If you are in the Education profession, you have been awash in various initiatives about Standards. Whether it’s the Common Core (a set of standards for math and english adopted by many states) or the NECAP’s (a narrowly focused student test being used to judge student, teacher and school performance), the idea of Standards Based teaching and learning is being presented as “this new way of teaching”.
Wikipedia boldly claims:
“Standards are an evolution of the earlier OBE (outcomes-based education) which was largely rejected in the United States as unworkable in the 1990s, and is still being implemented by some and abandoned by other governments”
But in reality, it’s been a staple of education for centuries, it’s schools that have come full circle back to it.
But what exactly is it?
It might help at this point to consider a very broad concept of teaching at learning.
Perhaps the most ancient process of teaching and learning is the apprenticeship. The master would be a practitioner of some skill, let’s say shoeing horses. He was able to do this to a certain skill level. The apprentice would learn from the master this skill, but practicing and feedback until he too was able to perform it to that level.
Let’s consider some more modern examples, like learning to drive, or playing basketball. In each case the situation is the same as the apprenticeship. The learner is developing a skill (or a standard) to a particular benchmark.
The idea of a benchmark is quickly worth looking at. A standard will describe a skill or understanding. The benchmark describes to what level of sophistication it is demonstrated. Sometimes it’s perfectly OK to shoot for a benchmark that is unattainable. A middle school basketball player tries to play like Michael Jordan, but he won’t be crushed with disappointment to realize he shoots more like his 8th grade team mate.
It would seem like this is a sound approach to teaching and learning. But, a quick look at the historical purpose of schools might show us that the primary goal perhaps was not primarily to learn in this fashion, it was to sort children.
This video might help understand that idea.
But Why Now?
With handwringing over American children’s poor performance in international tests and repeated legislative efforts to “increase rigor”, now schools have returned full circle to this old idea of defining skills and knowledge as standards and trying to shift classroom practices to be “standards-based”.
There is a problem though.
The systems, practices and habits in most schools and classrooms are still focused on a more historical model of teaching and learning. So, there is a disconnect, a tension between the intentions and goals of the teacher and the limitation they find themselves restricted by.
One of this biggest of these is in assessment and grading. If you want to be a standards based teacher, you have to practicing standards-based assessment. More than any single thing, this is a critical shift that has to happen to be successful in a 21st Century classroom.
To finish with, here is a quick litmus test to see how far along that shift a classroom might be.
“Letterman’s” Top Signs you don’t have a Standards-Based Classroom
The Last Week Crunch
Towards the end of a course students realize they are failing and engage in a last minute frenzy to get assignments done. They are rushed, poor quality and out of sequence. How can they master a standard in just the last few days?
A letter grade provides no useful feedback on how to improve. “It simply cannot adequately summarize all of the complex learning involved in a course of study” (Stiggins 1994). Additionally, the cutoff points of these grades are arbitrary How can the “70” of one student be the same as the “79” of another (i.e. a B), yet totally different to the “69” of a third, just one point away.
Variations in Grading
Different teachers choose to contribute different things (effort, content, attendance etc) towards a letter grade, making hte inconsistant and unhelpful. (Robinson and Craver 1989)
Students are promoted from grade to grade based on their age and focussed efforts to have them “pass” classes (see Last Week Crunch) as opposed to promotion being based on mastery of standards.
The Cumulative Assumption
For a student to “pass” they must accumulate (for a 70% pass grade example) 70 “units” of learning out of 100. What makes up those units is wildly arbitrary and different for each subject and each classroom and ultimately, rarely grounded in demonstration. Marzano and Kendall 1996)
If a student takes a quiz and does not do well, can they retake it at no penalty? Does this assess the standard or how long it takes to reach a standard? Does your driving license tell readers how many times it took you to pass?
If work is handed in late, are points “taken off”. What is being assessed by the grade the work gets?
So What is Standards-Based Teaching and Learning?
Quite simply, it is clearly defining and describing a performance benchmark of a skill or understanding, and then using a system of grading/assessment that provides useful feedback to the learner to help them meet and demonstrate that benchmark.
One common stumbling block is the problem that traditional gradebooks and school grading software is firmly entrenched in a historical model. Check out newer standards-based gradebooks like JumpRope to find one that will help rather than hinder.