Friday, November 9

Setting Education Standards: Is Meeting Them Good Enough?

When my son comes home with a C on an English paper, I usually don't give it much thought. There are always other opportunities to earn an A on something else to balance everything out. This time was different — the teacher had forced a four-point project into the five-point letter grade system.

In other words: 4 points equaled an A, 3 points equaled an C, 2 points equaled an F, and 1 point didn't even register. When my son asked about the grade (because we don't accept C work without explanation), the teacher said not to worry about it. He met standards. Meeting standards is C work.

Never mind that there was some confusion over what was taught. The teacher had taught the students how to meet the standards, but did not cover the much more subjective criteria to exceed them. She didn't know how to because the school district had recently adopted a new system called Springboard.

Program adoption and the trouble with education.

To be fair, I don't know enough about Springboard to comment. Basically, it is a foundational component for the College Board's College Readiness System, offering a "proven Pre-AP program that increases participation and prepares a greater diversity of students for success in AP, college and beyond – without remediation." That sounds good, except some teachers have said they don't get it.

Since they don't get it, they don't know how to teach it. And worse or equally bad, my understanding is that the school district rushed the implementation of the new program without developing a transition stage between the last system they had adopted that promised to do all the same wondrous things but didn't.

The reason a transitional cycle would have been useful is because while a sixth grader would enter this new program at the opening, an eighth grader would have missed the first two years of the program and also have to unlearn any unique attributes of the last program. After all, most education programs pre-introduce specific concepts at different times and presuppose that others have already been introduced.

The people who make decisions for educators don't always understand this, but it's not rocket science. Gaming developers, social network developers, technology innovators, and smart organizations do this all the time. They assess what people know and then build products based on easing them into an upgrade system. Ergo, it's easier to introduce people to smart phones as opposed to smart paper.

But beyond new program adoption, there are some problems (and solutions) to the entire process — enough so that we can break them out. They apply to real world management as much as education.

Problem 1: Expectation. Never give people a set of standards without the benefit of what they could do to exceed those standards. While I have dozens of examples, this concept was one of several I applied while serving as president of a local IABC chapter a few years ago.

In addition to giving the board members a list of expectations, I included a second punch list of what they could do to exceed expectations. What happened? Nine of 10 exceeded expectations, with the comparative weak link on the board opting to meet the baseline requirements.

The lesson is simple. If you show people (students too) what they need to do to excel, they will excel. Otherwise, most of them will be complacent in meeting the standards provided (with few exceptions).

Problem 2: Evaluation. The concept of the A-F grading scale is largely pervasive in society, especially educational institutions. For most education systems, it replaces the E, S, N model used in elementary school, even though A-F is still implied with the introduction of the S+ (B) and S- (D).

As an instructor at a state university, I've always considered an A-F grading system less than useful beyond a benchmark to show progress up or down. Otherwise, it's somewhat misleading. For example, the so-called C performance that meets standards inside academics doesn't measure up in the workplace. Employees that maintain a C performance don't last long. It's hard to win with a 70-79 percent effort.

Problem 3: Education. Perhaps more troubling is that the A-F grading scale has another downside. While the school system recognizes 70-79 percent as meeting standards, the reality is that 70-79 percent could be indicative of how much of the material the student retained.

If they only retain 75 percent of the material, chances are that they will be starting at a deficit when they enter the next class. This is especially telling in foreign language courses. Students who score a C in their first year are more likely to go down than up in subsequent years because "meeting standards" does not provide a strong of enough base to move forward with confidence.

Problem 5: Enthusiasm. Confidence is critical to any education. Having taught for the better part of 12 years, I've seen this in my classes with some students. There are always some who are surprised by receiving benchmark papers that score considerably lower than they expect. It puts them at risk.

It takes a special effort to pull these students up after resetting their expectations. If I don't, some of them will purposely underperform or give up all together. At my son's age, this presents a challenging proposition as kids his age carry these feelings forward as opposed to confining them to one class.

As plenty of teachers and I have concurred, course subject is only 50 percent of the educational criteria. The other 50 percent is instilling a love for learning that transcends the subject. The last thing you want to teach a child is that all they need to achieve is a C or, worse, that a C is what they are supposed to achieve. Not giving students (or employees) the opportunity to excel by earning an A or B is the same as setting them up to fail.

The solutions for education start as early as possible and then pay it forward. 

As classes become more encapsulated in high school and college, I am confident my son will eventually learn that teachers tend to have a greater impact than the course material. Some teachers you survive. Other teachers inspire.

As long as he can discover his own love for learning, it will be easier to dismiss those poor misguided teachers that teach to standards without inspiring excellence rather than assign any misgivings to the subject. The same holds true for managers. While people don't always see the connection, they are often teachers too.
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