Standards versus students?



My father used to ask for a student volunteer to come to the chalkboard the first day of the semester. He would then ask that student to draw a line a meter long. A little puzzled, the student would pick up a piece of chalk and draw a line. My father would shake his head and tell the student to try again. A new line would appear; again, my father’s head would shake. He would say, “Keep trying until you get it right.”

His point is fairly obvious: You can’t learn to do something without any idea of what that something is or what the standard is. Also, there needs to be a goal to the exercise beyond simply meeting a standard. There’s a corollary: Teachers cannot expect students to meet performance standards the students are not prepared for and don’t know why they are about it. Standards only have meaning if ways of meeting them are both available and realistic–and understood. Those ways, also, must be flexible enough for students starting at disparate levels to be able to reasonably expect to eventually meet the standards. And they must mesh with extant institutional structures. Standards alone are not enough, quite clearly.

National discussion on American pedagogy seems to swing back and forth between accent on standards and on students, creating a perplexing tension between those who say we should demand the best and those who say we should be concentrating on what students can do. That is, for one period of time we are all about setting expectations and determining outcomes. Then, when that doesn’t improve things, we swing back to a focus on students, on the places where they start and try to see what they can do from there. We never seem to settle on the appropriate middle, recognizing there is room for both.

The debate sometimes make it seem that one or the other has to go, but teachers know–and have always known–that the very act of teaching is a negotiation between students and standards and that neither needs to be abandoned in favor of the other.

Perhaps we are barking up the wrong dichotomy. E. A. Vargas, writing in Psychologia Latina, provides a different model, one of social necessity and instructional necessity, “the social necessity to make student repertoires more alike as well as more different; and… the instructional necessity for students to contact a subject matter directly as well through what others write or say about it.” This removes us from arguments about standards and goals versus student needs by focusing instead on content itself (not demonstration of command of it) and societal expectations of education–probably the conflict behind our current discussion, anyway. It also makes us look more closely at the impact of our educational structures on the hows and whats of our instruction. Are they in line with contemporary societal and instructional necessity, or are they forcing us into patterns appropriate for another time?

Vargas expands the debate to topics generally left unsaid and tries to show that we cannot operate through simple dichotomies, that the problems are much more complex than that:

[I]nstructional systems must both narrow and expand the variability of the repertoires of the students. First, these repertoires must all reflect what a society has learned from its past. Any educational system carries forth the accumulated wisdom (or what passes as such) of its culture…. All students must perform identically. The variability of their repertoires converge to an identical outcome. The tests of any instructor display this working principle, for to mark a student wrong on an answer asserts that that student’s action deviated from the performance template against which the instructor matches all student answers. At the same time, however, any society faces a complex present and an uncertain future, with no fixed answers. If a new generation were all to behave the same way, that would prepare them for only one of any number of possible futures, and one, moreover, that simply resembled the past. Therefore, variability in student repertoires is called for, and instructional systems must shape repertoires to diverge from each other.

He goes on to say that performance objectives, to be effective in education, have to relate to “three domains of repertoire: that of knowing, that of solving, and that of creating.” The standards generally proposed in the public debate concentrate, by necessity, on the knowing. The solving is much harder to evaluate, the creating almost impossible (in numeric terms, at least).

The title of Vargas’ article, “Delivering Instructional Content–at any Distance–is not Teaching,” points to a divide he sees as much more significant than standards versus students. To him, we are avoiding the real problem:

The traditional pedagogical technology and the traditional university structure prevent the solution of the core educational problem: achieving high mastery with all students while yet dealing with the enormous variability they bring to the instructional setting.

Unfortunately, he claims (rightly, in my view) most of our ballyhooed contemporary and digital educational delivery systems are little more that the lecture system writ large. This comes about, in large part, because we have been focusing on the wrong things (standards, for example) without recognizing that they can only be met if we consider a much larger field of educational inquiry and endeavor. To him, “sufficient, and required, solution can only result if innovation takes place at three levels of the educational enterprise: its pedagogical technology, its division of labor, and its organizational structure.”

Vargas concludes:

In using the latest telecommunication modes, our problem is not how to deliver effective instruction at long distance. Our problem is delivering effective instruction at any distance. The increasing teamwork necessitated by the demands of long distance education points to a division of labor required by any instructional task in any setting. And we need to go further. We need to link current telecommunications progress to a pedagogical system that takes advantage of the currently available tools, and even more, that informs engineers what new devices would succeed best in teaching. But we cannot introduce a new instructional model and operate successfully with it within an organizational structure meant to operate with another type of instructional model. The university must do more than merely apparently accommodate recent pedagogical and telecommunication technologies.

If education is to improve, we must change the nature of the debate and must recognize that technology, alone, will never improve our results. Our rows of little kingdoms (classrooms) structured to facilitate lectures only lead to their replication in digital environments. Our problems, and possibilities, are much more fundamental, and they can only be addressed it we start recognizing how invested our institutions are in the lecture model at the expense of almost anything else–and start revising our systems so that they can incorporate other models at a base level.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t be concentrating on either standards or students, not when our entire structure of education is aimed at producing mediocrity. My father once lost a job because his students did too well. That is, he had managed to get all of them to the level of “A” work. The college decided that, in such a case, all of those students should have earned “C” grades. After all, “C” is supposed to be average…. He refused, stating that all of them had mastered the material to a quantifiable 90% or higher, so should all receive “A” grades.

If Common Core State Standards are supposed to make all students college or workplace ready, what happens to the traditional grading curve? There is a great deal that has not been considered as we have rushed headlong into educational “reform.”

Perhaps it is time we step back a little and start to examine our educational structures as a whole rather than simply placing new demands on them.