Monday, August 26, 2013

The trouble with "rigorous standards"

(This was adapted from the most read post from another blog I wrote that seems to fit with the theme of Ed Contrarian)

The educational environment suffers from imprecise language about the most important elements of our activity and the lack of clarity harms us in subtle but significant ways.

The word “rigor” refers to the quality of being thorough, exhaustive, or precise. Its secondary meaning is severity or strictness. Only in its noun form (rigors) does it take on the idea of being demanding, but this refers to things like “the rigors of the harsh winter.” The etymology of the word comes from Latin and literally means “stiffness”: think rigor mortis. Nowhere in the history of the word has it meant what we seem to think it means when used today in education.


Strange that in education today we hear a great deal about the need for rigorous standards, rigorous tests, rigorous passing scores on those tests, and rigorous accountability standards. Google "rigor" and "education" and the hits are in the millions.

In our talk about education we should excise the term "rigor" from our vocabulary and be a little more rigorous in our word choice when describing what we want—seriously.  Suggesting that a “rigorous education” is a good thing means  education should exhaustive, precise, harsh, and strict—a nineteenth century notion that lacks creativity, treats students and teachers as automatons, and isn’t going to serve 21st century students well.  Its misuse in a modern context is embarrassing.

If you want tough standards or standards that are more precise or based on high levels of performance when compared internationally, say it. Don't use a term that fails the test of having an application in today's educational environment.


"Standard" suffers from the same malady. We attach a variety of things the term, including content statements that describe what students should know and do, and passing scores on a state test. "Meeting" the standard is now the goal for students, teachers, schools, and districts, and yet the goal is defined differently for each.

We have to get a handle on vocabulary. Standards, content expectations, cut scores, and passing rates are NOT the same thing.

However, the idea of "higher standards" is now interpreted to mean better content expectations, higher cut scores, increased passing rates, and the goal of a quality education. These are fundamentally different from each other, and furthermore, all fail the test of ensuring that success at any of them will result in higher degrees of numerate, literate citizens ready to hit the ground running in the twenty-first century. A term with great power: "standard," has been co-opted to make it mean what it never intended, and it confuses a lot of very smart people. We need to get back to basics on this one if standards are going to have a real role in education.

Precision around "rigor" and "standards" will clarify a great deal.

The other side of understanding

One way to create real understanding of something is to shine a new light on it in the hope that something new will be revealed. Due to the way the human brain works this is actually harder to do than it sounds.

Our brains seem wired to pay attention to smallest amount of material possible in the construction of meaning. It isn’t that they are lazy, but rather, we seem to have limited amounts of memory and processing power and natural selection seems to have made us very efficient in this regard. We take what we need to generate meaning and then we’re on to the next thing.

That’s why metaphor works. I can read “my love is like a red, red rose” and imagine the vibrant color and the rich fragrance and my associations are positive, and yet that ignores the fact that roses have thorns such that gloves have to be worn when you pick them. Or in the case of the Christian image that Jesus’ followers are like sheep, our brains go to the caring part of the image in which the shepherd will spend considerable time going after and caring for a wandering lamb. This, in turn, ignores the fact that shepherding is an economic function and that many of those lambs will soon be turned into roasts and chops.

The field of education is particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. As just one example, standards, assessments, and accountability, on their own, are all powerful terms that most reasonable people would want to be a part of the educational package. But most people—and this includes most of those in a position to address the policy issues in education—stop there and leave the rest of whatever that means to others.

What if what we call educational standards aren’t actually standards? How do standardized tests actually work? What are they actually designed to tell us? Are they the best tool for determining the quality of a school? Is the premise that rising test scores are always an indicator of good things actually true? Is the accountability system actually designed to produce excellence?

We owe it to ourselves to ask and thoroughly explore such questions.

At present, the educational conversation seems to stop at the pronouncement that standards, standardized tests, and accountability are all necessary parts of the system. We will never know the veracity of that statement until we force our brains to a level of understanding well beyond the level of utterance.