School boards have an immense opportunity to spur historic improvements to schooling. To grasp it, consider the following:

In 2006, while visiting numerous classrooms, Harvard’s Richard Elmore was struck by the rarity of a central element of schooling. In 2011, education scholar Lisa Delpit noted it as well. So did recently hailed instructional expert Michael Sonbert in 2019: After visiting hundreds of classrooms, he dared readers of Education Week to guess what had become the “biggest educational trend” and among the most unfortunate: a precipitous decline in teaching.

Such knowledge isn’t fully acknowledged by school systems or widely known among parents or communities. But it could empower school boards to be the catalyst for dramatic gains in student achievement. 

To be clear: By “teaching,” the above researchers mean sequential, explicit instruction that guarantees the highest rates of student success. Its decline is no surprise to those of us who routinely tour classrooms with school administrators. These tours are an eye-opener to leaders who are rarely trained to discern the presence or absence of the most critical components of good instruction. For many, it’s the first time they perceive the upsurge in activities that now supplant actual teaching—like worksheets, screen time, and excessive group work. 

This trend coincides with a calamitous decline in the other two elements that matter, more than all others, to academic growth—coherent curriculum and traditional literacy activities (which I’ll describe). Make no mistake: The near-absence of these three elements accounts for our failure to narrow achievement gaps and address pandemic-era learning loss.

But also know this: A legion of the most respected researchers affirm that addressing these deficiencies would result in rapid and substantial improvement of our schools. According to Harvard’s Tom Kane, U.S. school performance could equal the best in the world within two years (in Schmoker, 2023). 

This immense opportunity is the subject of my book Results NOW 2.0: The Untapped Opportunities for Dramatic Gains in Achievement (ASCD 2023). It describes how current school practices are at odds with the three most indispensable elements of schooling. Throughout the book, I describe how they have enabled numerous schools to make unprecedented achievement gains. 

School boards could be the agents for promoting this transformation. 

Catalysts for Historic Improvement 

School boards could play a pivotal role in enabling schools to make swift, substantial progress and mightily address learning loss. But it won’t happen until they:

1. Are given a more accurate picture of current schooling and its primary deficiencies.

2. Are encouraged to routinely ask very reasonable questions about the three core areas of curriculum, literacy, and instruction.

As a former board member, I wish I had asked the kinds of questions I’ll include at the end of each of the following three sections.    

Let’s now examine the opportunity we have in these crucial but neglected areas of schooling. 

Coherent Curriculum

Nothing is more paramount to school success than coherent curriculum—a clear, organized sequence of “what to teach and when.”  Hundreds of studies confirm that it is the single largest factor that affects a teacher’s effectiveness and student success. It doesn’t merely improve student performance; it causes it to “soar” (Darling-Hammond, 2010-2011). And as one successful principal learned, curriculum often acts “with amazing speed” on academic outcomes. Numerous schools I have studied and visited demonstrate the game-changing impact it can have in a single school year (in Schmoker, 2023).

How many in our communities know this—or know that genuine curriculum only operates in a small fraction of U.S. schools (Marzano, 2011; Hirsch, 2021)? How many know that exceedingly few administrators are trained to facilitate the development of curriculum or to monitor its implementation?

To redress this, it is imperative that board members routinely ask critical questions on behalf of their communities. 

Curriculum:  Essential Questions

  • Is every teacher provided with a clear, coherent curriculum? If not, what is the plan for developing curricula, and with what deadlines for completion?
  • Once developed, could board members have an opportunity to examine a few representative samples, along with a presentation of their important features?
  • Are procedures in place for monitoring curricula to ensure that it is implemented?

It should go without saying that worthwhile curriculum must abound in authentic literacy activities. 

Authentic Literacy

Phonics and decoding are essential to early-grade reading instruction. This must be accompanied by literacy’s core—generous, daily amounts of content-based reading, open-ended discussion, and writing (and writing instruction).

When these are richly integrated into coursework, students thrive and find school vastly more purposeful. A team at La Cima Middle School in my former Arizona school district built “literacy-rich” curriculum for ELA and Social Studies by themselves, in just a few hours one fall. About half of their students were from poor households. That didn’t prevent any of them, as I was able to observe, from learning to analyze and annotate literary and historical texts, to form and support arguments and interpretations. This was always interspersed with engaging, often extended discussions in which every student learned to speak clearly, logically, and effectively.    Students wrote regularly and learned to organize what they learned through close reading and discussion into coherent essays and documents. As a result, student performance rose from the middle to the top in state standings that year. In my book, I cite numerous schools which made equally robust gains in a single year—through an intensive focus on core literacy. 

The problem—and the opportunity—is that La Cima’s literacy-rich curriculum couldn’t have been more different from what’s found in the majority of schools. Even English/Language Arts is often dominated by a host of pseudo-literary activities—like coloring, poster-making, watching full-length popular movies, and other distractions. The paucity of actual reading, discussion, and writing—during the school day—is well-documented (Schmoker, 2023). 

These findings represent a gargantuan opportunity for improvement. Here are some questions school boards can ask to help schools get back on track. 

Authentic Literacy:  Essential Questions

  • Are liberal, designated amounts of purposeful reading, discussion, and writing integrated into coursework across subject areas?
  • Are benchmark writing assessments established in certain subjects and grades (e.g., at the end of elementary, middle, and high school) for which data could be gathered for continuous improvement purposes?

Let’s now turn to the third indispensable element—effective, explicit instruction.  

Explicit Instruction

As a central office administrator, I observed several lessons at La Cima. Like every successful teacher I know, they routinely employed whole class “explicit instruction” to ensure that every student acquired sophisticated skills and knowledge. They taught in manageable steps, punctuated by continuous “checks for understanding.” If students struggled on a particular segment, the teacher would briefly re-teach or break the step into simpler steps to address student confusion. There is a strong, international consensus that such teaching ensures the highest possible success rate on everything from daily lessons to state assessments.

I was once invited to observe a high school English teacher in my community. Every step in his lessons was accompanied by cycles of teaching, quick checks for understanding and re-teaching. In his first year at the school, with its 95% poverty rate, his school made the largest writing gains in the state. Interestingly, the data revealed that most of the gains came from this teacher’s students alone. In my book, I describe numerous cases of ordinary teachers achieving extraordinary results using these proven methods.

If school boards desire such improvements for schools, they should unabashedly ask questions like the following.

Explicit Instruction:  Essential Questions

  • Are teachers—and administrators—thoroughly trained in explicit instruction?
  • Does professional development ensure that practitioners actually master these methods?
  • Are systems in place to 1. monitor to ensure that these methods are consistently implemented and 2. identify teachers who need additional training?

For all the above:  Are there measurable goals and deadlines set to ensure these components are operative within a reasonable time frame?

Such questions could propel actions that would allow schools to make historic progress.    

But once again, these unrivaled elements are persistently neglected in most U.S. schools. As Daniel Willingham points out, “In education, we still don’t wash our hands.” In the main, schools don’t ensure that practitioners employ the most consequential elements of effectiveness—those that would result in “whopping improvements” in the most challenged urban schools (Payne, 2007); in “stunningly powerful consequences” in any school that employs them (Fullan, 2010; all in Schmoker 2023). 

I believe that the primary obstacle to their widespread use is what Harvard’s Richard Elmore has ingeniously dubbed “the buffer.”

The Buffer 

The late Richard Elmore was an icon among education professors. He believed that the single largest obstacle to school quality and improvement was a systemic “buffer”—a barrier that subtly discouraged communities from probing into the school’s primary instructional functions.   The buffer is sustained by the district’s positive messaging—its glowing mission statements, its “commitment to excellence” and college preparation, and the fanfare with which it announces its perennial programs and initiatives. These messages placate the public’s desire to believe that their children are the beneficiaries of the most essential, evidence-based practices—though this is rarely the case. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli notes how the buffer is abetted by inflated grades and graduation rates: The majority of parents give high marks to their children’s schools, and 90% of them believe that their kids are performing at grade level and are on track for post-secondary success. In fact, less than a third do grade-level work; even fewer are prepared for college or careers. 

The “buffer” helps to explain why school board agendas seldom include hard questions about the elements described above—or their scarcity. 

In a related way, the buffer prevents educators themselves from adequately grasping that our universities don’t provide practical training in these critical areas or their supervision. Every major report confirms the dire need for this. Questions like those listed above could motivate district administrators to start a dialog with their local universities—and lead to a renaissance in the preparedness of our teachers and leaders (in Schmoker, 2023).

Despite decades of feckless programs and innovations, student performance has stagnated or declined, a victim of institutional inertia. I believe school boards are optimally situated to break this pattern by liberating school leaders to reorient their time and attention to the schools’ primary academic function. Tens of millions of students are waiting for us to “wash our hands”—to employ the most potent, evidence-based actions that would enable record proportions of them to become productive, knowledgeable, articulate citizens.    


Mike Schmoker ( is an author, speaker, and consultant. He is the author of Focus:  Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, 2nd edition and Results NOW 2.0: The Untapped Opportunities for Swift, Dramatic Gains in Achievement.

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