• John D'Anieri

Defining Standards-based Teaching and Learning

"Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them." Joseph Heller, Catch 22

At JumpRope, we think standards are the antidote to mediocrity in schools. Not "standardization," which in fact is something of a precursor to mediocrity, but standards—clearly defined statements of quality, as in the old fashioned meaning of word "standards." As in "standards-based teaching and learning" or "mastery grading" or "proficiency-based learning," or any of the other functionally interchangeable terms that, while by no means new, are only now getting widespread attention. As with much educational jargon, these terms can be confusing. Here is our attempt to define what a standards-based approach looks like in practice.

1. Students have to have a clear idea of what they’re supposed to be learning. This usually starts as a state (or more recently Common Core) "standard," such as:

"Refers to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text."

At JumpRope, we strongly recommend restating such gobbledy-gook in student-friendly language i.e.,

"I use details and examples when I explain what I've read."

Standards-based schools develop clear rubrics that describe what partially meeting a standard looks like, what mostly meeting it looks like, and what actually meeting it (the goal, after all) looks like. Any student should be able to meet that goal with enough time, hard work, and coaching.

2. Teachers need to be able to ASSESS student progress towards those standards, rather than just grade students—and they need to be able to communicate clearly what needs to be done to reach the standard. What does a "C" mean? What does it tell a student about what they need to do differently? We use the term "descriptive feedback," an example of which might be:

"Your explanation sounds correct in a very general sense, but a specific example would help."

In almost everything that matters that we do as adults, we get better gradually over time, with experience and coaching and often by setting goals. In a standards-based environment, we can break down the complicated, long-term series of skills and subskills that make up competency, we can name them so that the student sees them too, and we can coach the student in the area they need coaching.

3. Grades are useful for grouping and sorting, but perhaps do a better job when used for eggs or credit ratings or other situations where a clear set of "standards" can be decided on and people can be trained to apply those standards consistently. Without getting into a debate about whether we should have a common meaning for an "A", the fact is that we’re so far from that that the experience for students often becomes figuring out how to play the game—a game for which the rules are often entirely in the head of the individual teacher applying them on that day. In some cases, an "A" means:

"I handed in all my work neatly and on time." or "My work is of near-professional quality." or "My teacher believes every student should get an A so that their self-esteem isn’t damaged.

By the same token, a "D" can mean:

"Handed in the bare minimum of barely legible work, but too nice a kid to make him repeat the grade." or "Handed in no homework, but scored 99 on the regents exam."

In a standards-based world, all of those things are separate. For the standard:

"Hands his work in on time." I might be assessed as: Rarely.

However, for the standard:

"Can solve algebraic equations in a timed context on a mostly multiple choice exam." I might be assessed as Nearly always.

4. Standards-based feedback is more useful in other contexts as well. In the example above, my report card would indicate—to the parents trying to help me succeed, to my teachers next year, to a college, to an employer—that I struggle with deadlines but learned what I was "supposed" to learn. This has important implications for making learning relevant and effective: if a school decides that meeting deadlines is important, the school can make demonstrating that ability important. We refer to these as "habits of work," and we assess them, give feedback on how to improve them, and hold students accountable for achieving them. This approach not only makes the unspoken standards explicit, but often gives the school a chance to raise those standards—making school "harder" in the right way. Giving a student zeros and making him take a class again, and again, has one fairly predictable result—dropping out, or seeking increasingly less challenging learning environments. "Passing" the student who has not met meaningful standards has an equally predictable effect, usually discovered when a student tries to attend college or get a job and finds themselves cripplingly unprepared.

We hope you find this written definition helpful. Those of us who’ve worked with these concepts for years get to see what a huge difference they make, especially for teachers who want to give themselves, and their students the greatest possible opportunity to neither achieve mediocrity nor have it thrust upon them. As Mr. Heller also wrote inCatch-22, "[They] agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything." The promise for those who are willing to question—and it is a promise, one that JumpRope can help make good on: learning environments where the standards matter more than the grade.

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