Instructional Shifts Offer More Than Just Alignment

Instructional Shifts Offer More Than Just AlignmentEveryone’s talking about it. Some are embracing it, some are ignoring it, and some are busily legislating it away. No, it’s not the debt ceiling or health care reform. It’s the Common Core State Standards.

Whatever your position on the new standards, there are a few things almost everyone can agree on. Most states are shifting toward increased rigor and a focus on college and career readiness. Some are doing it with Common Core, and others have adopted their own standards. But the new instructional shifts in education transcend the specific standards states are implementing and are truly universal.

What are instructional shifts?

Shifts describe fundamental changes in course design and emphasis. They are independent of pedagogy—you can shift instruction in a traditional classroom, a virtual school, or a blended learning environment. They’re bigger and broader than standards, which describe what students should know and be able to do at a more detailed level. The shifts form a framework for professional development, and they provide great criteria for reviewing curriculum resources (textbooks, online courses, and supplemental materials).

Discover the instructional shifts in mathematics.

Across states, there are three fundamental shifts in mathematics instruction:

  • Focus: No longer are states packing every topic imaginable in to every grade. Instead, there is greater focus on fewer topics. This allows educators to go deeper and develop each topic more fully.
  • Coherence: More emphasis is being placed on the connections between topics within a grade and across grades. Math is a system with critical connections, and educators are being encouraged more than ever to make those connections explicit for students.
  • Rigor: Developers of new standards (including the authors of Common Core) advocate a balance of conceptual development, procedural fluency, and application. Students still must learn procedures, but they must learn them with an understanding of the concepts those procedures draw on. They also must know when to apply the math they have learned.

Explore the instructional shifts in ELA/literacy.

There are three fundamental shifts in language arts:

  • Reading more nonfiction: As students are reading more nonfiction in all states, a greater emphasis is being placed on literary nonfiction (short and extended essays, speeches, memoirs). These texts help students build content knowledge and develop nonfiction reading skills.
  • Text-based evidence: This is a fundamental shift on what we ask students to do with what they read. Common Core and other college and career readiness standards ask educators to ask text-based questions, not just questions students could answer based on their existing knowledge.
  • Text complexity: New standards advocate a staircase of text complexity, with the goal of having all students ready for college and career-related reading by the end of high school. This means students should be building their academic vocabularies in every grade. Crucial to this shift is providing sufficient scaffolds for struggling readers, so they can access grade-level text (as opposed to providing those readers with easier text).

 Use these handy resources.

  • One of the best resources on the instructional shifts is, which is published by a nonprofit group called Student Achievement Partners.
  • There is also a handy toolkit for evaluating instructional materials against the shifts, created by the CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers).
  • And New York City, an early adopter of the shifts, has a number of great resources it shares with any district for free. Find them here.
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Deborah Rayow

Vice President, Core Curriculum and Credit Recovery at Edgenuity
Deborah began her career as a fifth grade teacher. After several years in the classroom, she shifted to curriculum planning and professional development, eventually focusing on e-learning, instructional design, and product development. Her expertise was gained while working with some of the most recognizable names in education, among them being Kaplan K12 Learning Services, Scholastic Education, and the New York Times Learning Network.