schools worked together to ensure that all students had opportunities to learn challenging academic content determined to be critical for students at the particular grade level, or in the particular subject area. The high-performing urban schools we studied could not have achieved the results they attained without providing this access. Specifically, educators in these high-performing urban schools engaged in the following practices:

  • Teachers worked together to identify the most important concepts and skills within the discipline they were teaching. They aligned their choices to state standards; however, they sometimes went beyond state standards if theyperceived that their students needed to learn more rigorous content.
  • Teachers worked to develop shared understandings of what mastery of each standard or learning objective implied for students. Teachers developed shared expectations about what students should demonstrate in order to convince teachers that mastery had been achieved.
  • Teachers did not necessarily include every state standard or objective in what they agreed to teach (especially in years prior to the adoption of new sets of standards, such as Common Core State Standards or Next Generation Science Standards). They planned so that they could have enough time during the school year to get all of their students to master the standards they had determined were most important.
  • In selecting standards and learning objectives, teachers aimed high. They wanted to ensure that their students learned concepts with sufficient depth of understanding to enable students to continue learning and growing in the field of study.
  • Across curricula, teachers engaged students in writing. Writing provided opportunities for students to formulate and demonstrate deeper understandings of the academic content that was the focus of instruction.
  • Educators made sure that all students, and all demographic groups of students, had access to rich opportunities to learn about the arts, drama, dance, technology, and other disciplines beyond the traditional core subjects.
  • Educators scheduled access to ensure that all students would learn key concepts. Teachers created a “guaranteed and viable” curriculum by determining a reasonable calendar for teaching and assessing key concepts.
  • Timely, effective intervention systems provided additional assurance that all
  • Schools utilized vertical planning to help ensure that teachers taught the concepts that students needed to master in order to achieve success at the next grade level.
  • By providing in-class supports (versus pull-out programs), educators had more opportunity to ensure that all students would be able to learn the challenging academic content associated with the grade level and/or subject area. students would learn challenging academic content.


In combination, these practices helped ensure that all groups of students had the opportunity to master important, challenging academic content. Access to challenging curricula was not assumed; it was purposefully designed and carefully monitored. Educators understood that students were not likely to learn challenging content unless they deliberately taught challenging content. So, they did so in a way that reached almost every student.

Concourse Village Elementary School
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