More on Coverage vs. Learning: Student Growth

220px-Johann_Heinrich_Füssli_054By Mark

Last month I shared my thoughts about how "coverage pressure" nearly led me to move on before my students were ready. My decision to slow down and focus on my students' skills rather than simply plow forward resulted in far better student performance both on that essay as well as the next essay they are currently writing for me. I have had several students voluntarily tell me that they understand what to do far better now because we slowed down and spent more time digging deeper.

The new evaluation law requires that all teachers be able to demonstrate how their planning and implementation results in student growth toward an important content standard or goal. As I wrote that piece linked above, a minor epiphany occurred to me: coverage of content and student growth are not the same thing.

I got to thinking: in a typical year, I teach To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, various short stories and short non-fiction, poetry through the PoetryOutLoud curriculum, Romeo and Juliet, Anthem, the Odyssey, and a few research projects and narrative tasks embedded periodically in there. If I cover all that, I can check each off the list.

If I don't have time to finish the entire Odyssey, my overall evaluation doesn't suffer, and in reality, neither does my students' overall education. I'm lucky in this regard that my standards as an English Language Arts teacher are about the skills related to literacy; trudging through the Odyssey is just one more opportunity to practice and refine those skills. If it is truly important that they know about Scylla and Charybdis for a future job opportunity, I'll send them to the SparkNotes…because chances are that even if I force that content into their head it will only be around for as long as they need to use it and then those neurons will get pruned.

My evaluation does, however, ask whether my students have grown. In hindsight, until I was compelled to consider it as a result of the new evaluation law, I had never really thought about growth the way I do now. Sure, I'd be prodding kids to improve their thinking, writing, and comprehension–I'd scaffold and assess and intervene and reteach–but I wasn't really thinking about long term growth over time. Skills were repeated and refined, and growth did occur, but I ended up far more focused on completing the curriculum than really deeply examining my students improvement and growth.

Now, as I focus on how I facilitate growth, I realize that content (what or how many stories, novels, or plays I can cover in a year) is less important that what I get kids to do with that content. I could fill my students with information, because knowledge is power, but at the end of the year they are simply "more full" rather than "more capable." Knowledge is only power when you can do something with it. Those skills, with focused practice and repetition, will withstand the pruning that is the reason we might not now know the name of the main character (or even the basic plot) in Sense and Sensibility but still maintain the capacity for reading implied main ideas that were practiced and refined with that text.

A profound and fundamental shift in my practice–one that is still in progress–is the shift toward emphasizing my students' capacity to use what I teach them, not just report parrot back to me facts, dates, and details that may otherwise be ephemeral.

3 thoughts on “More on Coverage vs. Learning: Student Growth

  1. Tom

    In other words, it’s better to be a mile deep and an inch wide than vice-versa. I agree. And I have the the benefit of knowing that what I don’t “cover” in fourth grade will eventually get covered at some later point, while at the same time, I know that the firm academic foundation I build will make it easier for my high school colleagues to add onto.
    One thing that strikes me, Mark, is that you seem to focus almost exclusively on fiction. Will that change with the CCSS? In the elementary grades, we’re making a big switch toward non-fiction in language arts.

  2. Mark Gardner

    Tom, my curriculum is definitely fiction-heavy. The idea with common core and non-fiction/informational text at the high school level is to address roughly 30% literary text and roughly 70% informational text–but that is not for the English class, that is for the entire school day. The informational texts in everything from history and science to math and electives help to comprise that other 70%. (From a chart on this site:
    I freaked some of my colleagues out one time by casually mentioning that a kid’s English class is only 1/6 of their day (17%) which meant that Science, History and Math needed to start teaching literature to make up that other 13%! That didn’t go over well.

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