Whitney K. Freije

Whitney K. Freije is an instructional coach and mathematics teacher for the Windsor Central School District in upstate New York. She has previously served as a K–5 literacy coach and an elementary teacher.

It’s Time to Get R.E.A.L.

The start of the 2020-21 school year has been anything but business as usual. We have found ourselves navigating uncharted territory, tasked with reimagining teaching and learning amidst a global pandemic. Our classrooms have moved from school buildings and into our students’ living rooms. With all of the challenges and unpredictability that have come with this school year, how can we possibly remain committed to our mission of ensuring the highest levels of learning for each of our students? It's time for us to get real

According to Marzano (2003), a guaranteed and viable curriculum is the most important school-level factor impacting student achievement. Simply put, this means that the curriculum (1) gives all students access to the same essential learning outcomes regardless of who is teaching the course and (2) can be taught in the time allotted. For schools that embrace the PLC model, the process of developing and implementing a guaranteed and viable curriculum is the first and most significant step of the collaborative team. It is through this process that teachers establish a common understanding of the curriculum and commitment to teach it. 

As collaborative teams work through the process of identifying and unwrapping essential standards they generate common clarity around what all students must know and be able to do. While these essential standards do not represent all that teachers must teach, they establish the minimum that must be achieved to ensure “high levels of learning.” This should be an ongoing process where curriculum guides and pacing calendars are considered dynamic, living documents. 

In addition to serving as an instructional coach in the district where I work, I have the privilege of being a seventh grade mathematics teacher. Our middle school collaborative teams engage in these conversations every year, using data to make necessary revisions to pacing calendars, instruction, and assessment schedules. Given the circumstances of this school year, we knew we would need to do some reprioritizing to ensure our curriculum remained both guaranteed and viable. 

Our school, like so many others across the country, opened with a hybrid learning model in order to cohort students and maintain socially-distance in classrooms. With most students attending in-person classes on an every other day basis, we knew instructional time would be significantly reduced. Additionally, we knew that at any point we may have to transition to a fully remote model with little warning. Despite our best efforts, our students were also facing significant gaps in learning as a result of the school closure in the spring.  The reality is, in examining our existing curriculum we knew that we may not have adequate instructional time to ensure proficiency in all previously identified essential standards. 

Our mathematics team utilized the R.E.A.L criteria, an acronym used by Ted Horrell and his colleagues, to revisit and revise our essential learning standards. The R.E.A.L criteria include:

  1. Readiness: Standard provides students with essential knowledge and skills necessary for success in the next class. 
  2. Endurance: Standard provides students with the knowledge and skills that are useful beyond a single test or unit of study. 
  3. Assessed: Standard will be assessed on upcoming state and national exams. 
  4. Leverage: Standard provides students with the knowledge and skills that will be of value in multiple disciplines. 

Over time our team has developed a vertical sequence of instruction that spirals from grade level to grade level. We knew that this year we needed to systematically plan for incorporating essential standards that were not taught or mastered during remote instruction in the spring. Specifically, we focused on readiness standards, those that would provide the necessary prerequisite knowledge and skills required for success in the next grade level. We worked together to write comprehensive gap identification assessments to identify specific learning needs related to student proficiency. Once these assessments were administered, we leveraged our grade level expertise to analyze the data, prioritize standards, and look for meaningful ways to integrate them into instruction in our current grade levels. 

Looking across our horizontal sequence of standards we knew that we could not possibly add to our curriculum without reprioritizing. We worried about removing essential standards from our curriculum and so again we turned to the R.E.A.L. criteria. We took a closer look at our assessed standards, those which had made it into our curriculum because of their presence on our statewide, high-stakes assessments. While this criteria alone does not qualify a standard as essential, the fact that a concept is heavily tested should always be a consideration. For mathematics specifically, we do not know whether or not students will take state assessments at the end of the year but we do know that our classes lay the foundation for success in future mathematics courses such as Algebra. Through collaborative conversations and some healthy debate, we were able to reach consensus and reclassify some of these standards as nice-to-knows in order to make time and space for other essential need-to-knows.

In a time where so many factors relating to student success can feel out of our control, it is important for us to focus on the factors that will make the greatest impact on student learning. Providing time for teams to engage in important conversations like those described above will help to make certain our curriculum remains both guaranteed and viable.  By getting even clearer about what is truly essential, our mathematics team has been able to make decisions that ensure the effective use of instructional time as well as increased levels of student proficiency. The R.E.A.L. criteria provides teams with a straightforward approach to engaging in this challenging curriculum work. These are challenging times but they won’t last forever but the decisions that we make with regard to teaching and learning will continue to have an impact on our students and their success in the years to come. 



DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning
Communities at Work (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

DuFour, R. & Marzano, R. (2011). Leaders of Learning: How District, School, and Classroom Leaders Improve
Student Learning. Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, IN. Marzano, R. (2003). What Works In Schools: Translating Research Into Action. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA.

Horrell, T., & Many, T. (2014). Prioritizing the Standards Using R.E.A.L. Criteria. Texas Elementary Principals
& Supervisors Association, 71(1), 8-9.  www.tepsa.org

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