Toward a Truly Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

As you can tell by my previous post, I view much of the “trauma-informed” pedagogies of today with derision because they so often manage to simultaneously ignore research on trauma as well as the research on educational psychology, ensuring that their application helps kids learn less without actually helping students that are struggling with trauma.

I also mentioned that this is an area where the research is threadbare. We know enough from the separate fields of trauma and educational psychology to have a rough roadmap, but there is no integrated work that I am aware of. This means that all of my suggestions should be taken up cautiously. 

For transparency, I taught for 8.5 years with at least one semester at every level from kindergarten through 9th grade, with the bulk of my experience being in grades 4-6. I would consider myself fairly expert on educational psychology topics relating to teacher pedagogy and student learning while I would consider myself a well-informed novice in regard to trauma.  

Educational Psychology

Any pedagogy claiming to be trauma-informed must first be informed by educational psychology research, meaning that the pedagogy must help students learn. If you are not familiar with the state of education, this may seem like a strange way to start. After all, why state that pedagogy must help students learn? Isn’t that commonsensical and basically not worth saying?

I’d like it to be. I wish it was. But, the fact of the matter is, it isn’t. 

Trauma And Its Definition

Any trauma-informed pedagogy worth its salt will distinguish between trauma and potentially traumatic experiences while recognizing the reality that trauma is subjective and that children have a strong natural tendency toward resilience.

“Research over the past several decades has shown incontrovertibly that most people exposed to violent or life-threatening events do not develop PTSD. And that can only mean that the events themselves are not inherently traumatic. Such events are only ‘potentially traumatic’” (Bonanno, 2021, p. 14).

After students have experienced a potentially traumatic event, it is natural for them to struggle with sleeping or controlling emotions for a while because processing these experiences takes time. When children are going through these experiences and you see their behavior change, do not assume that they are traumatized.

“Most people exposed to highly aversive or life-threatening events experience lingering short-term effects; a few days or even weeks of distress, troubled dreams or nightmares, a sense of dread when reminded about the event. These responses are perfectly natural. They indicate the fact that our stress response is hard at work trying to help us adapt. But short-term traumatic stress is not PTSD [or trauma]. Even a few weeks of traumatic stress is not PTSD. We only get into the realm of PTSD [or trauma] when the traumatic stress doesn’t go away” (Bonanno, 2021, p. 54) [my own insertion].

So trauma is when the traumatic stress from the potentially traumatic event/s is sustained over time.

In the next post, I will explore how some treatments for trauma can be translated to the classroom.


Bonanno, G. A. (2021). The end of trauma: How the new science of resilience is changing how we think about PTSD (1st ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.

The Trivialization of Trauma in Education

In education, trauma has become trivialized because it became sexy. It became sexy because, like sex, trauma sells. You only need to do a quick Google search of “educational trauma books” to see a recent explosion of publications. The problem with many (most?, the significant majority?) of these books is that while they do quote research, they tend to carefully frame it in a one-sided manner, and it is always, in every trauma and education book I have read, divorced from the medical research on trauma. 

Or, to put the most possible positive spin on my readings, when the authors do use medical research on trauma to show that children have the tendency for resilience, they spend the rest of the book attempting to undermine the medical research by showing how unresilient children are, not by making a cogent argument, but by pulling on your heartstrings.

Here are some examples of the trivialization of trauma.

Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education by Alex Shevrin Venet

This book is written at the popular level for teachers and is extremely popular with 4.8 stars out of 5 with 180 reviews on Amazon.

“Trauma is a normal response to threat” (p. 13)

This is flat out false. What this does is conflates a stress response with trauma. The two are not on and the same. Trauma is not the norm, even in the most extreme adverse experiences. Take a look at a book that chooses to actually value research like George Bonanno’s The End of Trauma, in it he quotes from research showing that after 9/11, only ~7.5% of Manhattan residents met criteria for PTSD and then after 6 months, almost all no longer met the criteria. Or take a look at soldiers who experienced severe combat situations, only 19% did not show a resilience trajectory. So while stress is a normal response to threat, trauma is not. The aim of destigmatizing trauma is good, lying to do so is bad.

“Rather than blaming and punishing students for their reactions to their circumstances, trauma-informed teaching has an embedded social justice perspective that seeks to disassemble oppressive systems within the school” (Thomas, 2018, p.20; as quoted in Venet, 2018, p.10)

This can sound fine, but look more closely and you can begin to see how this perspective destroys student agency. To make this clear, take a look at other quotes from later in the book that applies the above logic.

“I might interpret a student snapping at me as defiance rather than as an appropriate response of anger or rage at those who have harmed him or failed to see his pain. In most schools this elicits a reprimand or consequence from teachers. When we respond in this way, we’re punishing students for their survival skills. If trauma-affected students are to equitably access a high-quality education, we cannot punish them for an automatic body-brain response that is trying to keep them safe….Seclusion and restraint create an untenable cycle. First, children are triggered by a cue of danger in school. Next, they respond to this danger by going into survival mode, which can sometimes take the form of physical aggression…” (Venet, 2021, p. 36)

In practice, this means poor behavior and physical aggression are unpunishable because it is caused by trauma and it is an automatic brain-body response, the student has no agency over their own behavior. And the rest of the class is not important.

“She never engaged with me except to call me a four-letter word I can’t type here. Needless to say, we didn’t get much academic work done…If I disciplined her, I would have been disciplining her trauma, because the walls she put up were there to keep her safe. Because I actively chose to cultivate unconditional positive regard, however, we were able to develop an authentic relationship.”

To be fair and provide necessary context, this was at a therapeutic school, but this is an absurd position to take. It acts to deny the student responsibility (agency) for her actions and then it promotes teachers to simply accept being cussed out as part of the job and the other students in the class should just buck up and deal with it too.

Finally, I want to end with the most absurd example.

“Marta was caught with marijuana twice. She received a warning and then a one-day suspension because of the school’s automatic and nonnegotiable substance use policy…Then Marta came to school high again. She was suspended for a week because of the automatic and nonnegotiable school policy. The individual teachers and staff who had supported Marta were trauma-informed. The school policy was not…a scared teen girl was told she wasn’t welcome in the school because of the coping strategy she used in the face of overwhelming circumstances…What if Marta’s school had a more flexible substance use policy? What if Jasmine and the rest of the teacher team were able to collaborate with Marta and school administrators to determine a path forward that was both fair and caring? Schools, of course, need to have ways to address substance sue among students. But a trauma-informed environment recognizes that substance use may be one coping strategy that students use to survive. We can’t be in the business of punishing a student for trying to survive.” (Venet, 2021, p. 123-124).

If you think a student is traumatized, just let them bring drugs to school and go to classes high, that’s the “trauma-informed” thing to do.

For an academic book, take a look at Educational Trauma: Examples From the School-to-Prison Pipeline by Lee-Anne Gray

This book trivializes trauma by making it omnipresent.

“Stress and anxiety are not “part of life” for growing children to become functional. Logic is faulty and absent when young people are trained in stress at young ages so they learn to tolerate it as adults” (Gray, 2019, p. 14).

Conveniently, there is no citation for this statement that ignores the research on eustress.

“Restricted movement constitutes a mild trauma that impairs the developing nervous system. This is but one example of the mildest end of the traumas students endure in schools” (Gray, 2019, p. 15).

Gray repeatedly ignores the subjective nature of trauma. This quote, with numerous others like it state that “X” causes trauma. The literature does not support this position, but then, the author is not making a research-based argument, she is making a feels-based argument.

“Homework is an example of Spectral Educational Trauma, and secondarily it causes Ex-Situ Educational Trauma by restricting, controlling, and stressing the free time of students, parents, families, and teachers.”

The author seeks to create different categories of trauma in a way that could legitimately be helpful. But, unfortunately, by casting an excessively wide net for what qualifies as trauma, it obviously becomes trivialized.

In addition to the above, both books promote pedagogical choices that will expand educational inequalities in the vain hope of increasing student agency because the authors lack familiarity with the literature of educational psychology.

The above approaches fall woefully short of what is needed and as far as I can tell, no one has offered teachers a plausible way forward. So, I will step into the unknown and attempt to apply my fledgling knowledge of trauma to my knowledge of educational psychology and realworld classroom experience in the next several posts.

I hope you enjoy the ride.


Bonanno, G. A. (2021). The end of trauma: How the new science of resilience is changing how we think about PTSD (1st ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.

Gray LA. Educational Trauma: Examples from Testing to the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature Switzerland AG, 2019

Venet, A. S. (2021). Equity-centered trauma-informed education. W.W. Norton & Company.

Can Education Be Neutral?

  • What role do ethics and morality play in education?

Ethics and morality play a substantial, unavoidable role in education. The popular idea that there can be a morally neutral education is an urban legend. It simply doesn’t exist. Often, the aims of a “neutral” education more or less favor a continuation of the status quo, a decidedly unneutral situation.

A variety of thinkers from diverse philosophical traditions have come to this conclusion. 

Abraham Kuyper, a Christian politician in the Netherlands during the early 1900s said,
“How can a teacher nurture and form character,” he asked, “and at the same time be neutral?” After all, “there is no neutral education that is not governed by a spirit of its own. And precisely that spirit of the religiously neutral school militates against every positive faith” (Kuyper, 2019, pp 47-48).

This quote helps show that when we teach and enforce rules, we are not being neutral because we are forming character, we are seeking to change not only their future actions, but their future thought processes. We are instructing students on ethics when we remind them to say please and thank you. We are instructing our students on morals when we discipline them for cheating on an assignment or stealing from another student.

Wayne Au, from the decidedly different worldview of Marxist dialectical materialism said, 

“A truth that I’ve felt and understood since my early days as a public school teacher is that there are no neutral classrooms and that there is no neutral knowledge. My students are bombarded daily with commonsense, hegemonic views of education, culture, and politics through social media, the news, each other, and even other professors. In this context, I see my courses as my chance (perhaps my only chance) to introduce them to ideas, concepts, and realities that might contradict their commonsense understandings of the world generally and, hopefully, develop some critical consciousness about the politics of education policy and practice specifically” (Au, 2017, Location No. 3724-3728).

This quote shows that even teaching content involves ethics. What we choose to teach and what we choose to leave out has ethical components. In addition, our framing of what we teach matters. I think this is most apparent in English and history classes when they engage in racism. However, it also shows itself in my science classes. How do I teach and frame climate change? How do I teach and frame my teaching on the coronavirus? 

Some like to say, “all teaching is political”, but I think this misses the mark a bit because politics are downstream from worldview, from morals. To improve the phrase, I would change it to, “All teaching is moral.” This is moral in a broad sense, so it includes both moral and immoral. Whether we are teaching behavior or content, all our decisions are wrought with morals.

Reference List

Kuyper, A., Naylor, W., Dyke, V. H., & Glenn, C. L. (2019). On education. Lexham Press. Au, W. (2018). A Marxist education: Learning to change the world. Haymarket Books.

Book Review: The Online Teaching Handbook by Courtney Ostaff

Picture this, you live in Taiwan and are living a normal life while the rest of the world is plunged into utter chaos. You think, man switching to online teaching during a pandemic must be rough. I’m glad it is situation normal over here. And so you get on with life, and follow the sob and glory stories of online learning. You start getting a vague idea of what it may be like, you even begin to wonder, “Should I prepare for the pandemics’ arrival in Taiwan? Nah, we’re good, I’m good.”

You can imagine my chagrin when, a year later, the pandemic finally comes to me. Suddenly I’m violently thrown into online learning. I bought this book to survive, because whoo boy, I was drowning in the rapids. Online teaching and in-person teaching are rather similar, but the differences matter.

I thought this book would dive right into the practicalities of online learning, what it was, how not to do it, how to do it, etc. But I was wrong, thankfully. Courtney Ostaff uses her 20+ years experience in online education and vast knowledge of educational research to take you through a wonderful tour of educational psychology research ranging from curriculum to special needs to teaching methodologies to copyright law. All of this is applied through the lens of online education, so you do not need to struggle to figure out how to apply the research to online learning, it already is. And that is one of the book’s great strengths, it is research based and experienced informed. 

With this book, instead of wrestling with how to apply the research, you can wrestle with how to format your online teaching to be in-line with the research. 

Synchronous or Asynchronous?

On top of all the research, the book is chock-full of practical insights. For example, self-paced courses have very poor completion rates (10%) and the students who do complete the course can rarely (10%) pass a proficiency test (p 21). So, for us teachers, the moral of the story is to not rely too heavily on asynchronous lessons. However, even when teaching synchronously, it is important to record your lessons.

We should record them for students who have internet access issues. Another bit of practical advice, have clear rules for how students engage with the teacher and with each other. A common complaint online students have is other students creating distractions either in the chat or by talking. You can minimize this common issue by giving students dedicated times to ask questions. This helps keep the lesson moving and for students who watch the recorded lesson, it helps them focus. They won’t be distracted by all the rabbit trails students can bring up. This isn’t to say you should discourage questions and rebuke curiosity. It is saying to direct student questions and curiosity to the appropriate time and place.

Scheduling Work

With in-person teaching, it is easy to tell when a student is lost or confused. However, we do not have the same cues with online teaching. Students may not have a camera or they may watch the recorded session later. So we need to be extra clear with our assignments. We will not necessarily be able to re-explain in the moment. 

A way to avoid this conundrum is to have recurring assignment types. The repetition is key because, once students are used to the format they are able to fully focus on the content. 

In addition to recurring assignment types, we should, wherever possible post work in advance. This helps parents and children with their schedules. If internet access is an issue, a child can download everything they need one day, work on it at home and then sometime the next week, upload their work. Assigning work during a synchronous session all too often results in parents needing to reschedule their days. Plan in advance so families can plan in advance.

Learning Management Systems

There is a lot to learning management systems. I was able to learn, through the book, what I was learning in real life, namely that Google Classroom is not a great online learning management system. It is lacking because it functions like a social media feed.

Think about that for a moment. How easy is it to find that insightful post your friend made two days ago? How easy would it be for a student to find where to submit that late assignment from two weeks ago? How easy would it be for you to find where they submitted it?

If you are able to choose a learning management system, here are some things to look for.

  • Easy to use on a variety of devices (computer, phone, tablet)
  • Easy uploads/downloads
  • Compatible with a variety of file types
  • Allows students to complete work offline
  • Easy content creation, saving, and reusing features
  • Old material easy to find for students (late work/review)
  • Accessible for students with disabilities
  • Variety of grading features

Final Word

If you are struggling with online teaching or considering going into it by choice, get this book. My review is just skimming the surface. When you and your students signed-up for in-person learning there is no good transition to online learning, it will be brutal. You, and them, both online learning novices will be thrown into Class 5 rapids. So it would behoove you to find an experienced guide. I doubt you could do better than Ms. Ostaff’s The Online Teaching Handbook.

The Educator and Love

On love, the Bible is extreme. It goes so far as to say if you do not have love, you do not have anything, even if you happen to have all knowledge (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). When we think about and express the virtues of compassion, meekness, patience, and forgiveness, our thoughts and actions should be infused with love (Colossians 3:12-14). We must love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Deuteronomy 6:5). We are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). 

In short, you are to “let all that you do be done in love,” (1 Corinthians 16:14).

As the citations above make abundantly clear, love is foundational for the Christian life. If you are a Christian teacher, it ought to be foundational to your practice. But before we can apply love to our teaching we need to know what love is.

Defining Love

There are many perspectives on love. We will be focusing on the concept of love in general and love applied to education. The Bible does define love, however, this definition on its own is not particularly helpful.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:7-17).

What does this mean?

In short, the trinitarian God is love. In love, God the Father sent God the Son into the world to be the propitiation for our sins, that’s how we know what love is (1 John 3:16-20). It is important to note that the Son, Jesus willingly chose this path (John 10:18) and he chose it out of love for us (John 15:13) and through this love, he has sent God the Spirit to us. It is through knowing God the Spirit that we grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).

Love finds its meaning in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. As 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” Understanding the depths of what this means will always be somewhat shrouded in mystery simply because God is God and we are not. In no way does this imply that we cannot know what love or God is. We have the above examples along with many more in the Bible and our own life experiences.

One More Thing

Before we apply this to education, there is one more aspect of love that we need to make abundantly clear. If it isn’t true, it isn’t love. Love and truth are intertwined. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16).

“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
“Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6)
Love cannot be limited to words. Love requires action.

Education: Love in Action

So, let’s put it into action. Love starts with the heart which inevitably moves the body. Every human is created in the image of God and therefore every human has the same intrinsic dignity, every human is worthy of love. To lack love not only dishonors the person, it dishonors God himself. 

So, we must love all of our students. This love is not to be generic. Your students were not created as the image of God only in a group where individualism is muted. They are individuals each made in the image of God. So we must love them as individuals.

This is challenging and takes effort. We must learn their broader, group culture without pigeonholing them, meaning we must seek to understand both the culture and the individual within said culture. This is similar in meaning to the phrase “Do the work.”

Doing the Work

I touched on this briefly in my last post, see the Rubber, Meet Road section. Using the same categories, I will extend on what I previously wrote here. For all the below categories, this stands: You can’t love what you don’t know and that which you love, you want to know better.

We should know the broad histories each of the below categories brings with it. This will better allow us to be empathic and make connections from the past to the present.

Love and Ethnicity, Sexuality, Religion

I decided to combine ethnicity, sexuality, and religion because broadly speaking, the way to love students within these categories is the same. When you get down to the specifics, it differs, but the specifics are too long for a blogpost.

Knowing the broad histories of different ethnicities, sexualities, and religions allows you to be more sensitive and empathetic. If another student gives an ignorant comment, you can correct them. If you don’t know the history, you will be forced to rely on stereotypes, and therefore will only be able to correct the most egregious comments or actions.

But more than providing correction, knowing the history will better enable you to love your students. Is a significant time of the year coming up? You can acknowledge it, even if you disagree with what is being celebrated. You can ask how they are celebrating, ask about their traditions, etc. This shows that you value them as individuals. It shows that you see their worth as something beyond academics.

Knowing the broad histories of different ethnicities, sexualities, and religions allows you to be more inclusive. Where appropriate, you can include diverse figures and readings into your curriculum. If you don’t know the history, you won’t know significant figures and any diversity you bring into your curriculum will be incidental. Representation is not the be all end all, but it does matter. Knowing the histories will help you understand that your experiences are not necessarily the same as theirs, encouraging empathy. Let this empathy bleed into your teaching.

Love and Abilities

Do not shrink your students’ worth down to their intellect. Whether students are academically brilliant or mentally challenged they are of the same inherent worth, they are each made in the image of God. They should be treated with the dignity their position as image bearers demands.

This involves meeting them where they are academically, challenging them to improve, and providing them with the scaffolding needed in order to succeed. 

This means seeking ways students of all abilities can meaningfully contribute in class. It means fostering a class culture that gives honor to both high- and low-achievers, a culture that values persons more than academics.

Love and Disposition

It is easy to love students with a kindly disposition but it is much harder to love students with an angry disposition. It is harder to still love those who are regularly rude and disruptive. But, as Christians, we are called to love. One important way to love all our students is to discipline them. We must discipline in love. We don’t discipline for revenge or to show our authority. We do it to love our students. 

This happens when the rules are fair, clear to all, and consistently enforced. This happens when we seek to enforce rules by causing the least possible disruption to the student’s and the class’s learning. 

An important aspect of love is in giving time. After we discipline our students, we should spend some break or prep time talking with them in order to make sure they understand why they were disciplined, to restore the relationship, and to encourage them. This should be a conversation.

Your student’s thoughts matter. If they disagree with you still, hear them out as long as they are being respectful. You will likely need to help them learn how to respectfully disagree. If so, give them grace and teach them. Model what it looks like. Give them some phrases to guide their frustration. In short, don’t just teach the curriculum, teach the behavior.

Done right, this type of love will get through to most students over time because it is with time that your fairness and kindness becomes clear.

An Implication of God’s Love

Understanding God’s love means liberally applying our own.  Doing this gives dignity to our students. It recognizes that they are made in the image of God and that they are valuable, inherently, they matter. They matter just as much as you, because you, like them, are made in the image of God. You are worthy of love because you are made in the image of God. Your students are worthy of love because your students are made in the image of God.

Part 1: Worldviews and Teachers
Part 2: Appropriated Worldviews, Appropriated Philosophies of Education
Part 3: Clear Philosophies Create Clear Discourses
Part 4: Towards a Christian Philosophy of Education
Part 5: The Educator and The Image of God

The Educator and the Image of God

Part 1: Worldviews and Teachers
Part 2: Appropriated Worldviews, Appropriated Philosophies of Education
Part 3: Clear Philosophies Create Clear Discourses
Part 4: Towards a Christian Philosophy of Education

In the previous post, I mentioned four doctrines that are integral in forming a Christian philosophy of education. They were the doctrines of the image of God, love, original sin, and work. 

As I’ve been putting more thought into it, I decided to switch up the order into something that feels more natural. The reworked order: image of God, original sin, love, and work.

We are all made in the image of God and while we have been deeply damaged by original sin and our personal sins, the image we have been made in remains intact, undamaged. These two doctrines explain the human situation and have profound implications for how we are to love one another and to go about our work.

On to the Image of God

Identifying the image of God is no small task because the Bible does not give a clear definition. This vagueness has led to all sorts of problems such as associating the image of God with physical or mental traits. Historically, when this has happened, people have claimed that those who are physically different (skin color) or disabled in some manner have less of God’s image, which naturally leads to the inference that the disabled have less intrinsic value. This has led to worse treatment of these groups.

Thankfully, the Bible does not support such views. Before original sin, Adam and Eve were created in the image of God.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

And after original sin, we are still made in the image of God. While sin has damaged us, it has not damaged the image of God we were made in, we still made in His likeness whether we are Christian or not (Kilner, 2015).

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” (Psalms 139:13-14)

“But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:8-9) 

So, even though all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), we are still made in God’s image. This means that we are still held to His standards. As John Kilner says in the introduction to his book, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God, “This connection with God is the basis of human dignity. This reflection of God is the beauty of human destiny. All of humanity participates in human dignity.”

So, we are connected with God because He has made us in His own image. But we need to begin to bring this down to earth. What does this mean practically? What does this mean for teachers in particular?

The Bible points us in a direction, but it takes some effort to follow. While humans are made in the image of God, Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature. While we represent Him, Christ is (Hebrews 1:3) God. And throughout the Bible, God calls us to conform to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29).

Rubber, Meet Road

This is where theology hits the ground. We are to be conformed to the image of Jesus. The implications of this are many.

As teachers, we need to be cognizant of the fact that all our students are made in the image of God regardless of their ethnicity, mental abilities, physical abilities, sexuality, religion, and disposition. As such, we should treat our students in the above categories with the dignity and respect they deserve. 

In part, this should involve a lot of reading: books, articles, blog posts, etc. This will help you gain familiarity with longstanding and contemporary issues. It should also involve conversations with your students. During passing periods, get to know your students. This shouldn’t simply be done in order to be a better teacher, it should be done because you love* and value your students. Ask questions and encourage them to ask questions about your own life.

*Don’t get the heebie-jeebies about the word love, it’s a good thing. I will explain more in a later post.

Image and Ethnicity

Broadly speaking, you share many traits and experiences with those of your own ethnicity, you also have many unique traits and experiences that set you apart from others in your ethnicity. It is no different for any of your students. As you are reading, talking, and learning more, do not forget this fact. Do not reduce your students to a generalization or stereotype.

To do this, we must realize that while ethnicity provides a broad context, this is imprecise and lacks many details. The only way to see these details is to see and value our students as individuals who are each made in the image of God, worthy of love, with histories and cultures that God deeply cares about.

Image and Abilities

Mental and physical abilities are not spread equally amongst people. Your high-ability students and your low-ability students are of equal worth because everyone in history has the same intrinsic value due to the fact that we are all made in the image of God.

This equal value does not imply equal treatment. For an obvious example, you would not teach a first grader the same way you would teach a twelfth grader. Likewise, you would not teach a mentally challenged student in the same way you would teach a student with average abilities, even if you want them to learn the same material to the same standard. Treat students as individuals.

When we are dealing with students of different abilities, we must be careful to not reduce our expectations or standards. Low expectations are a scourge on education that must be eliminated. What we should do is identify where a student is, look to the standard we want them to achieve, and then plan out the steps and support they’ll need to get there. If a student is already at or beyond the standard, then great! Identify a further goal post and help them get there. Helping both the high- and low-ability students well takes experience and wisdom. We can cultivate the wisdom we need with a well-developed doctrine of love and work.

Image and Sexuality

This may be the most hot-button issue in this blog post. But the starting point is the same. All of your students are made in the image of God.

So, treat your LGBT students with the dignity and respect that they deserve. This needn’t mean full agreement. But it absolutely does mean being sensitive and taking their views seriously. It also means working to learn about that group’s history and your LGBT students’ backgrounds. All of this must be done with love—God commands it.

When you learn that your students have faced social and familial ostracization, sympathize with them. Enter into their suffering by being there emotionally.

Image and Religion

What one believes about God is extremely important. It’s literally a matter of heaven or hell. The stakes are high, but our emotions shouldn’t be (though our emotions should be involved). Your students are made in the image of God. This is not contingent on whether or not they believe in Him. Interact with love.

Ask how your non-Christian students celebrate religious holidays. This isn’t the time for an apologetics lesson, it’s a time to listen with care. Acknowledge and appreciate shared values. Prioritize the relationship, value the student over being right.

Image and Disposition

The most common challenge teachers face will be difficult students. Like before, we must remember that these students are still made in the image of God, even when they make our teaching lives miserable. Therefore they are still worthy of respect when they talk back, disrupt their classmates’ learning, or disrespect you or their classmates.

This is not to say that you let those problems slide. After all, letting sin slide is unhelpful at best. But it is to say that even when our students put us in a difficult situation that requires discipline, we must treat them with love and respect.

An Implication of God’s Image

As should now be clear, being made in God’s image requires us to love others. In my next post, I will explore how the doctrine of love applies to teaching.

Part 1: Worldviews and Teachers
Part 2: Appropriated Worldviews, Appropriated Philosophies of Education
Part 3: Clear Philosophies Create Clear Discourses
Part 4: Towards a Christian Philosophy of Education


Kilner, J. F. (2015). Dignity and destiny: Humanity in the image of God. Grand Rapids,
MI: Eerdmans Pub. Company.

Abraham Kuyper: Prime Minister, Theologian, Journalist, and School Choice Advocate

Abraham Kuyper was a remarkable man. He lived from 1837-1920. He was Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905.
He founded the Dutch Reformed Church, De Standaard (a newspaper) in 1872, the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) in 1879, and the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880. He kept busy.
One thing he advocated for in his time with the ARP, as Prime Minister, and in his many newspaper articles was school choice for all. 
His rationale was complex and revolved around ideas of “neutral” schools, parental rights, and perhaps most surprisingly, national unity. 

“Neutral Schools”

The idea of neutral schools is certainly attractive. Who wants their child to be indoctrinated into a wrong belief system? What progressive wants their child to constantly hear about the glories of conservatism? What conservative wants their child to be constantly taught as if the progressive worldview was the truth?

This idea runs deep in America. We typically support the idea of neutral schooling as the way to build a peaceful democracy within a diverse society.

The problem is that it is philosophically impossible for there to be a neutral schooling system. Any teaching of morals, any having of rules removes the possibility of neutrality. And, to problematize the idea to a neutral school even further, how can a neutral school possibly justify its stance? Any appeal to natural law, public consensus, God/s, etc takes a stance, removing neutrality.

Kuyper sees this, and calls the idea of neutral schools out for the farce it is.

“How can a teacher nurture and form character,” he asked, “and at the same time be neutral?” After all, “there is no neutral education that is not governed by a spirit of its own. And precisely that spirit of the religiously neutral school militates against every positive faith.” (p47-48)

And, because the principles enacted by neutral schools are not in fact, neutral, they have an unequal impact on society.

When we look at Galston’s statement, a contemporary of Kuyper, we see how easy it is to apply this to the American schooling system.

“Galston points out, “the more one examines putatively neutral liberal principles and public discourse, the more impressed one is likely to become by their decidedly nonneutral impact on different parts of diverse societies. Liberalism is not and cannot be the universal response, equally acceptable to all, to the challenge of social diversity. It is ultimately a partisan stance” (p55). 

Neutral schools attempt to be acceptable and non offensive to everyone, but in doing so, neutral schools minimize the importance of our differences.

“Thus, so-called neutral schools, which sought to please all by separating instruction from a child’s particular religious experience, had hindered thousands of children from developing the mindset, initiative, and skills needed to sustain a strong civil society.” (p35)

Parental Rights

Kuyper viewed education as primarily the responsibility of the parent,

“The father is the only lawful person, called by nature and called to this task, to determine the choice of school for his child. To this we must hold fast. This is the prime truth in the whole schools issue. If there is any axiom in the area of education, this is it. … The parental rights must be seen as a sovereign right in this sense, that it is not delegated by any other authority, that it is inherent in fatherhood and motherhood, and that it is given directly from God to the father and mother.” (p28)

One large problem with having a single schooling system is that the system only serves one group of parents and children well. For example, the “neutral” system only serves parents who believe in neutrality. A Christian education system only serves Christian parents well, a Muslim system Muslim parents, and so on. So, in order for most parents to educate their children in line with their beliefs, they are required to pay twice, once in taxes to the state system and once in fees to their private school.

“The crucial point was that when the government now provided an education which was suited for only one part of the populace, it violated the conscience of all others: “Wherever we recognize a fundamental right for our citizens to provide their children with an alternative means of ‘enlightenment,’ then it becomes clear that requiring those citizens to pay for education twice, while others only have to pay once, is unjust.” (p37)

With this approach to school choice, Kuyper was not advocating for a partisan school system, he was advocating for a system that would provide choice for all beliefs and socioeconomic levels where it would be possible to honor the rights of all parents. 

“Some men…want to work to expand freedom for the middle class but…they leave unmet the need for freedom of conscience among the poor…. But it seems to me, Mr. Chairman, that there is no nobler struggle than for the freedom of conscience, particularly for the poor. Government money is well spent for that.” (p36)

In addition, this approach to education helps the development of the child. Personal growth and academic growth happen concurrently and are interconnected. It is not helpful for the child to have one foundational set of rules and morals at home and a completely different set at school.

“Life itself requires that both the personal formation and the academic learning happen at the same time. Both are so interconnected; and thus not only the family, but also the school is called to help complete the general formation of the child as a unity. The child is not divided into compartments; an intellectual compartment, a moral compartment, a religious compartment, a compartment of character, and a compartment for practical skills. The child is one, and must be formed in this unity. Otherwise the left will tear down what the right has built up and there develops in the child the hopeless and unnerving confusion which prevents the development of all firmness of character.
From this comes the requirement that there be agreement between the nurture in the school and the nurture in the home, and that they fit together. The school must not only build on the foundations that have been laid in the home, but also stay connected with the nurture that continues to happen in the home.” (p23)

We can move towards greater national unity when schools and parents work together to ensure a child’s personal and academic growth happen in unity, with the same foundations.

National Unity

That school choice could promote national unity may be perplexing to most Americans. Many of us have only seen how school choice is divisive. How it has been used to promote segregation by race and class. Like any tool, school choice can be abused in these ways. But, do we really want to pretend that our traditional public schools are great integrators? That public schools do not create their own significant divisions between various races and classes? 

I’d rather not lie to myself.

According to Kuyper, what makes public schooling divisive is that its “neutrality” actually picks a side and causes inequitable outcomes as mentioned earlier. This creates a “winner takes all” atmosphere, making only one group happy with the system’s philosophical approach. As he put it, 

“When an elite clique is allowed to impose a worldview on all schools, is it any wonder that a deep animosity and anger results? Kuyper argued that the strongest kind of national unity was one which made room for a multiplicity of communities of faith. Pluriformity, not uniformity, must be the goal, the beauty of a natural forest with all the variety of vegetation and species, rather than that of a garden in which poplar trees were uniformly planted in straight rows.” (p39)

With pluriformity, Kuyper is getting at an old way of seeing diversity, he is emphasizing diversity of thought. Later in the book, he has another, more succinct quote, “Unity must not be sought in uniformity.” (p346)

Echo chambers are no friend of critical thinking.

School choice for all could achieve this because there would be schools for people of different faiths and beliefs. In Kuyper’s theory this would bring about greater national unity because the children would receive an education much more inline with what their family believes and values. This would reduce the bitterness that develops between parents and children because it is removing a likely source of tension. It would also reduce bitterness between parents and the state because the parents would not feel that the state is actively against their deepest beliefs.

“Unity of the nation is not brought into danger by having children attend different kinds of schools but by wounding the right and limiting the freedom so that our citizens are offended not in their material interests but in their deepest life convictions, which is all-determinative for the best of them. That sows bitterness in the hearts and that divides a nation.… Instead of asking what the state school will receive and what the free school will receive, as sons of the same fatherland we should commit to raising the development of our entire nation. Then … the feeling of unity will grow stronger and more inspired.” (p38-39)

Kuyper isn’t advocating for some sort of siloing of society where everyone hides out with their own like minded clique. According to Wendy Naylor and Harry Van Dyke, Kuyper demanded that children communicate with people of other beliefs. He demanded that they both talk and listen to each other. This helps make it apparent that differences in political or social views needn’t be moral failings, but that the differences are caused by different starting points (p34).

Questions to Ponder

“Ask them, he declared,
•​whether the moral calling of the Netherlands allowed us to remove religion from the national schools,
•​whether requiring teachers to teach historical facts devoid of interpretation was an acceptable methodology for schools,
•​whether the Netherlands, known for the strength of its domestic life, should now exclude the family’s identity from the school,
•​whether a free and self-governed nation like the Netherlands could tolerate the complete state control of how children were educated,
•​whether the Dutch people could, in good conscience, deny the lower classes the freedom of conscience that the upper classes enjoyed?” (p40)

Quotes are from “On Education” which is a collection of writings and speeches by Abraham Kuyper. It was edited by Wendy Naylor and Harry Van Dyke. If you are interested in Kuyper, a Christian approach to education, or school-choice, I would highly recommend this book.

Towards a Christian Philosophy of Education

Part 1: Worldviews and Teachers
Part 2: Appropriated Worldviews, Appropriated Philosophies of Education
Part 3: Clear Philosophies Create Clear Discourses

I’ve been talking about how your philosophy of education is not some disembodied idea, it is firmly rooted in your worldview. So, before you can have a philosophy of education that is well thought out and in line with your values, you need to have a well thought out worldview.

I think my setup for this is more or less done and done well, so it is time I came out with my worldview and how that impacts my approach to education.

I am a Christian. But what does that mean? Am I like your crazy aunt on Facebook? Am I that uncle that thumps you with the Bible each and every holiday? Am I a MAGA Christian nationalist? No, I am not that.

In short, I believe that only the Christian God is true, and therefore, all other religions and beliefs about God are false. This is controversial but it really shouldn’t be. Think about it. It is a fundamental impossibility for a Christian and an Atheist to both be right about God. A Muslim and a Buddhist can’t both be right about what to believe. Almost every worldview is incompatible with others at a foundational level. We just don’t see it too often because we generally have a high day to day compatibility with others, even those whose worldview is fundamentally incompatible with ours.  This is why we can work with and have deep friendships with those who have a very different worldview. Back to education.

What Does My Faith Have To Do With My Teaching?

I will offer justifications by starting with broader statements that are representative of traditional Christian doctrine and then I will choose a verse or two as evidence for said doctrine. This will help me avoid the dangers of proof-texting, which is when you use an isolated, out-of-context text to confirm your presuppositions or biases. Each section will be a brief intro with a longer, more in depth post on each topic to follow, eventually.

Doctrine: Humans are made in the image of God

Bible Verse

  1. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

What It Means For The Classroom
I believe that every single human is made in the image of God. Therefore they are worthy of dignity and respect. This applies without any other qualification, regardless of a student’s political beliefs, sexuality, academic prowess, or behavior.

Applying this is complex and depends in large part on context. How old is the student? What is this student’s behavioral history? What is the school culture? 

Doctrine of Love

Bible Verses

  1. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
  2. “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-21)
  3. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-6)
  4. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24)

What It Means For The Classroom

I am required to love my students. God so loved the world, so must I. Now, to be clear, love can mean different things. I love my wife. I love my son. I love America. I love Taiwan. I love hamburgers.

All true, and my love for each is expressed differently. Same goes for my students. But this love isn’t a lovey dovey fluffy fairy-godfather love. It is a love that rejoices with the truth and is powerful enough to bear all things. And because this love rejoices in the truth, occasionally there must be discipline.
While the Christian doctrine of love is simple enough for a child to grasp it, there is also enough depth in it to challenge even the most knowledgeable and loving person. Applying the Christian doctrine of love to education is a complex endeavor.

Doctrine of Original Sin

Bible Verses

  1. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)
  2. “In which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:2-3)

What It Means For The Classroom

Everyone is a sinner and in need of grace. This means that I will sin against my students and my students will sin against me. There will be times where I need to forgive my students and other times where they need to forgive me.

When we remember the doctrine of original sin, we should also remember the central role grace and love play within Christianity. This will help us to be patient with our students. But, again, remembering and applying this daily in the classroom is difficult.

Doctrine of Work

Bible Verses

  1. Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)
  2. “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor…So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:23, 31)
  3. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24)

What It Means For The Classroom

In the parable of the talents, it becomes clear that Jesus expects us to use our gifts wisely and to grow them. Applied to teaching, this means we shouldn’t be content with our current abilities, we should seek to improve or face God’s anger.

The other verses quoted make clear that there isn’t really a sacred/secular divide. God cares about every aspect of our lives. We should work to become better teachers not only for our neighbors who are our students (1 Corinthians 10) but also for God (Colossians 3, Ephesians 6). In practice, this means becoming more knowledgeable about our subjects, learning and using more effective teaching methods, and becoming better at classroom management. And that is the simple part.

We also need to apply the doctrines previously mentioned to our work. This is no small challenge.

In the future, I hope to expand my thoughts and to better develop my own philosophy of education in a way that doesn’t just state my ideals, but works to explain how to achieve them. A philosophy bounded by an ivory tower deserves to be thrown away.

Part 1: Worldviews and Teachers
Part 2: Appropriated Worldviews, Appropriated Philosophies of Education
Part 3: Clear Philosophies Create Clear Discourses

Standardized Tests: NAEP, PIRLS, TIMSS, PARCC, PISA, ITBS, and CLT

Part 1: In Defense of Standardized Testing
Part 2: Alternatives to Standardized Testing

There are two types of standardized tests, criterion referenced and norm-referenced.
Criterion referenced tests are based on some standard (criteria). The current standards based movement would be a proponent of this approach, and, the tests you make in class likely qualify as criterion based too. It allows you to measure learning based on an external standard that is stable from year to year.
Norm-referenced tests are based on the norm for that particular year. In English, this means that students are compared with each other. So, a score in the 51% percentile, means that the student scored higher than 51% of the test takers for that particular year.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 

According to Daniel Koontz, the NAEP is “widely considered to be a gold standard for evaluating educational trends” (The Testing Charade, Ch 5). One reason it is a gold standard is that its results are not particularly vulnerable to corruption because it is a low-stakes test. This means that students and teachers are not held accountable for the results, so there is little incentive to cheat or overly rely on test prep.

This is important because many state achievement tests are higher stakes for schools and  students and are vulnerable to the aforementioned corruption. So, the NAEP can be used almost as a way to audit the state tests. For example, if students show remarkable growth on the state test, you would also expect to see a level of growth on the NAEP. If there is little or no growth on the corresponding sections of the NAEP, then it is fair to question whether the state is gaming their own test in order to look good and score political points. 

One example of this is New York City. In 2007, Joel Klein was chancellor of the New York school system and, based on the results of the state achievement test, students made excellent progress. However, “when scores on the NAEP were released in 2007, they showed that New York City’s eight-graders had made no progress whatsoever in mathematics on that test over the previous two years, despite their huge gains on the state test” (Koretz, The Testing Charade, Ch. 5). 

A sample of nationally representative groups of grade 4, 8, and 12 students take the NAEP every four years. Each participating state selects 2,500 students per subject to take the test. The NAEP is a criterion-referenced test, so students are not directly compared with each other. Instead, students are compared with an external standard. The NAEP essentially has three achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. 

The Proficient level is a bit misleading because it does not correspond with grade level performance, in order to reach Proficient on the NAEP, a student will need to perform higher than grade level. With this high standard, only about ⅓ of American students are considered to be proficient or better.

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)

TIMSS is an international test put on by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) at Boston College and that is taken in over 60 countries. In America, it is taken by a nationally representative sampling of about 10,000 students in fourth grade and 10,000 in eighth grade (FAQ). As it is based on voluntary participation and sampling, this is a low stakes test for both schools and students.

TIMSS is a low-stakes criterion referenced exam, it uses the International Baccalaureate (IB) standard and divides achievement into four levels: Advanced, High, Intermediate, and Low (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Hooper, 2016). If you are interested in what each benchmark means, check out page 19 of this report. Based on my understanding, I’d say that intermediate should be the minimum acceptable level, meaning that we should essentially be aiming for 100% of students to be at this level or better.

The results of TIMSS paint a much more favorable picture of U.S. education than the NAEP. Though, we should expect better results, since the standard (criterion) of TIMSS is more aligned with grade-level expectations. In the past 20 years, Math, for both 4th and 8th grade, the U.S. has increased the percentage of students achieving at Intermediate or better by nearly 10%. This is good progress. However, we have seen less gains in science. We have essentially remained stagnant in 4th grade and seen moderate improvements in 8th grade.

When we compare the U.S. with other countries that took the TIMSS, we see that we are above average, but below the top tier.

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)

Like TIMSS, PIRLS is put on by IEA at Boston College and is considered to be a low-stakes test that is criterion-referenced, with the same benchmarks of Advanced, High, Intermediate, and Low. If you are interested in what each benchmark means, click here. Unlike TIMSS, PIRLS is given every 5 years instead of every 4. A sample of nationally representative fourth graders take the test. Students are assessed on an informational text and literary text. In 2016, there were 61 participating countries.

When compared with the NAEP, PIRLS was found to have readings that were easier by about one grade level (FAQ). So, we should expect better results and that is exactly what we find. 

While 35% of fourth grade students are deemed proficient by the NAEP, PIRLS found that 83% of students achieved at the Intermediate benchmark or better (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Hooper, 2017).

Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)

PISA is a low-stakes, norm-referenced international test started by the OECD in 2000 and assesses a sampling of 15 year olds’ reading, math, and science literacy every three years. 600,000 students took the test in 2018, representing 79 countries or education systems. 

It has also been divided into various norm-referenced proficiency levels in an attempt to classify students. Being norm-referenced, these proficiency levels will differ slightly from year to year because the cohorts of students will be different, meaning that the average scores will be different.

The test makers note that, “There are no natural breaking points to mark borderlines between stages along this continuum. Dividing the continuum into levels, though useful for communication about students’ development, is essentially arbitrary. Like the definition of units on, for example, a scale of length, there is no fundamental difference between 1 metre and 1.5 metres – it is a matter of degree. It is useful, however, to define stages, or levels along the continua, because they enable us to communicate about the proficiency of students in terms other than continuous numbers. This is a rather common concept, an approach we all know from categorising shoes or shirts by size (S, M, L, XL, etc.).” 

When you look at America’s results, you see that they are more or less in line with the OECD average, while lagging a bit in math. One thing that makes the PISA useful, beyond comparing different education systems, is that it breaks the data down by the student’s socioeconomic status. This is important because it helps us see how well we are teaching different groups of students. The OECD’s report found that the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in America is 11 points larger than the OECD average. It also breaks down performance based on gender. In 2018, girls performed 24 points better than boys in reading. This “gender gap” is better than the OECD average of 30 points. The performance gender gap in math favored boys by 9 points, larger than the OECD average of 5 points. In science, American boys and girls performed roughly the same.

In reading, 81% of American students were able to at least reach level 2 proficiency, compared with the OECD average of 77%. Essentially, this means that 81% of our students can “At a minimum, these students can identify the main idea in a text of moderate length, find information based on explicit, though sometimes complex criteria, and can reflect on the purpose and form of texts when explicitly directed to do so.”

In math, 73% of our students reached level 2 proficiency or higher, slightly lower than the OECD average of 76%. Essentially, this means that 73% of our students can “interpret and recognise, without direct instructions, how a (simple) situation can be represented mathematically (e.g. comparing the total distance across two alternative routes, or converting prices into a different currency).”

In science, 81% of our students reached level 2 proficiency or higher, slightly better than the OECD average of 78%. Essentially, this means that 81% of our students can, “recognise the correct explanation for familiar scientific phenomena and can use such knowledge to identify, in simple cases, whether a conclusion is valid based on the data provided.”

Summary of International Standardized Tests

When we look over results from the international standardized tests, we can take a level of comfort. Even though America has substantial room for improvement, no matter which test you are looking at, we are roughly in line with other higher performing countries. We should recognize this. It is not only doom and gloom. 

But, we should also take a good hard look at the criterion referenced ones (NAEP, TIMSS, PIRLS). The NAEP is a very high standard, so there is not necessarily a need to fret about the low percentage of students who are measured proficient in that test. But both TIMSS and PIRLS are aligned to grade level standards and both show that we fail to get 20-30% of students to achieve at an acceptable level.

Iowa Assessments, formerly Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) 

While the Iowa Assessments started in Iowa, hence the “Iowa” in its name, it has a national reach. The Iowa Assessments are taken every year from kindergarten through eighth grade and they assess Language Arts, Reading, Math, Science, and Social Studies. The test underwent a transformation between the 2011-2012 school year in order to be better aligned with the Common Core Standards and the Smarter Balanced Exam (other state standardized tests). To go along with the change in focus, the ITBS was renamed Iowa Assessments.

This is a norm-referenced test, meaning that students are compared with each other, not to an outside standard, which allows for comparisons between students by using a percentile score. Essentially, if your child receives a score in the 50th percentile, then he/she scored higher than 50% of the test takers in that year, if your child scored in the 86% percentile, then he/she scored higher than 86% of the test takers in that year. 

Given the norm-referenced format, the Iowa Assessments are not so easy to compare with each other over time, because each year involves a different set of students, and therefore, a different norm. They are best used to compare with students in the same year who took the same test. If you are looking at the test results over time, I would suggest taking them with a grain of salt.

The Iowa test is not high stakes, but it does have more of an impact on the students than the NAEP, TIMSS, PIRLS, or PISA. Schools will commonly use results from the Iowa Assessments as one factor to place students in talented and gifted programs. As this test has real-life impacts on students, it is particularly important that the test makers check for content bias.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)

The PARCC is given to a representative sample of students in grades 3-11 annually and assesses mathematics along with English/Language Arts and is in alignment with the Common Core Standards.

PARCC is a criterion referenced test (the Common Core is the criterion) and students are assigned performance levels between 1 and 5 with Level 3 and above considered to be passing.
Level 1: Did not yet meet expectations
Level 2: Partially met expectations
Level 3: Approached expectations
Level 4: Met expectations
Level 5: Exceeded expectations

If you want more information about what these performance levels actually mean, click here. If you want to really nerd out, check out this nearly 500 page technical report. Section 9.5, section 10 and section 11 are most relevant.

The PARCC results do not paint a particularly pretty picture of American education. For the 2015-2016 school year, the percent of students who met or exceeded expectations hovered around 40% at all grade levels for ELA and Math starts at 42.5% who at least meet expectations, but that lowly result plummets over time, finishing at 25.9% in 8th grade. Go ahead and look at the graphs. If you are interested in a breakdown by state or ethnicity, check out this pdf.

This is all the more concerning because the PARCC is aligned with the Common Core Standards, meaning that the tests are at grade level.

PARCC is a high-stakes test. Students may be held back if they do poorly. This makes concerns about bias extremely important.

The Classic Learning Test (CLT)

Meet CLT, the new kid on the block. It was started in 2015 with the intention of providing an alternative to the bigger, more famous standardized tests. It features, “passages selected from great works across a variety of disciplines, the CLT suite of assessments provide a highly accurate and rigorous measure of reasoning, aptitude, and academic formation for students from diverse educational backgrounds.”

The CLT is offered as an alternative to the SAT and ACT, so the CLT is high stakes. However, our focus will be on their other tests. The CLT8 and CLT10 are standardized tests for 8th and 10th graders. These tests are norm-referenced, with the norm being based on a nationally representative sample of the CLT10 population. 

Content wise, the CLT10 and CLT8 cover verbal reasoning (reading comprehension), grammar, writing, and quantitative reasoning (math). These exams are designed to be comparable to the PSAT, and the scores between the tests can be compared. If you are interested in comparing the scores, look at pages 29-33 of this link. If you are interested in how students performed based on income or race, look at Chapter 10 of the technical report. Unfortunately the scores for race are only broken down into two categories, white and non-white. I would guess that this is due to sample size issues and that future reports will offer more detailed breakdowns, sample allowing.

There Are No Better Options

The data we get from the NAEP, TIMSS, PIRLS, PISA, and PARCC leaves plenty of room for concern. Internationally, we are essentially average in education, nothing to brag about. But, when we look at how our students perform at grade level assessments, there is real cause for concern according to the PARCC exam, only around 40% of our students meet or exceed the standard from grades 3-8 in English Language Arts. In math, the story is much worse. Without these standardized tests we would only have a vague idea about these problems, so, until there is a better option, I am for standardized tests. It is important for us to know where educational inequalities and inefficiencies exist. Currently, if we were to replace standardized tests with any alternative, at best we would get fuzzier data.


Koretz, D. (2017). The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. University of Chicago Press.

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Hooper, M. (2016). TIMSS 2015 International Results in Mathematics. Retrieved from Boston College, TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center website:

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Hooper, M. (2017). PIRLS 2016 International Results in Reading. Retrieved from Boston College, TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center website:

Alternatives to Standardized Testing

Part 1: In Defense of Standardized Testing
Part 2: Alternatives to Standardized Testing
Part 3: Standardized Tests: NAEP, PIRLS, TIMSS, PARCC, PISA, ITBS, and CLT

Standardized testing comes with a sordid history of intentional discrimination, perverse incentives, suspicious discrepancies in scores, and outright cheating. What are the alternatives?

In my research for this blog series, a 2015 article by NPR about alternatives to standardized testing was referenced repeatedly. There were four main alternatives.
1. Sampling
Summary: This is essentially the same as standardized testing, but instead of testing all students, it would test a statistically representative group of students. This is what the NAEP and PISA do.
My Thoughts: I am not completely against this approach. It could be a decent compromise. But I would want my child to be assessed each year. I think it is valuable to see where my child stands in relation to children in the school, district, state, and nationally. This isn’t an attempt to boast about the score, it gives valuable information to parents because the tests give a reference point that is beyond the classroom grades and that is comparable with other locations. Does the test score roughly match my child’s grades? This ERIC Digest provides an excellent summary of how to use/interpret the results of a standardized test.
2. Stealth Assessment
Summary: This is basically gamification. Assessing students with their performance on a computer program.
My Thoughts: Technology can be amazing. But I don’t think this would be a wise direction to move towards. I have not seen any data on the validity of stealth assessment (I don’t think there is much research here yet). It would also bring up even more equity issues than the current set of standardized tests.
3. Multiple Measures
Summary: Instead of measuring based on one assessment (the test) it could use social and emotional skills surveys, game-based assessments (stealth assessment) and performance or portfolio-based assessments.
My Thoughts: There is important data here that would help parents, teachers, administrators, and policy makers, and it would seem obvious to me that we should assess schools and teachers on multiple measures. But wouldn’t the same accusations of bias involved in standardized testing be there for the surveys as well? And, since they are about social and emotional skills/norms, wouldn’t that be even more controversial than standardized academic tests?
Portfolio assessments should not be considered as a replacement for standardized tests because, based on what they are, it is impossible to standardize them. They can be great tools at the teacher/school level though.
I’ll spend some space talking about performance assessments later. They are the most promising alternative.
4. Inspections
Summary: An inspector will come and assess a variety of factors in the school.
My Thoughts: Even with observations, we cannot reliably assess individual teachers because there are so many variables (Wiliam, Leadership for Teacher Learning, Ch 2). Evaluating an entire school or school system in this manner would be exponentially more difficult.
Using inspections would give us good data (we should have some sort of inspection data as part of a multiple measures approach), but it would be much more expensive than standardized testing due to the required man hours and would be a very different type of data. It would not tell us much about what students are or are not learning.

The Most Promising Alternative

The specific alternative to standardized tests I find most promising is a type of performance based assessment. Though there are very significant challenges that performance assessments will have to hurdle before I would be willing to consider replacing standardized tests with performance assessments. 

The performance assessment would have to be externally imposed on schools in a similar way standardized tests currently are. The assessment would also have to be standardized. The purpose here is two-fold. Standardization allows for comparisons between different groups of students and it helps control the bias.

If the assessment is not standardized and given in a standardized manner, then the data generated will not be very useful for anything broader than the context the assessment was given in. There would be too many variables. The performance assessment should also be externally imposed because these assessments should function as a type of audit on the system. Is it working? Are all students being educated?

The last hurdle may be the largest. There is a paucity of research on performance assessments, and alternatives to standardized tests in general (Garcia & Pearson, 1994). I was not able to find anything more recent. It could be that I just don’t know the right search terms. If you are aware of more recent research on possible replacements for standardized tests, please send it my way either in the comments below or on Twitter (@Teacher_Fulton). We should not replace standardized tests with performance assessments until they have developed a track record at least as reliable as standardized tests.

The next post in this series will give an overview of several common standardized tests. (coming soon)

William, D. (2016). Leadership for Teacher Learning: Creating a Culture Where All Teachers Improve So That All Students Succeed. Learning Sciences International.