Standards…?


Some thoughts on standards motivated by a blog on the website of The Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC).

I am interested in and concerned about the talk of standards-based reforms in the developing countries.  My sense is that the talk about standards ignores the contextual differences in standards-based reforms across different countries. Thus, a lot of well meaning people seem to take the idea of standards as invariant across different contexts.  That might well be so, but it cannot be assumed to be the case.  We can develop insights about ways in which standards work differently or similarly in different contexts by contextualising the standards-based reforms in debates that precede their emergence and that also made them possible.

So what are standards?  They are typically stated in terms of benchmarks about what a student should know and be able to do. Much of what is contained in the standards is a preexisting map of knowledge and skills spread out in time and space from the first to the last grade, from the beginning until the end of a student’s journey as a student. With all the pathways and benchmarks already in place in the standards, the student is required to move on an extremely narrow pathway.  Nothing is supposed to be on the left or right  [above or below] of the pathway specified by the standards. Once placed on it, the student must find herself guided along the pathways, nudged forward if left behind. There are forces and regimens—such as the  No Child Left Behind act—put in place to ensure that students stay on course.

When the standards are formulated, mandated, and measured by agencies external to the classroom [as they typically are], a fundamental shift is signaled in the teaching and learning processes.  Under this shift, the teachers and schools must keep the individual students on the learning pathways as specified by the standards or be seen as failing.  Standards become a proxy of success and failure of schools.  Schools and teachers cannot not be seen as contributing to changing the lives of students in any other way that is not already specified by the standards.  The questions about education are dramatically reduced to whether the standards are being met or not and the sources of answers are logically reduced to the test scores.  Not everyone likes to throw the process of education into this iron frame of standards-based reforms.

In the US, the views on standards diverge.  For some, such as the makers and givers of the standardized tests, the standards-based reforms mean jobs and careers and is, therefore, promising for good reasons.  Others worry about them.  The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act and standards is part of the same policy package. So those who worry about NCLB also worry about standards. AJC blogger Maureen Downey eloquently expresses these fears on his blog:

Their teachers were the ones that were told “your grading of the children in your classes doesn’t count any more because standardization is more important to us that the individual grades you provide.” This told them in effect that their efforts at teaching were important but only if they taught using “this” methodology or “this” curriculum, then, when things started to go badly, they were the first to be blamed for the failure of public education. They were told to teach every child the same way with the same material but make sure to individualize while you’re at it. Hogwash.

After a couple of years of this insanity, the “NI” status began to take its toll. Someone somewhere invented the term “failing schools” and, unsurprisingly, the label stuck. Students were given the opportunity to transfer to more test-successful schools, but at a price. Schools that did not meet AYP standards, oddly enough, were often those with high minority populations and high poverty. Nobody seemed to notice the zip code effect that left predominantly white schools meeting AYP standards and minority schools caught by the “failing” label. Oh surely, we reasoned, our government would not want to put public education in a situation it could not win………..or would they?

I struggled with the rest of you as to why NCLB would go to such great lengths to make public education appear to be such a failure, to set up a system that would guarantee failure for practically every public school as we advanced toward that magical 100 percent level and provide no tangible rewards for success and such punitive actions for not meeting arbitrary goals. On top of all of that, I failed to recognize why our nation’s legislators so nimbly avoided even the discussion of reauthorization to change what everyone knew was a failed policy. One day it finally hit me.

They didn’t want to change the policy, because the policy was designed in theory and in fact not to aid education but to create an image of a failed public school system in order to further the implementation of vouchers and the diversion of public education funds to private schools.

via No Child Left Behind: A conspiracy against public education that too few called out | Get Schooled.

In the US, then,  a lot of people are arguing against the NCLB, that whole package of reforms that involves testing students, teachers and schools into success and/or failure.  The influential historian of education, Diane Ravitch, calls NCLB an timetable for the destruction of the public schools in the U.S.

Slipping away from its stronghold in the NCLB and the United States, the idea of standards is gradually finding its way into the talk about education reform in developing countries, mainly driven through funded reform projects.  Here though, more often than not, the idea is becoming operational in a scene characterised by a ‘real failure’ of public schools.  The public education, as I have often argued on this blog and elsewhere, was not called into existence with the same commitment in, say, India and Pakistan, as it was in the middle of the 18th century in the US. Public education did not aim to create a citizenry in Colonial India and dealing with ‘subjects’ did not require an efficient public school system with a universal reach.  While I have argued this point without a scholarly treatment, I recently found a thorough treatment of this theme by Professor Engin Isin of the open university in his work on cities without citizens [so interested readers can lay their hands on the linked book].

After independence, India and Pakistan did articulate the need for universal education.  However, public education remained unable to reach ‘everyone’ in the same way as it had done in North America and other countries where universal education somehow became integral part of ways in which the society was made governable. In such countries, the talk of standards is coming at the end of a century of universal education. But not so in the so-called ‘developing countries’! My concern is more with Pakistan so will talk about it from here on.

It would be interesting to see how the talk of standards will eventually evolve in Pakistan. What are the standards going to be applied to when there are hardly any functioning public schools in place? Will they be used to create schools that are designed to meet the standards? But when the education departments are unable to run the schools without standards, what makes us think that standards will somehow create an incentive to make the schools work? Will standards be used to hold the schools and teachers accountable?  But the schools and teachers could be held accountable already for a failure which is colossal inasmuch as over 7 million children in Pakistan remain out of school.  When folks realise that the talk of ‘standards’ runs the risk of becoming meaningless, they do begin to think in terms of ‘minimum standards.’ [I have discussed minimum standards in an earlier post].

To recap, the discourse of standards is part of a very specific politics of education in the United States. As I mentioned above, the NCLB [of which standards are an integral part] is seen as a worrisome development, a schedule for dismembering the public education system.  In Pakistan, however, the discourse of standards is contextualised in an environment in which public school system has already been exited by anyone who can afford a private education, good or bad.  Here it is noteworthy that standards are not just used in direct governance of schools, but also has a device for remote management of schools run by non-state providers. In England, for example, the standards are being used to steer the schools from a distance.  That is to say, they are part of what Stephen J. Ball calls a shift from government to governance (see my last post). However, a state that regulates through standards and contracts based on them is, nevertheless, a strong and interventionist state, which is not the case in Pakistan

How will the discourse of standards [or minimum standards] unfold in Pakistan, I do not know.  All I wish to suggest is that standards in education are not like physical metre sticks that can be used to measure distances in the same way in all countries on this planet as well as on the Mars.  Needless to say, even those universal metre rods, as Einstein attempted to teach us, begin to look different when different observers holding them start travelling at very fast velocities relative to each other.

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About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

2 Responses to “Standards…?”

  1. Dear Dr. Irfan
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about standards movement in education in Pakistan. I am working on program assessment for newly evolving teacher ed programs and looking at the standards movement in teacher ed. Would like to know how you see that?

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