Monday, September 23, 2013

Delayed Weekend Thought: On Standards

Author's Note: Do not take the following article as argument in favor of any policy.  It is merely the train of thought that arose when I began thinking about the implementation of "Standards"throughout the public school system.  I do not advocate the creation or destruction of "Standards," just ask that, if those "Standards" are going to be put into place, what would be required.
In addition, I would like to make a distinction between standards and "Standards."  The first is the level to which teachers hold their students, regardless of academic ability and can and does include things such as behavior, conduct, and effort.  These standards are not graded, but are expected nonetheless.  "Standards" are specific skills that students are expected to master regardless of any quality beyond the year in which they were born.

All over the country, public schools and public school teachers are working their butts off trying adapt their lessons and practices to the new Common Core Standards.  The basic idea (I suppose) is that if everyone is working towards the same Standards, then all students will be at equal levels of knowledge (or at least have the same minimum of information) when they are in the same grade.

To be completely honest, I'm not entirely sure what the point is because I haven't been paying attention to any of it.  It seems to me as though the goals and standards for what we are supposed to teach change every few years, so what's the point in adapting everything when it'll just be thrown out and replaced with something new soon.

"But these Common Core Standards are here to stay!"

Right.  Sure they are... Except in the states that have opted out and decided to create their own "Common" Core Standards, like Pennsylvania.  But I'm getting off topic.

I don't want to imply that I don't think there should be common standards, because I think we need them.  Something needs to unify us as a nation and, since we know that education can provide opportunities for people, why not make it that!

My argument is that we are not serious about "Standards."  If we were, I think it would require a complete revamping of how public schools were run.

We currently group students by age with VERY minor subdivisions based upon ability (read: effort).  If we consider that one of the purposes of school is to teach students about socialization, this makes a certain kind of sense.  On top of that, we don't want 17-year-olds in the same class as 11-year-olds for various reasons.  Beyond that, grouping students by age for academic purposes is nonsense.

If we are serious about having "Standards of academic progression" then we should stick to them.  Once a student has proven that they have successfully completed a Standard, they should be moved on and should not have to wait for an arbitrary period of time to finish.  Every teacher has encountered students who are able to move VERY quickly through the curriculum and, unless the district provides alternatives, or the teacher is very clever and proactive, these students become bored with school.

Why shouldn't that student be able to move on to the next level of learning when they have proven mastery of the Standards?  I mean, other than the logistical nightmare that it creates for districts.

Similarly, if a student is taking longer than their peers to master a standard, there should be no stigma in allowing them more time to work on it.  By grouping students by age, we create a false timeline in which students must complete a task or either be bored, or suffer the mental blow of thinking they are "stupid."  We KNOW that every student learns at a different pace, so why do we insist on grouping this way?  I mean, other than the logistical nightmare that it creates for the district.

If we are serious about having "Standards of academic progression" then we must allow students the freedom to move through them as quickly or as slowly as they need to.  Anyone who claims that we do has not been to a school that is experiencing pressure to graduate students "on time." 

Classes should not be a year long, or even a semester.  Classes should be broken down into smaller chunks that focus on specific skills or "Standards."  One might argue that they already are and that's what the 6th grade, 8th grade, etc. are.  In 8th grade, there are 28 different Standards.  (61 for 8th graders taking Algebra 1)  Should the students who master 20 of those by January REALLY be in a class with students who have mastered 2?  Both groups are not having their needs met.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg.

If we were serious about having "Standards of academic progression" then there would be no need for letter grades.  At all.  Report cards would be a collection of standards that students had yet to master with their level of proficiency of each standard.  Is this beginning to sound like "Standards-Based Grading"?  If you're a teacher and you don't know what that is (which I didn't 6 months ago), that's just another indication that we aren't serious about having "Standards."

Primary and secondary schools would begin to look more like colleges.  Students would progress through the curriculum at the pace that they could handle, either faster or slower depending on the student.  Students could, conceivably, be in 5th year math, 9th year history and 8th year English.  (Although they would be called something else.)

I realize that removing grade levels and academic letter grades would require a complete change to the education system, but it seems to me as those these are just some of the things would be needed to properly implement a series of "Standards."

Since none of that is happening, I am left (possibly erroneously) with the conclusion that the current system of "Standards" does not exist to help student reach their potential, or even identify which students are making adequate progress.  It seems to me that the Common Core State Standards exist for the sole purpose of holding SOMEONE accountable for the academic progression of students through an arbitrary time period.

It seems to me that the current system of "Standards" does not exist to monitor student progress through a curriculum, but to monitor teacher effectiveness to move those students, regardless of whatever other factors might be in place.

Again, I ask a simple question with a very complex answer:

What do we as a society see as the purpose of public education?

I don't have an answer to this.


  1. I tend to agree with nearly everything in this post -- ideally the educational system should be flexible enough to proactively react to the individualized needs of a student (regardless of their level of mastery). The problem, it seems, is finding a way to scale this to a level that cracks don't start to form, or at least when they do there is a standard response to how they are filled. Like a lot of things, it seems to come down to a type of economics -- there's a certain "supply" of educational capital, a fluxuating and unpredictable "demand" from millions of unique students, and essentially we've chosen a "command and control" economy to haphazardly deal with them both.

    This will probably come off cold-hearted or wrong in many ways, but I also think we've diluted ourselves (society-at-large, that is) that continued education is the right answer for EVERYONE. I strongly believe this is not the case - there are aptitudes and valuable skills that our school systems don't adequately address in my opinion, or at least don't adequately cater to. Instead I feel like we choke the system with students who really have no interest in learning the things we have deemed "important to know", instead of providing a controlled and productive outlet for whatever talents they do possess (even if said talent is "lifting heavy things from one location to another"). And believe me when I say that I believe EVERYONE has talents -- some are just not as easily recognized as such right away. We need to put more energy into determining that, vs. into arbitrarily defining what they ought to be.

    1. While I agree with your second point in the sense of "formal education," I'll disagree with it in terms of "education." Education can be anything that lets you think something today that you didn't think yesterday. It could be vocational, professional, academic, or personal and I think we should ALWAYS be striving for continued education.

      With that said, I agree that we shouldn't be pushing everyone towards college because not everyone should go.

      And, more importantly, not everyone needs to.

  2. I have little brakes that get slammed on in my mind whenever i think that we are equating coverage with teaching and learning. I really hear a little screeching sound and the words, "Whoa Nelly!"

    There is an impulse in the US educational system for radical individualization with the assumption that everybody learns at a different pace so this would be the best way to honor that. While there is truth to the idea, there is something that gets lost if we are all plugged into our own little iThings and never get to talk about ideas, never get to work out why you see something differently than me.

    To me, education is at its best when it is not simply about making sure the next generation masters the quadratic formula. It's at its best when it humanizes young people and allows them to engage in the history of ideas, develop a respect for different points of view, and recognize their own intellectual capacity. Why does the quadratic formula work? What kinds of questions does it answer? When would you decide to use it over, say, a graphical solution? Those are questions best answered with a group of students, together.

    The attempts I have seen in schools at radical individualization have often resulted in a few kids racing through the curriculum, never dwelling on ideas or making connections across topics or to other people's ways of thinking. On the other extreme are the kids who don't give a damn: they continue not to do so. Why engage in an activity that only further proves that they are slower and dumber than their peers?

    So while I agree that the one-size-fits-all approach is clearly broken, I think there are ways of individualizing that (1) keep kids together in ways that are enriching for everybody, and (2) normalize the different ways and rates people learn without stigmatizing or valorizing one over the other. It takes a skillful and socially attuned teacher to achieve that, but I have seen it done well.

    1. I don't want it to seem as though I am advocating this type of educational system. I am merely exploring what seems like the logical conclusion of having effective standards.

      With that said, I think there is value in teaching conformity as well. We should be teaching students to be Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, etc. but we need to also prepare them for the possibility that that won't happen. Regardless of how hard we try, we will have some students who become drones and low-level employees.

      We should teach them to aspire to more, but give them the skills needed in the event that they don't reach it.

  3. I think you've hit the nail on the head with the question "what is the purpose of public education?"

    Standards-based teaching/testing looks to me like a really convenient way to provide a function from the students to the real numbers (possibly a vector), so that you can sort them. That appears extremely useful to colleges and employers, who can then set arbitrary cut-offs to decide who to admit, and to parents who can proudly assert their children's ratings as evidence of how smart their kids are and how good their parenting is.

    It's not clear to me that the function has a particularly good correlation to anyone's ability to be a good college student or employee, though (unless, of course, the next step on the path involves meeting arbitrary standards).

    For me, a first stab at an answer: education should be about allowing students to excel in the areas they're good at, develop competence in the areas they find difficult, and to foster an attitude of inquisitiveness towards the world around them.

    End ramble ;)


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