Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Teacher Norms: The ideology of Ever-Increasing Standards

There are a couple of trains of thought with regard to teacher professional development.  I'm going to focus on two standards-based approaches. The intent is to deconstruct the assumptions and feedback loops in these approaches.  In this post, I'll introduce some background and explore the increasing-standards train of thought.


Best practice in teacher professional development points to the need for embededness, collaboration, and decision space (the ability to make decisions that are not undercut).  Fullan and Hargreaves approach the question a bit more broadly. Their professional capital take on things frames steady state solutions to teacher professional development dynamics (and steady state teacher standards dynamics) in terms of professional capacity.  Professional capacity is operationalized as a function of:
  • decision capital - the power & ability to make meaningful decisions (including structural ones)
  • social capital - effective networks of practice which are frequent, collaborative, and sufficiently skilled
  • human capital - the skills & resources (including energy & motivation) necessary to be effective.
On a loose-tight managerial spectrum, there are a couple of paths standards based professional development can go:

  • A loose systems approach - no real minimums (except for obviously egregious malpractice) and a high focus on differentiation and individualization.  You could also call this a strong union approach.
  • A tight system approach - perpetually increasing standards, minimal differentiation, often with a focus on economies of scale (one size fits many solutions).  Many people call this the business approach to education.
  • A mixed approach - varying minimums and with commensurately varying levels of differentiation (in an inverse relationship).  Differentiation usually operates near the school unit of analysis (it typically ranges from between a couple of schools down to the level of a few teachers).  K-12 education usually operates here.
Like any categorization, this one is obviously arbitrary (heck, it doesn't even have an ANOVA table to give it that false air of social-scientific authority!). However, as I've discussed before, education is a complex system that tends to operate between strange attractors.  From an organizational lens, these attractors are: 
  • system looseness (basically a small group orientation), and,
  • system tightness (basically a large group orientation). 
The middle is complex.  Emergent patterns ebb and flow with perennial actor changes and societal feedback.  While some steady states in the middle may be stable on moderate time frames, brevity requires omitting this discussion....


The eternal rounds of the mobius strip
The business camp of education tends to see standards as a moveable bar used to push performance to higher levels.  In this sense standards aren't true professional minimums.  Rather, standards are (~lower quartile) normative performance goals.  If enough people meet a standard, evaluators simply bump up expectations.

Some people try to sell this as "life-long learning".  If you don't see the linguistical con here, I've got some beachfront property in Nebraska to sell you...

Other people try to sell ever-increasing standards as "real professionalism".  This is cherry-picked mis-contextualization.  Practices whose professional standards improve frequently tend to be those standards related to technological and highly quantifiable measures (which metal composite to use).  Practices whose professional standards change infrequently, but do so ubiquitously, tend to be those with zero error tolerance (blood transfusion process).  Education this is not.

The Dufours have generated a good example of a fully developed "increasing standards" approach.

Dufour styled professional learning communities (PLC's) are based on a dogma of "increasing standards".  This is operationalized via inclusive ideological assumptions.  Inclusive educational ideologies posit "all students can learn".  This leads to the conclusion that achievement (the controllable aspect at least) is best framed as an exclusive function of teacher input.  Student capacity, freedom, and teacher inspired student transformations are exogenous.

PLC's unit of achievement is the number of students surpassing an arbitrary performance standard. In an ideal world standards are set by collaborative teacher groups.  In the real world, standards are set by the state.  Exceptions occur when a PLC's results are far above expectation.  At this level of performance actors finally become autonomous - at least in theory.

In practice the educational sustainability literature suggests successive waves of administrator turn-over results in near stochastic certainty that autonomous PLC's will, over time, get called out for being different or for rejecting the newest mandated reform.  Autonomy has bounds and educational success can't escape the politics of shifting values.  As many a tightly coupled school division would say, you are always free to do whatever is reasonable -as long as it agrees with what we're asking.  Like any utopian solution, fidelity is paramount.

Philosophical assumptions of increasing standards are humanistic toward students (in a PLC model) and machine oriented toward teachers.  In education's highly nested organizational hierarchy, this produces a system which, on a whole, has an uncertain philosophical orientation.  Tension between humanistic assumptions for teacher-student interactions but mechanistic assumptions for teacher-leader interactions suggest organizational actors may complexly oscillate between the polarized dogmas of loose-coupled humanism and tightly-coupled machination.

Increasing standards can of course be applied both to teacher and students.  KIPP schools are an excellent example of this.  In this case, philosophical assumptions are entirely machine oriented and all actors in the system (except for elite decision makers) are cogs in a machine.

Humanist approaches can also be applied to both teachers and students.  In this sense, an increasing standards approach may mirror a structural-marxist philosophy (caveat emptor - I know bunk about marxism....): revolution is constant, the bottom matters most, equality is utopian, and self-sacrifice is essential.

In a simpler sense, the focus on those who don't succeed represents the gist of modern feminism and social justice.  While it may seem odd to associate "leftist" philosophies/ideologies with a business oriented approach, tolitalitarianism makes strange bedfellows....

It's easy to deduce that the focus of the ever increasing standards approach is students/teachers who do not meet standards.  This provides an obvious resonance with inclusion which takes for granted that system improvement comes from focussing on the bottom.

The contribution of heroic actors (who typically grate against tight-coupling's contextual blindness) is offset by net improvements.  Losses at the top of the pyramid are more than offset by gains at the bottom.  (For what looks to be a reasonable discussion on inclusion, see Rethinking Inclusive Education: The Philosophers of Difference in Practice.)

In terms of students this means 20% grade point improvements for F students more than make up 2% losses for A students. In terms of teachers, this means improving poor practitioners' teaching capacity yields better net results than continued empowerment of heroic actors.  The business label is apropos.

History shows multiple cases where this trade-off has been successful.  The most obvious case is conflict between large farming societies and small hunter-gather societies.  Farmers tend to be less proficient warriors than hunters.  But sheer numbers dominate in the long run.  The US civil war is just one among hundreds of examples.  A multi-level selection theory (or any strain of group selection) is informative here.

In-group trade-offs certainly are not virtuous practice (in the technical sense of the phrase).  Pure group level considerations are naive to the individual and the individual's effect on the group.  Pure individual considerations are naive to the group and the group's effect on the individual.

Simplistic good-bad dichotomies are problematic.  Good outcomes are simply those we like (including secondary effects).  Bad outcomes are simply those we don't like (including secondary effects).  Power dynamics can't be escaped.  Tension between primary effects' short-term impact vs secondary effects' long-term impact may be seen as yet another set of strange (educational) attractors.

Feedback Loops
Inspection suggest increasing-standards is dissonant with:
  • Most teacher unions - Teacher unions tend to reflect education's over-arching moral mission to improve each person as much as possible.  Their focus is on the whole, not the bottom. Public education resists balkanized niches.
  • Academically oriented education - Academic orientation is less concerned about standards and more considered with ordinal based performance.  The bottom is less a focus than the top. Streamlining is expected.  It is thus individually oriented.  Focus is on the maximum standards possible for adequate filtering.
  • Equity / fairness - Increasing-standards is focussed on equality (everyone up to standard) more than equity (each person getting what they need).
  • Social justice - Standards are blind to the reasons or contexts of different performance. (Note: norming is certainly possible.  In this case, allowances for social justice is possible but is dependent on the quality of norming methods.)

Increasing-standards is somewhat dissonant with:
  • Assessment for learning - While Dufour PLC's and formative assessment are both based on continual data analysis, clear standards, and timely interventions, their philosophies and unit of analysis are different. Assessment for learning is based on differentiated assumptions and the smallest unit of analysis possible.
  • Outcome based curriculum - The unchanging nature of outcomes make little room for increasing standards. While PLC's are based upon increasing standards, it's disingenuous to say the process can't be bastardized.  Divergence happens one "everyone" is meeting the mark.

Inspection also suggests increasing standards is resonant with:
  • Inclusion - Both worry about the bottom of the ladder more than the top.
  • Teacher proofing - While high yield instructional strategies can build capacity for everyone, history suggests teacher proofing is the stable equilibrium point systems reach in regard to low performers.
  • Vocational education - This is mainly about acquiring the skills necessary for specific types of employment.  A standards approach thrives here.  A finite set of job types to train for means vocational education can be group oriented.
  • Business oriented education systems 
  • PLC's
  • Outcome based reporting - grades are disaggregated into multiple standards.  Achievement may be pass or fail but is often more graduated.


The ever-increasing standards approach must eventually eat-its-own.  Exponential achievement increase is a logical phallacy (pun intended).  At some point, things have to level off.  What do you do then?

In practice, PLC's & increasing-standards approaches reach the point where incremental improvements on the same old questions sap more and more human capital and motivation.  Even perpetually worthwhile goals like "student achievement" or "lifelong learning" are sensitive to synergistic demands. Growth and change are fundamental aspects of human group behaviour.  They aren't mere add-ons.  Machine philosophies neglect this at their own peril.

Luckily, education always has new problems to tackle. But, as mentioned before, are those new problems allowable? Are they mandated & non-constructive?  Or do inevitable system level directional changes provide a perpetual source of refocus and thus a continual option for synergy?

Perhaps.  But the answer is largely determined by the system in which any single school division resides.  Education's strong moral mission creates strong background pressure for complete system alignment, not to specific practices but to general morality.  See List & Pettit's work on judgement aggregation theory for a fairly rigorous modelling of why this is the case.

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