Standards Raising Standards

Yesterday’s announcement of yet more tinkering with the magical world of teaching standards was accompanied by words of support from this season’s Yes Men and Women and some Rumsfeldesque comments by the Gove-nor himself.

“Headteachers and teachers have told me in no uncertain terms that the current teachers’ standards are ineffective, meaningless and muddy, fluffy concepts. There is also no clear evidence that they help to improve standards.”

“current teachers’ standards…no clear evidence that they help to improve standards”?

How on earth do standards improve standards? Is he talking about two kinds of standards or one? In fact, what is he talking about?

This is the Wiktionary entry for ‘standard’:

Noun
standard (plural standards)
1. A level of quality or attainment.
2. Something used as a measure for comparative evaluations.
3. An object supported in an upright position.
4. A musical work of established popularity.
5. The flag or ensign carried by a cavalry unit.
6. A rule or set of rules or requirements which are widely agreed upon or imposed by government.
7. A bottle of wine containing 0.750 liters of fluid.
8. One of the upright members that supports the horizontal axis of a transit or theodolite.
9. A manual transmission vehicle.

Surely it can’t be #9, #8, #7, #5, #4 or #3 but what about #1? A level of quality or attainment improves a level of quality or attainment? Or #2? Something used as a measure for comparative evaluations improves something used as a measure for comparative evaluations?

And not forgetting #6: A rule or set of rules or requirements which are widely agreed upon or imposed by government improves a rule or set of rules or requirements which are widely agreed upon or imposed by government. Is this what he means?

Of course, he could mean that rewriting the teaching standards will give teachers a better understanding of those standards and their teaching will consequently improve. Not sure.

Whatever he means, Gove seems to think the key to improving teaching is a bit of semantics. You just need to replace a few words and rearrange a few more and you’ll be fine.

We and many others would see things differently. Philosophers for one have shown how definitions are infinitely regressive or subject to circularity. So, for example, standards are a level of quality or attainment are something used as a measure for comparative evaluations are a rule or set of rules or requirements which are widely agreed upon or imposed by government are and so on and so on. Or, a standard is a level of quality, a level of quality is a standard, which is a level of quality and on it goes.

And for the Rumsfelds and Goves of this world, the problems don’t stop there for even if we did not fall into a regressive or circular trap then there is interpretation and context to worry about. One man’s dog is another man’s friend after all.

We don’t improve teaching by defining something accurately. That is one hell of a dead end. But perhaps the semantics isn’t important. It may be said that Gove has a democratic mandate to raise standards of education. He defines it as he sees fit and there are headteachers, management consultants and researchers more than ready to back him up (in return for a little patronage). He may also say that the ultimate judge of the worth of his reforms is the ballot box, and regardless of the validity of what he is doing the electorate will decide if it is successful or not.

However, it is a pretty strange kind of education where success is determined by the participants and not by its truth. Imagine the success of a new drug or treatment decided by opinions of the patients – important as they are – rather than the hard facts of fewer deaths or longer lives.

But this is how it is with Gove and the Secretary of State role. He can do exactly what he wants and the only thing he worries about is an election every 5 years. And this is the crux of the problem for us.

The Secretary of State can redefine things, declare his commitment to the cause and make speeches but his work isn’t judged until an election. League tables? They reflect on the schools. International comparative studies such as PISA? They can be dealt with – as they are currently – by blaming teachers.

So how can we judge the Secretary’s work better without him taking responsibility for anything? It doesn’t seem that we can. The ballot box is no good. Other measures are sidestepped by criticising others. But we then have a head of tens of thousands of schools, hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of pupils whose performance can never be assessed.

That can’t be right. Perhaps we could raise his standards by improving his standards. Just a thought.

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