Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Case for Why Standards Based Instruction is Important….And Hard

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do these other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win." 
-- President John F. Kennedy, 1962

When John F. Kennedy spoke the words above, he set the nation on a path that was chosen, not forced upon us.  Sure there was the huge hit to our country’s ego because of Sputnik, but the when President Kennedy issued this challenge, he didn’t have to, he chose to do it.   While not as magnified, educators face hard choices every day…most accept the challenge, others do not.

Standards Based Instruction/Assessment is one such choice. First of all, standards based instruction is not mandated, it’s a choice.  Individual educators, campuses, and even entire school districts have accepted the challenge, “not because it is easy”, but because they believe it is the right thing to do to truly transform education.  Intellectually, we know it is important to monitor students work, but often the task can get overwhelming, especially when we frame it in the context of Standards-Based Instruction. Assessing this way is messy because it forces us to articulate what quality looks like. It is hard work and it can become frustrating. Yes, we have prescribed TEKS and a District Scope of Sequence, but neither of these mandates either “how” to teach or how to “assess” to a certain standard of quality.

Things to consider in a Standards Based system of learning:

Hard Choice #1- Sharing Learning Expectations:  Teachers and students both must understand what the standards are and how they will be expected to meet them.  Some teachers call these learning targets or learning goals, but the premise is that teachers and students understand what they are trying to learn together and they understand what it is will take to accomplish their goals.  In the best of situations, groups of teachers intentionally plan for these expectations before ever designing the activities for the students.

Hard Choice #2-Eliciting Evidence:  Too often in education, we make decisions with our gut, but in a Standards Based System we need evidence that students met the learning expectations.  Here is where it often gets messy….defining learning targets is easy compared to actually defining consistent levels of  quality with evidence of student work.  Teachers that engage in this practice have to have a lot of trust and confidence to begin looking at work together and calibrating their scoring of student work.  What “meets” the standard has to consistent across the classroom, campus, and district.

Hard Choice #3- Feedback: Teachers and student both need feedback to improve. To give quality feedback, every stakeholder involved (students, teachers, instructional coaches, supervisors, etc.) need to have a clear understanding of the learning expectations and a consistent understanding of what the evidence looks like that shows the standard has been met. However, the next step includes a very hard choice for many: giving honest, constructive feedback is essential in a Standards Based system.  If a person in not meeting the standard, they need to know why and what they can do to improve.  If they are meeting the standard, they also need feedback on areas of strength and next steps in learning.  Giving high quality feedback is difficult and takes time, but it also takes courage.

Hard Choice #4- Self Assessment: Once students understand the learning expectations, know what evidence looks like, and have been giving feedback on their own products, the are ready for self-assessment.  Students must be taught to articulate their own products based upon the standards.  When a student can assess their own work in an honest and consistent manner you can be assured that they understand the learning expectation and know weather or not they have achieved it.  Allowing students the time to do this is a choice we make in a Standards Based system.

Hard Choice #5- Peer Assessment: In a successful Standards Based system, teachers and students have found a way to share with each other about their work.  Students who can look at another student’s work and clearly determine and describe if it has meet a standard is learning at its highest level.  They are collaborating and understanding more than many of us could ever imagine.

Following these five steps in a classroom or a campus may sound simplistic, but it is not.  However, educators all over continue to choose to take the hard path because they know it is better for kids.  In the words of JFK, “that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win!”


  1. I have been going to some SBL chats and researching this and, more and more, I am convinced this is what's best for kids. Hard choices indeed and will require lots of conversations and open minds, along with a courageous spirit to forge change. But you know, that's the good stuff! I am excited to see this post!! As they say be the change you want to see. We still can change the world :)

  2. Thanks so much for reading along! Teachers like you are making a big difference already!

  3. The key in standards based assessment lies in the collaborative work between teachers o as they decide what the learning will be and how it will look and be assessed and between the teacher and student as the work is being done. One point you directly addressed is the importance of the feedback. Students thrive when authentic feedback is given in timely manners. As this work continues in improved student learning, educators must be given these opportunities to collaborate and grow in their understanding of what authentic learning and engagement looks like. As leaders of learning, we all must not just meet the challenge but "get messy" with it!

  4. This topic makes my mind think about how this could include ALL students in our education world. When the classroom becomes about understanding and learning, it affects ALL different students. For the student who is all about turning in the paper, it challenges them to focus on understanding the material. For the student who is already thinking, it reinforces their critical thinking and rewards them for thinking, not just completing the worksheet. For the student who is struggling, it points their focus to effort and understanding. For the student who isn't an approval addict, it motivates them to try and holds them accountable for the meaningful parts of the class.
    I have seen this in action and believe it is the way to go for ALL students. Just like Linda said, it will take a team of teachers to work together to develop the indicators that teachers should look for that are evidence of student learning. That is the tricky part.
    Looking forward to having conversations with other educators on this topic. I have implemented this in my previous setting and although it wasn't perfect, I was given permission to try several things and sort out the good parts and improve on other areas. It takes time and would be better implemented if a group of teachers were collaborating about it.