List three things about yourself that are true. List one thing
that is a lie. Your tablemates will try to guess which one is
not true. Make the list challenging . . .
You want to stump them.
Meet Ms. Mercer
Ms. Mercer, an experienced and much loved science teacher, was teaching her favorite unit on the
digestive system. She had several engaging activities for her students throughout the three-week unit,
culminating with the much-anticipated frog dissection. Students would wait all year for this unit, and Ms.
Mercer was known for her dramatic build-up to the big event.
On the big day, not a single student was absent. Students sat quietly at their desks while Ms.
Mercer took attendance and explained the lab. She dismissed them to their lab stations with a firm
warning that students who did not adhere to proper classroom etiquette and lab protocol would be asked to
remove themselves from the lab to complete a writing assignment that correlated to the lab activity.
Those students who elected not to participate in the dissection had the option of sitting at one of two
classroom computers to complete a simulated dissection.
Students eagerly began placing frogs on the lab bench and commenced with the dissection. A
successful project, according to Ms. Mercer’s rubric, was one in which students had identified and labeled
the parts of the digestive system. When the class period was over, Ms. Mercer was very proud of the fact
that her students, even some of those currently failing her course, had successfully completed the project.
More notably, she was proud of the fact that almost every single student was engaged from the
opening of class through the final bell.
The dissection project came and went, followed by the interim assessment. When the interim
assessment scores for her students arrived on her desk, she was dismayed at the fact that her students had
not performed as well as she had hoped. In fact, nearly sixty percent of her students had not demonstrated
mastery of the standards related to the digestive system. Ms. Mercer felt that this was clearly an example
of how standardized tests fail to truly measure student knowledge. After all, her students were engaged in
the unit and had done well on her assessment so she concluded that they must have learned the content.
In response to the disappointing test results, Ms. Mercer’s principal asked her to review a new
curriculum program that was better aligned to the CPS standards. The principal, though she recognized the
power of Ms. Mercer’s classroom activities and strong classroom management, was concerned about all
students meeting standards. Therefore, she reluctantly advised Ms. Mercer that a more structured science
curriculum might help students be more successful on the district tests. Ms. Mercer was frustrated at the
fact that state and district accountability were now interfering with her ability to use creative and engaging
* * *
The tension between teacher control and standards-based curriculum has existed for years, as
educational reformers have sought strategies that balance teacher design with the consistency and
continuity offered by prepackaged, standards-based curricular materials. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a
field more wrought with reform movements than the field of education. With the introduction of numerous
accountability methods, schools are constantly challenged to improve student achievement. Funding,
resources, and lack of “highly-qualified” teachers are only a few of the obstacles to implementing
curricular programs that successfully increase student achievement.
Educators have found themselves constantly frustrated with the revolving door of programs aimed
at meeting the needs of their students. They have become tired of working to implement the latest and
greatest program, only to find out that a new program had been mandated and that they would be expected
to implement it in only a few months. The trend in curriculum reform has been to move away from
teacher-driven design, towards increasingly prescriptive curricula and programs. This trend flies in the
face of a basic truth: teachers, not curriculum, have the greatest impact on student achievement. In a recent
report on “The Real Value of Teachers,” the Education Trust cites a study by W.L. Sanders and J.C.
Rivers, which indicates that: “So large was the impact of teachers on student learning that it exceeded any
one thing about the students themselves…teacher effectiveness is the ‘single biggest factor influencing
gains in achievement,’ an influence bigger than race, poverty, parent’s education, or any of the other
factors that are often thought to doom children to failure.”
Given that teachers have the single largest impact on student achievement, it is critical that
teachers be well equipped to develop effective assessments and instruction. It is vital that teachers become
masters of their practice and not rely on textbooks or other curricular resources to do their thinking for
them. While pre-packaged curriculum and textbooks have an important place in classroom instruction,
only the teacher can engage in the important work of identifying what the standards are asking of students
and how to most effectively ensure that classroom instruction leads students to success.
What will it take to provide teachers with the support necessary to develop and implement
effective methods of instructional design? How can educators become the ones responsible for developing
their own engaging curriculum? Based on the high-quality work of researchers in the field and the work of
inspirational and dedicated teachers, the CPS Teaching for Learning Framework has been developed to
support teachers in this endeavor. This model aims to bring the latest research on quality instructional
practices into the hands and classrooms of teachers.
The CPS Teaching for Learning Framework supports intellectual freedom and promotes student
achievement. This is not a new program. Rather, the CPS Teaching for Learning Framework is a model
for instructional design that is user-friendly and applicable to teachers at every level.
In a standards-based system, teachers are held accountable for ensuring that their students
“master” the content standards. This expectation is packed with implications for both teachers and
students. In light of these expectations, the CPS Teaching for Learning Framework guides teachers
through a process in which they: (1) understand what the standards are asking students to know and do;
(2) design assessments (or know what quality assessments look like and are able to find them) that require
students to produce concrete evidence that they have in fact mastered the standards; (3) plan instructional
opportunities that provide students with the opportunities to acquire the knowledge or practice the skills
called for by the content standards; (4) deliver high-quality instruction in a safe and engaging learning
environment; and (5) reflect on the overall design and implementation of instruction and make
Standards or learning objectives serve as the foundation of instructional design. It is only after
teachers have a comprehensive understanding of the standards that the work of building a high-quality
instructional program can begin. The next step, and the one that diverges most from traditional instruction,
is the development of standards-aligned assessments, before instructional activities are designed. The CPS
Teaching for Learning Framework highlights the design of assessment prior to instruction in order to
focus the teaching and learning process. Assessments are used to provide evidence of learning, and
perhaps more critically, good teaching. In turn, instruction that is aligned to standards and assessments
helps direct student achievement.
* * *
Fast forward to one year later as Ms. Mercer sits down to plan her unit on the digestive system. As
she seeks to resolve this dilemma, memories of her startling realization about student achievement on the
interim assessment have challenged her to consider how she might address digestion differently- without
losing the student engagement that is the hallmark of her classroom.
Ms. Mercer considered the following questions as she planned her new unit on the digestive
What are the standards asking of my students?
How might I examine the standard to determine what it expects of students?
Does the assessment, in this case the dissection, actually assess student knowledge of the digestive
system that is required by the relevant standards?
How might I redesign my assessment to enable students to demonstrate mastery of the related
What type of classroom instruction will prepare students for the summative assessment?
Ms. Mercer’s new strategically designed unit on the digestive system was remarkable. In her
examination of the content standards, she realized that the standard required students to know about each
of the elements of the human digestive system as well as their role in the digestion process. It did not take
long to realize that this required a much deeper understanding of the digestive system than she originally
required of students.
Before jumping into strategies she would use to teach about the digestive system, she first thought
about how she could effectively assess student mastery of the standard. She knew how much students
loved the dissection project and decided to modify it in order to make it even more effective. In addition to
dissecting the frog and labeling the parts of the digestive system, students would also be required to
complete a constructed response assessment that accompanied the project. Her final assessment asked the
students to list the parts of the frog digestive system and then compare and contrast the roles of each to the
parts of the human digestive system. She created a thorough rubric as well as an example of what a high
quality project would look like. In order to avoid feeling like she was giving students the answers, her
exemplar was developed around the respiratory system. By providing the unit objectives and assessment
exemplar prior to beginning instruction, she made students aware of the expectations up-front. They knew
that in addition to knowing the parts of the digestive system, they would also be required to write about
the role of each of the parts of the system.
Finally, her classroom instruction engaged students in the work of truly learning about the
digestive system. She utilized direct instruction, cooperative learning, and independent practice to teach
the concepts embedded in the standards. Throughout the three week unit, students had continuous
opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge of the standards. For example, in addition to completing the
still much-anticipated frog dissection, students kept a journal in which they wrote definitions of the parts
of the digestive system, notes of class discussions, and thoughts about new discoveries. As a class and
individually, they practiced writing about how specific parts of the digestive system function. They played
Digestive System Jeopardy, created models of the digestive system, and wrote a letter to a friend from the
perspective of one part of the digestive system about its daily functions. Needless to say, at the end of
three weeks students were deeply engaged in their learning, and Ms. Mercer was much more confident
that her students were actually meeting the standards.
At the end of the unit, Ms. Mercer invited the principal to view her students’ completed dissection
projects. The projects themselves, along with the constructed response assessment, provided explicit
evidence that students had mastered the standards.
Adapted from Strategic Design for Student Achievement,
Insight Education Group, Inc., 2006.