The Standards: A Shared Journey to What Matters

By Partnership for 21st Century Learning

Do the standards matter?

This year, is my 11th year as an educator, and I must say, the past 11 years have been quite tumultuous. In 11 years, I have seen technology completely transform classrooms and the job responsibilities of a teacher. I said goodbye to the Illinois State Standards and began to navigate the murky waters of CCSS. I watched the ACT reign victorious over PARCC, yet ultimately fall to the SAT. I stopped grading homework and eliminated the zero, with the goal of assessing skills, not behavior.  I look back at my relatively short teaching career and can hardly recognize the teacher I was 11 years ago.

If we take a minute to think about it, teaching today is not what it was 30, 20, even 10 years ago. The teachers at Wheeling High School, a diverse high school in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, would say that teaching today is not even what it was three years ago. We have been on a journey to transform teaching and learning at Wheeling, focusing on identifying essential skills of each course, aligning curriculum and assessment to those essential skills, and giving students a grade based on their skill-proficiency. Our journey may not sound revolutionary, but it has revolutionized many aspects of our school, and while our journey is not yet complete, our story is still important.

The Initiating Incident

When you study a journey, there is always something that causes the hero to leave his safe, familiar world for an unknown, often dangerous landscape. Our “initiating incident” at Wheeling was, in fact, a dip in student learning, as seen in both test scores and student success rates. We were good teachers. We worked really, really hard. We had embraced technology and were using it to engage and differentiate. We attended poverty trainings. We made things relevant by helping kids focus on career pathways. But, with as hard as we were trying, our efforts were not making the difference we were hoping for.

Led by our administrative team, the faculty adopted the slogan “learning over earning”, meaning we wanted a student’s grade to reflect what a student learned, not necessarily what a student did to earn a grade. Our PD revolved around this, and we saw some slight improvements. However, when you think about the term learning over earning, it all starts with what the kids are learning, and ironically, we hadn’t spent much time talking about that.

The Emergence of the Essential Skill

What does essential skill mean, you ask? The essential skills of each course are the foundational learnings of a course, or, you might like to think of it as, This is what you must do/know to pass! Our conversation shifted to focus on what we were asking students to learn.

The process unfolded easily from there:

Step 1:  Identify the things students must do/know that are most essential to your course based on your standards.

Step 2: Decide when you are going to teach these things.

Step 3: Break down each skill levels of proficiency, or in other terms, what an A, a B, and a C, look like.

We had a plan and it sounded really good, but as we started down the path, we learned that the hard work was really just the beginning. Aligning curriculum and assessments is not for the faint of heart. 


We realized very quickly that in order to get all teachers on board with this big task they were being asked to do, they would all need time and support. Wheeling 360 was created, which is a Professional Development system that truly has the goal of developing the professional capacity of all teachers while supporting our building goals. There are technically four teams in Wheeling 360, each meeting once a month, each with a slightly different purpose, but united in the effort to improve teaching and learning.

We have developed a list of common vocabulary about teaching and learning used at Wheeling, and when you attend these meetings, you hear teachers talking about essential skills, rubrics, scope and sequence, levels of learning, and standards based grading. These things, which were not even on our radar a year ago, have become everyday terms through our professional development in just six short months.

Truly, if you would have asked Wheeling teachers three years ago, "In what ways do you find the standards a help, a hindrance etc. when preparing curriculum, instruction or assessment?" you would have had a wide range of answers. Today, however, the answer is clear. Standards are “essential” in our day-to-day lives as teachers. By focusing on them before anything else, we have changed teaching and learning at Wheeling High School, and our students are the ones who are benefiting. Do standards matter? Yes, because we make them matter.

By Becky Kinnee, Teaching and Learning Facilitator, Wheeling High School

Originally posted by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning; reposted with permission.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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