Teaching Opinion

Competing Values in Education Make Real Transformation Challenging

By Starr Sackstein — July 31, 2018 11 min read
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Recently I watched a Ted Talk by Sir Ken Robinson where he quoted a line from his text The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything about education reform. He said, “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed -- it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” Since he was able to articulate something I agree with strongly, I see it as a good starting point. As I dove into Sergiovanni’s text and reflected on my own work with assessment, I felt the constant strain that he speaks of.

Since compulsory education is a part of the public construct, it is our obligation to both meet the needs of the students as well as satisfy the public interest. Unfortunately, the primary ideals presented are in constant conflict with each other. Much like trying to plug a crack in a dam, once one hole is plugged, another one inevitably appears which goes directly back to Ken Robinson’s statement, reform is not enough. We must truly transform the system in order to better educate students for this world we live in now.

Sergiovanni speaks to four main competing values, not giving priority to anyone. The first being equity, which “means fairness in sharing the resources available for schooling. This educational value corresponds to a general societal value honoring fair play and equal opportunity” (8). He goes on to discuss how fair isn’t always equal and this is so when we think about educational policies addressing differentiation for students with special needs be them students with learning challenges or giftedness. Additionally, when we consider the way we assess student learning, it is impossible to apply any one standardized test as there is nothing equal about what those tests actually show or who has access to truly gaming them.

Each child deserves the right to be seen for what he or she is capable of doing with the absence of labels to define that growth. If equity truly drove assessment, each child would be able to show what he or she knows in a way that best worked. Unfortunately, when the Common Core was originally implemented (as poorly as it was), it had less to do with the student learning and more to do with corporations making money and making efficiency a higher priority that equity.

If we focus too heavily of course on fulfilling our need and desire to be equitable to all students, then we inevitably trounce on the other values. Those values being efficiency, choice, and excellence. Efficiency is all about getting the best bang for the buck. How can schools’ demonstrate and run with the greatest efficiency? And this is where standardization and unification would be key. The whole idea of standardized assessment is creating a means to which we can efficiently judge student learning through one single lens that evens the playing field. If all students are assessed by the same standards, then we can easily judge how well the teaching and learning are coming. Or can we?

One of my greatest concerns about standardization is that it doesn’t account for different needs and/or learning styles. Instead, it tries to make all children the same. Of course, we all know that no two children are in fact the same, so this becomes problematic. Yet, we continue to create policies like No Child Left Behind which increases accountability and mandates testing on every level, offering little in the way of actual equity. Not every school is created equal.

Resources aren’t given the same way, especially in districts like mine where the taxes are lower and the socio-economic status of the community is lower. And we also can’t discount the fact that so many of the students are new to the English language. Although there are supports provided for some students on some of these tests, what kind of education are we actually providing if all we care about is how well they do on the tests?

Where in life do tests drive the way the world runs?

Once we see the challenges efficiency then places on equity, we can also see how choice, as a core value, becomes problematic. Of course, choice does run more aligned with the idea of equity, especially in terms of assessment practices because we can invite more choice into how students are actually assessed. Sergiovanni shows choice as an ideal that schools seek to hold onto, but systematically seem to lose as more and more state and federal decisions are made. It is impossible to fight against the state in terms of how we assess students, particularly as they define what graduation requirements are.

Again, as we look to assessment here, state testing becomes central in how student learning is assessed and if schools can’t be in charge locally of what performance indicators are, then we become handcuffed to mandates that begin to control how and what we teach and for what end. If we truly want to make lifelong learners with a growth mindset, learning needs to be tied less to state, standardized assessments, even if those are allowed to have accommodations and more to authentic learning experiences created by the classroom teacher and normed within the schools. Choice can then play a bigger role in assessment in terms of portfolio and other means of bringing student choice and voice into the assessment mix.

Equity can work nicely with choice in terms of teaching students to self-monitor and goal-set as well help teachers provided personalized learning plans that better meet the needs of every student. And if a school district has the ability to have more control over determining what outcomes successfully reach graduation requirements, the more readily schools would be able to implement these plans.

Choice does, of course, create additional challenges with efficiency as well because the more choice you offer, the harder it is to uniformly discern mastery. It also puts different requirements on different educators, which brings us to the fourth value and in my opinion often the hardest to show and define as it means different things to different people.

Excellence, Sergiovanni asserts “is the most difficult to define. This difficulty stems in part from the political rhetoric with which the word excellence is used by specific interest groups who favor one or another of the other values. Advocates of equity, for example, are quick to define excellence in terms of an educational program’s ability to respond to the issues of fair access and opportunity that they consider important” (11).

Excellence is more nebulous. Each group that values one of the other core values will define it in a way that suits their needs. In terms of assessment, excellence can be defined as mastery and if we take a standards based approach to assessment, then students can be brought into the fold. Proponents for standard grading systems would prefer a focus on efficiency which is why averages and grading has such a stronghold on the educational process. It also satisfies the needs to universally communicate success even if the grade itself isn’t doing that. Excellence then becomes harder to define as well because we are in fact looking at students and considering competencies differently. We can value what students know and can do in the ways they do it best and still consider the value of excellence being espoused.

Many of the conversations I’ve had with colleagues over the years as it pertains to assessment and grading policies and standards has run this circular route. Much like the competing interests of those who advocate for any one of the four values more vociferously. As an advocate for student learning using their own choice and voice to authentically grow their skills, my beliefs have run right into those who would advocate for efficiency. Since I believe that portfolios, reflection, student goals and feedback against particular standards to be the best way to assess students over a period of time, I’ve had many teachers push back because of time. English teachers have a particularly challenging job on the secondary level because of the amount of writing that is done and how difficult it is to objectively assess the writing.

It’s not just in English though. Perhaps too often in education, we try to hard to fit learning into right and wrong when it is so much more nuanced that than. Education is complex and as there are so many different people fighting to control it, it seems that the students and the teachers are the ones who suffer the most. As the public is trusting schools less and less and America is sliding down in the world’s educational leaders, there seems to be a higher demand to create more federal policies that seek to standardize and normalize the process. The Common Core Standards sought to do just that.

Although I don’t have an issue with the standards themselves as most teachers are teaching and assessing these skills all the time. Not to mention the fact that they place value on teaching literacy across content which is necessary. The real problem with what happened to the Common Core is how they were implemented.

In New York, and particularly in New York City, we were in a pilot school. Basically what it meant to be a part of the roll out of the Common Core was more testing. It seemed that big data had hijacked assessment and didn’t give teachers the appropriate training to help students be successful in the way the companies were defining success. The tests were flawed, not the standards and here again, we see competing interests in terms of efficiency and equity.

What I’m learning about education as it currently exists is that money controls much of how education happens and the money isn’t always coming from people who have a vested interest in the best learning experiences for students. Some administrators have their hearts in the right place, but are often tied to testing numbers which ultimately ties the hands of the teachers who feel like they must teach to the test. This year, I asked my department how they would feel about giving up midterms in classes that weren’t terminating in a state exam. Many of my teachers feared that if students didn’t have more practice sitting for these style of assessments they wouldn’t be successful. Sadly, I did agree, but I was outnumbered and I’m new.

As I am now in the position to help start making real change at the district level while still having to adhere to the state requirements, I find myself wanting to focus most on the good instruction that allows teachers choice and more importantly allows students to have more than a little control over how and what they learn. Locally, we can define our grading policies, even if the state requires a level of efficiency and excellence in terms of proficiency in specific areas.

If we are ever going to be able to compete with other countries, we need to reevaluate our values and focus more heavily on what students need. Although it is probably unpopular to say, judging learning institutions on any given body of tests doesn’t adequately show the learning that happens. How we define successful schools needs to be transformed. Thinking like Sir Ken Robinson, we need to stop trying so hard to reform a system that is so badly damaged, merely trying to fix small pieces of it, but go bigger into a transformation that considers the individual needs of the people involved so that equity can be achieved.

What I’ve learned about assessment over the years is that no two children learn the same way or have the exact same interests. We have a moral obligation as educators to present students with opportunities for learning that challenges their beliefs, encourages them to take risks and helps them prepare for success in the world they live in which is different than the one each of us was educated in.

Although I was quite successful in my schooling, it was largely because of my ability to game the system. Not all students possess that ability and they shouldn’t. If we prize actual learning over mere compliance, then students will be pushed in a way that makes sense to each of them and teachers will be able to inspire learning. If we define success is broader terms of mastery, then we can agree about multiple pathways to achieve it.

As I continue to grow in my new position, I’m learning the value of building the relationships and trying to understand what different stakeholders want and need so that I can better communicate what we need to do in a way they can hear it. Although I may not be able to challenge state assessments yet in NY, I know that there are alternative pathways and assessments for some students and I also know that there are schools exempted from the state tests.

Knowing that these possibilities exist help me feel like equity may be able to be achieved without ruffling the feathers of advocates for choice and/or excellence. The two that seem to be in inextricable conflict with each other is equity and efficiency as you can’t give everyone what he or she needs while also trying to standardize for the sake of ease.

Although I do agree, for example, that grading is the most efficient way to assess students using multiple choice tests and averaging those assessments to communicate learning, I don’t believe that in doing so, students are actually learning enough and the communication about what students know and can do is flawed as it is only showing one small aspect of the process. We have to do better. Students deserve it.

So how do we please everyone in this scenario? I guess the takeaway is that we can’t.


Sergiovanni, T. J. (2009). Educational governance and administration(6th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn.

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