15 January 2009

Why "Standards-Based" and "Accountability" are dirty words

Who wants to be against standards in education? Who wants to be against "accountability"?

I do. And you should want to be as well. Especially now, as a new American administration wrestles with altering No Child Left Behind, and the rest of the world tries to meet the expectations in the United Nations Article 24 on the Rights of Disabled Persons.

Really? Don't I get angry when a state like Texas lies about it's graduation rates and discipline and gives fourth grade reading tests to twelfth graders to make their scores look better? Don't I despise bad teaching? Don't I have high expectations for every child? Don't I want schools to be properly equipped, and staffed with well-trained professionals, and operated with diverse and advanced curricula?

Yes I do. But, none of that is what these words mean in our political contexts.

When people say, "standards-based" they mean that their goal for school is to homogenize students. The "standards" - after all - are nothing but a set of metrics by which an industrial product is rated. "Accountability"? That's how well teachers homogenize their students.

And these two awful, anti-human strategies lie not just behind Teach for America and Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and KIPP Academies, they lie behind every bit of the legislation known as NCLB, and far too much of the exam-based British education system.

As long as all students are expected to have, essentially, the same "outcomes," we will never have "Universal Design," we will never have "Inclusion," we will never have actual "equality," because equality requires that we accept and embrace human diversity in ways "schools" just cannot imagine.

Not every human can move the same way, hear the same way, see the same way - we sort of know this though we really struggle building classrooms which treat even these differences with any level of equality. What "we" can't quite wrap our minds around is that not every human will ever learn the same way, read the same way, write the same way, discover Argentina on a map the same way, or understand time the same way, and that every time we create a "norm" in our classroom we make those who are somehow "away from the norm" somewhat less than fully human.

And every time we speak of "age appropriate goals," "grade level expectations," and "academic standards" we force students into a two-tier system. We create disability, and rob people of their human right to develop in the way that serves them best.

So when President-Elect Obama's future Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls education, “the civil rights issue of our generation,” he is absolutely right, but I'm not sure that he understands that this civil right begins with individually appropriate educational support for every student, and not the "evidence based practice" which is code for treating education the way a steel mill treats iron ore.

Inclusion, real inclusion, means abandoning our notions of "standards," of "accountability," of "evidence." It means abandoning many of our basic conceptions of what schools look like. It means embracing the individual learner and not the group.

So what would I put in a new national education law? I might start with asking every teacher and administrator to embrace the "Whys" on Inclusive Education as stated by the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education.

Why Inclusive Education?
- Valuing some people more than others is unethical.
- Maintaining barriers to some students’ participation in the cultures, curricula and communities of local schools is unacceptable.
- Preserving school cultures, policies and practices that are non-responsive to the diversity of learners perpetuates inequalities.
- Thinking that inclusion mostly concerns disabled learners is misleading.
- Thinking that school changes made for some will not benefit others is short-sighted.
- Viewing differences between students as problems to be overcome is disrespectful and limits learning opportunities.
- Segregated schooling for disabled learners violates their basic human right to education without discrimination.
- Improving schools only for students is disrespectful to all other stakeholders.
- Identifying academic achievement as the main aim of schooling detracts from the importance of personal and moral development.
- Isolating schools and local communities from one another deprives everyone of enriching experiences.
- Perceiving inclusion in education as a separate issue from inclusion in society is illogical.

Then I might make some specific regulations. Yes, regulations. This my own "ECRE" - Every Child has a Right to Education:

1. Every student will have an Individualized Education Plan which considers the best ways, times, and places for that student's learning needs.
2. Every student will have individualized curriculum and individualized assessment strategies based at the intersection of current individual capabilities/needs and lifespan needs.
3. Every student will be placed with faculty members most appropriate for their learning needs.
4. Grade level or age will never be used as a primary guide to a student's learning needs - neither holding a student back nor making impossible demands.
5. Student interest will always be considered as a gateway to curricular knowledge.
6. Subjects will be integrated, learning will not be considered an isolated academic exercise.
7. All staff will be fully trained in human learning diversity.
8. Every student will have appropriate technology available to allow maximum participation in curriculum and maximum access to their own learning and communication opportunities.
9. All curricular materials and all school information will be available in formats which may be altered to meet specific student learning needs.
10. Every student has a right to group instruction and individual instruction as appropriate - technology which allows for individual instruction will always be available.
11. Every student has the right to fully participate in the academic, extra-curricular, and social activities of the school.
12. Schools will be judged according the individual growth of their students, and their ability to meet the widest range of student needs. Aggregated scores or grades will not be collected.

And it is time to stop supporting educational research which treats students as if they were a mass production item. Instead, we need to support research into tools, techniques, and strategies which support individual human learners. This would be a 180 degree switch from the Bush Regime's research agenda.

So, if we're to make 2009 the Year of Universal Access, we need to begin by saying "no." "No" to the catchwords of this past educational decade. And we need to start saying "yes." "Yes" to students as individuals. Not labels, not groups, not cohorts, but humans.

- Ira Socol

artwork Inclusion/Exclusion by Michael Hager of Washburn University (c) Michael Hager


Anonymous said...

how do you judge individual growth? give me something that will allow me to protect the students who for whatever reason do not have their parents advocating for them. who is going to do the judging? the teachers? the district people who are trying to protect their high-paying jobs?

irasocol said...

This answer might be simplistic - but I have never been in a situation observing children, not coaching, not working in a school building, not involved in student theatre, not even just watching my kid's friends, when I could not see which kids were "growing" and which were not. I think you want a positivistic measuring guide - but that's modernism - I'm advocating for human common sense. Watch and compare, has the student changed? How? What can they do today that they couldn't do yesterday? What are they interested in today that they weren't yesterday? How can they solve a problem today that they struggled with yesterday.

Sorry, there's no "measurement" there, just knowledge.

- Ira Socol

Shannon said...

I love your "ECRE" and totally agree and applaud you for this article.

Anonymous said...

you didn't get my question. who who who is going to be applying their common sense to see if the kid is growing? we have to make sure people who have a vested interest in the status quo aren't the ones whose "common sense" we trust.

irasocol said...


Thanks for the correction, because I agree, if the judgments are still being made by those either (a) self-interested (why "standards-based" has engendered so much cheating by schools and states) or (b) still committed to creating passive workers for a mid-20th century economy, the risks of 'non-change' are huge.

I'm not sure that we can ever remove the tendency of those in power to create systems which preserve the status quo, but we might be able to create a counter-force by empowering students and empowering teachers with very different training - training in serving/meeting individual needs rather than large group-based "grade level expectations."

Thanks for the challenge. Lets keep thinking.

- Ira Socol

v/vmary said...

i just attended a udl workshop in which i stated that instead of 'retrofitting' us tenured teachers, udl needs to be in the teacher colleges. the presenter stated they were getting there, but that research finds that most new teachers conform to the dominant education culture of the school once they have been there a couple years. if this is true, what we need are strong-minded individuals not afraid of making waves going into teaching. now that the economy is bad, maybe we will have some unemployed,strong, confident types from the corporate world finding their way into teaching and shaking things up a bit. ps thanks for not ignoring my comments anymore. weila./vera/mary/anonymous

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a very provocative blog. While I agree with a need for universal access to instruction, I don't know that abandoning instructional standards is such a good idea. I'm confused as to whether you disagree with the concept of instructional standards and outcomes for learning, or if you disagree with the current testing and accountability system. Yes, I agree the the way in which we test students is less than perfect. But when you talk about advocating for inclusion, I believe that research would point to the fact that the testing mandated by NCLB has had a huge impact in the number of students with disabilities now included in gen. ed. classrooms. Students with disabilities are now included in greater numbers than prior to NCLB. The quality of instruction for all students in those classrooms is definitely an issue. All students do need equal access to instruction and instruction needs to be differentiated to meet individual learner needs and differences. I don't think your idea of differentiation is realistic, unless the public wants to pump huge sums of money into public education, which it doesn't. I favor Dylan Wiliam's definition of differentiation. I do think that instruction needs to be guided by formative assessments, but without a learning outcomes, targets, or instructional standards how will you know when mastery of a concept has occurred. I'm not in favor of leaving it to the "common sense" of the teacher to make that judgement. That is a default for letting a major textbook publisher determine what kids should know. Mastery of that standard is not contingent on some standardized test, it is assessed through authentic, purposeful measures in which students are given multiple means of expressing what they know. I'm not ready to give up content standards. I am ready to use UDL to help design instruction that is infused with higher order thinking, that is project/inquiry based, that promotes collaboration (inside and outside of the classroom), that promotes creativity, and instruction that is purposeful with an element of service learning. My content standards will give me the guidance that I need to know if I am making a difference.

Yes, NCLB needs to be re-examined. Accountability is not going away. The focus needs to be redirected away from students and onto their educators. If educators would embrace the idea that they are accountable to their students and the taxpayers, and insist upon and create their own system of accountability, and quit protecting the weak in the profession then the government wouldn't have to step in and shove it down their throats.

Yes, it's time for dialogue. I hope that educators are up to the task so that it will not be left in the hands of politicians.

irasocol said...


Thank you for raising all kinds of questions. I think the problem will always be the question of who sets the standards and why. Right now almost all of US educational standards are "hows" rather than "whats." That is, we test decoding, not comprehension. Memorization of facts, not creative understanding of circumstances. Arithmetic skills not maths understandings. Handwriting or keyboarding - on a specific keyboard - not storytelling. White, protestant communication skills, not global listening and authentic two-way communication. Straight-line protestant thinking, not the more diverse patterns typical of most cultures. "Individual Print Literacy," not literacy.

None of that has anything to do with teachers protecting bad teachers (and I'm fully aware that a cop is more likely to turn in a bad colleague than a teacher is).

So the problem is, in my mind, one of individualization of process and technique, and that requires individualization of assessment.

I can not be too big a fan of David Miliband or certainly the British exam system, but I'd sure love to hear Arne Duncan emphasize "Personalised Learning" the way the UK's equivalent does here:

The problem is that we have a system based entirely in two ideas - missionary conversion of children into white protestants (the reason the US has public education in the first place), and industrial processing of children into workers for capitalist factories and offices (the reason US education is organized as it is). We then "measure" our effectiveness by either "belief" (they have become "like us") or by industrial processing standardization systems (our whole system of quantitative measurement, which was designed to ensure the consistency of Guinness Stout). Teacher training is simply part of that structure, which is why it is so ineffective. Alternatives, like Teach for America, are even worse, because they believe even more firmly in the "missionary position."

It is time for a real dialogue - absolutely, but a dialogue which goes far beyond any we have had in 100 years. One that questions what education is, and which questions everything about how we "deliver" it.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

This is the best discussion I have read in a long time. Thanks for allowing me to comment.

I own a small publishing company in California, www.scobre.com. We produce high-interest books. So, please bare with me, as I may have a slightly different perspective because I am not an educator.

*More testing is not the answer. If a person has trouble losing weight, would you simply put them on the scale more often? This is the logic behind all this testing and it makes no sense at all.

Is a test inspiring to a failing student? How does this help us cultivate his/her talents, and allow him/her to take off in a certain direction with passion and conviction? It doesn't. And those students who are successful these days are doing well in large part because of their home lives, and in spite of their "test-prep classes", I mean education.

Furthermore, when "accountability" and "standards" are set largely through corporate sponsored "research" done by giant publishing companies (with a huge interest in the results and zero accountability themselves), and these standards are created without consideration to the diverse needs of a complex society, it becomes nonsensical to strictly adhere to them as if they are right and absolute.

We set goals and standards as a society, and then we spend billions of dollars on materials that help us meet these standards. The materials are "research based" to improve test scores. But, there are two major flaws in this philosophy: One, is that this research is almost always done by the company who is selling the materials! Two, is that test results are simply a reflection of how well a student was prepared for a random test that he/she cares much less about than their teacher. Is that really a measure of success? If a school can produce great test results, does that make it a great place to learn and develop, or a great place for test-preparation?

Where is the inspiration and passion? How can we create a generation of free thinking, intellectuals within this model?

Anonymous said...

narrator said: we test ...White, protestant communication skills, not global listening and authentic two-way communication. Straight-line protestant thinking, not the more diverse patterns typical of most cultures

vera asks: could you be more specific here? i lived in an asian culture for 7 years, i speak the language, my husband is from that culture, and i have no idea what kind of thinking you are saying he has and i (raised in the US) don't. i think you have been reading too many books and have no first hand knowledge of what you speak. convince me otherwise.

Anonymous said...

narrator said:
It is time for a real dialogue - absolutely, but a dialogue which goes far beyond any we have had in 100 years. One that questions what education is, and which questions everything about how we "deliver" it.

vera asks: why have public education at all? let organized education be like organized religion. some participate, some don't. some find their own alternatives. some are guided by family, some come to it themselves. that is sort of what is happening now anyway in the lives of students who feel their education is irrelevant. i just reminded my students today to never only depend on schools to help you learn. you depend on yourself and let your interests, whatever they happen to be at the moment, guide you. i have one student who is just that way. whatever i teach that sparks something in him he immediately researches on youtube. that way his limited english vocab (intermediate level) doesn't get in the way.

irasocol said...

Book publisher Anon:

Those are all the questions. Our "standards" are always based on something other than what kids need. So our "measurements" are worthless.

I think that we can not expect to create free thinking intellectuals or a creative people from the current system. Or, put it this way, we surely won't produce either from within our current system, and we will limit success to the few successful rebels who survive.


Some cultures prize straight lines and direct instruction/communication. They like 'the shortest route.' Others tend toward more circular patterns of storytelling, of instruction, even of mathematical thinking. In European culture this is often seen as a Catholic/Protestant split, but it also separates "Anglo-American" thought - novels, philosophies, etc - from "Continental" styles. The Irish novel, for example, operates under significantly different "cultural rules" than the American novel - less about "what happens" than the nature of the experience. West African storytelling shows a significant circularity, and a dependence on rhythm not found in the way white American suburban kids are taught to describe experiences.

These are "cultural stereotypes" surely, but they are also patterns, and they explain why, consistently, certain cultures perform better in US schools than other cultures. Those cultures which "fit" the patterns prized by Luther and Calvin do well, those which do not, are not just seen as unsuccessful, but as insolent, resistent, and disabled.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

narrator said: I think that we can not expect to create free thinking intellectuals or a creative people from the current system. Or, put it this way, we surely won't produce either from within our current system, and we will limit success to the few successful rebels who survive.

vera says: i think you give wayyyy to much credit to the way schools mold students. the way you put it, americans are just a bunch of walking automatons. what a laugh. the core of a person is much stronger than that. what sometimes happens is that core is kept hidden because people feel they're dumb because of experiences they've had at home/school/or the wider culture. they then feel the what they think, their creativity, is worthless. this has a lot to do with temperament. a stubborn person can resist a lot, a more sensitive one is going to get burned out and become numb. so schools don't mold the core, but they can contribute to keeping it hidden.

Anonymous said...

narrator said: These are "cultural stereotypes" surely, but they are also patterns, and they explain why, consistently, certain cultures perform better in US schools than other cultures. Those cultures which "fit" the patterns prized by Luther and Calvin do well, those which do not, are not just seen as unsuccessful, but as insolent, resistent, and disabled.

Vera says: so chinese, korean, indian students generally perform better in america because their thinking patterns are a better fit with the patterns of thinking prized in american schools? say what? no no no. also, you give difference is storytelling as evidence of differences in thinking patterns across cultures. i think that is pretty esoteric. what matters to me is thinking to solve problems. you have a problem with logic and the scientific method? you have a problem with judeo-christian ideals of compassion and the common good?

irasocol said...


There is no doubt that you are right. we vastly over-estimate the role of school in (actual) learning. Kids learn all sorts of places, in all sorts of ways, mostly outside of school walls (and I'm not speaking of homework), But, to depend only on non-school learning is to reinforce social reproduction and strengthen 'class non-mobility' among most.

School is a significant 'gateway' for the vast majority. What do the last four US Presidents have in common? They all attended the same tiny group of colleges which have - by all reports - the least diverse learning styles among students.

School matters - often in the most negative ways. Students can learn - in school - that reading is boring, hard, worthless, that maths are irrelevant, that how you do something (handwriting, filling out boxes) is more important than what you know. Great schools, of course, can change lives.

But if we over-estimate what schools can do (changing education alone will not change society), we also over-estimate what percentage of school is about "content."

Don't forget that most of school is about learning to comply with rules and patterns of behavior. Of learning to speak and write "in the right way.' Of learning to sit still. Of learning to follow time schedules. Of learning - most importantly - to be like those who hold the power - in the classroom, in the community, in the nation.

As one of my professors says, "that's not the "hidden curriculum" of schools, it is "the curriculum." Which is probably why America's most creative businesses are usually run by those who - at one point or another - found school either intolerable or irrelevant. But luckily for them, they had family resources - social capital - which allowed their success. Not every student has that to fall back on.

- Ira Socol

Carl Anderson said...

Our traditional school systems are and have for a long time been slated to favor concrete-sequential learners. It is evidenced by the disproportionate number of educators who fit this bill. Could an abstract-random learning style be considered a disability under our current system? If we reformed our schools to better meet the needs of abstract-random thinkers will other "disabilities" emerge? I have seen on multiple occasions students who are typically high achievers struggle immensely in project-based, student-centered environments. What would those new labels be? Hopefully it will stress the need to abandon labels for "disabilities" altogether.

Anonymous said...

concrete-sequential and abstract-random are jargon words i have yet to learn. i think you have no evidence of any learning styles for a large group of people. people become 'educators' for all different sorts of reasons. they are as good as the people who interview and give them the job. a lot in my district are the sons and daughters of educators just about to retire. the parents paved the way. i teach in a huge district. and the critical element that unites ivy leaguers is ambition.

narrator, why do we need organized/state run schooling? the answer to that should drive the curriculm. also, another very important question. i can not figure out how to get microsoft word 'narrator' text to speech to work. it keeps reading every key i type instead of a whole sentence. it's driving me nuts. if you don't have a lot of time to reply- just help me out with that.