This year, our partner schools across the country faced a common and persistent challenge: pacing. 

Concerned school leaders told us, “We’re using high-quality materials and we’re encouraging our teachers to move forward into grade-level content. But we’re still behind.”

As we dug into pacing guides and talked with teachers, it was clear that teachers are too often faced with an impossible task of teaching more lessons than can realistically fit into their school calendar. This leaves them without enough time to cover the grade-level materials.

For example, one of our partner schools uses a high-quality curriculum that contains 160 50-minute lessons. However, after accounting for testing, assemblies, field trips, and other school events, the school has only 148 instructional days available. This means that teachers are working with 600 fewer instructional minutes than the curriculum intended, even before accounting for the considerable time it takes to address historic unfinished learning needs in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Teachers like those in that school are often left to make difficult decisions about what to teach. When pressured to cover all the material in a curriculum, some may omit more challenging tasks in order to accelerate pacing and therefore lose the intended rigor of the standards. Alternatively, some may move forward as far as they can, teaching each lesson in depth, but missing the last unit(s) entirely.^

Instructional leaders can help teachers make more strategic decisions about what to teach and what to omit by creating realistic pacing guidance that builds in the time students need to address unfinished learning from prior grades.

Summer is a great time of year to step back and create a pacing guide that empowers teachers to deliver grade-level instruction without sacrificing rigor or leaving out important content—ensuring that students are equipped with knowledge and skills they need to master grade-level content.

Setting teachers up for success with pacing

The instructional moves that help students achieve grade-level proficiency often require teachers to dedicate extra time to priority content—that is, the units or lessons that contain essential knowledge that students need to succeed in future grades. By narrowing the focus of instruction on priority content, leaders can create flexible time within a pacing guide for teachers to reinforce essential learning from prior grades.

In our work with school leaders, we found that prioritizing content and creating a flexible pacing guide looks different for each content area. This is because the best way to address unfinished learning depends on what you are trying to teach.

Let’s take a closer look at what this process looks like in math and reading comprehension.

Year-level planning in math

Teachers can use flexible time to address the components of math instruction that prevent access to grade-level content within a given unit.

Here are three steps to prioritize content and create a flexible pacing guide for teaching math:

1. Determine available instructional time

Understand how many instructional days teachers actually have with their students after accounting for anticipated disruptions (e.g., assemblies, field trips) and subtracting the number of flexible days that need to be built into the pacing guide.

The number of necessary flexible days will depend on the curriculum. Here are some examples of how flexible days can be used in math:

  • End of topic (within a unit): Placed at the end of each topic within a unit to solidify any content from the topic that students are struggling with before moving on to the next topic.
  • Mid-unit: Placed two to three days after the mid-unit assessment to be used as a day to respond to the data collected from the assessment.
  • End of unit: Placed at the end of units to serve as a buffer for lost days inside of the module—things that could cause lost days are teacher absences, unplanned school closures, etc.

Determine how many lessons need to be omitted from the pacing guide by comparing the number of available days to total curriculum lessons.

Total curriculum lessons – (instructional days – flexible days) = number of lessons to be omitted

2. Identify the major work of the grade and prioritize content

Before prioritizing content within a curriculum, identify the standards that are aligned to the major work of the grade. Student Achievement Partners’ Priority Instructional Content Guide and K–8 CCSS focus documents are great resources for identifying priority standards.

Next, review the curriculum and identify the lessons that house the bulk of the major work of the year—this is the priority content. Note that, though the lessons aligned to the major work of the grade should be prioritized, lessons focused on supporting standards are still important, and the pacing guide should cover as much supporting work as is feasible within the total available instructional days.

Example: 4th-grade math curriculum

The table lists the standards covered within each unit of a curriculum. The standards aligned to the major work of the grade within each unit are indicated with green text. Units 1, 3, 5, and 6 contain the majority of the green standards.In this example, the standards aligned to the major work of the grade within each unit are indicated with green text. Here, units 1, 3, 5, and 6 represent the priority content for the year.

3. Provide clear guidance

Create a planning guide that focuses on the major work of the grade and includes flexible time for addressing unfinished learning. Provide teachers with clear guidance on the strategic placement of flexible days within the pacing guide, along with clear expectations and support for preparing for and using these days.

Year-level planning in reading comprehension

Students need more time on grade-level texts that have more complex features. By prioritizing content, ELA teachers can use flexible instructional time to address the complex elements of literacy instruction that interrupt reading comprehension—background knowledge, vocabulary, fluency, and syntax.

Here are three steps to prioritize content and create a flexible pacing guide for teaching reading comprehension:

1. Determine available instructional time

Just as with math, the first step in this process is to understand how much time teachers actually have with their students after accounting for tests, school events, and holidays that interrupt regular instruction.

2. Audit the curriculum

Next, audit the curriculum to understand all of the factors that will inform decisions about which units should be prioritized and which can be omitted. The curriculum publisher’s website is a great source of information for this type of audit.

Here are some key steps:

  • Compare the pacing of each module to the available instructional time
  • Review the knowledge story for each module
  • Review the texts for each module
  • Review questions, tasks, and assessments
  • Examine the distribution of modes of writing ( e.g., explanatory, narrative, opinion) across modules
  • Determine whether future grade levels depend on the knowledge built in a particular module in this grade level
  • Identify modules that include a standard only addressed once during the school year

3. Create a pacing guide with built-in, flexible time to meet students’ learning needs

After diving into the content of the curriculum, it’s time to make informed and strategic decisions about which modules to prioritize and which to compress or omit.

Compressing and omitting modules creates flexible time in the pacing guide to provide the time and support needed for students to dive deeply into complex texts. The use of this time will be determined by the complex features of a given text, along with students’ demonstrated learning needs.

Note: Addressing unfinished learning in foundational reading skills requires a materially different approach than addressing unfinished learning in reading comprehension, which has more connection opportunities across grade-levels. Our free Early Literacy Playbook contains guidance and resources to help leaders support K–2 reading instruction that is responsive and targeted to students’ specific gaps in the progression of foundational reading skills.

Continuously improving 

Supporting teachers with pacing takes much more than a pacing guide. Moving students toward grade-level proficiency requires a nuanced understanding of the priority content as well as the prerequisite knowledge and skills that students need to access that grade-level content. Summer is a great time to step back as a leader and make sure that teachers have strong ongoing professional learning structures to support them in this work all year long.

It’s also important to note that, even with the best plans and support structures, pacing can get off track. Working alongside our partners, we found that addressing unfinished learning is a continuous improvement process—it’s not just a matter of planning at the year level. Leaders must respond to students’ demonstrated needs by budgeting time throughout the year to step back and realign pacing guidance based on where students actually are.

Tools to help

Our Unfinished Learning Toolkit contains resources to help instructional leaders set their teachers up for success with pacing. Free resources include:

  • High-level strategies for addressing unfinished learning
  • Content-specific guidelines and customizable worksheets to inform instructional planning at the year, unit, and lesson levels
  • Step-by-step, curriculum-specific examples of content prioritization in action

With some summer planning and ongoing professional learning, teachers can approach their curriculum with greater confidence and clarity next school year.

^ Jane L. David, “What Research Says about. . . / Pacing Guides,” ASCD (October 1, 2008),