Austin Buffum

Austin Buffum, EdD, has 38 years of experience in public schools. His many roles include serving as former senior deputy superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District in California.

Put the “R” back into RTI by Reconnecting to the PLC at Work™ Model

Many schools are frustrated by their attempts to answer Question 3 of the PLC at Work™ process, “How will we respond when students don’t learn it?” In many cases, this frustration is caused by the fact that they are attempting to answer Question 3 before answering Question 1, “What is it we want all students to know and be able to do?” In other words, what do we want all students to learn?

The mission of a learning-focused school is to ensure that all students learn at high levels. Since high levels of learning are defined as grade level or better, essential standards represent the absolutely essential knowledge, skills, and behaviors every student must acquire to succeed in the next unit, semester, year, and course—and ultimately, in life.

We know it is folly to expect all students to master every standard that district or state or provincial curricular guides determine we are required to teach—that would be impossible. There are some standards we teach each year that are nice to know—that is, if a student does not master it this year, it will not cripple his or her chances for future success. But we know some standards are absolutely have to know learning outcomes. They represent content and skills that keep a student from progressing in that subject if he or she doesn’t master them.

For example, ask kindergarten teachers, “Is letter recognition important for your students to learn?” They would chuckle at this ridiculous question. In our work with schools throughout the United States, we have never heard a single kindergarten teacher respond to that question with this answer: “Letters, shmetters ... who cares if kids know their letters?” Kindergarten teachers know that letter recognition is absolutely essential to a student’s future success in reading, in first grade, in all future subjects, and in life.

However, are all the kindergarten English language arts (ELA) standards essential? Of course not. In California, another required kindergarten ELA standard is the Common Core’s, “With prompting and support, name the author and illustrator of a story and define the role of each in telling the story” (RL.K.6; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA & CCSSO], 2010).

Will a kindergartener make it in first grade if he or she can’t yet name the illustrator of the book the class is reading? Probably. So, identifying these absolutely essential learning outcomes—year by year, subject by subject, and unit by unit—is a critical first step in focusing a school’s core instruction and intervention processes. Yet, like handwashing in a hospital, while the need to create a guaranteed and viable curriculum is obvious, achieving this outcome at most schools has proven elusive at best.

Rather than focus on how a team might cover content (for example, a copy of the state or provincial standards, district pacing guide, or curriculum map), we believe each collaborative PLC teacher team must receive the time to examine such materials and then decide what skills and concepts are essential and thus, what every student must master. In other words, identifying essential standards means clarifying what each student must learn, not simply what we will teach and when we will teach it.

While a district, state or province has a role to play in this discussion, teacher teams must ultimately commit to what they will prioritize, teach, reteach, and intervene about with students. Without the teacher teams’ involvement and the resulting ownership that comes from that involvement, the implemented curriculum and intended curriculum are seldom the same.

The research supporting the need to identify essential standards, and the importance of engaging every teacher in the identification process, is compelling and conclusive. In their book, Concise Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Professional Learning Communities at Work™, Mattos et al. (2016) argue: 

“Merely providing teachers with a copy of the state standards for their grade level does not ensure all students will have access to a guaranteed curriculum that can be taught in the amount of time available for teaching. Teachers may ignore the standards, assign different priorities to the standards, vary dramatically in how much time they devote to the standards, have huge discrepancies in what the standard looks like in terms of student work, and possess significant differences in their ability to teach the standards.” (p. 17)

After analyzing more than eight hundred meta-analyses involving millions of students, Hattie (2009) says:

“Teachers need to know the learning intentions and success criteria of their lessons, know how well they are attaining these criteria, and know where to go next in light of the criteria of: ‘Where are you going?’ ‘How are you going?’ and ‘Where to next?’” (p. 239)

Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe (2006) state that the first step in curriculum development is to:

“Identify desired results. What should students know, understand and be able to do? What content is worthy of understanding? What ‘enduring’ understandings are desired? What essential questions will be explored? [This step] calls for clarity about priorities.” (pp. 27–28)

More emphatically, Robert J. Marzano, Phil Warrick, and Julia A. Simms (2014) proclaim a high-reliability school provides students with a guaranteed and viable curriculum focused on enhancing student learning. The Marzano High Reliability Schools™ framework, based on forty years of education research, defines five progressive levels of performance that a school must master to become a high-reliability school—where all students learn the content and skills they need for success in college, careers, and beyond.

The curriculum is focused enough that it can be adequately addressed in the time available to teachers. All students have the opportunity to learn the critical content of the curriculum. Individual teachers do not have the option to disregard or replace content that has been designated as essential (Marzano et al., 2014).

While a preponderance of the education research, conventional wisdom, and common sense would tell us that creating a guaranteed and viable curriculum increases student learning, few schools and districts have fully committed to it. Instead, most have settled for shortcuts in the process or have actually promoted practices that are counterproductive to this goal. For example:

The district office hand-selects a few teachers to produce lists of essential or power standards. The school distributes these standards to all teachers with the explanation that these documents are teacher created. Since all teachers were not involved in the selection and prioritization process, they have little ownership or commitment to the list. Heidi Hayes Jacobs (2001) reminds us that most district-curriculum guides are “well-intended but fundamentally fictional accounts of what students actually learn” (p. 20).

The district office asks teachers to prioritize standards but do nothing more than place a checkmark next to standards they believe are important for students to learn. This approach does little to create clarity around what the standards actually mean. Because standards are often written in a way that leaves a great deal of room for interpretation, teachers need to give more than a head shake when making critical decisions about student learning. Mike Schmoker (2011) puts it this way: “And though the national standards for language arts are better than the state standards they would replace, there are still too many of them, and many are poorly and confusingly written” (p. 41).

If we are to build a solid foundation of essential skills and knowledge in students at Tier 1, we must be crystal clear what those skills and knowledge are. If we plan to build a schoolwide system of supports for students when they struggle to learn, we must recognize that the system will never be systematic until teacher teams are clear on what each student must master. If not, schools will reteach different things and send students for Tier 2 interventions for different reasons, while experiencing large numbers of students falling so far behind that they require Tier 3 interventions. Schools suffer this frustrating fate simply because they never gain clarity on and commitment to what they want each student to learn.



Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Marzano, R. J., Warrick, P., & Simms, J. A. (2014). A handbook for high reliability schools: The next step in school reform. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research.  

Mattos, M., DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. W. (2016). Concise answers to frequently asked questions about Professional Learning Communities at Work™. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors. Accessed at on February 24, 2017.

Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C. A., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design: Connecting content and kids. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


Hannah Gendron

Dr. Buffum,

Thank you for the reminder of the importance of the question "What is it we want all students to know and be able to do?". As I was reading your article, it resonated with what my school district does when we are answering question #3 in PLCs. We use the RTI model when students do not master what we are teaching them, however sometimes we do get frustrated. We ask ourselves questions about why they didn't master the skill or what skills did they not truly understand. We ask how was it taught and can there be an alternative way for students to grasp this concept. However, I believe the point you made is that we need to make sure the essential skills are clear of what the students need to master before answering question #3. There are many standards that need to be covered and sometimes it is hard to truly pull out the essentials. I loved your idea about having collaborative teams decide the essential standards, which "means clarifying what each student must learn, not simply what we will teach and when we will teach it." This resonates with me because this year my school adopted a new science kit. In 6th grade we had to teach 5 kits, which was impossible to do with teaching Health as well including time for district and state tests. While the curriculum was engaging and hands on, there were way too many lessons to complete all 5 kits. It would be very beneficial for a team of teachers to pick out the essential skills students need to learn in 6th grade and then match them to the essential lessons that need to be taught. This blog post was extremely encouraging to push us towards focusing on the essential standards our students need to know.

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Lauren Desouza

Nice post

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Ron Zalika

Great article but when will educators attack the real issue that is at play here? We need fewer and clearer national standards in all content areas. We all know it, yet we instead accept it as an unfortunate part of the system and come up with countless work arounds. I have not seen an organized call by prominent educational leaders to engage in true national standards reform. Fixing our standards, while extremely difficult work (is there anything more important?) would ultimately lead to an actual guaranteed and viable curriculum for all students.

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shivkumar singh

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