Legacy Educators Are Like Legacy Programmers

Occasionally, we hear about a legacy computer system that is in danger of failure and the failure will be disastrous. Calls go out to long-retired programmers who had expertise in the long-abandoned language who make the necessary repairs. I imagine a time soon when similar calls will go out to teachers who remember teaching before standards.

Standards, you may recall, arrived on the educational scene just before the turn of the century. The mathematics standards are the first I recall (maybe because I was a teaching math at the time). Over the coming years, educators’ professional organizations published standards in their fields and the tsunami was on. The intent of these standards, of course, was to improve education by clarifying what should be taught.

After the turn of the century, these standards were adopted and consolidated, revised and expanded. When reports found students were now performing well in an area that was suddenly relevant, new standards were defined and given attention.

For several years when the standards were emerging, I led workshops for teachers in which I helped them look carefully at standards. During that workshop, we identified the organizing themes (usually about five goals that were broad such as “problem solving” and that were defined in a paragraph), the indicators of progress (usually about 10 items for each goal detailed in bullet points), then the “laundry list” of items for each indicator of progress. When the “new standards-based curriculum” arrived in our middle school in the early 2000’s we found the laundry list of the two subjects we counted contained 180 items.

The generation of educators who were prepared in the decades since “the standards” became common ground all their practice in them. Examples of what I see include:

  • Ignoring their subject matter expertise and deferring to the standards.

  • Reliance on the dubious standards-based testing for all evaluation.

  • Identifying learning outcomes to students at the start of every lesson.

  • The extreme focus on content in grading.

I believe those four are examples of approaches that have been bad for schools and students, and I am hopeful that leaders seek teachers who remember education before standards to avert further disaster.

In my opinion, standards will continue to be useful in schools, but they will include themes and progress indicators and discard the laundry list. (We do have examples to follow. Middle school educators have used “This We Believe” to guide school design for many years.)

These will allow my four characteristics to revert to pre-standards practices:

  • The curriculum will reflect the expertise developed by teachers and that reflects their knowledge of the field. (I think back to my experience when new technology standards arrived in the school where I was teaching technology, and my students laughed at the standards. In general, my students found that our lessons were far beyond what were in the standards.) Surely, educators need guidance in their curriculum decisions, but guidance is much different from the determination that is too common.

  • In most fields, there are many ways that students can demonstrate their learning. As standards became more common, the authentic demonstrations of learning were marginalized. Test results are generally not of interest to folks outside of the school where they are administered. (Don’t think college admissions officers care about test scores. Yes, they want to see a good academic record, in whatever grading system the school uses, but they do not pay attention to test scores.) When teachers include authentic evaluations in their courses, students are creating works that are valued by broad audiences.

  • Learning outcomes are used in the wrong way for many lessons. In a small subset of lessons, it is well that students have a clear idea of what they are being taught. This subset, however, is limited to that part of the curriculum that is clearly know and defined. Experienced educators differentiate training from teaching, and they see the value in stating learning objectives for training, but not all curriculum is amenable to training. Educators steeped in standards-based practices do not seem to understand this, but the difference is fundamental to teaching decisions.

  • Grading is a contentious part of schooling today. The “ungrading” community is gaining members. We see “proficiency-based grading” replacing letter grades. We hear others suggesting the 100-point scale begin at 50, so that students are sorted into five equal bins rather one comprising 59 points and four comprising 10 points. Regardless of the approach to grading, standards-based educators are taught to focus entirely on content knowledge when grading. While this is done to remain objective, it misses the reality that many valuable skills and much valuable knowledge used to be incorporated in traditional grades. (Of course, a good deal of punishment and bias was incorporated into grades as well. In many cases, grading systems were blamed for problems caused by educators whose actions were malpractice.)

We know autonomy is a condition that facilitates learning; when students identify problems, know solutions, and feel they are in a position to solve them, they do. The intrusion of standards and standards-based practices into schools have taken educators’ autonomy.

The schools our students and or society need will be built by educators who have autonomy. Few of these educators remain, and many of us are still around, but are not working in k-12 education. We are here, however, and ready to assist in the work. But it will be expensive as many of us spent our careers working for low pay and our pension funds were not funded to the promised level.