Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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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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12 thoughts on “Waxing Semantics: “Standard”
  • Tim Erickson says:

    I think a great example of good “national” standards are the ones put out by Project 2061 in Science for All Americans and its children. What makes them so gutsy is that they were willing to cut out so much, and try to find a common set of essential pillars. Sure, it’s science, but it’s good work.

    Having said that, I never quite agree with somebody else’s list, so I’m grateful for the encouragement to make my own. I’m terrified of this. If you want to see how it turns out, see the nascent blog at

  • grace says:

    Thanks for the input! For a while, we trained our teachers to break down state standards into learning goals and daily objectives, using pacing guides/district resources/textbooks as a reference. Very mixed results; while most teachers were on board philosophically, they got caught up in the practical realities: some states had terribly vague standards, some standards made little sense, etc.

    Jason, thanks for clarifying that “just because your state standards suck, doesn’t mean the standards you teach towards need to.” I think this is where our teachers struggle most but it’s important to remember.

  • Jan says:

    I just want to say that your post made me laugh harder than I usually laugh at 6:00 am when no one else is around. I love your writing! As for standards, I believe in national standards, defined in a combination of definition 1 and 2, maybe built wiki-style. Kids deserve the best – they should not have to study whatever one dictator/teacher decides is important. I am thankful for school counseling national standards; it is one of my best resources. I have so much freedom in how to use them, but at least I have a solid base to build from that I did not just make up on my own (although I could have, and most of my colleagues could have, but not EVERY colleague, and that is the point).

  • James says:

    Amen to half-teaching/half-research jobs.

    I’m wondering what you think about substituting the word “Mastery” for “Standards.” This is what we have done at my school, and I like the distinction. I think that it illustrates the distinction you make about what “every teacher sees as necessary to the true success of their students,” without calling them standards. Here are the things we think our students should master vs. here are standards.

  • Jason Buell says:

    @Grace – I think about that too. I noticed the newer teachers online really struggling but like Shawn said, perhaps it’s easier to struggle with this first rather than start with a flawed system and have to overhaul it.

    I do think that backward planning from whatever standards you set (whether by you, school, state) is an incredibly valuable experience and all teachers should do it.

    In California we have to teach teh state standards, I don’t ignore them entirely. What Shawn is saying is that just because your state standards suck, doesn’t mean the standards you teach towards need to. Combine them into big ideas, or clarify the murky meanings. Delete the entirely useless ones. etc.

    I DO think that having SBG in place at a school/department makes it much easier for a new teacher to come in. This year I had to break in a brand new teacher in January. She really appreciated having it in place so that she had a target to teach towards, rather than just going sequentially through the book.

  • Brian says:

    Thanks for this timely post. At the end of the school year, the head of school and I were talking about my desire to implement SBG in my classes next year and she had some reservations about the word “standards”. I told her, it’s just a piece of information that I want my students to know. I’m just going to be explicit about it from here on out.

    Grace brought up a good point though. Having a background in your content area like Shawn does helps you understand what is important. My own experience is that I learned the important concepts in physics by studying physics and ultimately getting my degree in it.

  • Breedeen says:

    @Grace: Personally, I think it would be hard to be a first year teacher implementing SBG–unless perhaps one was at a school where everyone else was doing it too, in which case there would be lots of mentoring/support. I for one have not found state standards to be useful for anything other than getting my induction requirements finished. I think it would be difficult for someone without a strong background in math to look at their state’s standards and decide that 3.0 is more important than 5.0 and that s/he should spend more time on it. But then, I was a math major, so maybe I’m not the best judge in this context.

    On another note, has anyone here spent any time reading over the new common core standards? Are those more/less/same amount aligned to Definition #2?

  • grace says:

    …they are skills and ideas that every teacher sees as necessary to the true success of their students.

    As someone who works primarily with freshly minted teachers, many of whom don’t have as strong of a content background as we would like, I’m a little scared by this statement (although I agree with its spirit). For those who need support, would you say standards from the state/common core/district/on-high are a good place to start developing an understanding of what is most important in a new course? Yes in conjunction with conversations with veteran teachers? Yes in conjunction with textbooks? Never?

    Aside from telling them to “wait until you have experience,” or to “use common sense,” how would you recommend a young teacher figure out what skills and ideas are necessary to the true success of their students?

    • Shawn says:

      @grace: Either way, your first few years are going to be rough as you figure out what actually works for you. You could spend that time running the same summative-obsessed ruts that you were modeled, or you could jump into SBG (it’s not like it’s different material or anything) and get experience with this model earlier. I guess I just don’t see the point in going through the first few years just to have the crestfallen feeling that I had, when you could start on our shoulders. Maybe seeing how broken grading and other assessment practices are is necessary, though? That’s some fat to chew.


  • gasstationwithoutpumps says:

    I’ve been thinking about SBG a lot lately, thanks to this blog, and have put a few of my musings in my blog

  • Matt Townsley says:

    I think that for this very reason, I prefer the phrase, standards-based *reporting*. Everyone claims to teach the “standards”, but few report them out specifically in the grade book.

  • Jason Buell says:

    Thanks for this one Shawn. BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION EVER and will get linked/printed out/tweeted/diigo’d/chiseled in stone at least 400 times by me in the future.

    Like I told Matt, I tried to rebrand it criterion-referenced grading to the teacher at my school but they weren’t buying.

    PS – I gotta say, between this post and Matt’s blog carnival, I’m on twitter FIRE lately.