“Simplicity, clarity, and priority would be a dream scenario for our school!” a teacher told me. “How can we start to get there?” asked another. I could tell from the passion in their voices that they had been deeply frustrated by years of initiatives, lack of clarity, and failed improvement efforts. They almost didn’t dare believe that simplicity, clarity, and priority were possible, but were still willing to strive for those elusive goals.
Simplicity, clarity, and priority are addressed in chapter one of Mike Schmoker’s new book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials To Radically Improve Student Learning, and I think that through this book he has put an elbow into the sore spot of the backs of most North America educators – “it hurts so good that I know I need to do something about it!” His premise simply is that we have not taken the time to identify what we really need to be doing in terms of what we teach and how we teach. How can we gain clarity if we have not truly identified a “guaranteed and viable” curriculum? How do we set priority when looking at hundreds of standards in a content area? Why do we ignore things that are proven to work, such as the development and implementation of common assessments?
In the first chapters, Schmoker accurately describes educator frustrations and examines what we teach and how we teach. He makes an argument for simplification and focus on reading, writing, and authentic literacy skills. In the succeeding chapters he goes subject by subject and boldly suggests, according to research, what we should be emphasizing in each of the subject areas. This is not a “back to the basics” book, but a valuable book that identifies best practice that is advantageous in any instructional setting.
If you only could choose one book to read and discuss with your staff this year, this one would be a worthy choice. There is a lot of practical stuff in this book to push up against and have lively and productive discussion around. Schmoker has moved the discussion off the dime – I recommend you give it a read.