In many large districts there are now so-called pacing guides provided with or within the curriculum. The idea is clear enough: given a far-off goal (end-of-year performance), we often need reminders about where we are now vis a vis the goal and where we “need to be” if we want to achieve the goal. Perfectly sensible. Alas, what schools currently do is perfectly dumb because they confuse the pace of the teacher with the pace of the learning.

What so-called pacing guides have become are rigid schedules about where teachers should be in terms of topics on a given day or week. This is unthinking; this is utterly unmindful of the fact that we pace in order to determine if we need to adjust to achieve goals. The rate of coverage has nothing to do with the rate of learning. The point of pacing – as the track runner and swimmer well knows – is for the performer, not the coach, to get performance results en route in formative assessments and compare those times with the ultimate time desired. In most cases there will need to be minor adjustments to performance. In other words, pacing is done against the performance results, not what is covered by the teacher. (Typically only the most experienced athletes can perfectly pace: it takes years of training and pacing-feedback to know where to be after each lap).

A true pacing guide, therefore, would help students and teachers look at results, not topics. Both would analyze formative assessment results in light of the ultimate levels of desired performance, to see if they are on track to meet grade level standards by year’s end – just as in running or swimming; or whether a targeted adjustment of future work (hence curriculum itself) would need to be made if goals are to be achieved. The GOALS have priority, not the CURRICULUM!

Such a system of goal-minded adjustment would require, of course, true formative assessments (not just low-level one-shot tests of the previous 5 weeks of content) of where learners stand now vis a vis year-end performance levels. In other words, teachers would have to use pre-assessments, ongoing formative assessments, and a post-assessment designed “backward” from the same desired level to gauge pace properly.

Here’s a simple example of how this would work in writing. Curriculum is written so that standards-based anchor papers for the end of the year are selected for all the genres. In other words, the goal by year’s end is to write at a standards-based level of performance. Then, work would be scored throughout the year against those anchors, not against teacher or school norms. After each scoring, teachers would discuss the findings with one another and with students, proposing adjustments as needed. That we might “fall behind” the curriculum is beside the point if the goal is performance at this key academic goal. Sometimes, as a wise man once said, you have to lose time to gain it.

That we continue to define “pacing” in terms of what TEACHERS do on a fixed schedule, IMPERVIOUS to results, instead of what students are learning or not learning is only one reminder that most school reform efforts are doomed to fail, no matter how well intentioned.  As long as we continue to focus egocentrically on what the adults are doing or supposed to be doing on a schedule instead of what the kids should be accomplishing, and adjusting to help them accomplish it, there is little prospect for educational goals to be achieved any time soon.