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How Useful Are Standards?

Standards are everywhere. All month, I'm participating in an online conference on the Common Core State Standards. Students have long been expected to meet their state standards, and now most states are making the shift to the CCSS.

Last Summer, when I attended the LearningForward conference, their Standards for Professional Learning were featured prominently.

This recent Wallace Foundation report recommends that school districts define standards for principals to improve their hiring practices.

If you've ever driven by a factory with a large banner touting its ISO 9001 certification, you've also encountered a different type of standard, which specifies management procedures and structures that organizations can adopt to obtain certification.

You could probably think of half a dozen more examples of standards. But what do they accomplish, and how do they contribute to performance?

Academic standards, of course, specify what students should come to know and be able to do as a result of their schooling. This creates the basic skeleton for curriculum, determining at least to some extent what's taught and what isn't (or at least isn't guaranteed to be taught).

Management standards, on the other hand, are intended to put appropriate controls and procedures into place. ISO 9001 specifies several procedures that must be defined, e.g. how to respond when a defective product is produced. Organizations write their own procedures, but the standard specifies what topics need to be addressed by their procedures. Similarly, school districts typically have record-keeping requirements meant to facilitate audits, e.g. of their payroll and contracting activity, to prevent and identify fraud and errors.

Professional standards, like LearningForward's, outline the characteristics of effective practice, and attempt to ensure that these important characteristics are attended to. Like management standards, they are a step removed from actual auditing and quality assurance, just as academic standards are distinct from the assessments that accompany them.

Across all of these types of standards, I see a few common themes. How might they apply to our work?

First, standards bring certain critical matters to our attention. They help us ensure that we're taking care of the essentials.

Second, standards help us anticipate problems and pre-define procedures for dealing with them. They challenge our assumption that everything is always going to be fine, and force us to think through how we can prevent and respond to predictable problems.

Third, standards help us distinguish between helpful and unhelpful activity, to avoid the delusion that staying busy is good enough. It's all too easy to think that the way we're spending our time is the right way, without considering how we could do better.

But standards don't have to be useful; they can waste everyone's time and interfere with good work if they're misguided or misused. Standards are unhelpful when they:

  • Attempt to substitute rules for professional judgment, when only professional judgment will do
  • Specify a level of detail that no one needs and that interferes with understanding
  • Attempt to handle through policy what should be handled interpersonally or through manager/employee interaction
Thoughts? How do standards affect the daily work of educators, and ultimately, how does this impact students?

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