I want to talk a little bit about standards-based education, and the idea of basing the evaluation of a student's progress on whether or not they have achieved understanding or mastery of certain concepts and skills, rather than testing or seat-time. It's confusing at first because it seems so intuitive that one might say, "But isn't that what we do now?" It generally isn't what we do now. We teach in a certain way, at a certain time; kids either learn or they don't; they take tests or evaluate progress by whatever means; then they move on. If you fail a class, you don't get the credit, and you're behind. In our local high school, kids are struggling as they move ahead by grade, but carry a credit deficit that often drives them to drop out.
I have come to understand the standards-based system means in terms of the Suzuki method of education. In Suzuki, skills are mastered one small step at a time, and when one is learned, we add another, very small one, on top of that. We tell young children to do finger exercises to build their muscles and get the fingers used to the motions they will use on the violin. We call them Fairy Hops, Finger Wiggles and Bow Bunnies. You introduce them to the exercises and have them practice them and get used to them before you progress to the holding of the bow. At that point, their thumbs are over the frog, instead of inside it as adults do. When their hands are strong enough, you move the thumb to the inside of the frog. You master one before you move to the next.
That is how standards are supposed to work. I believe most states now have standards -- in Maine they're called the Learning Results. I've read a little bit of them; they seem logical and thoughtful. I'm happy, as I've said before, that I'm not the one who has to come up with these things, and equally happy that I don't have to read them through. But it does provide a decent framework for the introduction to concepts, covering of information, and mastery of skills.
Mostly what I like about a standards-based system is that it provides a legitimate context to start talking about a completely different way for kids to learn. In discussing a standards-based system we can make those happy who believe what children learn is important, and bring forward what we (I) regard as the real issue, which is how children learn.
(I do think the what is important. The difference between me and most educational professionals is that I want kids to be given a lot more choice. If we treat students' ideas with respect, give them space and time to learn what they want to know, master what they want to do, then they will give us the respect of agreeing to learn what we regard as important. The respect that kids need and deserve is rarely part of the debate, but that's one of the things I'd like to push the hardest, but more on that at another time.)
Progress by a student in any area is measured by whether the standard has been achieved. If it hasn't, the teacher has to figure out why, and discuss with the student how to proceed.
What this opens up to us is a completely different way to structure schools. Classrooms can be filled not with kids of the same age or grade level, but with those students working on certain standards. The way they learn becomes much more flexible. If an entire classroom is working on determining the definition of life, group discussions on characteristics of life take place, possible projects research directions can be discussed, out-of-school investigations open up.
This is the article that gave me a much clearer picture of how a standards-based system is linked to project-based learning. At first those of you who are, like me, allergic to tracking and "ability grouping" will look askance at this, but if the model for how kids learn is changed, then there is no need to resort to tracking in order to manage education and keep kids interested and engaged.
Some schools grouping students by skill, not grade level
Now, because I feel compelled to tie it all together, it's in the achievement of these standards that the potential for deep practice takes place. If our systems are based in the step-by-step building of skills and mastering of concepts, then just as a Suzuki student is taught to hold the bow, kids will move forward as they learn; each mastery giving them confidence and motivation for taking the next step.