The most important question educators ask when we design curriculum is, What is it we want students to learn? If we don’t know the purpose and goal of our work, how can we evaluate students or respond if some of them are not learning?
This process of identifying the purpose of the lesson first is what educators call backwards design. In my 26 years of teaching, whenever our content team struggled to write assessments or respond to struggling students, it was because we did not agree on the specific goal of the lesson. For example, the goal of a US history unit on the Great Depression could be for the students to explain the reasons why the Great Depression happened, or it could be for students to evaluate the government’s response to the Great Depression.
Our state now has an opportunity to address the all-important question of What’s the purpose? for our state’s education system if the “Task Force to Study K-12 Accountability System” bill in the General Assembly becomes law. The bill, HB23-1241, is one of a few bills being heard this session that are in response to an audit, released last fall, of the state’s accountability system that was ordered by the General Assembly in the spring of 2021. Overall, the audit found that our system was “reasonable and appropriate,” and it was working as designed. But the legislature wants to go further.
Should it pass, HB23-1241 would create a task force to “study the K-12 education accountability system in order to address resource inequities contributing to student performance.” The task force can help identify what makes a quality school and then backwards map all the policies and practices needed to get to those outcomes.
For example, if a purpose of school is to provide multiple opportunities for students to develop their talents and interests, we would need to decide how to evaluate whether or not schools are fulfilling this purpose. Conversely, if the task force does not identify what we want to be true about our public education system in Colorado, we will be left without a shared understanding of what a high quality public education system looks like. The formation of the task force is an opportunity to gather, analyze, and reflect on a K-12 accountability system that goes back to 2009. It is an opportunity to create a system that could be a model for the rest of the country — but only if we have task force members who are willing to ask the right questions.
The 25-member task force should include everyone who cares about how our children learn and how our schools serve them. We need the task force to include teachers, principals, and superintendents. We also need input from parents, caretakers, business members, and other community members to ensure the task force’s work matches the purpose.
As Executive Director of Teach Plus Colorado, I work with teachers from across the state on education policy. Our fellows live the backwards design every day in their work, which is why they created a survey for educators from across Colorado asking them to prioritize the principles of a quality school.
These principles, in the order of importance to teachers, included a safe and healthy environment conducive to academic learning; the opportunity to develop students’ character, talents, and interests, while receiving support to address their individual needs; and access to caring adults with expertise in creating quality learning environments and experiences.
The next set of questions I would like to ask has to do with evaluating the survey’s principles. Do we use surveys to evaluate a safe and healthy school? Do we use them to evaluate educators’ expertise? Or is there something else we should be learning that would get us to a better understanding and creation of high quality learning environments for our students?
When my US history team identified the purpose of our unit on the Great Depression — what is its legacy? — we were able to create lesson plans and the formative and summative assessments that gave us data to identify struggling students and provide support for them. As a team, we were able to identify the teachers who were producing better results with students which led to increased collaboration and better results for everyone.
This is the public education system we should aim for: one that operates from a shared understanding of its purpose, with the support to achieve it.
Mark Sass, of Denver, is the executive director of Teach Plus Colorado and recently retired from teaching high school social studies after 26 years.
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