“What do you think about district pacing guides?” I am asked this question a lot. To answer it, let us consider the origin of the idea, in competitive racing.

My daughter runs track. She is a fine miler, on course to break 5 minutes this spring (she ran 5:09 to win her league last spring). So, start by doing the math to establish a pure pacing guide: she needs to run four 75-second laps to run a 5:00 minute mile.

But in a typical race, the pace varies for different reasons: there is often group excitement or timidity in the first 200 meters that causes the first lap to be faster or slower than an accomplished runner aiming to win or break a record might prefer.  A too-quick start, of course, causes oxygen depletion for all, leading to a fall-off in the pace later in the race; how quick the quick start will also determine what occurs in the last lap: the runners, such as my daughter, who love to finish strong may not have enough left to do so.

So, to break that important mark, my daughter needs to try to set her ideal pace – mindful of the 5:00 minute performance goal and her style – and get other runners to let her set the pace.  Practically speaking, what she will want to do to break the mark is to start at a moderate pace, probably around 78 seconds, for the first lap; run consistent middle laps of around 75-76 seconds, with enough left at the end for her typically-strong 68-70 second finish. That’s her “Pacing Guide” for how to run a sub-five-minute mile.

Such a guide is necessary but not sufficient. Because ultimately everything is paced “backward” from a desired time. Should she run a 79 second first lap she can still adjust her pace to finish at 4:59. Success at such pacing adjustment depends not only on prior training and discipline but paying attention to the “split times” shouted out by her coach as she comes around each time. Based on her splits, she will know that she has to turn it up or down a notch to stay within the parameters that frame the best race for her. The pacing guide is dynamic, not static. It is a function of the ever-changing relationship between an ideal pace and an actual pace, and the adjustments that have to be made to be “on pace” by the end to achieve the optimal result.

This long introduction is necessary because only by comparing such genuine performance-based pacing guidance can we appreciate the absurdity of many so-called school pacing guides that mandate tight timelines for the coverage of content. In sum, school pacing guides utterly confuse the pace of a teacher talking about stuff with the pace a learner needs to take to truly learn – and adjust, as needed – in order to reach year-end learning goals.

The typical district or school pacing guide for curriculum looks like the one excerpted below: (Click on it to have it open big enough to read in another window)

A fairly picky timeline is proposed for what state standards to “cover” (the middle column) and which chapter in the textbook should be assigned and read during that time-frame.

Uh, guys: pacing is about the learner doing the pacing, as in track!  (After all, it is the student, not the teacher, who needs to meet the standard.) Nowhere, however, does this or any other so-called pacing guide help the learner know what to do to ensure that the highest-level Standards are achieved by year’s end. But even so: nowhere is the “coach” given advice about what to do if the students fall “behind” this pace initially and/or do poorly on the mandated interim district assessments. (In other words, there is no advice in the pacing gudie about how to adjust if interim assessment results are poor.) Most importantly, the guide focuses on content delivery schedules only, with no eye toward highlighting the most effective ways to reinforce and achieve high level performance against the Standards i.e. the most effective instructional approaches and assessments for ensuring “pace” is kept.

Here is an explanation for such a pacing guide (from the California Dept. of Education) that piles mistake on top of mistake:

In contrast to curriculum maps, pacing guides are like timelines showing what each teaching team plans to cover over the course of a year. Each subject area follows a logical sequence within a grade level and between grade levels. To help teachers provide the same content to each student no matter which school he or she attends…the State Board-adopted instructional materials come with a publisher’s suggested planning guide. The materials sequence the content standards in a logical and progressive manner. It is the responsibility of both the district and the school to collaboratively review and modify the publisher’s planning guides to include in the local district pacing guides.


A few comments on some of their more questionable points:

  • They are like timelines…  Then how do they differ from timelines, then? And how is a timeline really a pacing guide?
  • What each teaching team plans to cover….  Clearly the intent to ‘cover’ something is not yet a realistic schedule for causing key outcomes to actually be achieved. What if we find in our “plan” of “coverage” that students don’t get key ideas – what then?
  • To help teachers provide the same content to each student no matter which school he or she attends…  Oh, so equity is just delivering the same content – irrespective of how much is learned?
  • Instructional materials come with a publisher’s suggested planning guide… How does a planning guide differ from a pacing guide, timeline or syllabus? More to the point: since no textbook is adequate as a curriculum, a point made later in the same paragraph, why is this advice here?  Why make this recommendation – especially since few textbooks are written ‘backward’ from the highest-level state Standards, in a spiral reinforcing way?
  • The materials sequence the content standards in a logical and progressive manner. How does logical differ from progressive? More importantly, does this imply – it sure sounds like it does – that each Standard should be “covered” once in a ‘logical’ sequence? (That is precisely what happens in the sample given above). This surely perverts the idea of a standard and reinforces the unfortunate tendency locally to think that Standards are just like low-level skills or facts – equal in importance and meetable by being covered once.

Go back to sports: requiring that content be covered on a certain schedule is as foolish as demanding that my daughter and her mates merely have covered a total number of miles run, month by month, regardless of ongoing speed or race results. It is an utterly arbitrary schedule of inputs. Think of the football coach: he doesn’t say: “it doesn’t matter what we are good or bad at. My game plan calls for X and Y, and so my practice schedule for the year calls for a, b, c, d…z until season’s end –regardless of how we do on the field in games and the results.”  On the contrary, coaches adjust both practices and games, depending upon results. (The link between a genuine pacing guide and genuine formative assessment is an important one, beyond the scope of this brief essay. Calling any interim test that will not be re-given “formative” is as bad as calling a calendar of content coverage a pacing guide for achieving results.)

A true pacing guide, in other words, might well provide advice on which lessons and units to highlight, downplay, repeat or even skip, based on formative results and year-end goals. All genuine pacing – as the track example reminds us – is about how the learner needs to set, monitor, and adjust a results-focused pace en route; it can’t be artificially prescribed from the start and couched as ‘inputs’ in addition to being oblivious to how people learn and the formative results.

This nice example of the Denver public schools, below, shows how we might move toward a true pacing guide, mindful of outcomes on formative assessments and year-end goals. While it doesn’t go far enough to help teachers consider how to monitor and adjust the pace as needed, it makes a key point about priorities and adjustments in an easy to read fashion:

Note the asterisks and their meaning: Indicates priority lesson. If you fall behind, go to next priority lesson.(It would be even better if there were a column explaining WHY a lesson is a priority lesson.)

In Schooling by Design, we argued for curriculum documents to include something far more useful than such input-drive pacing guides: troubleshooting guides that tell you what to do if the planned units don’t work as intended. Such guidance would be far more useful to teachers than arbitrary calendars.

PS: Jane David wrote a nice article summarizing issues related to pacing a few years ago. It can found here.