Beyond Standards

My father used to ask a student to draw a line a meter long on the blackboard, take a look and tell the student the length was not right. “Practice,” he would say, “until you get it right.”

That truncated part of my father’s lesson seems to be the model for contemporary American educational policy. Set a goal and tell someone to reach it. The problem is that education “leaders” in the United States too often tend to forget that we need to be more concerned about how to reach it than with the goal itself. Worse: Some of the goals they set are so vague as to be meaningless—a meter, at least, can be known. “College and career readiness,” on the other hand… well, what does that mean?

According to The New York Times, business leaders say “students need to be able to collaborate and communicate effectively, skills they say high schools do not always teach.” The same is true for entering college students. Career and educational needs change more quickly than can standards for graduation—and skills in collaborating and communicating do not lend themselves to quantifiable evaluation of the sort that is increasingly becoming the norm. “College and career readiness” is a moving target at best. More often, it’s just an empty phrase for bureaucratic paper shuffling.

What we’ve forgotten, too often, is that education is process not outcomes—just as are careers and lives. As John Maynard Keynes pointed out, “in the long run we’re all dead.” So, it’s the run we should focus on, not the result—even in education. Unfortunately, we don’t. We seem to want us all “formulated, sprawling on a pin,” as T.S. Eliot writes, instead of alive.

The obvious problem of live and evolving students and changes in the environments of their lives drives our education administrators to distraction, for it gives them nothing absolute and static to work toward, a problem especially worrisome in a milieu of worship of quantification. “Standards” becomes the cry, but standards are by definition backward-looking. They are created by considering what was, not what will be or what is becoming. Command of Morse code, shorthand and WordPerfect were, at times, considered standards for career readiness. College readiness, today, often involves introducing students to electronic library tools—something that was a real need a decade ago when such tools were not already part of the lives—while consideration of how students learn to make use of the physical stacks—much more needed today—goes wanting.

Measurement: It’s the bane of contemporary education. Sure, some things can be measured—and certainly ought to be. But learning is not, itself, a result. Steps along the way can be evaluated and benchmarks can be established—but these are of limited utility for we can never be sure that what is being measured is what will be needed tomorrow. What we need to be promoting in school is an enthusiasm for exploration and learning and a mastery of the tools of process, primarily observing, reading and thinking. And that, my dear administrators, can’t be measured.

All you really should be doing is hiring and supporting people with enthusiasm for observing, reading and thinking—and for imparting that enthusiasm to others—and watch. If they are doing a good job, you will see that in the results. Not from tests, but from student’s lives, from what they do after school. You’ll have to be patient. You’ll have to trust your teachers.

And you’ll have to accept that there’s no formula for instilling the requisite love of learning in every student. All teachers can teach some of the students some of the time. Some teachers can teach all of the students some of the time. But none of the teachers can teach all of the students all of the time. All an administrator can do is try to help teachers improve their skills and facilitate the matching of teaching and learning styles.

The arguments about “standards” in schools are false ones; no one denies that standards are useful. All teachers use standards as means of evaluating and adjusting particular teaching tactics. But meeting standards has little to do with actual learning. Sometimes, a student might draw a line on my father’s chalkboard exactly a meter long—without knowing a meter from their foot. Does that mean they have met a standard and can move on?

What a teacher does is react to each situation individually. After the student drew that initial line and then looked at my father in confusion as Dad told her or him to practice, my father would next say, “But let me help you.” He would look at the line. “Good, but it needs to be a little longer.” Or shorter. He would keep the student trying through encouragement until the right result was reached. Then (were this not simply a demonstration) he might ask the student to do it again. First with the “correct” meter length as a model and then, perhaps, without.

The student will have learned a number of things, including the measurable, the means of learning and the method of teaching. All good education needs to include all three. Testing—like standards—only relates to the first, and knowing how long a meter is will never be enough, not in a world constantly changing. One needs to know how to learn, too—and how to teach. One has to be ready for the measurements of tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Beyond Standards

  1. Oh for a past that never was and a future that never will be. We could quote Eliot and Shakespeare all day or just evoke Robin Williams’ performance in the Dead Poet’s Society.

    Why do education systems push students forward when they have not mastered the basic skills such as reading and mathematics? Why do post secondary educational institutions accept these individuals and stand howling in the wind with the questions in this essay while faculty impose on themselves, by default, similar types of “standards” for job retention, or, different ones, if by luck, they are on the promotion and tenure track today?

    One is reminded of the cartoon with two mice running on their little wheels when one leans over and says: ” We have those folk in the white jackets trained. We just hop on our wheels and they feed us.”

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