By Matthew Tungate

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given Kentucky about $2 million to improve classroom instruction and align content to the Common Core Academic Standards by developing instructional strategies and tools in mathematics and literacy.

Half of the money – a two-year, $1 million grant – was announced last month to build on work already under way in Kentucky and to share the results so that teachers throughout the state can use them to improve student learning.

“This work is directly connected to Kentucky’s successful implementation of the Common Core Academic Standards, the development of a model curriculum framework and the mandates of 2009’s Senate Bill 1,” said Felicia Cumings Smith, Kentucky Department of Education associate commissioner. “These strategies will provide immense benefits for teachers and promote students’ critical thinking skills within and across the content areas.”

The Department of Education grant will support expanding the work of pilot districts – which have been using earlier, separate grants through the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence – statewide through the Leadership Network system beginning this summer.

The Prichard Committee has been working with pilot school districts on the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC), which focuses on organizing class work around reading and writing in all subject areas; and the Mathematics Design Collaborative (MDC), which uses an “assessment for learning” approach that provides teachers with better insight into student-learning needs and allows them to quickly adjust their teaching strategies and emphasis.

Literacy program walks teachers through steps for good instruction

Jason Coguer, principal and LDC project leader at Rockcastle County Middle School, said integrating literacy into core subjects rather than being taught exclusively in English or language arts classes is “real writing.”

“Students need to have effective communication skills no matter the content subject,” he said. “It is important twofold. First, they have to effectively communicate to the teacher that they have mastered the content, and second, they will need adequate communication skills as they work through college and ultimately in their “chosen career path.”

Tracy Devney, curriculum resource administrator/assistant principal at East Jessamine High School (Jessamine County) and building and team leader for LDC, said literacy skills should not be taught in isolation if students are to transfer those skills into other areas.

“I also believe that if students can express/communicate their learning then you know they have mastered the content,” she said.

The LDC approach provides templates for student tasks: teachers fill in the template with an assignment to read and write about a key issue in science, history, literature or another subject. The LDC also provides a model for roughly two weeks of teaching students that task, building reading and writing skills as they study important class content. As teachers develop their own tasks and teaching plans within the LDC structure, they will be able to share the resulting teaching “modules” with educators across the country who are working on the same subject area.

Susan Weston, Kentucky education consultant for the Prichard Committee, said 6th- through 12th-grade teachers in Boyle, Daviess, Fayette, Kenton, Jessamine and Rockcastle counties are developing the approach along with researchers and educators from states across the country thanks to a $300,471 grant from the Gates Foundation in September.

When the literacy initiative is fully developed, students will do this kind of reading-and-writing work in at least three subject areas multiple times a year, Weston said. Reaching that fully developed level is expected to take several years, with educators in many states designing and sharing tasks and modules.

Weston, who has blogged extensively about both initiatives, said teachers start by choosing which science, history or other content standard they want to address. Then they choose reading materials for that content, fill those into the template task and fill in the writing prompt to use what students have read.

“In the full version with the module, teachers go on to make decisions about skills students need to do that task, instruction for each skill and samples of student work that meets the standards,” she said.

For example, a template task that leads to a comparative writing piece says, “Task 4 Template: [Insert essential question] After reading _______ (literature or informational texts), write an _______ (essay or substitute) that compares _______ (content) and argues _______ (content). Be sure to support your position with evidence from the texts.”

Teachers could fill in the blanks with content from a core course like science, such as: “Is wind power a solution to energy shortages and costs? After reading the U.S. Department of Energy’s report on alternative energy resources, write an article that discusses wind power’s benefits and costs and evaluates whether wind power is a possibility for America’s energy future. Be sure to support your position with evidence from the text.”

Weston said the LDC provides “‘mini-tasks’ for each of the key skills students will need. For a particular task, the reading skills might be:

  • selecting relevant and credible texts
  • analyzing essential vocabulary
  • taking notes
  • sorting through those notes to identify central points

“Because the teacher applies a simple scoring rubric to each prompt, the mini-tasks have a powerful feedback loop,” she added. “The student learns quickly what to improve, and the teacher also sees clearly which areas need further support.”

Some teachers in the project are developing their work more fully, Weston said, to identify:

  • content standards the students will be learning – both the science, history or other subject and the literacy standards from the Common Core Academic Standards
  • a teaching task created by filling in one of the LDC template tasks
  • skills students need
  • mini-tasks to build those skills
  • needed results, showing samples of the student work that meets the expectations for the overall teaching task

The templates help teachers pose more rigorous questions, which leads to more rigorous teaching, Devney said.

“Better prompts generate higher levels of learning,” she said. “If we are asking students to perform at higher levels, the instruction has to align.”

Once the question has been generated, the module allows the teacher to break down the knowledge and skills necessary to answer the question, she said. Teachers are not only identifying the literacy knowledge and skills, but the content knowledge as well.

“Learning targets are then more closely aligned to the standard and the learning, thus allowing the teachers to create the formative assessments necessary for students to achieve at a higher level and complete the task,” Devney said.

Coguer said the LDC process allows teachers to go deeper into the content and focus on the main concepts of the standard.

“It is a deliberate process that really ensures mastery,” he said.

Kenton County teachers are creating four modules in their respective subject areas this year, Weston said.

“The other teachers are committed to filling in two template tasks, teaching them and scoring by the LDC rubric,” she said. “They have the option of using the LDC teaching plan design and the option of developing that into a full module.”

Coguer said that while teachers in the pilot were required to only implement the template tasks, those in his school have found that the modules are crucial to obtaining better student writings.

“We have noticed that the student writings have been more specific and focused,” he said. “They have definitely understood the purpose of the task and what it was asking them to do, and it is reflected in their work.”

He acknowledged that the new approach takes more time to teach, but that the benefits are worth it.

“Our teachers like the fact that the template tasks can be plugged into any content area or standard,” Coguer said. “We also feel that it will help with on-demand writing as well as constructed responses because the students will have learned key strategies in organizing thoughts and getting those thoughts on paper. Again, it is a great communication tool.”

Devney agreed.

“What a way to increase the rigor in your classroom,” she said. “What we have witnessed with the few tasks that have been implemented is that we are asking better questions and getting better responses from our students.”


Weston said the Mathematics Design Collaborative (MDC) organizes the curriculum to include a formative assessment lesson every few weeks through the year, linked to the content being taught then, but pushing further into rich mathematical practice with that content. There are currently formative assessment lessons (FALs) for grades 9 and 10, with grades 7 and 8 also being developed.

“That process is meant to move students to the level of confident, independent, rigorous mathematical practice required by the Common Core standards,” she said. “These are formative assessment lessons that take one to one and a half class periods. The primary point is for students to do active work struggling with challenging math that requires strong use of good math practices, rather than just remembering formulas and steps.”

Teachers in Boone, Daviess, Jefferson, Jessamine, Kenton and Warren counties are using the FALS, designed by the Shell Centre in England and the University of California at Berkeley, to support new and intensive attention to mathematical practice as part of a $599,016 Gates Foundation grant that was announced in February 2010.

According to Weston, each FAL starts with a mathematics task and organizes a lesson that draws students into “a productive struggle with the mathematics essential for college readiness.”

First, students work on an initial task that lets them see the challenge they need to address. Then students work in small groups figuring out a set of related mathematics puzzles, each designed to help the students work out good ideas for tackling the original problem. Students then participate in a whole-class discussion before going back to revise their earlier answer on the initial task based on what they have learned.

“In the process, both teachers and students are figuring out what students were confused about, and both are discovering (because the lessons are so well designed) that the kids really can do the higher-order work successfully,” she said.

The FALs are intended to be used by teachers every couple of weeks as part of their courses, Weston said. Individual teachers or districts can decide how each FAL will be used. So one teacher could use a FAL to introduce a mathematics topic, and another teacher could use the same FAL two-thirds of the way through a topic to make sure students understand.

Instructional Supervisor Winnie Cohron of the Warren County school district said the lessons are excellent models of what challenging, rigorous tasks look like.

“The formative assessment strategies provide teachers with key steps to follow to engage students in discussion about the content, to build confidence in the ability to solve math problems and to provide challenging but ‘achievable’ math problems for students to solve,” she said.

Teachers believe their lessons match the level of mathematics standards, but frequently they do not, she said.

“Using these tasks facilitates less teacher talk and more student talk, focusing on students’ wrestling with a problem and owning the solution-development process,” Cohron said. “Learning does not occur unless (students) are actively engaged in the work.”

Pat Murray, the deputy superintendent/chief academic officer in the Boone County school district, likes that the FALs focus on student problem-solving.

“They have to think through the task – answers/solutions are not given to them,” she said.

In her district, teachers are embedding FALs into instruction where they best match the content. Murray said. They are very high on the tasks and are even trying to develop some of their own, she said, though teachers and students have struggled some with the approach.

“Teachers have to hold back on giving them answers and let them figure it out themselves,” she said. “Students do not problem-solve like this often enough, and it is hard for them to make the adjustment, but I’ve seen them struggle to success and really understand the content at a deep level.”

Weston said mathematics experts have led professional development outside the classroom and done model lessons and observations in classrooms. Teachers work with the expert, use the ideas in their classroom and return to work with the trainers, she said.

Cohron said that the teachers who have used the strategies consistently report increased student engagement and understanding of mathematics standards, though they take additional time to develop.

“This method is effective in promoting student learning through active engagement,” she said.

Susan Weston,, (859) 583-3308