Debunking seductive promises of standards-based education

To say that reforming higher education is not about being left or right, public or private, “publish or perish” is generally accepted in many academic contexts and sometimes understood as a genuine call for a more robust analysis of possible models for the future. However, this direction is obscured by the loud chorus of those seduced by the obvious and simple, by the possibility of immediate gratification offered by quantifiable data that speaks objectively about all we think we cover in education: students’ performance, their knowledge, “skills” and competencies. This dream is so consistent that any fact and any disaster is incapable to affect the general enthusiasm for a model promising an immediate future where you can see in a pie chart how students perform, think, work and align to desired workplace needs. The model is called “standards-based education” and is based on a very political and simple principle: education is based on standards; students take tests that measure their academic performance against these standards. The results have direct consequences for students and schools: rewards for good performers, and sanctions for results poorly aligned with standards.

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There are too many problems with this model to operate a comprehensive analysis of all aspects involved by its implementation in practice, to have a serious look at implications in education of the sloppy use of terms as “skills” and “performance” and the disturbing and destructive application of simplistic political and administrative models as replacements of the aims of education. However, we need to stop over some crucial aspects affecting now education that seem to be consistently sold as ultimate truths and see how this positivists’ utopia is changing our schools at all levels.

The most important fallacy starts from the promise that standards-based education gives a clear picture of reality.

In this paradigm, assessments are used at the end of a certain segment of schooling to gain evidence that standards are being met and this evidence is crucial for the students’ future. The confusing (and philosophically confused) rhetoric around an imagined substantial difference between standardized and standards-based education is marked by the problem that two words do not change the world and reality of this model. Standards determine assessments and educational practice and the reality is that this model states that the only relevant result is one aligned to a specific standard. Learning, teaching and thinking is standardized to meet immediate behavioral demands of various tests applied to verify alignment to the common standard – what cannot be objectified does not matter in this context.

The seductive part of this solution is the assurance that students have a clear set of skills, knowledge and abilities at a certain level, in general relevant for an employer. The source of this illusion comes from a very superficial understanding of education in general – relating education with “observable skills” in a simplistic behaviorist paradigm – and a surprising lack of vision. The evolution of standard-based education reveals that the natural consequence of imposing this model is to force students to learn for the test and to make educators interested in arbitrary standards than the reality of their students, classrooms and substance of education. The impact of this is devastating for schools and the serious problems affecting students’ learning in universities (see previous posted data on functional illiteracy rates in some OECD countries). Tremendous public scandals such as the embarrassing “Texas miracle” reveal a disturbing reality where schools cheat, lie and have to stand against students from unprivileged areas just to be ‘on standards”. The role of a standard is to certify – and schools with students from different cultures or from areas affected by poverty have to find a way to be “certified”; this way involved administrators asking “poor” students to stay at home and other forms of false reporting. The focus shifted from providing meaningful learning experiences to immediate observable outcomes and desperate solutions to report good data.

The source of the current use of this model is United States. Just being a bit more honest about their own disasters, Americans reflected in detail on the tremendous problems associated with standards-based education in their schools. Just in the last years media uncovered how hundreds of schools lied about results to increase students’ scores and achieve the imposed standards. Teachers found themselves under pressure to cheat and change tests and the numbers of erasures on standardized tests raised legitimate questions (USA Today). Media discovered that cheating is widespread and New York Times brings to light some realities in articles such as “Systematic Cheating Is Found in Atlanta’s School System”. The Washington Post presents now how “teachers and administrators cheated to inflate standardized test scores”.

A simple and clear explanation for this embarrassing situation was offered by Bob Schaeffer (from FairTest) on NBC:

“Of course, it was the teachers who made the ultimate decision to cheat, which is immoral and unethical. But it was the laws and tests that pressured them to make those unethical and immoral decisions.”

The “clear picture” offered by elaborated standards as a “foundation” for educational practice is shattered to pieces by any honest incursion into reality. This promise is ubiquitously contradicted by facts from various countries naive enhough to believe the formula presented by “international experts”. What turns to be for education just structurally irrelevant standards have at this moment the real power to mask reality with unreliable data.

The ethical aspect of common standards for educational practice should be another serious reason for reluctance in adopting this model. However, it seems that public disasters in different parts of the world, ethical reasons and internal contradictions have no impact on the fervor to adopt at all levels a dodgy model. The dream to have assessments and to measure results of educational services – in a relatively inexpensive, fast, simple to understand and design, able to provide clear and visible results – is not only irresistible, but it turned into the only possible solution for education in the mind of most politicians and policy-makers. The “collateral damages” and the obvious contradictions between the (too well) publicized educational aims of nowadays societies to nurture innovation, flexible thinking and adaptability and realities of a politically marketable model with disastrous effects for education are not yet a reason to think of possible alternatives.

It is important to remember that this was from the very beginning a political idea: in United States, The National Governors Association, led by Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, introduced the concept of performance-based education in the mid 1980s. At that time it was called the “horse trade” and in 1994 turned into a clear requirement for states to create “performance-based accountability systems for schools”. New amendments required states to develop academic standards, assessments based on the standards, and progress goals for schools and school districts. Standards-based model was marked since then by a succession of dramatic failures, but internationally was a strong desire to implement the “accountability model” of education. In the midst of the current financial crisis, teachers marched in Washington DC to protest standardized testing – during “Save Our Schools March”, teachers condemned “a horrible decade for teachers”. One of the invited speakers, Hollywood actor Matt Damon, offered his perspective as a former student looking back to what he regards as a meaningful and important education:

“I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am … can be tested.

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

Standards-based accountability fails to address most important challenges for education: fails in nurturing creativity and imagination, neglects the broader scope of education by forcing teachers to teach to the test/standard; de-emphasises the importance of untested topics, ideas or disciplines; is unethical and constantly fails to address educational need of students from low-income families and different cultures; and consistently leads to production of results able only to mask the reality. These pitfalls are far from being news for educational research, but the seductive power of a simplistic model serving political interests is irresistible and now we see various enthusiasts presenting this model as the magic bullet for education – from early childhood to tertiary education. Universities are now urged in different countries by politicians to adopt new… “teaching and learning standards”.

Tertiary education system is looking now in Australia at the very same promise: “national standards in teaching and learning, which all higher education institutions must meet” to achieve “quality improvement”. The hope is that other voces will be heard to raise doubts about a failed model and false promises.

Spinoza once said that in life “all things excellent are difficult…” and my perspective is that simplistic, fast and quantifiable solutions are too dangerous for a complex and excellent thing as meaningful learning. Especially when we talk about lifelong learning and the need of innovation and creativity for our future. I have no doubt that some new experts with proud mediocrity and enough power will find some well designed boxes to fit lifelong learning into standards able to give clear, observable and quantifiable data. The only problem is that for individuals and systems aggresive denial and masking reality with elaborate lies never works – it is one moment when it is impossible to avoid the truth and reality. Just ask now Greece…

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