Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


Waxing Semantics: “Standard”

I’m oscillating wildly about posting this or not. There’s really nothing more boring than a post about defining a word, but it matters, you know? So, to keep you interested, there’s a picture of an 18th-century terminator later, I promise.

Just like every word tied to education (and science, and math!) there are connotations built upon denotations which are just historical connotations living inside of hermit crab shells that are measuring for draperies. The word “Standard” is no different, and it is frustrating to use because it is so central to what the SBG movement is trying to accomplish.

For other teachers to understand that Standards-Based Grading is a step in the right direction away from summative obsession, they must first know what the word “standard” means. The problem is that “standard” can refer to the following things, and what’s worse is that each definition is about as equally common usage. A standard is:

  1. a member of a list of crap you “have” to teach that was mandated by some governing body.
  2. an important pillar of understanding that props up the entirety of the course you are teaching.
  3. a flag carried by a soldier showing allegiance to some faction.
  4. the default level or norm of a quantity.

When bringing the idea of SBG to our fellow teachers, the first hurdle is often overcoming these somewhat conflicting ideas about the word standard. There is nothing more frustrating than proselytizing for this beautiful idea only to have the person cock their head at you as if you have lobsters crawling out of your ears.

Whether asking for SBG or a Red Rider BB Gun (with a compass in the stock), try to avoid getting this look

Just to be clear:


However, definition #1 is really common and is the problem. There are countless books written with fancy titles like “National Super Standards for the Teaching and Exploration of the Educability of Students With Regard to Scientifical Science and The Teaching of Science Therein.” (You can replace “Science” with “Math,” if you want.)

This is often followed by an endeavor at the district level to put the chains on a course for the sake of “rigor.” Lots of smart local people attempt to draft as many MS Word documents as possible detailing everything their children should know. This list then gets given to the teacher and all is assumed taught, learned, retained, and mastered. This is, of course, total tripe, as the only real factor that affects teaching, learning, retention, and mastery is the teacher and his/her relationship to their students.

The teacher, at best, feels a slight tug from these documents. A sort of nagging imp on their shoulder prodding them along despite the obvious fact that the kids aren’t ready to leave kinematics, yet.

At its worst, these standards are a taskmaster aboard a slave ship. The standards are laid out with surgical precision, and it feels as if the person writing the document was some terrifying amalgam of a lawyer, Thomas Jefferson, and the T-1000.1

So, it is totally understandable that when SBG is brought up many teachers will duck-and-cover. They don’t want to give the “standards” any more power over their classes than they already have.

However, misconceptions are only forgivable for so long:

Standards-Based Grading does not mean that you just copy your district/state standards into your grade book and then test and teach to them until mastery is attained (and your students turn the same gray color as a boiled brisket)

There is an unfortunate overlap in language here, and what the SBG faithful are advocating is much more beautiful: break your course into the ideas you love; the core concepts you know are important, like writing a testable question, like identifying the proper technique before blindly applying one.

Your standards are not the State’s standards, they are skills and ideas that every teacher sees as necessary to the true success of their students. These ideas become your gradebook. These ideas become your core motivation for assessment. These ideas are communicated to students and parents as the places where attention should be payed. SBG is intensely personal: the standards that work for me and my kids will barely suffice for you and yours.

Sure, some of your standards may overlap what’s in the slave-driving documents that are posted as handy-dandy .pdf’s on your school’s website, but I am not advocating a 1:1 overlap, not by a long shot.

1. This is why I will never leave teaching entirely. I can’t stand to lose that real connection. That sort of in-the-trenches feel of testing out ideas and seeing how real students respond. If I’m writing a list of standards, I want to also be forced to teach it. I’m pretty sure I’d make a good higher-ed terminator, though. My dream job is half teaching, half research, and the third imaginary half that’s orthogonal to the other halves gets to play the tron light-cycle game all day.

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Shawn Cornally • June 28, 2010

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