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Making Sense of Standards

September 14, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

Standards are in many ways the skeleton of a modern academic subject. They are the structure of knowledge and skills that underlie course development and lesson design. Day-to-day instruction, full-fledged curricula, and strong classroom assessments animate that skeleton and bring education to life, but they are organized around standards.

It's easy to criticize standards. They're too numerous; we can't cover all of them in time. They're too restrictive; we want to be able to explore beyond the prescribed content. They're too X; tooY.

In practice, the strengths and weaknesses of standards come out in how teachers are expected to use them. The MCAs don't explicitly test standards outside of math, reading, or science, and they only test a subsection of those standards. Tested standards are often identified as “power standards,” the ones that are most reliably on the test (and therefore the ones to which a test-focused system must pay the most attention).

When these tests are heavily emphasized in state and federal education policy, administrators and teachers feel the pressure. What about the standards that don't get tested? In English/Language Arts for example, writing isn't tested outside the perfunctory GRAD Writing test, most of the higher-order reading and literature skills are rarely tested, and research skills aren't tested at all. Standards that aren't measured tend to drop in priority.

In non-tested subjects, the questions are different. Absent any focusing “power standards,” teachers must use their discretion in prioritizing which knowledge and skills are most important to their students' long-term success. This, of course, assumes that administration or other teachers aren't pressuring them into attempting full “coverage” of standards at a fixed rate. Emphasizing coverage is a ticket to shallow learning in the hands of all but the most effective teachers.

Consider the 2004 social studies standards (in effect until a revision projected for the near future is implemented). The standards are organized into strands, sub-strands, standards, and benchmarks. A typical standard contains 1-3 benchmarks, each of which could potentially be multiple lessons (depending on period length, student readiness, etc.).

A typical benchmark, for example, is the following: “Students will understand the post-war economic boom and its impact on demographic patterns, role of labor, and multinational corporations.” This is unlikely to be satisfactorily “covered” in 45 minutes. Students might take notes on it in that time, but actual understanding requires rather more time and effort.

Social studies contains six strands for grades 9-12: “US History,” “World History,” “Historical Skills,” “Geography,” “Economics,” and “Government and Citizenship”.

In the 9-12 “US History” strand, there are 56 benchmarks spread amongst 30 standards, generally taught in a single yearlong course. “World History” also has 30 standards, but those are split into 82 benchmarks on such easily “covered” topics as, “Students will explain how international conditions contributed to the creation of Israel and analyze why persistent conflict exists in the region.” If you can bring students to a full understanding of that in 45 minutes, get yourself into a classroom, or apply for a job with the State Department.

Notice that the benchmarks described so far are not the stereotypical names-and-dates history standards. The post-war boom benchmark requires significant conceptual understanding, and the Israel benchmark requires not just understanding but analytical skill.

Keep in mind also that, for most teachers, the standards are of little inherent worth for their students. (The only major exceptions to this are 9th and 10th grade English and 11th grade math teachers, whose students depend on the GRAD tests embedded in the MCAS for graduation.) If you're a high school social studies teacher, this material is only as meaningful as you make it.

As a result, many teachers need to organize their courses around a concrete vision for how their work will lead their students to a meaningful big goal like college readiness or a large, comprehensive end of year project in which students are heavily invested.

Standards for the sake of standards only work in the most cooperative classrooms, a general rarity. Especially in high-need schools, where students have plenty of other non-school factors disrupting their lives in significant ways, the “We just need to do this,” pitch doesn't work too well.

This is where administration plays a major role in how teachers use standards. Pressure to “cover” everything is common, but undercuts the teacher's effectiveness. Total autonomy is fine for some teachers, but newer or struggling teachers benefit most from an active support structure.

While Minnesota proceeds through continuous revision of its standards, and as testing continues to play a more significant role in how teachers and schools are evaluated, it is up to us to challenge policymakers and administrators on how they're using standards. As a structural guide, they can be helpful. Absent supported freedom, however, standards can lead to poor teaching as a result of fear-based compliance techniques (either from the state or the administrator).

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