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Assessments and Standards Are Not Enough to Lift Learning

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California has invested heavily in standards and assessments.  In poker terms, it has gone "all in" with the Common Core of State standards, this at a time when politicians in many states are running for cover.  And it has become the governmental and fiscal rock under the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.  These represent two legs of what needs to be a three-legged stool behind increasing learning capacity.

The third leg of the school is pedagogy—learning how to learn, learning how to teach—and without a powerful change in teaching and learning the stool of student achievement will fall down.

3rd leg.jpgFor the stool metaphor, I am indebted to Michael Fullan, the Canadian academic who is doing good by bringing his education reform ideas south and coincidentally escaping Toronto's brutal winters.  In his book, Stratosphere, he writes, "currently priorities are being placed on standards and assessment while the solution in stratosphere must be driven by pedagogy."

Fullan is a fan of applying advanced Internet and computer technology to pedagogy, as am I, but only "as long as we get the causal sequence right: pedagogy to technology and then back and forth, back and forth."  Computers and computer smarts should be there to serve you, not the other way around.  But I'm getting ahead of the argument about the third leg.

Why won't California's investment in the Common Core and associated tests carry the day?  After all it's a big bet.  The Legislature appropriated $1.25-billion specifically for Common Core implementation in 2013-14, schools and districts have worked hard at implementation, and ed tech staffs have run miles of cable and unboxed thousands of computers.

The reason for the necessity of the third leg can be found in the reality of how standards and assessments are implemented.  I've followed what is called the standards movement in California since the 1990s.  The trajectory goes like this:

  • People who like standards, like lots of them.  Subject matter experts compete to assure that their discipline is represented.  Standards multiply.
  • Quickly, teachers find that they can't teach all the standards, so they pick ones to emphasize.
  • Test makers come to the same conclusion, partly because schools, parents, and students resist tests that take too long.  The test makers narrow their subject matter assessments to math and reading comprehension and emphasize particular skills within.
  • Vendors, consultants, and school districts conspire to teach to what they call "power standards," meaning the stuff that will be on the tests.

Attaching consequences to the test results completes this cycle of reductionism that we've witnessed for the last two decades.  Why would anyone who studies implementation think that new standards and new tests would yield a different adoption pattern?

The Common Core promises fewer and deeper standards.  They have succeeded brilliantly in making the tests hard.  But fewer standards is still many, and the testing regime has already felt pressure to simplify questions to multiple choice and short answer and to pair back what are called the performance items, where, arguably, deeper learning can be demonstrated.

The only policy antidote to repeating the narrowing cycle of standards and tests is to insert another force into the implementation of new standards and assessments.


Adding powerful changes in how teachers teach and students learn both boosts organizational capacity for achievement and creates a necessary organizational and political force.  Charles Handy, the British organizational scholar and commentator, illustrates the concept with reference to the French Revolution's motto: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. "Liberty," he writes, "notoriously, cancels out equality, and vice versa.  The two can only survive in any sort of harmony if there is fraternity.  If we care for one another, we will not press our demands for individual liberty so far that it intrudes on your equal right to be free, nor will your pressure for equality be pushed so far that it denies me my liberty."  At least that's the theory.

Standards inherently overspecify what learning is wanted.  Tests narrow what counts as learning.  Only powerful pedagogy—the act of taking an idea and making it real for students—can capture the goal of a somewhat abstract standard and foster problems or experiences through which students learn.  Only a powerful pedagogy can be sufficiently adaptive to connect standards and a particular student's learning style and status.  Only a powerful pedagogy connects a teacher's passion about a subject to the underlying standard.  Only a powerful pedagogy can be situationally adaptive.

How do you get powerful pedagogy to push back and inform both the tests and standards?  Currently, the push back is politically visible only as resistance, and resistance doesn't actually get anything done.  To be constructive, powerful pedagogy needs to be in operating tension with the other two elements. 

As State Board of Education president Michael Kirst said in an interview with Education Week blogger Marc Tucker, it will take years to get the state's 280,000 teachers up to speed. "The thing that keeps me up at night is that in a state of our size and complexity we need a large infrastructure to equip our teachers to teach the Common Core."  In other words, California has yet to decide how, or if, it will build the third leg on the stool.

Creating a powerful pedagogy in support of the Common Core serves as a political and organizational balancing term, pushing back on the narrowing effects of tests and the multiplication of standards.  This same idea of a balancing term became part of French political philosophy as Fraternity made possible the opposing values of Liberty and Equality. (Photo of ministry of justice, Paris: ctk)


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