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 EducationA 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 DisciplineThe 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 SchoolThe 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 PerformanceThe 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.
- Social Bookmarks - Furl - Democratic Schools
- Google - Democratic School