Why standards often disappoint

Last month, TNTP released a provocative report with a disheartening finding: many students’ expectations for life after high school are a myth. They assume their success in their K-12 schools will prepare them to pursue their ambitions in college. But for many, K-12 learning experiences do not rise to the required rigor of post-secondary preparation. 

After detailing this problem through both data and student narratives, TNTP calls on all adults who have any influence on schooling to commit to ensuring that every student has access to four things: “grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations.” This shortlist of educator performance standards is a laudable effort to catalyze momentum toward addressing the issue. But the real issue is not just a lack of will, but a lack of clarity around how to consistently ensure students’ academic success. The field's experience with implementing a variety of standards illustrates this point well. 

Education loves standards: We have student achievement standards for college and career readiness, curriculum selection standards, standards for school accreditation and standards for preservice teacher preparation. Why all these standards? They overlie an assumption that if we specify good standards, then expect the education system to meet them, consistent student outcomes will naturally follow.

Standards in education come in two different forms. On one hand, we have outcome standards, such as the Common Core State Standards. They specify goals for our education system but do not specify the means for achieving those goals. With outcome standards, it makes sense to specify the standards at the policy level as benchmarks for determining whether schools are accomplishing the public’s goals for education.

Most other education standards, in contrast, are input-focused standards. They specify how teachers should teach, how school leaders should lead or what features should be present in learning environments or learning resources. We make a mistake when we assume that well-crafted standards will pave a clear path to desired outcomes. In truth, when it comes to input standards, specifying the standards is only an initial step along the path to ensuring consistent quality in education. 

Good practice precedes standards

In any field, standards or specifications fail to deliver desired outcomes until the science of that field reaches a certain level of maturity. Consider, for example, the early days of IBM’s mainframe computers. Initially, IBM couldn’t just write standards for manufacturing the various components of its early machines due to a host of complex technological interdependencies that were not well understood. The operating systems, application software, core memory and logic circuitry all affected each other in ways that were not completely apparent. A change in one part of a memory system might necessitate a tweak in the application software, which could, in turn, cause a change in how all the pieces fit together. This meant they had to continually try new specifications, then test and modify them until they could find what worked. But over time, IBM advanced the science of computing and thereby developed standards for how all its components should fit together.

In general, the science and methods in a field must satisfy three conditions before standards can lead to predictable outcomes:

  1. Specifiability. The standards must specify all the critical design elements for producing desired outcomes. 
  2. Verifiability. There must be a way to verify that the standards are met.
  3. Predictability. A system that is verified to meet the standards must produce the desired outcomes with a high degree of predictable success. 

These three conditions can't be met until the field develops a solid understanding of the cause and effect relationships between inputs and outcomes. Experts may painstakingly develop standards that embody the best of their collective wisdom and intuition. But those standards will be unreliable until the field carries out the research and development to create systems that both meet the standards and lead to predictable outcomes.

Education often fails in predictability

Here is where input-focused education standards often fall short. In education, we frequently specify teaching practices that seem important, such as those listed in TNTP’s recommendations. But that is typically the end of the story. Few schools build systems to make sure that the second and third conditions are met. After specifying the practices that seem important to learning, schools need systems to ensure that the specified practices are in place. Then they need systems for carrying out research and continuous improvement until they can nail down consistent ways to get desired outcomes. 

So, what might an education system with specifiable, verifiable and predictable input standards look like? First, schools need systems for checking that their teachers, learning environments and learning resources meet their chosen standards -- likely in the form of some kind of teacher observation protocol. Then, hand-in-hand with frequent observations, teachers need coaching to help them refine their practices, and schools need continuous improvement systems to help them reach specified standards. Finally, schools need to refine their teaching standards, their observation protocols and their coaching and improvement systems -- using both learning science and trial-and-error experimentation -- until their classrooms produce consistent student achievement. In short, schools need experimentation and continuous improvement to actually get to input-focused standards that work.

As TNTP emphasizes, students deserve learning experiences that make them college and career ready. But getting there isn't just a matter of commitment to rigorous teaching. Together with specifying what teachers should do, schools need to advance their teacher observation and coaching systems until they get verifiable and predictable outcomes. Unless we take these steps forward in how we approach standards and best practices, good teaching will remain an art more than a science, and operating successful schools will be a trade secret that just lives in the minds of a few brilliant administrators.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on Disruptive Innovations in K-12 education and the changing roles of teachers in innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.

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