Sunday / July 21

Coverage is Not Enough: How to Build Competency

Despite a greater awareness of the importance of early learning success, most preschool and K-3 programs are substantially the same design and quality as the programs which have led to present outcomes. Our growing national commitment to early childhood learning success will continue to produce mediocre results unless we make a shift away from curriculum driven instruction to informed instruction based on the learning needs of each student.

 “We covered it,” is a familiar expression, “but they just didn’t learn it.”

 We continue to deliver far too much content using a rigid schedule which does not encourage teachers to adjust instruction to meet the individual needs of each student.

Crucial skills and behaviors deserve something better than coverage. To improve early learning outcomes and learning outcomes for life, we must learn to understand the principles of informed instruction leading to competency.

The principles of informed instruction are simple:

  1. Clearly identify crucial learning outcomes
  2. Use systematic measurement to determine the readiness levels of your students in relation to essential outcomes
  3. Offer informed instruction and carefully monitor progress until these skills/objectives are deeply understood (competency)
  4. Allow students to move on to more advanced learning as soon as they are ready

In Simpson County, Mississippi, K-2 teachers have learned to identify essential learning and behavior outcomes, and are systematically measuring progress toward competency in these outcomes. The essential competencies include crucial aspects of language, literacy, numeracy, motor skills, social, and behavior skills.

In their first years of implementation at Simpson Central School, teachers reported struggling with knowing how to embed assessment opportunities into instructional design, and questioned their ability to use observational assessment to help measure progress. They had difficulty staying on the schedule for updating their classroom skills inventory. Some teachers reported that “covering lessons” was more comfortable than planning instruction around the complex learning needs of their students. But with good leadership, they persisted.

In May of 2012, the first class of students who benefitted from the Early Learning Success Initiative at Simpson Central School since Kindergarten took the MCT2 at the end of their third grade year.  In May of 2013 the second class of students who participated in this process during the K-2 years took the MCT2.

Mississippi Curriculum Test 2, Grade 3 Language Arts, Simpson County Central School, 2008 to 2013, Percent of Students in Category

Mississippi Curriculum Test 2, Grade 3 Language Arts, Simpson County Central School, 2008 to 2013, Percent of Students in Category

Coverage is Not Enough

Mississippi Curriculum Test 2, Grade 3 Mathematics, Simpson County Central School, 2008 to 2013, Percent of Students in Category

In Simpson County teachers are learning to pay attention to how each student responds to instruction, and to make adjustments as needed to meet each student’s learning readiness and needs.  The percentage of third grade students scoring proficient and above in Language Arts has more than doubled.  More than 80% of students are fully proficient or better in Mathematics.

In a January, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, Bill Gates argued for the power of systematic measurement of progress: “Setting clear goals, choosing an approach, measuring results, and then using those measurements to continually refine our approach—helps us to deliver tools and services to everybody who will benefit, be they students in the U.S. or mothers in Africa.”

Too often school focus on what teachers are covering instead of what students are learning.  Systematic measurement of progress toward competency in essential early learning skills is a departure from standard practice. By identifying the skills and behaviors crucial for school success we can ensure that for these outcomes teachers don’t just cover them and then move on. With high-quality informed instruction, students can build competency in these essential skills for life.

Please see my last post, How to Create Low Skill Workers: Just Look Around to see how curriculum-driven instructional systems actually hold back our student from developing competency. My next post will discuss how informed instruction can help teachers lead student success.

Written by

Bob Sornson is an award-winning author and presenter, calling for programs and practices which support competency based learning and early learning success. He works internationally with school districts, universities, and parent organizations. His many books include Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency-Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge), Fanatically Formative (Corwin Press), and Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning about Empathy (Love and Logic Press). Contact

Latest comment

  • Thanks Bob, This is very interesting and right on the mark.Its the learning not the tests.

leave a comment