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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue C ::: September 1999

Confessions of a Reluctant Standard-Bearer

by Jim Carabell
I've always been wary of the term standards. The origin of the word itself connotes a dormancy or inertia: a standing still. As an adult educator, I've been told that standards are our friends, that we need them to ensure program quality, to indicate our goals, and to promote systems change. But it wasn't my fellow teachers who were voicing that mantra. I remained unconvinced. I felt my work with adult students needed no stronger imprimatur than our own, as we engaged in the learning process. To my mind, each teacher and student relationship developed its own measures of quality. The imposition of guidelines set by anyone beyond us seemed superfluous and a bit intrusive. I viewed standards as a bureaucratic construct devised to restrain creative teaching, foisted upon teachers in the field in the name of greater program accountability. Standards implied a uniformity and universality borne out of the K-12 educational mainstream (the model that failed learners in the first place). Adults in our programs told us they were succeeding in their learning precisely because we offered an alternative to that model.

I understood a community's desire to set dictates for educating its children that, in its collective judgment, will prepare them to successfully take part in the world beyond school. But adults are independent agents, in no need of societal in loco parentis. They are already immersed in the demands and responsibilities of the world and should be left free to determine what they need, educationally, to meet those demands.

Well, that's what I thought 16 years ago. Over the course of those years, in the process of looking more closely at my teaching practice, my discordant tone regarding standards- based education has found a new key.

In the beginning, I worked as an itinerant adult educator in rural Vermont, traveling to homes along roads of variable pavement, in seven towns, in a region covering about 600 square miles. When I was hired for this work, the reliability of my car probably outweighed my minimal teaching background. I began teaching with one overriding principle: do the least harm possible. I was convinced that one false curricular step would send my students reeling back to relive the traumatic failure that brought them to our program in the first place.

With the support of many creative and talented co-workers, I set out to make the teaching and learning environment as different as I could from the system as I knew it and as my students described it. I tried to make learning an enjoyable, communal enterprise. I customized everything, eschewing workbooks and keying in on the goals, language, culture, experience, and the style and pace of the learners. Since I travel to homes, teaching primarily one to one, I observed, listened, and utilized what was at hand. If a student had a bowling trophy on the mantle, we'd use that when it came to figuring averages. I'd have a mechanically inclined student explain gear ratios to me before I tried to show how the concept worked on paper. The pack of Marlboros wrapped up in a sleeve would serve up our M for initial consonant sounds.

These methods actually worked. My students seemed to be learning and making positive life changes. Even though a majority of learners, no matter what their skills, came to our program with the initial goal of obtaining a certificate of General Educational Development (GED), much more than GED preparation happened. Students were gaining the independence literacy offers, reading on their own, working for the first time, handling checkbooks and household finances by themselves, reading and writing notes to teachers, helping their children with homework, becoming involved in community issues, developing new concepts of self.

So, why were the federal and state accounting mechanisms not asking our programs about these outcomes? Every year-end, I filled out the innumerable forms that asked about the numbers of students served; the grade-level progress they'd achieved in reading, writing, and math; the number who passed the GED tests; and the number who left the welfare rolls. As my notions of literacy broadened, the qualitative impact of my work with students became more important to me. The quantitative analysis of end-of-year reporting seemed to neglect the true nature and value of my work. I wanted to find a way to showcase all the achievements of my learners. I wanted to alter the agenda in favor of a larger perspective. I wanted to stop looking at the GED as a culmination and begin looking at successful outcomes in terms of real-world changes taking place as adults aligned lessons to life.

New Approach
About eight years ago, prompted by impending changes in state and national policy, I joined with other staff in our program in forming a study circle to rethink our approach to assessment. We chose several books and articles to read and discuss in focused seminars, operating under the assumption that literacy is broader than reading skills and involves more than a standardized test can indicate. We reasoned that, since reading, writing, and math are not only complex processes but are used across a range of purposes, we should assess them multidimensionally. We wanted assessment to be a collaborative activity, done with rather than to the learner. We also wanted to ensure that assessment itself was a useful learning activity — for teachers and students — not an addition resulting in more paperwork and fewer direct teaching hours.

The more we examined our long-standing practices, the harder they were to justify. Why did our reading diagnostics use decontextualized language? Why did our math diagnostics value computation skills over conceptual understanding? Why did our assessment processes focus on deficiencies rather than strengths? If we viewed literacy as more than the attainment of discrete skills, then why weren't our materials and instruments for teaching and assessing reflecting something more holistic?

With this in mind, we read Schneider and Clark (1993) on authentic assessment, Fingeret (1993) on portfolio assessment, Lytle and Wolfe (1989) on program evaluation, and McGrail (1994) on alternative assessment. Deeper questions emerged. In the course of assessment, what implicit assumptions do we convey regarding the teaching and learning process? Does all assessment employ a set of underlying standards? Are standards and assessment merely opposite sides of the same coin? Isn't the very definition of literacy, narrow or broad, a social proposition of what we'd like our neighbors to know and be able to do?

We gathered, critiqued, and revised hundreds of instruments. We completely revamped the goal-setting and diagnostic materials we'd been working with and added a number of ongoing evaluative tools to our grab bag. We supplemented our reading, writing, and math diagnostics with student questionnaires aimed at discovering how learners used these skills in their lives; we added goals checklists and learning style inventories to our initial interview materials; we devised an ongoing, quarterly evaluation process based upon performance measures that students defined for themselves; and we kept portfolios of student work and accomplishments to help demonstrate progress. We were articulating standards without knowing it: those insidious standards. I was embracing my own contradictions or, as I like to say now, appreciating the paradox. Standards could be both well defined and idiosyncratic. Curricular standards for teachers could co-exist with performance-based outcomes for students. I was now viewing standards as guideposts that marked significant points on an educational journey. The destination, mode, and pace of travel were left to learners and teachers, while checkpoints for gauging progress and reevaluating direction were built in. Standards, as tools for orienting teaching and learning, and as models for usage and comparison, could stand together with the underlying values I held about literacy and learning.

A standard didn't require subservience to just one curriculum or instructional method, but could inform and improve them. A standard involved an internal awareness more than it implied an external encroachment. A standards-based approach might just recast our program in the eyes of funders and policymakers by allowing us to show, more authentically, what we do.

Basking in the radiant optimism of pedagogical righteousness, our staff spoke of the need to influence the state to revise our end of year reporting. To no avail. Soon afterward, the state decided to align the outcomes for adult education with a newly developed K-12 standards framework. It includes a huge checklist of 500 standards, across 163 skill areas, in 39 academic categories, that is tied to attainment levels, which address the essential knowledge and skills that Vermont felt was important for its children to know and be able to do. I saw this as an endless list of factoids that would turn teachers into bean counters. Its convoluted language was also a concern. Under the heading "expression" is written: "Orally communicates in ways that enhance relationships, minimize conflict, and encourage collaboration." This standard is not especially aligned with the language of my adult students. In comparison, the relevant Equipped for the Future Framework standard is: "Speak so others can understand."

I concluded that if Vermont's Department of Education continued to view adult students through the lens of a sequential, developmental, competency-based, K-12 model, then nothing we did in the field by way of alternative assessment would matter. More significantly, since those factors would continue as the tail that wags the grant- dollar dog, our program managers would have no choice but to accede to them in seeking and accounting for those monies.

Just as my spiral toward depression began, along came Equipped for the Future (EFF). This standards-based reform initiative finally spoke to adults, literally and figuratively. I had never encountered such an inclusive, bottom-up approach to the development of standards. More than 1,500 adult students in 149 programs across 34 states were asked why they sought our services. They responded that to fulfill their roles as parents, citizens, and workers, they needed to gain access to information so they can orient themselves in the world; give voice to their ideas; act independently; and build a bridge to the future, by learning how to learn. Their responses led to pilot projects that helped design a framework to incorporate those multiple goals. Learners, practitioners, industry representatives, community members, and others participated to test the suitability of those four purposes across the three adult roles as a foundation for system reform. EFF described a concise set of content standards that dovetailed with performance indicators. More than a disjointed list of skills, the framework focuses on the applied use of knowledge and skills, by embedding them in the context of adult roles and responsibilities.

In 1997, I participated in an EFF pilot study to try out and critique the framework. Tammy was one of the first students I saw after attending a four-day EFF training. She was a GED student. I had given her some percentage problems the week before to try for homework. While explaining one to me, she looked up from across the kitchen table and said, "Don't be surprised if a state trooper interrupts our lesson today." Tammy had just bought a $500 car from her brother, who didn't have a title, who'd acquired the car from his ex-girlfriend, who also didn't have a title, who got the car from her brother, who may or may not have had a title, but who had since left the state for parts unknown. Tammy was driving the car, was stopped for having a defective tail light, and now was worried. She had gathered all kinds of forms from the Department of Motor Vehicles, but none seemed to solve her dilemma. We put away the percentage problems and brainstormed various courses of action. We decided to call the DMV for direction, so Tammy wrote down and rehearsed her story as well as specific questions to ask. Tammy looked up the number, made the call, wrote down the name of the person she spoke to, and the information she gathered. She then read and filled out the proper forms, formulated and wrote an explanatory letter, as the DMV worker had asked, figured the math (tax as a percentage of the car's value), went to the general store to make copies of everything, and mailed the package. The trooper never showed. Tammy soon obtained a clear title.

What Tammy and I did that day was a waste of time, according to our end-of-year reporting. Even if the reading, writing, math, brainstorming, speaking, and problem-solving we engaged in somehow aided Tammy in gaining skills that would help her pass the GED, all the other accomplishments would go unnoticed and unconsidered.

We found a place for Tammy's activities in the EFF framework. Tammy's purposes of access to information and independent action to solve problems were evident. She was acting in her roles as a worker and family member. Tammy covered at least 18 of the common activities, generative skills, and knowledge domains within the framework. And this was a found lesson, ad hoc and unplanned. When I showed Tammy the framework and we discussed how her project that day fit so many of the activities and skills that her fellow students, teachers, and community members around the nation identified as essential, she was genuinely proud. I was pleased to find validation for a learning activity I had considered part of my work all along.

In viewing knowledge and skills in the context of students' lives, EFF is broad enough to fit with much of what I already do. By offering a multitude of paths to explore the framework, as different roles and purposes for learning manifest themselves, it also encourages my students and me to consider our lessons from a number of different perspectives, without being prescriptive. This fits with the idea of a literacy spiral, where one activity or inquiry might send students and teachers off in many directions and involve a range of complexities. Just like real life.

Standards work when they codify our internal values and respect our individuality. There will always be tension between the specific student and the general rule; the grant requirement and the program mission; the present and the future; there is and there ought. Standards work when they encourage a dialogue between those realms.

How's It Going?
How's it going? The application of standards is an activity of correlation and contrast. How is it going, compared to what? When I ask students if they've noted improvements in their reading, writing, and math abilities, they often look to the past and compare. My learners and I often look to their initial goals and compare. We often look toward an ideal and compare. Good teaching and successful learning not only involve but require these comparisons.

Sixteen years ago, I was far from willing to take up the flag of standards-based education; I would more likely burn it in effigy. I now realize that it was not the imposition of standards per se, just those that did not reflect my teaching experience and failed to consider the needs and goals of my learners. My initial cognitive dissonance has resolved into a new understanding. Goals, standards, curriculum, and assessment are intricately tied together like members of a musical quartet. The players may produce different tones, but a harmony arises through active listening, proper timing, and practice. This analogy also speaks to the social aspect of our enterprise; we work in concert as a community of learners. The application of bow to string means a certain amount of friction will accompany every melody. Measure by measure, I've come to appreciate the process as well as the results.

Fingeret, A. (1993). It Belongs to Me: A Guide to Portfolio Assessment in Adult Education Programs. Durham, NC: Literacy South.

Lytle, S. and Wolfe, M. (1989). Adult Literacy Education: Program Evaluation and Learner Assessment. Washington, DC:Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

McGrail, L., (ed.) (1991-1994). Adventures in Assessment, Learner-Centered Approaches to Assessment and Evaluation in Adult Literacy. Volumes 1-6. Boston: SABES.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: NCTM.

Schneider, M. and Clark, M. (1993) Dimensions of Change, An Authentic Assessment Guidebook. Seattle: Adult Basic and Literacy Educators.

About the Author
Jim Carabell has worked in adult education for 16 years. His work has included course programming for interactive television productions, materials development for distance learning programs, workplace education, and basic computer instruction. He works for Vermont Adult Learning, a statewide nonprofit agency.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL