Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In defense of low standards

I have in several places pointed out that what Texan's seem to think are high standards in education are typically very low when compared to the standards used by other states in the USA. And I will continue to do this for as long as I feel that people in Texas don't grasp how low the standards really are. But my argument here is that for some purposes, low standards are absolutely appropriate.

If we want to set some educational proficiency standard that we seriously expect all (or the overwhelming majority of) children to meet then we have to recognize that there are real differences in capabilities among individuals. That minimum standard should be well below what the average individual can achieve. The crucial fact about education is that one size does not fit all, but we do have to ensure that every child achieves some minimal proficiency. For this we need to allow minimum standards to be minimum.

Of course we should expect much more than the minimum from most children. A school in which every child meets a true minimum but little more is certainly failing to serve its students. Unfortunately the incentives in the current implementation of the No Child Left Behind program largely do direct schools to try to achieve the minimum for most students and provide little incentive to go beyond that. The temptation among many reformers is to raise the minimum standards. Unfortunately that will just have the consequence of leaving more children far behind, either through drop-outs or reclassification of children into exempt categories. Let's keep minimum standards as minimum standards.

If we want to establish incentives for schools to help all children, not just those near the minimum then we need to add something to the mix. We should measure schools by the year-on improvement of all children. If a high achieving student (who already meets the minimum standard) improves greatly, that should be to the school's credit. Likewise, a low achieving student (who doesn't meet the minimum standard) improves greatly than that should also be the the school's credit. Likewise, lack of improvement for either should count against the school. With incentives like these, then every child will be most improved irrespective of whether they also reach the minimum standard.

So the bottom line is that it is a good idea to keep the minimum standards minimum as long as those standards don't become the primary standards by which schools are judged.

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