Wait. I Can’t Just Teach Them Anything?

NEA Today exposits lamely on teacher attrition:

State standardized testing preparation is in full swing for Griggs and her colleagues. An administrator sends an e-mail late one day demanding that the seventh-grade teachers immediately respond to her with a list of their “power standards.” Griggs stares at the computer screen. She doesn’t have a clue what a “power standard” is or how it’s going to help her students. She turns off the computer and heads home for the night. [emph added]

Never mind that NEA Today conflates three very different issues (standardized testing, standards-based instruction, and the overbearing administrator) under the same heading (“NCLB Mandates”); those last two sentences clearly articulate everything that drives me up the wall about teachers and, separately, about NEA Today.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Though if you’d emphasized the second sentence, this would have an entirely different cast.

    I have no idea what a “power standard” is either, let alone how it would help my students. Presented with that email, at the end of a long pre-NCLB-mandated-test prep day, I’d probably do exactly what Griggs did, and what I assume she did the next day, which is get back to her administrator once she has some clue what she’s being asked about.

    That said, NEA Today is absolutely amazing.

  2. The “power standard” is simply a standard that needs extra focus.

    (I didn’t know that; I just used the mighty Google.)

    For example, we have determined by looking at our data exactly which kind of problems our students do the worst on. (Everything graphing, basically.) Then we can work on our professional development to fine tune our teaching of those standards, rather than working on the entire curriculum or once or just cherry-picking the “easy” lessons. (We’ve never used a buzzword for it, though.)

    From an administative standpoint, sending a late-day email demanding (insert buzzword here) from teachers was the wrong way to go about things, but surely the idea itself isn’t that bad?

  3. For my money, I want to know what standardized test preparation is. We used to call this……


  4. Surely the idea itself isn’t that bad?

    Of course not. And yet the NEA heralds teacher ignorance and apathy toward ideas whose basic precepts are only a Google search away.

  5. I’m now entering the testing period at my second program improvement school (I was at an IIUSP school before that). The entire scenario is easily understood by someone who has taught in these schools.

    The administrators in these schools are generally overbearing, punitive in their approach, authoritarian (rather than authoritative). They can be fond of sending out “so it is written, so it shall be done” memos. Along with lousy management practices, they bring along crappy education policies. Power Standards can be one example of this.

    Power standards ARE NOT important standards students need extra focus on because they are “deficient” in that area. California has a very broad list of standards. Testing them would require more than the 60+ questions on the upper elementary CST tests for each subject. The test is weighted to have more questions focused on particular standards. THOSE are power standards. They are putatively the most important because they are weighted more, but they may not be the area that students are weakest in. They are simply the questions that are most often asked on the test, SO if you are being asked to focus are power standards, that is code for teaching to the test. They may be an area that the students are doing okay on, but they will be emphasized the most because they are tested on the most.

    I had a principal make us POST the power standards on our wall, and put a check next to each standard each time we taught it so she could monitor how often we were “hitting” the power standards. I’m not kidding. If you have EVER taught in a school like this, you can instantly recognize the scenario. The only part that didn’t ring true was not knowing what a power standard was because it is HAMMER into you at every staff meeting from BEFORE the time school starts.

    It’s not that you necessarily want to teach whatever, but being focused on standards out of context (which is the slippery slope that this often leads down) is not what most folks go into to teaching to do.

    It’s political propaganda, it’s throwing in the kitchen sink, but frankly, the scenario is milder than the testing pressure I’ve experienced.

    Benjamin: If “power standards” were a worthwhile concept I would agree with you that it’s sad to herald ignorance of them, but they are not even in the same ball park as an idea like “universal design”, and instead belong in a pile with “scientifically proven instruction methods”.

  6. In Arizona those managing the test are very careful not to give away which standards might show up more or less often. (Even though we can guess that there won’t be 10 questions on ‘construct a duplicate of a triangle using a straightedge and compass’ on a multiple choice test.)

    It sounds like California policy might have been a well meaning attempt to hint at which standards are important, but it ended up being used as an administrative cudgel.

    The other element to all this is a difference in subject matter. If I taught math naturally without any thought to tests, then went back and looked at the standards (in our state) I’d find I’ve hit essentially all of them.

    With an English class, though, I can’t imagine that’d be the case.

  7. I also have to wonder if this feels different at different levels of education. The number of different standards I have to teach for my students to be successful on the five days of standardized testing they will have at the end of the year is crazy. But, I’m responsible for all of it. (And yes, I have all day with them, but really, they are only ten years old!)

    I’m glad to have standards, to know that we’re all on the same page and working towards the same goals for the kids. However, I don’t think that needs to translate to such heavy handed results as are currently in place. I’m not even completely against my students being tested. I’d just like to think that the other 175 days have some meaning beyond how well they do those 5 days. My school, thanks to our administration and proactive staff, has remained reasonably laid back about testing. We are still too stressed about it and the students end up that way as well. I don’t think that’s a healthy learning environment.

  8. Some contents standards are inarguably more essential than others. These are power standards. They are not some nudging hint from CA to your school that, hey, pst, maybe you should teach these a little more so you can dodge PI. It’s CA saying, “hey, these ones are what we think kids need most.”

    Regardless, Baxter has it best that the NEA in particular and teachers in general lionize teachers like Griggs far too often for their utterly ignoble stance against accountability.

    Not just the accountability promoted by NCLB. Any accountability at all.

  9. Lionize is MY word, Dan. Back off.

    And I think Douglas E. Reeves popularized the “power standards” concept– criteria here.


    They were presented recently to our faculty as a means of weeding out the strangling, fog-ridden thicket of standards (NYS English, for example), a tool which I continue to appreciate greatly.

  10. or how it’s going to help her students

    That’s the key part to me. If teachers can’t see the need to teach the standard, isn’t that the real trouble? If I, as a lover of my content area, can’t get behind teaching my English students a certain standard and honestly see absolutely no way that it’s going to help those kids in the future, why should I teach it? Are we teaching things simply because they are listed as state standards or because we honestly think they will improve the lives of our students? Look at the criteria on Reeves’s list: they all boil down to how the skill will be useful later in life.

    Is this really going to be the beginning of the next standards war? Sign me up ’cause I got a list a mile long of irrefutable problems (since my district is in PI, that mile-long list grows just about every week). There is a much shorter list of how standards in English/Language Arts are for the benefit of students, but that list exists, too.

    And, just for the record as far as my experience serves and I’ve been on the committee that’s picked ’em twice over for my district, power standards are typically defined by districts so everywhere you go will have different ones. We reached ours after looking at the table of specs for the HSEE and STAR. Those standards that were tested most often became strong candidates for our power standards. We put Reeves to use, as well. I dare say that most other districts follow a similar procedure, but interpretations of the whole ENDURANCE, LEVERAGE, READINESS thinking is what leads to differences.

  11. Dan, with all due respect, when you’re at a PI school, that’s not always how it’s put, the standard, not the learning is what is critical, and it IS decontextualized, so that I was asked to teach a standard out of order. What do I mean by that? I was asked why I had not yet covered a math standard that was a “power standard”. I explained that before I could teach that, kids had to master another standard that was a little lower down on the the food chain (ex. you can’t teach long division without mastering multiplication, etc.) ANYONE who has taught Math would realize how LUDICROUS her request was. She seemed miffed that wasn’t going to heed her advice.

    Todd, the reason we are teaching those standards is because they are on the test (as you showed in your example from your district where you aligned the power standards with the tests). In many cases, they are neither pertinent to their future, nor developmentally appropriate

  12. @ Mr. Mercer

    That’s a valid issue to get angry about. That’s also a different issue than NEA Today is complaining about.

    Bad management doesn’t have much to do with NCLB, and they are “lionizing” ignorance about the latest big school reform, as Dan and Dina have noted. That’s the objection here.


  13. Yeah, again, what Baxter sez. I won’t abandon content standard accountability simply because some administrators are totally incompetent. In my four years I have worked for four principals, each of whom gave departments latitude for pacing and assessing those standards. This can be done.

  14. Okay, I’ve wenched enough, I will now share how more intelligent PI schools tackle the standards….

    They may still call them “power standards”, but the term used around my site is “focus standards” (what we focus in on). They are not decontextualized, and they are set by the whole staff with input based on benchmark assessments (not the teacher sticking their finger in the air, or some other arbitrary measure, although the benchmark tests clearly have their weaknesses). Most of it is in Language Arts (because that is a problem area with scores), but it is also less prone to the decontextualization problems you can run across in math where one concept is literally built upon the mastery of another. The teachers (including me in the lab), give lessons (not exclusively) around the standard using a specific approach, and take a look at the data at the end of it all. We are also allowed to say when we think a method for teaching was worthwhile, or b.s. and have honest discussions about our practice, and what might work better. Some release time is given so we can observe each other (I’m observing a primary language arts lesson this week to see what I can learn). It’s driven by everyone being a professional, and agreements, not a memo telling you what to do (or even worse, how to do it). Let’s get this straight, a lot of the push for standards based instruction comes out of the teachers unions, it’s just that no one likes to have stuff shoved down their throats.

  15. I love my standards. I have a list of them and after I’ve planned a lesson, I go through the list and see which ones I’m hitting. Usually I’m pulling from at least two, if not three, different places.

    Clearly, my standards were put together by theme and not by skill.

    When I teach the class, I teach it by scaffolded skill. Doesn’t everyone? Even English teachers?

    I have no idea what a power standard is, unless it is a foundational skill (before you can multiply, you need to be able to add). If you decontextualize the skills, then students have to find the connections themselves which is something they cannot do as they don’t have a broad view of the subject like one of us who has a degree in it and then a teaching license on top of it, can do.

    :: sigh :: NCLB drives me crazy, but as I tell my students: focus on the learning, and the grades will follow.

  16. Standards, and Power Standards, gained much traction because of the common practice of each individual teacher focusing on whatever he or she feels students might need in the future–usually what the teacher likes. Project learning with real world context could lead to a student reading about the solar system, the holocaust, dinosaurs, or Native Americans two or three times each during their school career. In such systems, it would be a good idea for a student to keep a 4th grade project and recycle it again in 8th grade and in high school–without adding much complexity.
    Power Standards–check Doug Reeves website: http://www.schoolimprovement.com
    are not foundational skills, but rather an attempt to make standards meaningful and doable for students and teachers. The focus of the standard is not on what the teaching is covering in the lesson, but rather on the specific learning that a student is able to demonstrate. Generally, common assessments are involved, often a common instructional calendar–the principal and staff work together on determining essential outcomes (based upon the state standards) and then establishing how students, parents, other teachers, etc. will know if these have been achieved. What does a student do to demonstrate their abilities relative to a crucial learning / skill for that grade level or course.

  17. Yeah, it can be done. The possibility exists, sure.

    But when the state breathing down your neck says the equivalent of “We want this done NOW; you have one month to turn around a plan for your entire district to meet these objectives,” it’s completely within reason to just grab what’s already been done. It’s also strongly urged by the state representatives that districts do what has already been done by other districts. Those PI meetings are not fun and they are not centered on improving student learning.

    Bad management does have a lot to do with NCLB because it’s that bad management that sets ridiculous time frames on when these grand and sweeping decisions need to be made. That limits the ability to think of better ways to implement them. Also, those decisions are pushed by those at the state level who believe that what’s been done before is the best way to do it. It’s not that the mandates are necessarily beyond the pale (that’s another discussion), it’s that schools and districts aren’t given the resources to make the best decisions for their constituency.

    Do you really think the state is worried about content standard accountability? Or are they just worried about what’s currently parading around under that guise? I have to vote for the latter since those making decisions quite often have never been in a classroom since they were students.

    I won’t abandon teaching what’s worth my students’ time as measured by how it will affect their later lives simply because some teachers are totally incompetent. And that’s really why the standards are there: because some teachers, without them, would just show movies all day.

  18. And that’s really why the standards are there: because some teachers, without them, would just show movies all day.

    That is not an exaggeration. And it kills me sometimes – really kills me – that we and they are both called “teachers.”

  19. Sometimes? It kills me day in and day out when I walk past the doors to those classrooms on my campus.

    And it kills me that I am held to the same level of what’s now called accountability just because those teachers cannot be trusted to actually teach something of value without the state coming down with its mandates (read as: standards). I have a good idea of what I have to teach that will become useful to students later in life within my area of expertise. Most of my state standards are not among those skills.

    or how it’s going to help her students

    Yup, I feel the same way.

  20. I had one student (pre-NCLB, but just barely) whose previous geometry teacher spent the entire year teaching them to make origami.

    And nothing else.

    I am not making this up.

  21. This thread is really pissing me off, which means I’m not at all objective about this, which is making me laugh (at myself).

    Look, you all are saying that the this is a statement against standards, and teaching standards. I think you are reading too much into the ambivalence of the teacher character in this story to “power standards” I think it’s a statement against Orwellian edu-speak (power standards, scientifically proven effective instructional practices, etc.)

    Folks like me fill in the blanks and see all the cruddy teaching practices we have to contort ourselves into because of testing demands.

    Maybe the lazy get to see what they want (stupid standards!), while the rest of us who are and do ground their practice in standards see standards based instruction abused (and being used to abuse us, and students).

    As to the reasons for accountability, you see lazy colleagues who didn’t bother teaching, which led to this. I see the class in Oakland that the principal deliberately placed with a series of short-term subs EVERY year they were in his elementary school (over the objections of the union rep) and did not separate them, and refused to entertain the idea of alternatively credentialing any of the subs who were willing to work the class.

    There will never be a meeting of the minds on this, but I hope that folks see that just because someone twitches at the term “power standard” that doesn’t mean we’ve abandonned the idea teaching standards at all.

  22. There will never be a meeting of the minds on this

    It seems like the only major disagreement here is “what’s the message between the lines in this article?” Since this is inherently based on subjective experience with similar situations (slippery slope no-standards cheerleading, or buzzword exhaustion?), I see why there’s conflicting signals.

  23. For my part, I can’t view that excerpt outside of my broader experience as an NEA Today subscriber. They are not getting the benefit of the doubt on this one.