A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer’s Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching and assessment.You’re going to have a hard time convincing me that common standards don’t matter. Used in healthy ways, standards can help us distinguish and prioritize critical content and skills. They inspire students and teachers to name things, creating a common language and basic definitions of quality that we can build from. Common standards help educators design coherent learning progressions. They also promote equity, ensuring that all students are provided the opportunity to learn what’s most important, regardless of who they are, who their teachers are, or where they attend school. It’s nearly impossible to achieve any goal in life without setting a standard first. All teachers have standards. When they aren’t transparent to learners and when those standards compete or even contradict those set by others, kids suffer for it. As an educator and a parent, I’ve witnessed this myself many times. I could introduce you to hundreds of eager, hardworking learners who have struggled because they were not taught the foundational content or skills that their new learning depends on. In each case, teachers of different grade levels were aligning to very different standards. I once attended a parent teacher conference where professionals tried to convince me that spelling practice was an adequate measure of my daughter’s literacy skills. What was worse? Even though she spelled each word assigned with 100% accuracy, she received a zero on these assignments because she capitalized the first letter of each word. This expectation had been set by someone she worked with the previous year. Was there any evidence to suggest that such practice improved spelling performance? No, but that didn’t matter. Her teacher maintained a secret and arbitrary set of standards. Not that I’ve ever been perfect myself. The truth is, I spent the first five years of my teaching career encouraging writers to produce volumes of narrative text that I covered in editing marks and criticism. I was unaware of the standards that could have helped me craft high quality, criteria-specific feedback. As I coach teachers to design performance based assessments today , I’m keenly aware of American Psychological Association’s Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, but I struggle hard to ensure complete alignment to them, given the time and resources available to me. Plenty of other people in New York State are too, and our assessments suffer for it. This reminds me of another way that standards seem to matter: nearly every time I stumble upon a valid criticism of shoddy testing, instructional practices, or curriculum design, the reality is that standards were overlooked or even intentionally violated. I know many dedicated, talented teachers. Ironically, most of them lack confidence–myself included. We know what we don’t know, and it seems that the more experience we gain, the further we fall from perfection. We appreciate the complexity of this work that we’ve been called to do. We recognize the enormity of the challenge we all face. It isn’t that we aren’t good. We just invest ourselves in learning what greatness really is and what it takes to achieve it. I know I’m taking a risk here by mentioning one rather large elephant in the room: the teachers who aren’t this self-aware and who have no desire to get there. They are few number, but it only takes a few to do real damage. These are the teachers who chase every shot of uncomfortable with ample doses of confirmation bias, blame, and denial. These are the teachers who mention their ample experience and multiple degrees any time the universe suggests that they may have more to learn. You can accuse me of being disrespectful if you wish, but we all know individuals like this, and it’s irresponsible to deny their existence. After all, these are the teachers who roll their eyes when colleagues who are passionate about their profession work hard to gain respect for that. They’re the ones who use their power to silence kids who are equally self-possessed too. It’s true that many great teachers intuitively set and meet high standards. Striving for common definitions of quality can ensure that all teachers have greater clarity here, though. In my experience, common standards have never been the enemy. I spend a good deal of time helping educators compensate for the damage done when failure to define, share, and strive for high standards has hurt our kids and our profession though. So go ahead: convince me that common standards don’t matter.
A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching and assessment.