• Abner Oakes

Policy Ideas on Standards-based Teaching and Learning

We don’t often delve into the standards-based policy arena; we leave that to the experts from KnowledgeWorks, iNACOL, and Great Schools Partnership. But, in these past six years, we have learned much about schools, districts, and states implementing standards-based grading and wanted to take that learning and wade some into this arena. (By the way, we know that this realm goes by several different names; for this post we will use standards-based teaching and learning.) So, here are our thoughts on six ideas:

Standards: Our most effective implementing schools and districts take very careful time setting up their common standards, the heart of any implementation, and state policy ought to help nurture that careful consideration. Most JumpRope schools ensure that there are standards beyond academic ones - post-secondary and career readiness and social and emotional standards - and we are in complete agreement with policies that push for multiple sets of them. In addition, policy ought to encourage schools and districts to think about standards beyond the Common Core, Next Generation Science, and other more global standards. We understand that this may be seen as policy meddling with more local decisions, but there should be be a lever to encourage schools and districts to unpack more global standards into locally appropriate learning targets. The folks over at KnowledgeWorks and iNACOL have used the phrase “explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives.” Again, in our experience, effective implementations tend to follow thoughtful dealings with standards - including ensuring explicitness.

Time and place: Most JumpRope schools are fairly traditional when it comes to time (length of school periods, day, and year) and place (teachers and kids are in a classroom and school building), but we’re a dreamy bunch and support policies that get schools and districts to experiment with the time for and place of learning. As this definition at the federal Department of Education states, “Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning.” As I wrote in this post, I came of age at the beginning of the standards movement, with much heady talk about the constancy of standards and the flexibility of time and place - what could be called a pure approach to standards-based teaching and learning. Here at JumpRope we’d like to see state and federal policy that pushes schools and districts to experiment with time and place - testing “personalized learning” as KnowledgeWorks states.

Assessment: We’re not opposed to annual summative assessments, to measure how students progress from year to year, but we are opposed to their, at times, misalignment with what local jurisdictions are doing and their seeming overabundance. Several of our schools use very rich, end-of-school-year performance assessments to measure student mastery of standards - and then those same kids are asked to sit for a series of bubble sheet tests, some of which go on for days and most of which do not give any better info about student learning than the performance assessments the students had previously taken. We’re very much for policy recommendations that encourage different thinking when it comes to assessment, particularly the relationship between local and federal assessment practices.

Systems of support: From our experience, implementing a standards-based learning approach in a school district is a huge undertaking, and oftentimes the district and school leaders who lead that implementation need assistance. We know this as many reach out to us with their queries and quandaries. Any sort of standards-focused policy needs to ensure that there is state-level technical assistance available to implementing districts. In fact we’d go one step further: Ensure the same for state-level folks; to become really valuable resources to their districts, they too need to become experts in the area of standards-based teaching and learning.

Money: Funding is a two-edged sword. Yes, money connected with implementing a standards-based grading approach will drive implementation, as districts take advantage of federal or state funding. But that funding can also drive ineffective implementations, as districts leap to get it, without doing the hard, behind-the-scenes work that needs to happen before any implementation - in our experience, actions such as creating a really thoughtful standards bank, writing and sharing a comprehensive grading policy, and developing a plan for outreach, so that all community members understand the sea change about to happen, with this shift to standards-based teaching and learning. Yes, we’re all for connecting funding to new state and federal programs that encourage a standards-based approach - that allow schools and districts to test this new approach, as I wrote above - but that funding needs to be connected with the achievement of benchmarks that identify an effectively functioning standards-based system. A thoughtfully written and comprehensive grading policy, for example.

Standards-based language: Maybe I should’ve started with this: Get standards-based language into state and federal law or language that pushes this approach. Vermont’s Act 77 is a good example, with it “encouraging flexible pathways to secondary school completion.” And give that language teeth: Act 77 uses the 2017-18 school year as the time that Vermont school districts need to ensure that every 7th grade student has a personalized learning plan. Several states have this kind of language in education-related law but with no deadlines or as just an option for school districts. When just an option, we have seen, districts are not undertaking or are undertaking it in a piecemeal, ineffective manner. Make sure that any policy has bite.

We know that there are other possible policy recommendations beyond these six and encourage you to look at the aforementioned groups for a deeper dive into the big ideas that help frame a robust and effective standards-based system. We also encourage you to watch the various states that are putting ideas into action; yes, some will be more effective creating high quality standards-based systems in their states, but having that spectrum of implementation quality is a commentary on policy and can help future states shape their own, all in the effort towards effectiveness.

I got the above photograph here.

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