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Mistakes in a Standards-Based Approach

Reflecting on the past few years, there are many things I've seen or heard schools doing that make it challenging for teachers, students, and families to grasp the benefits of a standards-based approach.

The image below lists five mistakes I've not just experienced as a classroom teacher but have talked about with way too many educators over the years for these to only be things happening in one school or another.

The first mistake involves using a curriculum that list standards for lessons but is used the same as previous editions of the same material. This means that a school might want to adopt a standards-based approach and purchase from their current publishing company a whole new set of textbooks that are "standards-based". Unfortunately, it is common for schools to purchase the materials without the training leaving teachers to figure out the revised curriculum on their own. This often results in a lack of understanding as to why the standards were added since the resources can be used exactly as they always have been in the past.

The second mistake involves schools who require their teaching staff to write standards on their board in their classrooms even when students are rarely expected to interact with the displayed standards. The purpose of displaying the standard being taught is to help students to know what the expectation for learning is that day. Unfortunately, students are not always coached on how to use the displayed standards in a way that helps them in any way resulting in a common perception that it is simply an oversight measure for the administration. For me, personally, I would not expect all of my students to be learning exactly the same concepts at the same time, at the same rate, in the same way, so the expectation itself may involve standards but is not necessarily an effective practice that promotes a self-directed learning environment.

The third mistake has to do with defining mastery as recall or reproduction of information even when a standard requires strategic reasoning and evidence. Many teachers are familiar with Norman Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK) but few have been expected to associate DOK with specific academic standards in and across grade levels. Some standards do only require that students be able to recall a fact or procedure for that the student to be considered proficient in that standard. However, many standards require strategic reasoning and evidence, a depth that may require a student build toward over time starting with basic recall of information, followed by a simple statement of understanding for the desired concept, until they are ready to provide evidence for their statement of understanding in a way that strategically presents that understanding to their peers in a relevant and meaningful way.

The fourth mistake is when schools rely on points-based rubrics and percentages to

communicate student mastery over groups of standards. When a student has mastered some concepts and struggling with others, they might have received all of the points on some assignments and only some points on others, resulting in a final score for a unit that simply averages their progress across those different standards. Unfortunately, the student who tells their family they got a 'B' or a '2' in math (or perhaps in the math domain, Algebraic Thinking) the student may not know how to communicate which standards they have not yet mastered, or on which standards they have shown proficiency. This makes it difficult for their family to help their child in the particular areas they need the most assistance, conceptually. This also makes it difficult for their next year's teacher to know which gaps may need to be addressed prior to that next grade level's academic expectations can be fully grasped.

The fifth mistake is when schools send home a standards-based report card without first

creating a shared language and understanding of its practices. This one is for the teachers as much as it is for the parents. Teachers who are using a points-based or task-completion system for reporting student progress, the school may be trying to communicate an effective standards-based reporting of proficiency but the teachers may simply be communicating their students' percentage of correct answers averaged over the many assignments in that reporting period. Parents who are receiving a standards-based report card from a teacher who is not necessarily using a standards-based approach to instruction, assessment, grading, or reporting may not be getting a reasonable or relevant reporting of their child's progress. In such cases, the traditional reporting process is repackaged as a standards-based report card without actually providing effective communication of a student's progress in the standards addressed in a reporting period.

What can be done?

It has not only been very possible but has been surprisingly common for schools to adopt a standards-based approach without having to change much, if any, of their traditional beliefs and behaviors about teaching and learning.

It's like Schimmer says in his book, Grading from the Inside Out, about the gap that must be fully crossed where we no longer rely on ineffective traditional practices of the 20th century. As some who believes that my goal as an educator is to develop self-directed learners ready for a self-directed world, I wholly support Schimmer's message.

But that gap isn't just about knowing what's on the other side well enough to take the leap. Individual educators are humans, and behavior change in a school full of adult humans takes more than a single presentation on the larger idea for a standards-based approach.

It requires coaching in ways that address our individual readiness to adopt and adapt various beliefs and behaviors. It requires we reflect how our beliefs and behaviors are reflected in the larger culture and climate of the school. It requires acknowledging that there may not actually be a shared language, or shared understanding for what a school's culture actually, objectively, definitively is.

So when a school mandates a change to a standards-based approach, that mandate often reflects an even larger culture and climate for how decisions are made and any expected power dynamics for a predefined hierarchical government structure - all of which can put pressure on the power dynamics in the classrooms of that school in that district.

To change a system like this, to fully adopt and adapt a standards-based approach, it requires that we acknowledge how much pressure may be felt - to what degree, from what heights, etc. - and to go into such change knowing that the pressure will be felt differently, and sometimes randomly, across a school or organization, and that individuals will respond differently to that inequitable distribution of pressure from such structural change.

This also requires that we recognize the value in a system designed to maintain the status-quo that it can be so difficult to change. Once a standards-based approach is fully adopted and adapted, and it becomes part of the new status-quo, the system will serve to protect it as strongly as it has long protected the last hundred years of traditional practices.

This all starts with recognizing whether a school has actually fully adopted and adapted a standards-based approach, or whether they are still evolving, still nudging, and whether it is time to make the leap, to fully commit to an effective 21st-century standards-based approach that builds on what has worked over the last several decades and officially leaves behind the ineffective teaching practices of the 20th century.

And yet, it is my belief that this standards-based approach serves as only one primary concept out of three that must be incorporated into this structural change to education. If we intend to develop in our students an ownership over their learning and create a self-directed learning environment in our schools, we must also approach standards with a social-emotional lens and a developmental mindset that accounts for the individual ebb-and-flow of growth over time. These concepts I explore more deeply in my book Creating a Self-Directed learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social-Emotional Learning (Corwin, 2019).

Greg Mullen

June 21, 2022


To speak with me more about this particular topic, or the ideas in my book Creating a Self-Directed learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social-Emotional Learning (Corwin, 2019), you can book a brief consultation to go over ideas and ask questions directly.

You might also find interest in setting up an SDS Coaching Program designed to help teachers reflect on their practices in ways that shift from traditional behaviorist practices to a more "self-directed" learning environment for staff and students.

Be sure to check out the #SelfDirectedLearner Hoodie on my Shop page! Quantities and sizes do run low at times so feel free to reach out with specific inquiries. Thank you for your support!

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