How Raising Standards Can Lower Results

Who would argue against higher standards in education? Isn’t critiquing higher standards the same as arguing for watering down education? After all, we have plenty of research to support the idea that high standards are an important part of high performance. Set the bar low, and many may never reach their full potential. At least this is the dominant perspective in much of education. There is ample truth and wisdom to this line of thinking, but there is also a dark side to raising standards. In fact, raising standards can sometimes lower results. Here are six ways that can happen.

Decreasing the Pool of Credentials Earners

In the past couple of years, the standards for earning a GED were adjusted, aligning the test to the Common Core State Standards. They raised the bar on the test and the next year the number of people earning a GED plummeted. You can look at this as adding more academic rigor to the test, but what are the practical results in the lives of those who did or did not earn a GED as a result of these changes?

Yes, raising the bar on the GED test resulted in GED holders who have a higher level of knowledge and skill in some areas. I don’t challenge that. What concerns me is that it also restricted many from getting the credential needed to even apply for many jobs that require a “high school diploma or equivalent.”

My guess is that we probably have some very success leaders in businesses and organizations, maybe even some CEOs and presidents, who would not perform well on the new GED test. Yet, if they were at that age today, some of them would have been excluded from the professional pathway that led to where they are today.

In Wisconsin, our technical colleges have a better solution. There are different academic entry requirements for different majors. You might need a 10th grade reading level for one program and a 12th grade reading level for another. It is less about the credential and more about the clearly identified minimum requirements to be successful in a given pathway. Even better, these are based on assessments of what is actually required in the major and in the career paths that people usually pursue with that major.

Discouraging New Players and Competition

This is less about raising standards for learners and more about the standards applied to learning organizations. Outside regulatory and accrediting agencies often take pride in raising the standards expected of those who attain or maintain accreditation or approval to operate. These might be safety standards, standards for those who teach or work in the organizations, or even standards about how many books and subscriptions you have in your library. Regardless, the idea is that they are seeking to improve the performance of these organizations or make sure they meet a high standard of quality or excellence. At the same time, this increases the barrier or entry for new schools or learning organizations.

In the end, it keeps some of the lesser resourced organizations from being able to innovate and pursue new and less conventional opportunities. It gives an advantage to the largest and most resourced organizations, and it forces others to build strategies outside of the domain of these regulatory and accrediting agencies. Although, there is the possibility that this unintended consequence may well improve final results while disrupting some of the more established operations.

Standards are Not Tied to Solid Evidence

Sometimes raising standards is just about making something more difficult. It isn’t tied to solid or substantive research about what standards will ultimately improve performance in a given area. These are about “rigor” in the worst sense, making things more painful. That doesn’t improve real-world results. Consider a physical fitness example. If I raise the standards for a group of runners so that they all need to be able to run a 4-minute mile by the end of the year, that will force a massive increase in training, but it is not reasonably achievable by every runner. It is just as likely to push people to over-training and injury than to better results. The same can happen with raising other academic standards.

Increased Despair

We have ample literature to show us that raising the bar can be very good. Keep the expectations low and people may only perform enough to make it over that bar. Raise the bar too high and some will not even try. That is why much research about optimal performance is not focused on setting the highest possible standard. It is instead about making something the appropriate challenge for a person at a given stage. It should be a stretch for the person but not something that leads to despair, and this will vary from one person to another. Standards are, well…standard. They don’t care who you are, and that is quite appropriate for some learning contexts (like determining who will be allowed to conduct heart or brain surgery), but not as much for others (like determining lifelong career paths based on a 6th grade standards-based assessment). In fields or areas where only those meeting a very high standard should practice, it may be desirable to discourage people who are unwilling or unable to meet those standards. This isn’t equally true in all fields and at all levels of education, however. We want an education system that challenges every student to reach the highest levels and that calls for an education that nurtures hope and persistence.

Teaching to the Test

When we raise standards in an area and then build assessments to measure how people are performing on those standards, this can easily turn into a motivation to teach to the test or even find ways to get students to perform as high as possible on the test. Technically, this is more a critique of the measurement decision than the standards themselves. However, they often end of tied together. This can help students reach the high standards (as measured on the test), but much depends upon the quality of the test. Now I’ve turned science class into test preparation class instead of a place where curiosity and a love of learning about science is nurtured. Take your favorite topic, hobby, or area of interest and imagine what would happen if you could only explore that topic, hobby or interest in a context where I constantly drilled and prepared you for an examination of your performance in that area. Some of you might love that, but many others would find their previous affinity fade. In the long run, that is bad for widespread real world results.

Who Sets the Standards

There is sometimes very good reason to set universal standards for a given profession, like in many health care professions. However, is the same true when we look at standards for P-12 around the world? Are the same standards good or bad for children in Sudan, the Ukraine, Ghana, Canada, Austria, and Guatemala? One could argue that universal standards are good. They equip these children to “compete” on an international scale. At the same time, what are the skills that will most benefit people in a given community or part of the world? Are those always universal? If we believe that changing times calls for different standards and a different type of preparation, doesn’t it make equal sense that different standards and a different type of preparation might be helpful for living in distinct contexts around the world? Ignore this fact and we could set incredibly high standards that result in people ill-equipped to thrive in their immediate contexts.

I like standards. I like health standards for the food I purchase. I like standards for healthcare workers, military personnel, fire fighters, even people allowed to drive a car. Yet, this doesn’t mean that raising standards always increases results. Sometimes such well-meaning efforts makes things worse.

What if Schools Were Penalized for Overemphasizing Standardized Tests?

In 5 Things I Learned, Jeb Bush wrote, “If we are going to prepare students to compete in a knowledge-driven world, we need to set higher standards for achievement in core subjects. Setting higher standards—and measuring to them—really, really matters. You can’t know if you are getting better if you don’t set the standard and measure to it.”

Do you agree? It can be good to have academic standards and to measure our progress. In fact, I suspect that most people today agree with Jeb Bush’s statement. Yet, debates about the Common Core and countless related issues persist. Why? While there is room for a healthy discussion about the benefits and limitations of the concept of standards in general, most of the debates are not focused upon that. Instead, they relate to one or more of the following questions.

1. Who gets to create or choose which standards should be used…and on what level?

Should this come from the federal government, state government, professional associations and organizations, a group of governors, or local groups? Is the answer the same for all standards or should some be local and others more common across contexts? What say should students, parents, teachers and others have in the establishment of standards? Given that we are a nation that welcomes and embraces diversity, how do we approach standards that speak to areas of contention, areas where there is genuine disagreement among deeply informed people? Should the standards be at the sole discretion of academics with credentials deemed relevant by some group? Who decides what is relevant? There may be less debate in a content area like math, but there is even disagreement there, because standards are not neutral. They are created with some goal or aim in mind. The Common Core, for example, claims to be about college readiness along with workforce readiness. What happens when we test this by looking at whether people thriving in various workplaces meet the Common Core standards currently? I do not pose those questions to argue against the Common Core, only to note that standards are not simple, neutral, uncontested statements. As such, questions about who sets they, how they are revised, and where they are used become critical to the current conversation.

How do we measure progress toward meeting standards?

Many talk about measurement today. We measure what we value, and we value what we measure. Some immediately assume that we are talking about standardized tests, but there are dozens of ways to measure, many of which are more formative, giving feedback about a learner’s progress. It is possible for a K-12 school, for example, to adopt the Common Core, but to reject the standardized test approach to measuring student progress. They might instead create a rich portfolio that is constantly reviewed. It could come from the review of ongoing authentic student-centered projects, adaptive learning software that gives daily updates on progress, or through a teacher’s narrative assessment of each student. Some today treat big data and standardized tests as synonymous with standards, but that is not necessarily the case, and we would be wise to separate these two in our debates. There are limitations to every form of measurement and assessment, and a system of thoughtful educational leaders will separate the means of measurement from the broader discussion and invite others into this important decisions. This ties directly to a question that I will reference at the end of this article.

3. What is the role and value of the “non-standard” in education?

Standards are good. I like them in healthcare, automobile manufactures, and electricians. Yet, not everything in life and learning is standard. What is the role of non-standard learning in an increasingly standards-based approach to education? What about the role of values and convictions? What about the role of helping each learner discover their distinct (maybe unique) set of gifts, talents, abilities and passions; and learning how to build upon them, refine them, and use them to benefit others? That is no small and valuable part of a good education. If standards become the sole (or even just primary) focus, do we lose this important part of education? What about the culture and climate in school, which impacts the disposition, feelings and attitudes about life and learning in general? We have a mandatory schooling model on the K-12 level. While there are alternatives, for most that means young people forced to be in a community for years. How should they be treated during that time? How do we create a culture and climate that honors, values, and celebrates the uniqueness of each person? These non-standards can be lost in a standards-focused system unless create equally robust ways to measure and emphasize them.

This is what inspired the title to the article. If we value these other elements, perhaps schools should be penalized for over-emphasizing standards or standardized tests as much as some argue for penalizing those that under-perform on standards. I am not convinced that penalizing is the best route regardless of one’s take on these issues, but I offer the question as a way to promote important thought and discussion.

4. How do/should values inform what and how we go about education?

I mentioned this above, but it deserves separate attention as well. Every organization has values, whether they are stated or implied. By definition standards value standard performance. That is a core value of a standards-based educational system. What are the other values? Browse core values of schools and you will read things like integrity, collaboration, diversity, and respect. At one school, they state a core value as “a balance between individual achievement and a caring community.” Values are a rich and important part of a learning community. If we value measurement, should we not measure the extent to which are values are embodied and lived out in our schools? I’ve yet to hear massive debates or mandates from government officials that we should measure schools on the extent to which they truly embody their values. If academic standards (as they are largely used today) are the only measure that counts to outside stakeholders, we could find ourselves celebrating a school with  impressive standardized scores while having a socially and emotionally toxic climate and culture.

5. What is the purpose of education in a given context and on a given level?

All these questions lead us back to critical basic questions about our learning organizations. What is their purpose? We do not have a universal answer to this question, which is why I contend that it is most humane and consistent for us to embrace an educational ecosystem of choice and variety in school options. Many parents, students and community members do not simply see school as about meeting certain academic standards. Learning organizations play a larger role than that in most communities, and we would be wise to approach conversation about standards and measures with this in mind. As such, what would it look like for us to measure schools in way that represents this more holistic view of education?

10 Things Common Core is Not

As the Common Core debate continues, I find myself chatting with people who consistently associate certain things with Common Core that are distinct (albeit sometimes related) issues. This comes from the pro and con side of the debate. Here are the 10 that I hear most often, some coming from the advocates, and others from the proponents.  Note that I’m not a firm advocate for Common Core, nor am I an outspoken naysayer. CC has affordances and limitations…like all technologies. With that said, here is my list of 10 things that Common Core is not.

1. It is not a solution to all educational ailments. – I read some critiques of the Common Core, noting that it will not solve the many significant problems in education. People point to everything from poverty to broken families to poor teachers. While there may be a a few making the claim that Common Core is the solution to these problems, that is not the norm. Instead, From the Common Core web site, here is what they state as the reason by it is important:

High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations to ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live. – http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/frequently-asked-questions/

10thingsCCSSisnotNote that this is not a claim that the CC will ensure that all students have the skills/knowledge, only that it provides stakeholders with clear and consistent expectations toward that end. CC does not claim to solve every educational problem. To critique CC on the grounds that it doesn’t solve all the other problems seems a bit like critiquing running for fitness because it doesn’t help people balance their checkbook.

2. It is not a curriculum. A curriculum typically includes content, resources, methods, assessments and more. The CC is just a list of standards. It doesn’t dictate all the details of content. It doesn’t dictate how one teaches or even how one assesses.

3. It is not a foundation. While some proponents of the CC do seem to be treating the CC like the foundation of a great school, I see no evidence that this was the intent. The problem is that some schools are hardly even teaching social studies or science, instead doubling time in language arts and math because of the CC. This is a misuse of the CC, partly (or often) informed by #4. However, schools still need to be founded upon a clear philosophy of education, a mission, vision, set of values and goals; and this will vary from school to school, regardless of whether they use the standards. Standards are meant to inform, not dictate.

4. It is not a test or assessment. The CC does not dictate how one assesses or measures student learning. While many are implementing tests to measure student performance related to the Common Core, that is not part of the Common Core project. Turning schools into test-driven institutions as a result of the CC is happening in some places, but the CC does not call for that. This is an important issue, but I contend that it is a separate topic from the Common Core.

5. It is not dumbing down math by promoting points for partially correct answers. I know that some will disagree with me on this. First, this practice of giving partial points to students for math problems that do not have a final correct answer is not a practice that is only coming from the Common Core’s influence. It is also coming from research on best practices in math instruction. In the past, many math teachers graded student work with one primary question in mind. Did they get the correct answer? They didn’t attend to the process students used to get to a final answer. Now we know that this is a critical part of teaching and learning math, because we are aiming for students who don’t just mindlessly follow procedures, but who understand the process. This allows teachers to have a much more intimate understanding of student thinking, and provides guidance that helps students genuinely grasp key concepts. It helps students not only learn to follow math rules, but to think mathematically. Yes, a right answer still matters; but if we are going to equip students who can consistently come up with right answers and truly understand what is going on, this new method is a huge improvement. The only extent to which the CC relates to this is that it does have standards that promote this sort of mathematical thinking. However, it still doesn’t dictate how it is taught or learned.

6. It is not only about creating a common set of standards across all states. Yes, this is a stated goal, but in critique of the Common Core, there is more to this. Go to conferences for education curriculum providers and companies, and you will find rampant support for the CC. Why? Because if they can get CC adopted across all states, it makes it easier for them to create a common product that they can sell to a larger base of schools. There is clearly a financial lever behind some of the proponents of the CC. This alone does not make the CC bad, but it is a reality that I contend is worth noting and putting out in the open.

7. It is not in anti-literature. Yes, the CC has a heavy emphasis upon non-fiction text, but keep in mind that it is not mandated that the “language arts” standards in the CC must only be addressed by language arts teachers. There is nothing keeping a school from having a healthy dose of great fiction in language arts classes, while using the language arts CC standards to promote teaching students to read non-fiction texts in classes like social studies and science. Of course, some schools and districts seem to lack the creativity and insight to get this, which is why we do hear some sad stories of schools cutting out great literature…as well as cutting out emphases on teaching social studies and science. That is definitely not promoted by the Common Core. That is just a really poor curriculum design thinking.

8. It was not a stealth effort that just magically appeared one day. I’ve even heard this from K-12 educators and University professors. Unfortunately, just because these people are not staying current on the innovations and projects in their field does not mean that there was no attempt to communicate. Many stakeholders were involved in the the writing of the standards, pulling from people in multiple states. There was also a time for public comment, where anyone on the planet could review the drafts and make recommended revisions. I provided almost three pages worth of suggested revisions myself. This was not hidden, and it did not happen overnight. This project started in June of 2008 and continued through 2010. This was not a top-secret project. Of course, I will say that I tried talking to people about the potential benefits and limitations already back in 2009, and I could find very few people even interested in entertaining a conversation.

9. It is not mandated across all schools. This varies by state, but even in states where the CC was adopted as part of their state standards, there is often room for schools (private and something even public) to opt out or opt to use a different set of standards.

10. It is not a scheme to collect data on all of our students in some national repository…eerily resembling Nazism. Please, for the sake of a healthy and mutually beneficial discourse about an important topic, can we set aside the Nazi/Hitler cards? I see no way in which this will benefit the public discourse around the topic. Many point out that having the tests used to document student progress tied to the Common Core allows the government to track and monitor detailed information about our children. However, I must again note that the Common Core itself does not call for certain forms of testing, nor does it demand a national database of student data. One can be pro-CC and firmly against this database idea. They may be connected because of certain decisions tied to the use of CC in some places, but it is indeed a separate issue, and warrants its own public debate. This student data conversation is critically important, but if we keep stuffing all these issues into a common core bucket, I am concerned that it will inhibit any sense of progress in the conversation.

Again, I am not firmly set against or in strong support of the Common Core. As I’ve written elsewhere on my blog, I have any number of concerns; but I have also seen reasonable use of the Common Core while not letting the tail (these standards) wag the dog (the school). However, if we are going to have a candid and honest conversation about the Common Core, I contend that we need to work hard at gaining increased clarity about what the Common Core is and is not.

The Only Way Through the Common Core Debate

Debates continue about the Common Core State Standards. Proponents and advocates write and speak with equal passion and conviction, and both sides offer important points as we reconsider the purpose of schooling in the 21st century. However, few debates about the CCSS actually discuss the purpose of schooling explicitly, which is a mistake. Few also address a second critical discussion about the role of purpose of standards in a school. Without a clear understanding of what we believe about the purpose of education and the proper role of standards; schools, parents, and educators will continue to be swayed back and forth, often taking a position on CCSS that is founded in conjecture. How can we agree upon which standards to use for a given school (or if we should use any standards) unless we are clear on the purpose of education?

Regarding Purpose

With this in mind, what is the purpose of the Common Core State Standards?  From the CCSS main web site, they state:

High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations to ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live. These standards are aligned to the expectations of colleges, workforce training programs, and employers. – from Why are the Common Core Standards Important?

These are standards based upon the belief that school exists to help young people, “succeed in college, career, and life.” Or, if we look further into the documentation about the standards, this is one of the only places where “life” is emphasized.  Notice the latter part of the quote. The CCSS are tied to skills important for college and certain jobs (I write “certain jobs” because there are clearly hundreds or thousands of jobs that can be fulfilled without one meeting the CCSS.). If CCSS is also about preparing young people for life beyond college and career, what data did the developers of CCSS use for this part of the stated purpose? For example, what math and language arts knowledge and skills best help one to “succeed in life”?

If we reduce life to little more than going to college and getting a good job, the answer is clear. However, what else is there in life? What about life with family and friends, hobbies and interests, financial life, community life, spiritual life, the moral life, and more? Many will point out that nothing in the CCSS is against these parts of life, but that is much different from being designed to help people thrive in these ares of life. For example, the Council for Economic Education and similar organizations have aligned their curriculum on financial literacy to the CCSS. They likely did so to survive. If a curriculum provider does not align to CCSS, that reduces the provider’s ability to sell products to schools. The Common Core Math Standards only explicitly reference a concept tied to financial literacy once (in second grade). Proponents might note two reasons for this. First, financial literacy is not usually part of the math curriculum. Instead, it belongs in social studies, consumer education, or high school economics. Second, it could be argued that the underlying math skills for financial literacy are all over the place in the CCSS.

These are valid points, but it is equally true that it would be possible to meet all the CCSS math standards and still lack the ability to apply those math concepts to one’s financial life. So, the math standards may help prepare one for the demands of college, but are they also going to help students figure out how to use those concepts to address the challenges of college loans, credit card companies selling them “amazing deals”, and life skills related to budgeting and saving? It can be argued that financial life is one of the areas where most adults are in the greatest need of math skills, but nothing in the common core explicitly leads toward such an outcome.

Many independent schools are also grappling with what to do with the CCSS. As they look at new curricular resources, most of the high-quality resources they find are aligned to these standards now. Yet, many private schools have stated purposes that will be undermined if they did nothing more than design a curriculum that carefully aligned to the CCSS. For example, the language arts standards in CCSS have little or nothing to say about reading religious texts for spiritual edification, or how to read a text and compare/contrast it to one’s religious belief system.

This is because the CCSS is not a curriculum. A curriculum is the entire learning experience provided by a school. The CCSS is a set of standards that one can use as a resource when designing a school curriculum. In fact, CCSS is only two sets of standards: one for language arts and another for math.

A school based solely on the CCSS would be, in most people’s judgment, a sub par education. It is possible that some schools are building a curriculum that has the primary goal of helping students score well on tests aligned to the CCSS, and that is one of the problems with how standards are being used or abused. There is nothing inherently in the idea of using the CCSS that demands this type of flawed thinking.

Rather, thoughtful schools reference many sets of standards in the design and redesign of a school curriculum. The CCSS is not adequate. Giving the example of independent schools tied to a religious organization, the CCSS says nothing about the educational goals and values that align with that religious tradition. Yet, such a school is obligated by their stated reason for existence to design a curriculum that is aligned to more than these standards. It has religious goals and desired outcomes that have implications for college, work, and the rest of life. Such schools must be able to articular how their curriculum is not only informed by something like CCSS, but also by the other standards and sources of guidance. I come from the tradition of Lutheran education. If a language arts teachers in such a school could say nothing more about her curriculum than how it aligns to CCSS, that person would fail to meet the standard and expectation for teaching in a Lutheran school. They must also be able to articulate how the specific knowledge and skills emphasized in their language arts curriculum aids learners in their spiritual life. The same would be true for a math teacher in such a context.

This is not specific to faith-based schools. Public schools often have stated school or district goals for learners that will not be met by simply teaching a curriculum aligned to the CCSS. For example, the district in which I live has the following vision statement:

The vision of the Mequon-Thiensville School District is to be an exemplary educational leader that supports and challenges all students to achieve their full potential. – http://www.mtsd.k12.wi.us/

This vision calls for a curriculum that is focused upon helping students, “achieve their full potential.” If taken seriously, this demands a drastically different type of school curriculum. Since each student’s potential is different and focused upon varying areas of strength, interest, and ability, I would expect to see a curriculum that is highly personalized. It would be a curriculum that allows learners to spend significant parts of their school day building knowledge and skills specific to their distinct gifts, interests, goals and abilities. I would expect that every teacher could articulate this vision and how their work and efforts are focused upon this main goal of helping students reach their full potential. The CCSS does nothing to make sure this vision will become a reality for the students in the district. CCSS is just a list of benchmarks for language arts and math. It based upon nothing more than basic research on what it takes to succeed in college and and some workplace environments (and only as it relates to math and language arts). It isn’t an adequate guide for the larger and more significant purposes of schools or an overall curriculum. It is just one potentially useful resource.

The more I follow debates and conversations about the CSSS and standards in general, the more I realize that part of our struggle in these conversations is that parents and educators have an inadequate understanding of the vocabulary associated with the conversation (curriculum, standards, goals, outcomes, objectives, competencies, assessments, etc.). Most have an even more inadequate understanding of curriculum design and development. For many, you send your kids to school to get an education. Educators, school leaders, parents, students and community members need to unpack this.

 

  • What kind of education?
  • What is the purpose of this education?
  • What are the goals and desired outcomes for this education?
  • What is the vision for learners who get this education?
  • What standards and resources can we use to help us design a school learning experience that leads toward these goals and outcomes?

 

These are the types of questions that we must take seriously if we are going to make progress in the conversations about the proper role of CCSS in education. In fact, these are the questions we must explore if we are going to provide schools high-impact 21st and 22nd century schools.