Are We Confusing Standards with Standardization?

Standards, not standardization

My soap box. Here I go again…

As I write this, I’m ducking behind my screen, ready to dodge virtual tomatoes. Please bear with me as I question some assumptions we are making with regards to standards and standardization.

We educators use terms and acronyms, assuming that all people have the same understanding. First, I will clarify terms. Then I will ask questions.

Clarification 1: Textbooks are not curriculum.

Most simply put, curriculum is a list of things students should know and be able to do. We call the list a list of standards because we hope that all students will be able to know and do these things when they leave school. Then we create benchmarks, clarifying what those standards “look like” at various grade levels.

I often hear teachers and other school leaders saying that they want to find a curriculum that teaches to the standards. What they’re really saying is this: They are looking for the “magic bullet” educational materials that will help student test scores improve.

I haven’t used textbooks in over ten years. What I learned from my Australian colleagues is this: Teachers can look at a list of standards and figure out the best way to teach to those standards.

So here are some questions: Are schools underestimating teachers? Are schools assuming that teachers cannot teach to standards unless they have the “right” materials?

Clarification 2: Standards are different than Standardization

If we understand curriculum as a list of standards describing what students should know and be able to do, we can differentiate between curriculum and instruction.

Curriculum is built on standards. Instruction may or may not be standardized.

The progression of assumptions goes something like this (my reaction in italics):

  1. We need to teach to the common core (standards). True.
  2. The district has purchased materials that align with the standards. Okay.
  3. If we all teach this curriculum (a misuse of the term), then [the company’s] research suggests that students will test better. Here is training on how you should all use these materials… Hold the phone!!!!!

We have crossed a line at #3. We assume that, to hit standards, instruction must be standardized according to commercially-created materials.

My next question: Once companies have convinced us that they have the “right” materials, are we requiring all teachers to use those materials in the same way?

Clarification 3: If we agree that instructional standardization is unnecessary, we can maintain creativity and passion in a standards-based classroom.

But we need to make a few paradigm shifts.


  1. Look at the standards before we look textbooks or think of “thematic” activities. The unit on Spiders is no longer a list of activities. It is a list of standards first (classification, expository writing, research, health and safety), then activities.
  2. Use team meeting time to plan. Work together to compile activities and resources that will teach to the standards. Use textbooks and other materials as resources. Trust yourself to create new activities that teach to standards more authentically than pre-packaged materials.
  3. Maintain checklists of standards and keep track of students that have and have not met specific standards. Project-based learning is then tweaked to include the following instructions: Somewhere in your project, you need to show me that you understand the difference between insects and spiders. You need to tell me whether or not your spider is dangerous and how you can tell. When I come and talk to you, I will ask which books and websites you have been reading and how they helped you.

Clarification 4: There are some things that are just wrong.

Wrong: Awards and sanctions for schools, teachers, and students based on test scores. Household rewards and sanctions do not get kids to bed on time, nor is bedtime a single standard by which we judge parenting (thank heavens!). Let’s pay attention to the scores, but realize that tests will never tell us the full extent of student knowledge.

Wrong: Hours and hours of standardized testing. I’ve created assessments where students learn through the process of demonstrating, synthesizing, and evaluating their knowledge and skills. Students learn nothing when they fill in bubbles. A few hours per year is okay. Weeks? Wrong.

Wrong: Teaching all students the same way. The little Steve Jobses and Mark Zuckerbergs in your classroom (who probably test well), will withdraw or start programming social media when they should be underlining the topic sentence.

There are more wrong things, but those are the biggies.

Conclusion: Education is not doomed, unless we confuse standards with standardization.

As Yong Zhao Trim said, American education was “doomed” in the 1960s when the Russians beat us to space. American education was “doomed” according to the 1980s publication “A Nation At Risk.” NCLB was created because schools were failing.

Yes, we have work to do in education. But, we have innovative teachers who care about student passions and are capable of creating lessons that teach to standards. Accomplished teachers know their students and how they learn.

Let’s teach to the standards, but teach them in ways that are individualized, differentiated, and personalized.

My last question: What if we change the assumptions?

If the new assumptions are as follows…

  • Teachers can teach to standards with or without specific, commercial materials.
  • No one set of materials (commercially-created or otherwise) will help teachers teach all standards to all students.
  • Standards can be taught and tracked in the midst of innovative, project-based classrooms.
  • We fight government initiatives that are truly wrong while resolving to show the world that students learn through individualized, differentiated, and personalized instruction.

…how would schools look different?

If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to Expat Educator (in the footer).

23 thoughts on “Are We Confusing Standards with Standardization?

  1. A fantastic distinction to make Janet! In BC, Canada we don’t speak of standards, but rather PLO’s, Prescribed Learning Outcomes… And so we don’t struggle with the distinction quite as much:

    Still, your post really hit home with me on the distinction between:
    • Meeting standards (and having high expectations)
    • Standardizing lessons and assessments

    Your Clarification #3 exemplifies the difference!

    Great post!

  2. Great Post!

    I certainly appreciate the absence of a textbook as a music teacher! Even in the general music classroom, I have never used a textbook. The best thing about teaching my music history class was the research I did to prepare notes and activities for students without the constraints of a text.

    You also touch on testing of the standardized variety. The way school scheduling has changed in the last 15-20 years on account of standardized testing is quite absurd. There are situations where a student absent from a standardized exam will find themselves missing a class or group of classes for as long two weeks in some cases. There absolutely has to be a better way of assessing. ::tongue in cheek::

    Lastly, I agree about teaching the standards, but perhaps to make lasting impression, those of us on the blogging circuit and in positions of leadership need to begin spreading the message about teaching beyond the standards. Many of us do this inherently when we see teachable moments and deviate from the day’s plans on account of sharing some bit of information with an interested student. However, too many teachers that we all know “teach to the standard” — a.k.a., “teach to the test.” I understand it is a difficult concept for some [thinking beyond prescription, that is], but the standards were never meant to be a curriculum, but rather as you mention provide a benchmark of what students should be able to take with them at the end of their various stages of schooling.

    How can we make that next step, getting teachers to cash in on those teachable moments and teach beyond the curriculum (so long as they satisfy the requirements as well!)?

    • Ah, what great thoughts. I can only imagine the frustration of preparing for performances and having large numbers of students absent. Even worse, your work gets devalued when other classes take over your time.

      I have to admit that I’m a curriculum geek. I see some standards and say, “Bring it on!” Others are just fun to teach. I could approach the standards in so many ways! I start thinking about how standards fit together into possible projects, which standards can be addressed using technology, and more. When teaching becomes about the standards (not about the test), and you KNOW students have nailed the standards, the tests lose their power in day-to-day lessons.

      Teachable moments…good point. I’m not as good with those as I could be. That may be my goal for the year. When I don’t take advantage of those moments, my relationships with students breaks down. When the relationships break down, students are less likely to value my guidance or coaching. They learn through the guidance and coaching.

      I guess the best way to help teachers cash in on the teachable moments is help them draw on their experience with standards. The teachable moment may not meet the standard/objective for the day – but authentic discussion may hit another standard. Teachable moments may also hit a habit of mind/character that will make students better learners.

      You’ve given me three more ideas for blog posts :). Thanks!

      • I’m thrilled you found something to use for future posts!

        Perception may also play an important role in how teachers view teaching standards versus teaching content that is held to a standard. When standards are presented from anyone other than your vendors trying to help you apply standards using their product, it is a discussion that seems more threatening and overwhelming than it does optimistic. “You must teach the standards.” This is unequivocally the sort of conversation that sends teachers into a flat spin.

        In your response to Deven below, you mention the girl sitting through PD on a scripted program. This is also part of the problem with how we as teachers often deliver instruction. If we are given professional development in an interactive, meaningful way (i.e., allowing teachers to design their own PD within a prescribed framework), we are more apt to provide instruction based on that development in an interactive meaningful way.

        Standards are good. So is professional development. Delivering quality instruction, for some, may be dependent on the model they have for their instruction. And if their model is relegated to delivery through scripted videos, the delivery of quality, standards driven instruction may never break the mold of “standardization.”

        • So…good teachers teach standards to a high standard :). Nothin’ like adding another form of “standard.”

          Back when I was the only teacher in my grade level (way before Twitter), I relied heavily on pre-packaged materials. Also, I’m not sure I trusted my own judgment at that point in my career.

          If we can just put teachers in a room and say, “We need to teach [x-standard]. What are ALL the ways we can do that?” One teacher can check through her 20-years-worth of saved resources. Another can look online, another can dream up projects and write them down for everyone. Another can access the curriculum library.

          When the teachers share what they’ve found, each teacher should go away with 4-5 tools in their instructional toolbox. Then, individuals can do what works for them. But, in the end, all should have a classroom of students that have reached or exceeded the grade-level standard.

          The reason I love curriculum is that curriculum helps me see “my place in the world.” When I look at what students should know and be able to do from grade to grade, I have a new sense of urgency. If I DON’T make sure students reach these standards, school will only be harder for them the next year. Scripted lessons can be used to help students hit standards. But, the scripted lessons are only effective to the extent that the teacher knows the objective of the lesson and has a way of assessing whether or not students have internalized the lesson.

          I just find scripted lessons boring. But, I’ve been known to use a few scripted lessons when other efforts have failed miserably. Forcing teachers to use scripted lessons will likely negatively affect school culture.

  3. I agree but must mention the elephant hiding in the living room…many teachers want to follow that “prepackaged” material. It takes a lot of effort to develop your own path to teach the standards; now, it fits my mindset, which is that teaching is a life-style, that you are constantly thinking about all that you do, but I am not sure how well this fits everyone. Those who are truly concerned will likely read this, many who aren’t don’t follow sites which espouse development, nor participate more than in token fashion, in many organizations/blogs/webs for teacher improvement. Lest I be misunderstood, standards are not standardization…I am reminded of another teacher’s signature line: “If a teacher can be replaced by a computer, he/she should be.” Our purpose should be that of modifier/moderator of the classroom, adapting as needed for best learning to take place.

    Clarifications 3 and 4 are right on! One other point…sometimes doing what needs doing may look strange for a 3 minute snapshot for an administrator…communication is a necessity!

    As to how schools will look? There will be somewhat noisier classrooms, as students are engaged and sharing what they are learning…who would have thought?

    • Hi George,
      You’re right. Some want the simpler route. Others don’t know where to start on their own.

      When I work with teachers, my first question is, “When the students leave for recess/lunch, what ONE thing do you want them to know or be able to do?” Most pre-packaged items will state an objective. Once teachers begin thinking about the objective, most start asking, “Wouldn’t it be more effective if I…?”

      The second question is this: “Did all the students learn the objective? How do you know for sure?” We then take out a checklist of student names and tick those that the teacher is certain learned what was intended. We make a plan to find out about the others and supplement instruction where necessary.

      My third question to get them out of prescribed textbooks comes at the end of each unit. The question becomes, “Why do you think the publisher put this group of lessons together? What do they have in common?” Unit planning can begin from there.

      Good luck! I know you don’t have lots of time for conversations with teachers.

  4. Pingback: David Truss :: Pair-a-dimes for Your Thoughts » Standards and Standardization

  5. I found early on in my teaching career that I have always started with the text books and I have always had to supplement to meet what students need to learn. It was especially true when I taught the 3rd-6th grade levels, but it became crucial when I began to teach kindergarten. I find their are no text books, so I made my own curriculum and I continue to find new ways new ways to make a difference. I just went to a workshop this summer that deals with this same issue. Response to Intervention (RTI) is meeting every students need to succeed. It begins with good first teaching where you meet the standards, then you are assessing your students progress so that if intervention is needed you make a plan. The one thing to remember is not only meeting the needs of the low learners, but those who need more of a challenge.

    • Aims! Thanks for the comment!

      You’re right – textbooks are not a bad place to start. In my first school, I did not have a list of standards/benchmarks. I attended workshops telling me how reading and writing lessons should include mini-lessons, but should predominantly comprise authentic student reading and writing. In my inexperience, I had no idea what reading and writing skills “met expectations”. I had them keep reading and writing with very little teaching.

      If I could talk to my 21-year-old self, I’d tell her to take a look at the scope and sequence in the textbooks and figure out a way to address each of those objectives. The Donald Graves and Regie Routman philosophies (the only ones available in 1993) became more powerful when I knew what to look for in students’ reading and writing.

      The good news is that those students (now in their late 20s) seem to have done okay – if Facebook is any indication 🙂 The other piece of good news is that teachers are now being trained in procedures such as RTI that begin with the standards.

  6. Loved the statement that instruction doesn’t require standardization, Janet! We have different gifts to bring to our students. The freedom to do so is huge. Working with our collegues we can bring our gifts to bear in figuring out how to best rise to the challenge of meeting our standards. Speaking of standards, what do you think about standards that are based entirely in skills as opposed to content?

    • Great question. I’ve had to sit on it for a few hours :). Please let me know if this answers your question or if I’ve misinterpreted the question.

      Curriculum is structured around what students know and should be able to do. We tend to equate know with content and be able to do with skill.

      When I hear the word “skills”, my mind pictures vocational training or handwriting/typing skills as opposed to academic disciplines. I correct that thinking when I start climbing the rungs of Bloom’s taxonomy, noting that students learn or practice the skills of analysis and evaluation.

      I’m wondering if your question is more about process vs. content (i.e. Should we teach the scientific method or scientific content knowledge?). This dilemma arises most when planning social studies and science units (elementary grades) and in Middle/High School academic courses.

      Judy Willis’s article on brain research (Childhood Education, 2007) states that “Dendrites increase in size and number in response to learned skills, experience, and information.” Ideally, learning environments include all three.
      – If we teach information by itself, students learn a list of facts that will remain in their short term memory long enough to get through a test. If we present them with facts and teach them to inquire, find patterns, analyze, and evaluate, the facts become intertwined as they are manipulated in multiple ways.
      – On the other hand, if we do a fun social studies simulation but do not explicitly connect it to supply and demand, Western expansion, or other content knowledge, we’ve become entertainers more than educators.

      In the context of the common core standards, I would ask this of every lesson:
      1. When students leave the room, what are the essential facts they should know and vocabulary they should use?
      2. What skills can I teach students to help them turn the information into mind pictures? find patterns? form opinions?

      At the end of the unit, the question becomes What ties these lessons together?

      At the end of the school year, the question becomes this: When future teachers/professors hands you a piece of text or a sheet of vocabulary words, which activities will be most helpful to you in order to retain the information? In the end, learning is a skill.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my question. Amazing that you nailed the context without me providing even a hint of context…jedi! I teach middle school science and am always working to balance how much emphasis I place on what I want the students to know vs what I want them to be able to do. As an independent school teacher I have quite a bit of curricular freedom. I rely heavily on challenge-based learning activities in the realm of design and engineering to boost engagement and to provide skills development opportunities. My students collaborate, communicate, and solve problems quite a bit. Then, as we make our way through the unit’s content, we constantly refer to the challenge activities to provide context and meaning. Hopefully, I have found a healthy middle ground for growing those dendrites- between entertainment and short term memory stuffing. Thanks again for your thoughts!

        • Hehe. First time I’ve been called a jedi.

          It sounds like you’ve worked out a great balance. I wish I had had a science teacher who did what you are doing. Middle and High School science consisted of reading textbooks and answering questions. I memorized the periodic table and balanced equations.

          Then I got to college.

          I did the labs and filled in the sheets well until I got to questions like, “If you had added sodium instead of (?), what color would the solution have been?” Ummmmmmm…… No one told me those little letters made things change color. My classmates looked at me with derision and said something like, “Duh. Sodium makes things blue.” Boy, did I feel dumb.

          Thanks for sending students to college with more knowledge/skills than I had :).

  7. Why should the little Steve Jobs and wee Mark Zuckerbergs be underlining topic sentences? For that matter, why should anyone be doing that? Does it teach reading, writing, or anything other than how to underline a particular group of words that, taken out of context, likely have little meaning?

    This is the problem with standards; they say silly things like ‘students will be able to identify topic sentences in reading matter.’ Silly, because there is no particular value to being able to do that. I’m far from being a Jobs or Zuckerberg, but if a teacher tried to have me underline topic sentences I’d likely just get up, walk out of the classroom, and not return. Ever.

    • Hehe. That was my point. No need to put whole classes through those exercises. A two-minute reading workshop conference would suffice.

      And yet, I was just reading a twitter post from a gal who had to sit through PD on a scripted program. It shouldn’t have to be that way.

  8. Pingback: Free Professional Development for Teachers |

  9. Pingback: My 7th Blogiversary - David Truss :: Pair-a-dimes for Your Thoughts

  10. Thank you a bunch for sharing this with all people
    you actually realize what you are talking about!

    Bookmarked. Kindly also discuss with my site
    =). We will have a link alternate contract among us

Please add your thoughts, opinions, and questions.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s