As an active member of the EQuIP Review Panel, I talk to teachers in my own state of Illinois and across the country. In that work, I find teachers are gaining an ever-growing strength and confidence in their knowledge of the standards; however, most express professional struggle in developing cohesive units that incorporate all aspects of quality teaching and learning. Not only do locally written units have quality gaps, vendor created units provided in textbooks and online are in equal need of review and revision when it comes to standards’ adherence and quality instructional practices. These gaps, though difficult to pinpoint during the teaching process often become evident in student assessment.
To breach these gaps, schools may want to consider conducting a unit audit and then use that audit to refine and strengthen the teaching and learning outcomes. A tool that can prove very useful in this quest is a rubric designed for and by educators to evaluate the quality of instructional materials and approaches. Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuIP) is an initiative designed to identify high-quality materials aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The resulting rubric has been used thousands of times to evaluate the work of teachers, professional curriculum writers, educational vendors, and others by professionals in our field as a means to provide feedback for lesson and unit design.
Having been an EQuIP reviewer for two years, both reviewing and coaching successful unit design, I have come to the conclusion that schools could benefit teachers and the communities they serve by learning more about and using the EQuIP peer review process and associated rubrics (Mathematics, ELA/Literacy 3-12, and ELA/Literacy K-2). Local evaluation of existing units could save time and money for schools while providing teachers with disciplinary professional growth. Why? Because the rubric promotes local control in curriculum development while promoting quality adherence to best-practices. With proper orientation to the review process, local teachers and administrators would improve on the curriculum and pedagogies offered at their own schools.
The EQuIP ELA/Literacy Rubric asks educators to examine aspects of a unit’s design through four dimensions: Alignment to the Depth of the Common Core Standards, Key Shifts, Instructional Supports, and Assessment.
Dimension I presents three main criteria and two additional points of evaluation. The three foundational aspects can be summed up by these word pairs: standards set, focused purpose, and rigorous text. In evaluating a unit, look for a few standards working together to achieve a transferable purpose taught through texts that offer opportunities to scaffold and challenge. Rather than list ten, twelve, fifteen standards, a quality unit should focus on limited standards—several reading standards alongside a writing and/or speaking standard. The unit’s purpose should be in a narrative style that doesn’t paraphrase the standards but gives a clear description of the teaching purpose and the learning value. Think about the purpose as a response to these basic questions, “How is the time used to teach this unit going to benefit the learners? What will they learn and how will they use that learning?”
Although Dimension I is not about assessment, (evaluated in Dimension IV), the standards identified as the focus-standards must be both formatively and summatively evaluated through the course of a unit. To merely list standards and not to teach and assess to those standards invalidates the standards set. If the unit is a longer unit (seven to ten days or longer), the unit should also be teaching to and assessing either or both speaking and writing standards. Better readers are better writers and speakers and better writers and speakers are better readers. Literacy skills are built on a set of literacy tools that incorporate all aspects of communications.
In an actual EQuIP review, Dimension I acts as the gatekeeper—units not passing out Dimension I are not further reviewed. However, in a local review, continue forward in evaluating the unit. Feedback on all points of the unit is the best way to learn how to improve the design for teaching and therefore, impact the quality and depth of learning.
Dimension II is titled, “Key Shifts.” Key terms in this dimension are close-reading, text-based evidence, writing from sources, and academic vocabulary development. This dimension moves beyond the letter of the standard and into the spirit behind the words. The unit materials should provide questions that involve learners in reading deeply into and across texts. In an actual EQuIP review, not only questions but also possible responses are valued. The idea of building strong Common Core units is the power of sharing these units with other teachers. Sharing the unit means sharing materials that lighten the heay load of profession. Also, in providing both question sets and possible responses, teachers are in a way field-testing their own work. I am often surprised at how many teachers write questions and prompts that they never attempt to answer themselves and yet question why their students cannot generate thoughtful responses. The aspects of this dimension, although delineated as separate criteria truly work hand in hand. Close reading demands attention to the text/s with responses justified through the text in the form of text evidence either written down or spoken in the language or vocabulary of the text/s. Notice that the vocabulary work implied in the previous statement goes beyond merely copying a set of vocab words and their definitions. To use the vocabulary of the text, students must understand the context of the words, regardless of the nature of the words. Whether the words are discipline specific (photosynthesis, for instance) or have general applications (substantially as an example), the user of these words shows a proficiency with the language in tinkering with sentences through speaking and writing.
Dimension II also has secondary criteria applied to units or longer lesson sets. In a longer unit (again one ranging beyond seven days), the texts should grow in complexity just as students grow in proficiencies. The texts should also build on foundations of knowledge to thread a growing disciplinary understanding and maturity in relation to the content. And once again, as mentioned before, regardless of the discipline, students should be writing about their learning to clarify not only what they question and what they think, but to grow their skills at using language beyond the spoken word. Writing in this aspect is about balance…balance between note-taking, quick personal reflections, on-demand writing, and process writing–from drafting through revision and final drafts. Units, regardless of discipline, developed to take longer periods of time should include opportunities for diverse writing applications.
If a first-year teacher were to take this unit into their classroom, what would they need to know and have available to teach the content and skills as well as I can/do?
Dimension III may be the most practical aspect of the EQuIP rubric yet often, one of the weaker aspects of unit design. Instructional Supports (Dimension III) evaluates how lesson and unit developers identify places for differentiating and scaffolding as well as how they describe and provide the materials to do just that. Again, keeping in mind that writing a quality unit offers the opportunity to share that unit among other teaching professionals, the materials need to be complete. In approaching unit design ask yourself this question: If a first-year teacher were to take this unit into their classroom, what would they need to know and have available to teach the content and skills as well as I can/do?
The overarching question of Dimension III is stated on the rubric: “The lesson/unit is responsive to varied student learning needs.” In this portion of the rubric, teachers are evaluating whether their lessons capture student’s interest. The Next Generation Science Standards attempt to achieve this aspect through their repeated references to phenomena—getting students interested and curious about how things work in the natural world. Often, text-based disciplines are able to heighten student interest by embedding relevance in the learning. This section is student-centered, causing unit developers to look at how they can support struggling learners as they access the same text as all other students in the class or how they support literacy acquisition for second-language learners, students with disabilities, and students who are operating above grade level. Note here that these are separate criteria and as such, unit developers better support themselves and other users by thinking about and addressing each criterion with specific materials, activities, and/or text or online resources and references.
In the course of a longer unit, unit developers should be looking at how the scaffolds are removed as the texts and tasks become more complex, processes that support independent reading and learning. Additionally, just as longer units in Dimension II are expected to have a balance of writing, longer units in Dimension III should have “targeted” lessons that build language skills in the areas of grammar, discussion, and writing.
The final dimension, Dimension IV, focuses on assessment. Assessment brings the unit full circle as the targeted standards identified in Dimension I, taught through textual applications in Dimension II, and strategically addressed for all students in Dimension III are now held accountable through independent demonstration of standards’ proficiencies. Because the EQuIP rubric is about determining each student’s level of mastery, the assessment looks not only at the validity of assessment (is the assessment measuring what the unit purported to teach in the purpose statement and through the standards-set), but is that assessment unbiased and accessible to each learner. Additionally, Dimension IV requires rubrics, answer keys, etc. to support assessment in delivery and evaluation.
Let me provide here a generic example of assessment gone awry. Imagine the unit design had targeted reading standards and a presentation speaking standard and had described the unit purpose as one that would provide students with the skills to write and deliver a three-minute speech on a self-chosen topic currently in contemporary debate. Let’s further imagine that in Dimension II, the unit writer provides online-speeches and journalistic articles on a variety of contentious topics and asks students to analyze the content and delivery of these speeches and these topics. In Dimension III, the unit materials provide extensive activities for scaffolding reading. And in Dimension IV, the unit’s summative task is to write and deliver the three-minute speech.
Do you see a disconnect here? The assessment is not valid—the unit has taught students how to write a short speech or how to deliver a speech. Indeed, they have watched speeches delivered on YouTube, etc. Based on rubric that corresponds to this speech, (and let’s assume it is aligned to the standards both stated in as the targeted standards for the unit ad aligned to the Common Core), the evaluator might say the unit elicits direct evidence of students’ abilities to independently meet the standard; however, the method is biased and unattainable because the skills haven’t been taught. The unit would need revision to include appropriate instruction, time for practice, opportunities for formative assessment and feedback.
Assessment is a window into better understanding our own teaching. What students deliver to us as examples of their learning and understandings or misunderstandings illuminate how and what we taught. Sometimes, teachers suggest to me that making the assessment goals too evident or allowing lots of practice and feedback before assessing is not true to testing what kids know. These naysayers say we are teaching to the test. But isn’t that what we want to do if we are building skills sets—skill sets that include thinking as a skill rather than testing knowledge as a thing of ultimate worth.
As teachers prepare, design, build, develop lessons that are truly standards-aligned and worthy of teaching and learning, they must determine and share the instructional purpose—why are we spending inordinate amounts of time on skills sets or knowledge base? Once purpose can be determined, value agreed, then we must be sure all students have access to learning as well as unbiased assessment based on feedback not surprise.