Social Justice and Education Standards

There has been a relatively recent shift within American education to using standards based curriculum. I think that this shift is largely positive because standards should provide specificity and specificity provides clarity. Before schools utilized these standards there was too much flexibility. One school may create their own standards, while another requires teachers to cover the book, while still another lets the teachers decide what the standards are.

This creates a huge range not only of student outcomes, but of expectations. If we, as a country can agree on the same education standards, then, on paper at least, we have agreed to expect that all students should achieve at least “this” (whatever this is). From a scientific perspective, this approach improves the quality of the available data. The data quality is improved because every school has the same goal. All our students will achieve “this”.

For teachers, the advantage also lies in the specificity of the standard. If the standard is not specific, then it is a waste of time (Vague standards can be vaguely met). For example, in using standards, a math teacher can know that student A struggles with dividing fractions but is fine with multiplying them. From this data, a teacher is able to adjust their teaching and tailor it to the needs of their students. A teacher does not necessarily need this data in a small class, but many teachers have over 200 students and cannot possibly keep all that information stored in their head. Putting it explicitly on paper helps the teacher help the students. 

When the educational goals between schools are more specifically aligned, we can better assess the reasons for different outcomes. Why is this high poverty school in district A succeeding while this low poverty school in district B is only experiencing middling success? Having access to better data is an integral component of improving our children’s education.

Standards do not just give administrators, policy wonks, and teachers better data, they can (should) also help increase student achievement, particularly mobile students. This is the key point, because helping students (however you define it) should be the purpose of education. I am going to use an extended quote from Dr. Ed Hirsch’s book The Knowledge Deficit because he explains the cost of mobility on student education clearly.

“One study has analyzed those effects (of mobility) on 9,915 children. With this large group, the researchers were able to factor out the influences of poverty, race, single-parent status, and lack of parental education in order to isolate just the effects of changing schools. Even with other adverse influences factored out, children who changed schools often were much more likely than those who did not to exhibit behavioral problems and to fail a grade.”

-Dr. Ed Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit, p109-110, data from Deborah Cohen, “Frequent Moves Said to Boost Risk of School Problems”

Hirsch claims that while the findings show that mobile students tend to be from low income families, their low scores are not related to poverty. He quotes Herbert Walberg to show how the effects of student mobility can be mitigated,

“common learning goals, curriculum, and assessment within states (or within an entire nation). . . alleviate the grave learning disabilities faced by children, especially poorly achieving children, who move from one district to another with different curricula, assessment, and goals.”

Research has found that each time a student moves to a new school in the school year the student suffers around a 3 month loss in both reading and math (Russell W. Rumberger and Katherine A. Larson). Mobile students are also more likely to be both a minority and poor than their peers from more stable households (Edweek).


This brings us to the “Achievement Gap“. This gap is describing the differences in achievement between minority and or low income students with white non low-income students. The chart below shows the gap between students who are not eligible for free or reduced lunch (not in poverty) and those who are are eligible (in poverty and thus, likely to have higher mobility).

achievement gap money

The chart below shows that scores for white students have been higher than scores for other minorities for as long as the NAEP has been gathering data.

acheivement gap scores

In looking at the 2 charts, it becomes clear that there are social justice issues to resolve in education. Based on Ed Hirsch’s book, The Knowledge Gap, I think that there is some good evidence for using standards to improve America’s education system. Robert J. Marzano has said, “Standards hold the greatest hope for significantly improving student achievement.”

Do to the ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the achievment gap, I think it would be beneficial for educators and social justice proponents to work together to promote the use of standards as a way to improve the quality of education students all students receive while reducing the achievement gap to create a more just society along the way.

It is important to note that I am not saying the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards are a perfect bed of roses. I am saying that standards can bring tangible benefits to administrators, teachers, and most importantly students. And by promoting standards we are working to make the curriculum known to the public. This makes the age-old debate over what schools should be teaching explicit and allows for this important debate to be had in the open, hopefully making it easier for us to move in the right direction.


What are standards? How can you make standards work for you?

Standards are useful for teachers because they give us explicit goals.

They help provide consistency between schools in each state. Or now with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English and math and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for science, there will be more alignment and consistency across the entire nation as many schools are picking them up by choice or for financial incentives. Social Studies appears to be more complicated. National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) has released curriculum standards in order to standardize the approach, but not the content. Whether this type of standardization is good/bad/misunderstood, or even unconstitutional is beyond the scope of this article.

This article’s purpose is to explain how to utilize standards to make your life as a teacher easier while helping your students learn more. To start, we must define what a standard is.

Standards: learning goals specified by class and grade level that students should be able to both know and do 

Now that we have defined standards we can dig into applying them. The application of standards ought to be the same, no matter which ones you are using.

A useful way to think of standards is a grade for a specific aspect of the taught subject. For example, in traditional grading a student may receive an 75% at the end of the semester. As a teacher this shows you that the student understood most of the content, but likely has room to improve both the breadth and depth of their understanding. However, the information quickly becomes fuzzy after this point as the teacher would need to look at individual assignments/quizzes/tests in order to ascertain what content/concepts the student didn’t understand. This cumbersome procedure is impossibly time consuming to do for one student, let alone when there are multiple classes of students.

In standards based grading, the student’s overall grade may be a 1 (Below Standard), 2 (Approaching Standard), 3 (Meets Standard), or 4 (Exceeds Standard). If your school requires traditional grades, you can assign numerical values to the standard points.

Assume the same student received a 3/4 average of all assessed standards in English in a standards based grading system, giving you the same information as above. Yet the component parts come broken up and averaged by standard. Let’s use 5th grade English as an example. If said student received a 3/4 for their semester grade, the teacher can easily pull up their gradebook to see what specific content/concepts the student struggled with.

Look at student #2, Anna Fitzgerald in the image below. Her English score for the semester is 2.49 out of 4 for what would be about a D average in traditional grading. However, by using a standards based gradebook, her teacher will be able to quickly pinpoint Anna’s struggles. For standard ELA.5.R1, Anna received mostly 1’s, meaning that she was not meeting the standard. However, for standard ELA.5.R2 she received all 2’s or 3’s showing that while she has not mastered this standard, she is understanding it at a passable level.

**note: Standard grades do not allow for fluff/participation points. The grade should only be assessing how the student performed on the standard. While it can be good to assess student attitude/preparedness/participation (particularly in elementary school) these should not be in a standards based assessment. You can put those points elsewhere in your gradebook.

a standard approach_ enhancing your curriculum

This image is from they have an interesting looking gradebook for teachers who use a standards based grading system.

Another benefit of standards is it allows you to more accurately assess both your teaching and your students’ progress. If you look at the class average scores (circled in red) you can see that they are increasing over time. As a teacher, you would want to see this because it means that your teaching is helping students perform better over time. If the scores remain low/not increasing, then that is a good cue for you to reassess how you are teaching the particular standard.

**note: Good teachers will do this regardless of whether they explicitly teach with standards or not. The advantage to using standards is that they make it easier and give more exact information as to what students are struggling with.

Teachers have plenty to do, so using standards shouldn’t add to your workload after you adjust to them (There is an adjustment phase that is more work, but that’s the same as with any new system/approach). In general you can design assignments to assess one or two standards at a time. Then you can enter the grades as normal (If you have two standards on one assignment, just enter 2 grades, one for each standard).

A drawback to this approach is that it seemingly limits opportunities to review old material while also assessing current coursework. However, this difficulty can be avoided by making a general “assignments/assessments” category. You can put anything that doesn’t easily/naturally fit into one/two standards here (breaking one assignment into more than 2 standards generally causes the grading to become too time consuming to be worthwhile).

So far we have gone over how standards can help teachers improve their instruction by giving them exact data that they can use to adapt their teaching to the needs of the class. Students can use this data in similar ways. When teachers pass out progress reports (ideally students and parents will have anytime access to an online version of their report card), students and parents are able to see both how the student is doing overall, but also how the student is performing on each standard.

Let’s look at Anna Fitzgerald again. When she gets her progress report it will tell her that while she did alright in English class with a 2.49/4 she received a 1.91/4 on the ELA.5.R1 standard. This is in essence giving students and their families the same helpful information a standards based approach gives teachers. Students and their parents will know exactly what content the child struggled with.

In order increase the helpfulness of this information (feedback) teachers can require students to reflect/complete a supplementary assessment for practice with their weakest standard. It should just be one at a time, otherwise you will overwhelm students and the additional practice will likely just turn into additional work with no benefits. Essentially, standards increase the specificity of feedback to both teachers and students. Use the specificity to your advantage to give actionable feedback.