The pros and cons of standards

February 23, 2014

The pros and cons of standards

If you worry about the state of education in Pakistan, it is highly likely that you are familiar with the term standards. Standards have been proliferating nearly every aspect of the process of education. There are content standards, performance standards, standards for the development and conduct of assessments, professional standards for teachers, etc. etc. The ubiquity and frequency of their use makes standards appear as an essential and natural indicators as well as guarantors of quality in education. Given their emerging importance, it will be useful to understand the various ways in which standards are being conceptualized and put to use in the field of education.

First, let me draw your attention toward a problem of using standards to assess educational achievements. Standards in education are not like physical meter sticks that can be used to measure distances in the same way in all countries on this planet as well as on the Mars. What John Dewey, an early 20th century philosopher, said about the use of standards to judge the work of arts is relevant to our understanding of the use of standards in education. Dewey also thought of standards as precisely measurable attributes that could be used for comparison of physical attributes of things.

However, it did not seem to him that such comparisons were possible for the works of art. Confusion was bound to result when the word ‘standard’ was used with respect of judgments of works of art. This would be so unless we redefined what we meant by standards in the realm of arts. The art critic does not measure the physical attributes of works of arts but judges them. As such, the critic is concerned with judging something individual and not comparative. Yet, comparability is what we hope to achieve by formulating standards in education and by measuring them through standardised testing instruments.

Arriving at and using crystal clear and measurable statements about what students must know and be able to do may be possible, but at a cost. It would be like rendering the works of arts into mere physical objects with precise and measurable attributes.

When the standards are formulated, mandated, and measured by agencies external to the classroom, a fundamental shift is signaled in the teaching and learning processes. 

Standards also have an effect of making students move through an extremely narrow path. Much of what is contained in the standards is a preexisting map of knowledge and skills spread out in time and space from the first to the last grade, from the beginning until the end of a student’s journey as a student. With all the pathways and benchmarks already in place in the standards, the student is required to move on an extremely narrow pathway. Nothing is supposed to be on the left or right [above or below] of the pathway specified by the standards. Once placed on it, the student must find herself guided along the pathways, nudged forward if left behind. The education reforms, then, become a matter of putting in place mechanism that would ensure that students are placed on the narrow path defined by the standards and made to stay on course.

When the standards are formulated, mandated, and measured by agencies external to the classroom [as they typically are], a fundamental shift is signaled in the teaching and learning processes. Under this shift, the teachers and schools must keep the individual students on the learning pathways as specified by the standards or be seen as failing. Standards become a proxy of success and failure of schools. Schools and teachers must be seen as contributing to changing the lives of students in any other way that is not already specified by the standards.

For example, there may be a number of non-cognitive influences -- such as development of confidence, trust, community spirit and so on -- that good teachers and schools have on the students. Yet, these are largely invisible in the discourse of standards, which is overloaded with cognitive objectives. As a consequence, the questions about education are dramatically reduced to whether the standards are being met or not and the sources of answers are logically reduced to the test scores. This is tantamount to throwing the process of education into an iron frame of standards-based reforms. The trouble with this reign of standards is that teachers and schools and also students are likely to devalue any educational influences outside of this iron frame.

So the perspectives on standards diverge. For some, establishing standards and ensuring that they are met through appropriate curriculum, instruction, and assessment regimens is the way forward for viable education reforms. As I mentioned in my last articles, the standards are also central to the global managerial education reforms. The studies of international comparative achievements also rely heavily on standards. These comparisons are also inducing a definite measure of uniformity in performance standards across different countries. Others see standards, the standardised testing, and the use of both to measure students’ learning outcomes and hold schools and teachers accountable as unreasonable and unjustified.

Like it or not, the idea of standards has found its way into the talk about education reform in Pakistan. Several standard-like documents are already in place since 2005. Although they are called student learning objectives (SLOs) and they are standard-like statements about what the students should know and be able to do. Likewise, professional standards for teachers were also developed in 2007.

Meanwhile, there is also a push from provincial governments to conduct large-scale examinations of students at various exit points over the life of school. Punjab is regularly testing children annually at the level of grade 5 and 8, in addition to the traditional secondary and intermediate examinations. Sindh has done the same and KPK is also gearing up to move in this direction fairly soon. With large-scale testing and with curriculum standards in place, the ground is already set for regularly measuring achievement in terms of standards and taking appropriate actions in case they are not being met.

But as we begin to do this, it is also important to take care to not drift towards a narrow conception of education and accountability. As hinted earlier, the formal official curricula cannot encompass everything educational. Educational achievements, which go beyond those that can be measured on tests, should not be sacrificed at this high altar of measurability.

Alternative ways of encouraging and assessing non-cognitive abilities should not be entirely ignored. For example, students’ performance in debates, the development of their character and their sense of community will not be measured by the standards. The schools have, can, and must play a role in developing these attributes and a narrow set of standards, even if deemed absolutely important to have, should not be allowed to over determine what happens inside the schools.

The application of standards needs to be also seen in context. The limitations of schools and teachers need to be kept in view while conceiving and implementing standards-driven reforms. Establishing standards of provision to make the schools conducive to learning is a prerequisite to meeting curriculum standards. Mere stipulation of standards does not guarantee their achievement. There are also several conceptual difficulties in using standards to hold the schools and teachers accountable. I have written about this issue in my previous article.

In the passing, I would also like to mention that the idea of ‘minimum standards’ have also been promoted in some contexts, including in Pakistan, to refer to a set of standards that must be met by all schools and students. Some people also call them Fundamental Quality Levels (FQLs). It seems to me that there is a danger worth considering when thinking about minimum standards. Or perhaps, it is not as much a danger as a check on the possibility of crafting minimum standards in the presence of another set of standards that are ‘not minimum’. It is possible that prioritising the ‘minimum standards’ may render them indistinguishable from ‘the standards’. It is difficult to see what kind of incentives schools will need to put in place to make them move up in the empty space between the ‘minimum standards’ and ‘the standards’? Are we looking at a dilemma here that is worth some consideration by the education community?

We should also know that in several Western countries, including the US but increasingly so the UK, the standards are assuming a central role in attempts to shift the provision of education from the government to private sector. That is to say, they are part of a shift from government to governance of public schools. Under this shift, the state is withdrawing from creating more structures and is focusing more on the standards which are expected to be produced by the contractors through appropriately concluded contracts.

This, then, implies active involvement of state in creation of regulated education markets. This marketisation of education is accomplished through a variety of mechanisms and regulated through contracts. Under this shift, the role of state agencies changes from provision of education to management of education contracts.

So standards have their pros and cons. They are used in several different ways and observers of standards-driven reforms diverge in their views on their effectiveness. Given the increasing reference to them in Pakistan, we will do well to educate us in how, and how not, to use standards in attending to the issues of quality in education.

The pros and cons of standards