Standards Opinion

Standards and Variation

By Elliot Washor & Charles Mojkowski — September 13, 2005 8 min read
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    “So between odd and the same, you got to be rooting for odd.”
    —Adam Sandler, in the movie “Spanglish”

“We are in an Age of High Standard Deviation.”
—Tom Peters, in his book Re-Imagine!

Here’s a true story about standards. A young, talented, and recognized artist and potter—let’s call her Chicky—moved from London to the SoHo district of New York City and opened a pottery store to display and sell her creations. One day, an agitated customer entered the store to return a set of dishes purchased only a few days before. The customer demanded her money back because all the plates and cups weren’t exactly the same. Chicky reacted in disbelief. “Look,” she said, “that’s the point. Handmade pottery pieces aren’t the same because they are handmade. If you wanted them all to be the same, you should have gone to another store and bought manufactured china.” The customer couldn’t be mollified; she wanted identical plates and cups. Chicky returned her money and took back the dishes.


And so it is with our dilemma over educational standards. Some educators want all the plates to be the same, while others feel that standards are best reached by having them different and handmade. Both groups see standards as the best way for ensuring that children who traditionally have not been well served by their schools will be guaranteed the opportunity to acquire knowledge, skills, and dispositions that the world truly values. But they look at standards very differently.

One common understanding of standards in the real world is as a benchmark of quality or performance, a yardstick of excellence. Many educators, however, appear to be concerned less about quality or excellence than about setting arbitrary benchmarks of adequacy, uniformly applied across all students in the interests of equity.

We prefer to think about standards as Chicky would: that standards of quality cannot be standardized, and that they must be connected to the real world in which the performance is relevant. It is in the variations of a standard—not its standardization—that real-world learning takes place and the benefits to all learners, and to society, are to be found. The variations of a standard are also where real-world accountability is set and where, as scholars such as the Yale University psychologist Robert J. Sternberg recommend, students’ background, experience, and multiple intelligences—analytical, practical, and creative—are taken into account.

And so we ask: Why can’t there be various ways to demonstrate quality within a standard? Why can’t there be variations of a standard itself? How could variation of a standard and variation in addressing a standard actually lead to high-quality performance for all kids?

To answer such questions, educators should first examine variation and its relationship to standards. The two live in harmony in the real world. Look around.

In medicine, Dr. Harmon Eyre, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, says, “Gross recommendations for everyone in society is a very crude approach. The more we can individualize these recommendations, the better off we’ll be.” Our medical-care system uses technology to vary its interventions for each patient to achieve high-quality care.

In psychology, even the well-established Jungian personality-type measures fail to capture the essence of our individuality. Personality types are not easily identified. As Jung himself said, “Every individual is an exception to the rule.” Assessments need to be responsive to the complexity and variability of the human personality over time.

Why can’t there be various ways to demonstrate quality within a standard? Why can’t there be variations of a standard itself?

In business, Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author of Blink and TheTipping Point, recounts the story of how the makers of Pepsi discovered that there is no one perfect Pepsi everyone likes. The company now makes lots of different varieties of its soft drink to appeal to consumers with different tastes. There is a plural nature to perfection. Variation sells.

In the arts, Duke Ellington famously told us, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” He understood that a standard melody could be played in one’s own distinctive way. It was a rebellion against the formulaic music and cult of automation that characterized his era.

In service, people and organizations strive to stand out, reaching for high quality while constantly nonconforming. “We nonconform to your highest standards,” asserts an ad for Renaissance Hotels. The emphasis is on providing customers with a highly personalized service.

If variability in achieving high standards makes the world go round, educators need to think more about how they can introduce variation, rather than standardization, into their standards-based work. The standards that lead to success in most facets of life usually emerge from deep engagement with the world to which those standards relate. Yet when standards are set solely by panels of distant experts, the real-world experiences of students, teachers, and the public are often bypassed.

The prevailing focus in education—all kids meeting the same standards in the same way at the same time and demonstrated in the same manner—is giving standards a bad name. Moreover, state policymakers often act as if standardized tests are not a test of real-world standards at all. Not only do the standards vary across states, but policymakers also have been known to lower their standards when large numbers of students fail to meet them. Such behavior sends the wrong message to students, educators, and the public, and jeopardizes their respect for both standards and variation.

What might a partnership between standards and variation look like? How could education develop the synchronicity between the two that the rest of the world enjoys? Our reading of the signals from real-world examples suggests six ways of employing variation to help every student learn and work at high standards.

Allow students to craft their own portfolio of standards. While some requirements might be necessary in literacy and numeracy, work-readiness, community, and personal development, could we not allow each student to create a personalized learning plan addressed to content standards that matter to him or her? Sameness does not produce equity. The use of multiple definitions of student success and multiple measures to assess student learning is essential to achieving equitable schools.

Encourage variation in the problem or task. Allow each student to bring his or her interests and passions to the learning and work. Ask in how many ways world-class standards can be achieved. How can the teacher and student interact around the learning tasks and products? Encouraging variation and observing how it takes place can yield important understandings about human performance. Moreover, students will begin to understand that standards evolve from learning, and that learning requires variation in both the process and the outcome.

Seek variation in the context or setting. We need to provide opportunities for students to obtain a feel for a standard in the real world, and to help students discover what constitutes a world-class standard of performance, even to the point of creating new ideas and products from old standards. For students to respect a standard, they need a deep understanding about the purposes of standards.

Allow for variation in the time allowed for achieving standards. Time includes not only the obvious variability in time to learn, but also the sequencing and scheduling of learning tasks. Achieving high standards of quality for both the process and the product requires substantial time.

Allow for variation in how mastery of a standard is demonstrated. Establish standards that have a bandwidth of performance, rather than a bar. Embracing variability provides an opportunity to deliberately build bandwidth into standards, thereby accepting variance in the ways and means they are achieved.

Allow for variation in students’ performance profiles. Such profiles, using multiple measures and bands of acceptable performance, allow a student weak on one profile measure but strong on others to be judged ready to graduate or move on to postsecondary learning. The profile must contain multiple measures of practical and creative performances, as well as the traditional analytic ones.

Standards for success in all life roles emerge from a deep engagement with the world to which those standards relate.

We believe that helping each and every student achieve the excellence that is expected, accepted, and respected in the real world will require careful attention to these six recommendations. They place the student and his or her learning, not the standards, at the center of our attention. And they honor the power of student agency in school reform.

Mike Rose argues in The Mind at Work that “we mistake narrowness for rigor, but actually we are not rigorous enough.”

“To acknowledge our collective capacity is to take the concept of variability seriously,” he writes. “Not as slots along a simplified cognitive continuum or as a neat high-low distribution, but as a bountiful and layered field, where many processes and domains of knowledge interact. Such a model demands more not less from those of us who teach, or who organize work, or who develop social policy. To affirm this conception of mind and work is to be vigilant for the intelligence not only in the boardroom but on the shop floor; in the laboratory and alongside the house frame; in the classroom, the garage, the busy restaurant, vibrant with desire and strategic movement. This is a model of mind that befits the democratic imagination.”

Taking the concept of variability seriously will allow educators to produce a much-needed harmony between standards and variation, unleashing the power of that partnership to provide engaging and challenging learning opportunities for all students.

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as Standards and Variation


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