In previous blogs, I’ve noted that while standards-based reform efforts appear to have “raised the floor” on student performance, they’ve been less successful in “raising the ceiling” or unleashing the talent of our students at the upper-end of the spectrum. In fact, Harvard education professor Martin West noted that far greater percentages of students in other developed nations perform at the same levels demonstrated by the top six percent of students in the United States.
Students also appear to be detached from the system of standards-based assessments and accountability that we’ve so carefully constructed over the past two decades—as evidenced by the fact that surprising students prior to taking a standardized test with a mere $10 bribe for good performance is enough to make them do significantly better on the tests.
So what’s the answer? More bribes for students so they’ll play along with our accountability systems? While bribes may work to some extent, as I noted in a recent column in Educational Leadership, external rewards tend to have diminished results over time, requiring greater dosages (or payouts) to be effective. Moreover, the presence of external rewards can serve to undermine intrinsic motivation, which researchers have found can have a powerful influence on student success.
In the video below, education author and speaker Sir Ken Robinson notes that raising standards is fine—indeed, there’s no sensible argument to be made for lowering them. However, if we only focus on what we want students to learn and not why we want them to learn it, we may be doing them a great disserve.
Robinson speculates that it may be more than just coincidence that “incidences of ADHD have risen in parallel with the growth of standardized testing” and points out that “our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth.” And yet, we penalize “them for getting distracted and from what? Boring stuff … at school.”
He points to studies that show that the longer students stay in school, the less creative they become. Similarly, other researchers have found that the longer students stay in school, the less intrinsically motivated they become.
However, standards need not come at the expense of student engagement. The Edutopia web site, for example, provides many vivid examples of learning environments, such as The Build San Francisco Institute, where standards-based learning opportunities are incredibly engaging for students, many of whom were previously at-risk for dropping out of school.
In Tulsa, a team of curriculum developers and researchers from McREL designed a pilot summer program, Cosmic Chemistry, in the Union School District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Cosmic Chemistry gave teenagers, many of whom had been identified as unlikely to enroll in upper-level high school chemistry courses, an opportunity to interact with NASA scientists and experience the thrill of inquiry and discovery of true applied science. The program resulted in excited students who are now intrigued by science— so much so that 80 percent of students who participated in the course enrolled in Advanced Placement chemistry courses at their high schools.
This suggests that when we consider student motivation and help students understand what’s in standards-based learning for them, we create relevance in their learning, and it becomes possible to not only raise the floor with standards, but also the ceiling on student performance.
Sure, it takes a bit more planning, creativity, and effort. But the results—and the expression on these students’ faces—would suggest that it’s worth it.
As 46 states move to adopt Common Core State Standards, the opportunity may never be better to not only rethink the standards themselves, but how we might go about creating a standards-based system of education that truly engages student interest and motivation.
While some educators might feel weary or overwhelmed with the enormity of transitioning to new standards and say, “I agree with you. But right now we just need to take care of adopting the standards. We can worry about that other stuff later.”
However, we might do well to recall the words of the late, great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who famously remarked, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”
What are your thoughts? Is it possible to make standards-based learning engaging for students?
Written by Bryan Goodwin, Vice President of Communications, Marketing, and New Business Development.