What the Standards-Based Movement Got Wrong

We can modernize academic standards with three simple questions

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I was just getting started as a teacher when the standards-based movement in education began in the 1980s, and it seemed like the right direction for our profession. By the late 1990s, it felt like every conference or workshop I attended had a strand on standards-based instruction—backward design using standards, "unpacking" the standards, "unwrapping" the standards, identifying the "power" standards.

The state language-arts standards seemed appropriate for my students: Analyze literary texts. Ensure sentence-verb agreement. Decode vocabulary words. Comprehend informational texts like the VCR manual (yes, really). Write persuasive essays. Meanwhile, teammates in other disciplines taught the contributions of famous scientists, history of world civilizations, and parts of cells. State committees spent hours precisely wording each standard to get them just right.

And then, it all went wrong.


As we saw an increasing push through No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s to assess student performance on every standard, the accountability movement took the standards-based push in a very ugly direction. In the decades since, the additional pressures of value-added models in teacher evaluation; school rankings and letter grades; and the high-stakes of "failing," "turnaround," and "takeover" schools made a bad situation worse.

The idea that learning should be designed with a clear goal was, and still is, a good one. No wonder we all liked it. Who wants to be aimless? But basing lessons on lists of knowledge and skills, then measuring those skills to death for 13 years in discrete pieces that never seem to thread back together into any recognizable meaningful whole? That idea backfired on us.

And it's time, as educators, that we say so. As master practitioners in this field, we should sound the alarm that standards and accountability movements have distracted everyone from a future coming fast and an education system unready for it.

To uneducators—those who do not know our work and don't support it (I'm looking at you, politicians)—the list of discrete, fairly easily measured pieces of knowledge and skills for each school subject must feel comforting. Accountability looks easy when the "stuff to know" is clearly outlined, aligned in neat tables by grade level.

"We should sound the alarm that standards and accountability movements have distracted everyone from a future coming fast and an education system unready for it."

Only those of us who have spent our lives (including every summer) analyzing themes, connections, research, applications, facts, skills, resources, and nuanced ways to demonstrate learning can cry foul about the restrictions of the standards movement. As educators, we know it is past time for us to free learning from this constraining cocoon of regulatory nonsense.

The world is complex; problems do not come packaged simply. Only practice with complexity can provide the experience our children need to survive in the unpredictable world ahead—a future of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, global climate change, a growing understanding of the universe, and shifting geopolitical powers.

As for academic standards, we made this all too hard. We organized curricula based on content and skills when we should have focused on what people do with that content. What do humans need to survive in a world undergoing rapid, continuous change? They must creatively generate, connect, organize, communicate, and act upon ideas. Perhaps most importantly of all, they must integrate new information to change their ideas.

Instead of all our current learning standards, I propose three simple questions to drive our instruction every minute of every day in every school. For every lesson we teach our students, they should be able to answer the following:

1. What are the most important ideas here and why?

2. How can I communicate these ideas to others?

3. How can I solve this problem?

We would still begin with the ends in mind—just different ends. Now the Pythagorean theorem, process of mummification in ancient Egypt, punctuation mark usage, and phonemic awareness become the inputs to this far more important, simplified set of three guiding questions. Whether we teach in 50-minute courses packed into 180 seven-hour days with a break for lunch or organize lessons for the kind of flow that is best for knowledge workers—it should be framed around these asks. Imagine how that will sharpen focus for educators and their students.

Picture greeting students on day one (or parents at Back to School Night) and saying, "In algebra this year, we will look at a wide variety of problems, identify what's important about them, learn how to solve them, and communicate our thinking."

How would our standardized tests look if we let these three simple questions guide all learning? Different. How would we grade them? Differently. But rather than let those tests dictate how professionals design education, we should turn the tables over and insist on meaningful ends for teaching and learning. Let the tests adapt, as tests should.

Movements create change, but as the world that spawned them keeps changing, every movement becomes obsolete. We're no longer teaching students how to comprehend the manual to hook up their VCRs. That makes no sense in today's world. Our charts of skills and knowledge divided for every discipline are not designed for a world where convergence matters and where complex problems demand creative interdisciplinary solutions. It's time to simplify our standards with a more complex end in mind.

Vol. 37, Issue 14, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: November 29, 2017, as We Made This Too Hard
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