Educational Standards May Not Help Education

This article stems from my frustrations as a teacher, as someone who supports other teachers, as a researcher, as a non-traditional scholar—and as a mom. My frustration is with standards, and how obsessing over them detracts us from what is really important in education.

Standards are inherently subjective, political, and discriminatory. They are always someone’s standards, often the dominant minority that holds power and influence, often set by policy-makers, not practitioners.  More often than not, they fulfill the (neoliberal) need for control and measurement, not the authentic need of improving the value of the actual learning experience in the classroom.

When people talk of standards for quality control, particularly with respect to teaching (as in accreditation), they often refer to some measures that are unified and decontextualized, such that everyone who conforms to them are deemed “worthy”. However, did the group of people who set those standards consider all the nuances and complexities of local contexts that those upon whom the standards would be imposed operate in? Did they check how the standards would play out in practice? An example of a potentially disastrous standard is pre-defined learning outcomes that do not take into consideration students’ starting points. Another example is rigid lesson plans that do not respond to student needs. Other examples relate to setting benchmarks for when a child should meet a certain milestone, and measuring these in standardized ways that fail to take into account a holistic view of the child.

These macro approaches dehumanize teachers, by reducing faith in their judgment to react appropriately in the micro situation of their own classroom. They dehumanize students by making them constantly comparable to some arbitrary yardstick where the goal is not to fall short, rather than to better oneself. They dehumanize parents by not involving them and making them always feel judged by how their child is not meeting someone else’s criteria for how they should be. Things like standardized tests dehumanize the learning process itself by reducing it to a number a student achieved in a few hours of standard exam time.

I recently met someone who told me her child was on the “[autism] spectrum”. She told me how difficult it had been to diagnose him, until she finally found someone who told her to disregard whatever diagnosis or label would apply, and to focus instead on working with the child on particular areas where his quality of life could be improved.  I thought this was a much better approach—to focus on how to help others improve rather than how to diagnose and categorize them. (Listen to a podcast about this topic.)

We could take this to a broader level of university accreditation and what it means to seek accreditation from external institutions that know very little about each institution’s local context. Al-Fanar Media recently showed the amount of interest in Arab universities in external accreditation.

The idea of some universities and degrees modeling their design in such a way as to seek accreditation implies they are building a program to fit some external person’s standards rather than looking more closely at what goals make most sense for their own context. It is possible to try to do both in parallel, I suppose, but difficult to balance the two fairly. Does the different cultural context of the United States and United Kingdom transfer well when evaluating local programs in the Arab region, some of which are themselves contextually very different from each other?

We delude ourselves if we think that going through a checklist of factors for institutions and giving them accreditation tells us something meaningful about what kind of learning is happening. I admit I have never been at the center of a university accreditation, but from the periphery one can see how accreditors miss out on important details simply because those details are not on the list of items they need to look for.

It is like looking at a company’s business plan without checking how it is enacted day-to-day. It is akin to looking at someone’s syllabus and textbook and making a judgment on the quality of their teaching.  Or looking at infrastructure of an institution like their laboratory, but not seeing how students work in it on a daily basis. Teaching is more than design, it is a process that takes place between teachers and learners. Learning is a process that happens within the learner in and out of the classroom and a syllabus will not enlighten you as to how much learning has occurred. An exam or final research paper might. But it will only show you the end product, not the process.

An administrator or accreditor may think that at least they have seen the learning “outcome,” and this is what matters, but they have not seen where the students began, what they went through, how they were supported to get from point A to point B. For all we know, Ivy League institutions might simply be brilliant at choosing good learners, rather than at providing a good education. A real test for Ivy League education would be if they could handle a full cohort of “average caliber” students with diverse schooling backgrounds, reading abilities, and levels of critical thinking, as well as different cultural heritage, during a time when their country was going through political turmoil, and make them brilliant. It would be if they got average researchers and provided enough support and resources to them to make them Nobel prize winners (oh, but then again, Nobel is not the only way of determining quality of scholarship, is it?)

So how do we get insight into the process of learning? There is no simple answer to this, nor should we seek one. One way is via ongoing reflections of both teachers and learners on what is happening throughout the semester, narrating and reflecting on work, even after (or especially after) a semester is over. By collecting portfolios of work-in-progress and allowing people in the situations to self-assess their progress, according to criteria that make sense to them in their own lived context. This kind of shifts the onus of control and assessment from an external institution to the local level. Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, would take issue with this, as a form of imposing self-regulation. But it is an improvement on external evaluation, deemed objective because of its distance, while this distance makes it less sensitive to context and nuance.

I cannot deny the importance of gaining some form of recognition for the quality of what we offer as educational institutions; after all, students and parents need some way to compare and choose between institutions, and, supposedly, they don’t have the time or the information to study each institution in depth.

If I had to make constructive suggestions to consider, they would be for institutions to:

Recognize that external standards are accreditation are not enough; more needs to be done than what is visible to accreditors

Not let the external standards and benchmarks be our only or main guidance, blinding us to other things that might matter

Start building our own standards and ways of measuring them that make sense for our context, and involve practitioners in setting those standards

Continually revise standards and leave room for flexibility within them that would allow for innovation and non-traditional forms of scholarship.

Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching and an adjunct faculty member at its Graduate School of Education. She holds a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Sheffield, UK. Follow Maha on Twitter: @bali_maha.

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