Thursday, August 31, 2006

More on standards

After yesterday's post on the Fordham Foundation's "State of State Standards" report, I could almost hear the audible yawns emanating from drowsy readers as their eyes glazed over. Okay, so education standards aren't the most exciting topic. I'd rather be thinking about pretty much anything else....

But standards, while boring, are the guts of the educational enterprise. They're critical to schools that want their students to succeed. Here's why:

Standards give everyone a clear definition of what needs to be accomplished.
  • For a school board (or council, in JIS' case), standards could be an important component of its "Ends Policies" -- specifically addressing the "what service or product does JIS offer?" question. While a school board using the Carver model of policy governance may not want to get into standards for all grades, it seems that setting standards for graduating 12th graders (and setting a percentage goal for the head-of-school to achieve) might make a lot of sense because they are -- by definition -- the ends that we all hope our students reach at JIS.*
  • For administrators and teachers, creating and evaluating standards requires them to ask, "what's worth knowing and what skills are worth learning?" at specific points in students' educational careers. Once this HUGE question is answered (hopefully in concert with students and parents), teachers and administrators can create and organize curriculum by answering these questions: "If we want students to do _________ by 12th grade, how do we get them there? What steps need to happen? What's the best way to make sure they get there?" (Educators call this process "Backwards Design," and its a great way to plan curriculum.)
  • For parents, standards help them understand what their children's school is doing. They are the "method to the madness" that we see when our kids bring home essay assignments, lab reports, and all the rest. Theoretically, at least, all the work our students do should be aimed at helping them achieve (and hopefully exceed, if things are going well) the school's standards. When parents understand, they can be partners in the process and support the school's efforts.
Now granted, standards aren't a guarantee of success. In fact, there's no clear evidence that US states with great standards have better academic results than other states across all subject areas . (After all, setting standards is one thing -- but implementing them is something else. Some schools do well; others don't.)

But strong, well-crafted standards are linked to improve performance in some subjects, according to Fordham's report. For example, "Five states made statistically significant gains on the science NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Performance] between 2000 and 2005 at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, and three of these have among the best sets of science standards in the nation, according to Fordham’s reviewers."

And standards give educators something important: clear expectations of what students should learn. As a wise man said just yesterday, "If you don't have clear expectations, then anything you do is the right answer."

*For more on the "Ends vs. Means" distinction and how standards fit into that discussion, please click on this link and scroll down to the blog posting for March 10th, "Ends vs. Means: the big question." For some reason, I can't get a direct link to the post -- sorry! Obviously still figuring this whole blog thing out....


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