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Evaluation: The End Of Performance Standards

In What School Rules? Dave Perks argues that UK society is, in general, losing respect for adults and authority figures. Given the steady increase in school dropout rates, it is clear that education systems are weakening. A suggestion is made to focus on "high standards" as a means to enforce "the need for discipline."

In contrast, Ode Magazine recently published an article called In Kids We Trust (via Pearl) in which the idea of democratic schools is explored. The article asks the question, "What happens when children get a say in their own education?" The underlying issues in both articles invite us to ask the question (updated entry)...

What is the Source of Authority in an Education System?

In What School Rules? Perks argues that, "The ability to set high standards requires having a reason for reaching those standards." The key word in this statement is the word reason. If high standards serve to motivate and inspire an individual to achieve high standards in a personally relevant and meaningful way, then those standards are beneficial. In this scenario, a student is internally motivated to achieve and the reason for achievement comes from within. There is a supportive relationship between the standards for performance and the inidividual striving to achieve them.

However, when performance standards are developed in the absence of the student, it is also possible that these standards are not motiviating or inspiring. It is possible that they lack relevance to the individual and are therefore not meaningful. In this scenario, the relationship between the standards for performance and the individual striving to achieve them is one of conflict accompanied with an inevitable lack of respect.

Education systems are well known for designing and implementing performance standards in the complete absence of the learner. In other words, performance standards are imposed and the authority to impose those standards come by virtue of the education system's ability to grant degrees. None of this is to say that all performance standards are misguided, nor are they always a negative imposition in a person's life. At the same time, the way in which performance standards are designed and implemented often places the student into a position of submission and conformity. Students are granted little or no authority to influence them.

The Language of Performance Standards in Education

A standard may be defined as, "a quality or measure which is established by authority, custom, or general consent." In an education system, performance standards come to us by way of a curriculum, and it is the curriculum that determines the nature of a student's education.

To enforce a curriculum involves the creation of performance standards that allow for the measurement of student acheivement against some kind of benchmark or rubric (e.g. - Ontario rubrics). How well a student performs against the stated standards is commonly communicated, in the end, by a grade or mark often the result of standardized testing. This, in turn, is intended to communicate how well a student has been educated.

The above proposition, of course, is filled with problems with the most basic problem originating in a students lack of acceptance of the performance standards themselves and, eventually, the education system itself. What may present itself as a "discipline" problem may in fact be an individual asking the question, "Whose standards are these and why should I believe they are true?" The superficial appearance of this problem may be a lack of respect and inapproriate behaviour, but the underlying nature of the problem may be one that is authentic and accurate. To funnel people having a wide variety of life experiences into a single framework for performance seems, at best, mis-guided.

Performance Standards as a Means to Impose Discipline

The word discipline usually refers to a kind of training designed to produce a certain quality or character in a person. In its positive sense, discipline means we are focused on achieving something of importance and relevance to us. In its negative sense, discpline is a punitive measure for bad behaviour.

In What School Rules? Dave Perks concludes:

A focus on high academic standards, even if it means allowing weaker students to fail, would give teachers a much easier way of explaining the need for discipline. Discipline built on the necessity to work hard to achieve good grades and the chance to win a place at a good university would do much to improve behaviour in schools and colleges.

It is possible that disipline can be used as a means to enforce a particular system of belief or behaviour. In this sense the word discipline takes on the character of manipulation. The education system is fundamentally a system of mass communication (see mass media). That is, the aims, goals and objectives for education, and therefore everyone in the system, can be traced to a single source of authority. If the people in that system question the imposed aims, goals and objective it is not uncommon for them to be labeled as discipline problems. That is, the system impose its authority on non-conformists by attempting to characterize them as being negative, pessimistic or cynical. It may further penailze them by not granting the individual a degree.

David Perks promotes the idea that behaviour can be improved by the discipline of hard work in order to acheive higher grades. But whose hard work is he referring to? And why should we believe that this hard work is meaningful and relevant? Do we work hard in school simply to gain access to university?

Allowing "weaker" students to "fail" is simply unacceptable. Many students that carry the burden of being "weaker" have received a label that is unfounded except within a system that can't see beyond its own performance standards. In the argument above, a student that is "weaker" is one that fails to perform adequately aginst the stated standards. Aside from the primitive and obsolete attitude toward failing students, there is a failure in the article to question how standards should be created, how they should be implemented, and what the nature and character of those standards should be.

The Democratic School

The idea of a democratic school implies that performance standards are developed, so to speak, by the students and for the students. From this perspective, students are viewed as equal participants in the design and implmentation of educational experiences. An important school in this initiative is Sudbury Valley School near Boston, Massachusetts. Perhaps the most important claim in the article is:

But the most important measures of success seldom have much to do with college admissions or job titles... Eighty-six percent of those surveyed said their lives reflect their values. That’s what the founders had in mind when they started the school in 1968. Sadofsky and another founder, Daniel Greenberg, along with Jason Lempka, have just published a new book, The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni. Of the past thirty-seven years they write, “We believe that the school provides an environment that trains each individual to think for themself, and to lead an examined life that is fulfilling, meaningful, and fun.

The school takes a dramatically different approach to the idea of performance standards - there are no tests or grades. At the same time, the article points out that performance standards considered essential (i.e. - in the areas of reading, writing, and math) are achieved as a natural by-product of the environment, but in addition students acquire other qualities and capacities well beyond the basics.

Perhaps one of the most important and engaging aspects of a democratic school is the fundamental importance of inclusion and participation. By this I mean that the underlying principles and assumptions that guide the educational experiences are openly shared and co-developed by all participants. Needless to say that this kind of environment is not without problems itself, however, the fundamental direction of the school is more resilient and vibrant than the traditional school setting.

Human beings are born to learn. Democratic schools, which like every school have their flaws, raise provocative questions about the best way to allow our children to find their authentic paths, a sense of personal responsibility, and contribute to a free and thriving world.

The key, I believe, is that Sudbury Valley School is focused on raising provocative questions rather than imposing a rigid structure of information and measurement. These questions are inclusive and participatory in nature and are not accompanied by standardized answers. In this sense, reaching for an "examined life" becomes more realistic since questions and the pursuit of possibilities that drive the experience.

Alternatives: Standardized Performance vs. Democratized Performance

The Alternative Education Resource Organization contains a database of 185 democratic schools in 31 countries. The Sudbury Valley School website also posts a a list of democratic schools.

The traditional curriculum is impostional and largely excludes input from those receiving it. Students in this environment are compared to and measured against a general set of performance standards that they have had little or no input in. The assumption is that this general framework performance is what every individual needs in their life. The proposed benefit, however poorly conceived, is that this system helps to ensure equal access to education for all and therefore equal opportunity in society as a whole.

The democratic school eliminates general performance standards and measurement systems. That is not to say, to be clear, that they are unconcerned about performance itself; a democratic school does not subscribe to performance standards that are not inclusive and participatory. In other words, the students and teachers are co-designers in establishing the aims, goals and objectives of the system they are in. The proposed benefit is that students are more fully versed in life experiences without a loss of basic skills.

One of the most important differences in a democractic school when compared to the traditional school setting is the source of authority.


  1. Social Bookmarks - Furl - Democratic Schools
  2. Google - Democratic School

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Excellent article here as well as the Ode one. The key to learning is that it starts with individual moitivation and initiative. I found another good blog on learning:

Hi Pearl,

I'm off to New Zealand so I'll be AWOL for a bit.

I really like the connectedness of your thinking. There are many patterns of power and influence to explore and for me it leads to thinking about what equilibrium might be.

It's interesting to see that the issues being discussed in the UK are quite similar to the issues here in Canada - especially Ontario. Articles like the one referred to above offer little, if any, help.

This is a comment I will need to think a lot about - and write about further - many thanks for sharing your thoughts:-)


This raises a lot of questions for me. Is respect being lost or redefined as societal lines become more permeable and the hierarchy flattens. Is it a matter of curriculum or of economics. Is the onus on the educational system to change? The curriculum or the society of indivduals to look carefully at what they want and expect and where the responsibility for getting it lies. If the learners are not gaining critical thought, where does the buck stop. The teachers can only teach. They offer. it is up to learners to learn. No one can learn for them. The teacher is to make the path easy given all the resources, physical and of understaning at hand. But it is a dialogue. The learner needs to speak. The citizens call for accountability through entrance and exit exams as in the old days. Does this achieve what it sets out to acheive? Does it conflict with the many paths of possibility now open to the general education of the learner who could do anything from changing genes to making jeans? The old hierchy worked because the options were simpler, priest, nurse, lawyer, bricklayer, mother, doctor and a handful of other practical uses for the learning to expand on. But more has changed than the curriculum. The spirit in the classroom is not one that greets the teacher, salutes the flag, says and prayer and sits in unison and addresses the schoolmaster or school marm as such. More likely as Judy or Mike.

So firstly, my take on the notion of respect. Is respect more changing in recognition that each person is bringing something different to the table, teacher and student. Whereas before teachers may have secretly among themsleves admitted they learned something from their students, now its open.

Next, failure rates. Students have always dropped out and failed. Some minds don't or won't bend the way any given classroom presents material. A certain percentage drop out from pregnancy, mental illness, abuse, economic necessity.

But admittedly drop out rates have increased. Is is tied causally to something in the economy? Is the curriculum a cofactor that intensifies some pressure or a factor alone?

How much of this is driven by curriculum? How much of that is driven by funding where the national agenda funnels money to the debt, to international aid, to small busines loans, to bigger expense accounts for diplomats, to helping in conflicts, to training pre-school instead of older children? How much of that is fall out from mandates of class-sizes, of lack of recognition or upgrading of qualified overseas teachers who have immigrated, of union posturing breaking down the willingness of funding bodies and teachers to just talk and get their needs met for books that would address the needs of the students not recongized in the classroom?

How many excellent teachers never go to through training discouraged by the culutral bias that teaching is what you do if you don't make a decision about what you'd really like to do? Or that those who can't do, teach. How much role does management play in the morale of teachers that plays out in classrooms and lives of kids?

When kids are sanctioned to get a teacher fired by provoking a teacher into losing his temper and therefore his job, in a context where the client is always right, the teacher always wrong, what happens to subconscious tensions, tolerances, reactions.

To find cause you have to go thru a complex tangle. Whose goals are not being met? Whose goals are? What ultimately is a school to do?

A school is to teach people what some peer group has already thought, to get them up to speed as quickly as possible so that they may exceed their masters and progress our culture as quickly as possible, to advance medicine, science, understandings of psychology, of arts, to gather steam and gather insights to collectively move forward.

How do we measure Achievement when almost everyone functions, can read, can use a dictionary, a computer, a bank account, can be organized enough to attend on time so that the whole group with complete set of members can work together. When everyone is good enough, but there are only so many markets for the supply of well-educated people, irrelevant, or in the very least, not terribly important, criteria has to be pulled out just to cut down on the number of candidates to compete for the few positions.

Tradtionally there was a postive connnotation to doing "an honest day's labor" and to "not be afraid to bend your back". The closest we come to that now is priding "Productivity" often measured in written reports. There's been a shift of values and of needs and both feed off each other but there remains a value and recongition of the fluff that some of this must for some be as the institution tries to stretch to be everything to everyone. It means people who don't respect what they teach get snarky about it publicly, setting the tone for cynacism and feeling of hypocritcalness for others. A sort of informal kinship is set up among the naysayers, teacher and learners, who don't respect the usefulness of some of the skills and information being taught by people in cooperation with them on the agenda of basic education. Ignorance as well as understandings can be taught. At the same time learners are brought into a section of society, cultivated into a certain bias widespread in society that they are being readied to join. It is up to the learner to pick their alliances of what they will join, what they will fight and what they will take as their rigthful place to be peer educators in their own rights, promoting the bias of their own groups. This too models what they will do in the society at large but within a safely confined place. What happens within shcool walls generally doesn't get out to their church, their neighbourhood, their family even. It's a discrete testing and tasting group for identity and social group formation.

Does this have to happen in the school? No, but because of larger economic pressures we are extendeding the time in school year by year of what counts as basic education, or well-educated.

Because there seems currently to be a societal snobbery against "uneducated" people, and against "child labor", even jobs that don't require "education" require de facto 13 years of it. Although status is a myth of the brain, a cultural artifact, it drives our society and people to even do jobs that prefer less or are less good at. For instance, people who like nothing better than to work stone with their hands end up in public service management because they feel they should. They follow their billets instead of their bliss and for the sake of some imagined should spend their life half-heartedly pursuing and making their children pursue some path of education.

This tangles into the classroom and becomes a problem when some,maybe most, teachers and some students aren't there, aren't present to the opportunity, even obligation to grow. They aren't thinking big. They are thinking, make it to the hump, go through the motions, get to the weekend, chill, do it all again until retirement.

They are defining a successful life differently. Their goals are different. They don't care about ultimate achievement. They want a paycheck so they can buy wheaties and cola when they are not even on special. To do that they want good grades, however it is measured, to get prestige and a good job so they can get to the real pleasure of life of sports, or babies, beer, travelling or whatever. The means of the grades doesn't matter. It's meaningless hoops to get through. They will engage as much as they have to no matter what the hoops are.

The goals of the institutional mandate is not the same as the goals or aspirations of each individual. A community that large must have some despotic ruler that will punish lack of obedience, crack the whip and have people do lip service to what they must. Otherwise we fray into a community of voices each wanting something different from the "same" experience of the institution.

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