The Problem (and What's Right) with Standards

Actually, the only problem with standards is loading them with an unrealistic expectation.  Many systems around the country (Seattle and Duval County, FL, come to mind) are relying on clearly expressed standards to improve student achievement.  

Standards, and the setting of standards, can be a useful exercise.  But, as Philip Daro has said, we already have standards, and students know what they are.  He points out that our standards are whatever it takes to get a "B" in Ms. So-in-so's room.  Unless our approaches to raising expectations, allowing teachers to improve effectiveness, engaging students, and energizing parents and the community recognize, accept, and build on the real sources of power in any school system, they are doomed to failure.

External standards will not make teachers more effective, especially if teachers are not part of the process of developing those standards.  Just adopting or publishing standards will not cause students to engage or energize the community.  And, efforts to hold teachers accountable for producing student outcomes consistent with adopted standards are doomed to failure because they ignore a very real and important power in any school system.  Here is the way one scholar has expressed this problem:

Some ideas make too much sense. One is the idea that we can improve schools by holding them accountable for the right outcomes.  This is the idea behind the work of the National Goals Panel, behind  various proposals to institute national testing systems, behind many states' school restructuring plans, and behind most district superintendents'  reform and improvement efforts. It even plays a role within schools themselves, being the idea that grips many principals preparing for next year, and at least some teachers preparing for next week.

It is a good idea, inasmuch as it seeks to reorient schools from a focus on their own smooth running to a focus on kids' learning.1 The problem is that its intuitive appeal may distract us from its inherent dilemmas. This is especially so given the public policy habits that haunt us: our tendency to privilege perspectives at the top of whatever policy chain we think we are dealing with, and our tendency to discount the practical powers vested in what we take to be the chain's links. We fool ourselves into thinking that these practical powers are the inconsequential noise of an otherwise predictable mechanism: the buzz of a hierarchy passing down the word, the hum of a market mechanism sorting out the winners. The effect is a great seepage of policy effort and, in the case of school reform, recurrent cycles of failure.2 Meanwhile, we cheapen our own sense of what it means to acquire or elaborate the vision behind worthwhile goals, to wield power effectively, to respond predictably within a complex system, and to undergo real change rather than some convenient imitation of it.

"Dilemmas of Planning Backwards" by Joseph McDonald


Or, read this account of the application of research on motivation and creativity to the school setting.  "Deci" in this piece is Edward Deci, Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester.  This passage is from "Gold Star Junkies", which I highly recommend in its entirety.  (Don't assume you know how it will end from this passage, or from the way it begins.  It is a thoughtful, careful piece of writing.)

According to Deci and other researchers, educators react to the carrot-and-stick approach much the same way as students do, losing interest in work that would otherwise be inherently satisfying. That portends trouble for the standards and accountability systems being fashioned today.

"The more we focus on teachers getting students to perform up to standards—and that's exactly what we're doing now—the worse they'll do as teachers," Deci claimed. "They'll talk more, coerce more. These are destructive behaviors, but they're what some people think make a good teacher."

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, a former student of Mark Lepper's who has devoted a long and prominent career to studying the relationship between motivation and creativity, cites a 1975 study that serves as a kind of object lesson about the impact of rewards on teaching. A number of 5th and 6th grade girls were asked to teach a task to 1st and 2nd grade girls. Some tutors were promised a free movie ticket if their charges learned well; the others were promised nothing. Amabile summarized the results in her 1996 text, Creativity in Context: "The rewarded tutors held sessions that were high- pressured and businesslike, while the nonrewarded tutors held sessions that were relaxed yet highly efficient....Moreover, the rewarded sessions were marked by more demands from the tutors, more negative evaluative statements by the tutors, less laughter, and poorer learning by the learners."

So, what's right with standards?  

  • As suggested in the passages above, they can be a great focus for the discussion of student learning that needs to go on, both within schools, and between schools and the community.  They can give us a vocabulary for those conversations.  And, by setting them out explicitly and in some detail, we can look for "holes" in our own expectations for students and address them.  The process of setting and reviewing standards should be ongoing.  

  • They can be the basis for school-level goals and rewards.
  • They can most assuredly be the basis for evaluating the Director and the performance of the overall system.

But, bottom line, like an athlete focused too tightly on the consequences of her actions, too tight a focus on "standards" from a testing, accountability standpoint at the teacher level can be counterproductive.  If teachers are focused on teaching, if the conversation in schools focuses around student engagement and real, robust learning, and if the community is committed to and involved with our schools, the results will not only meet, but, I am convinced, exceed our expectations.  We'll be surprised and amazed at how excellent our schools are.  And that's the real standard.

(On January 11, 2000, the Board approved a contract with the National School Conference Institute for a professional development project with 24 schools.  Much of the development work was to be provided by the Center for Performance Assessment, with all schools receiving a copy of Making Standards Work by Douglas Reeves and various types of seminars and consultations with Dr. Reeves and members of the Center Staff.)

The Mismeasure of Learning by Lauren Resnick