Tuesday, July 10, 2018

On standards standardizing

Formal standards standardize something. It is useful to standardize some things, such as electrical outlets, allowable car emissions, and the minimum requirements to become a doctor, lawyer, or nurse. Standardizing the outlet means that any electrical device with a compliant plug will fit, regardless of who manufactured either of them. Standardizing allowable car emissions helps keep the air clean. Standardizing minimum requirements to enter certain professions is intended to ensure a basic level of quality and protect citizens from those selling snake oil.

It should be noted that the standards that exist in the world have a profound impact on each of our daily lives. I can go to any gas station and know that the gas nozzle will fit in my car, rather than having to find a Honda nozzle for my Honda car. I can buy a car and trust it will meet federal standards regarding emissions. I can go to the doctor and know that at the very least they met the compliance requirements to be a doctor, and because I know those requirements to be fairly robust, have some confidence in that person never having met them.

Standards are met through compliance. When the plug fits the socket, the level of emissions is below a threshold, or the prospective doctor completes the last of the requirements to be a doctor, it can be said that in each case compliance with the standard was accomplished.

Standards are about control. An ideal standard is one that controls only what it must to achieve some end. We control the dimensions of a plug, which creates an infinite number of possibilities for whatever is powered at the end of that plug. We eliminate the opportunity for car manufacturers to make a profit off of cars that are bad for the environment. We control who can and cannot become a doctor for the sake of protecting citizens from harm.

A terrible standard standardizes the wrong things, which in turn creates inefficiencies and/or frustration. Standardizing the length of the cord attached to the plug to one or fifty feet would be silly as it would not match with the needs of both consumers and their selected product. A standard that required every car to have a gas tank in a safe place (think Ford Pinto), an internal combustion engine, and a quality exhaust system would eliminate the creativity required to build electric cars. A “desire to help” as the standard for entering the medical profession would doom a great many patients.

In schools we have standardized the length of the cord and the internal parts to schooling, as well as removed any standard for who can make educational decisions or even run a school. In short, the wrong things.

We standardize who is in what grade by age, regardless of need, life experiences, or the distance to some set of meaningful goals. We standardize the inputs through lists of controlled content (appropriately called standards given that they control what is to be taught) aligned to standardized tests that will be administered as the output, with the goal that all students will leave standardized around a particular test score (which for those of you who read my writings know is not actually possible), not to mention the bureaucratic requirements to standardize teacher actions throughout a school day.

And if you can fog a mirror but have never set foot in a school since you were a student you are all but qualified to apply for and run a charter school in most states.

We have to standardize some things in a school, just as any organization does. But what if we had approached schools like those who standardized the ordinary three-pronged plug did and standardized only what was absolutely necessary? What would those things be?

It isn’t a simple question. Outcome-based education was one attempt to standardize outcomes and let the inputs vary according to need, but it ran into a political buzz saw (and for legit reasons—there are a million ways to get to a successful adulthood and standardizing one or two of those belies that fact). The standards movement tried to standardize teaching and learning, and now we have lots of bored kids not learning to the depths they should, and teachers tired of not being able to focus on what students actually need. The test-based accountability movement tried to standardize an outcome each year on a date certain, by which all kids would have learned the years’ worth of material and demonstrate that learning via a test score. The silliness in that is just embarrassing (read my book, or anything I’ve ever written if you want the full argument as to why).

We should think about that question: what could we standardize in education that would help us maximize the educational benefit we can provide to each and every student within the limited resources available to us? We need to identify those things. And then we should figure out how to get there.

Quick note: I posted something similar to this before and someone wrote for sources. See chapter four in Pitfalls of Reform, for what is still one of the more detailed descriptions of the problem I've written. I'll tackle this issue at length when I get around to finishing the book I've been working on since Pitfalls was published.

1 comment:

  1. Love the question "What could we standardize in education that would help us maximize the educational benefit....?" I will use it with my group this morning. Thanks, John!

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