But you can kill care with a rubric
A well-intentioned, relentless focus on Standards and Rubrics is destroying education. Passion and Care are fundamental to learning, but a single-minded emphasis on assessment and definition is draining the life and joy from the classroom experience.
Two developments have steamrolled their way through education in the last decade or three, flattening everything before them.
One is the introduction of Standards. Prior to Standards, teachers taught Subjects. Content in a class was defined by the material, whether that was a novel or play, a time period, a component of biology, a formula, or something else. You studied the subject and then took a test on your knowledge of that subject. You read a book and then wrote a paper on it. The Standards movement took broad subjects and specified them into skills and discrete units, with an emphasis on assessment and accountability. Kids still take Subjects, but they are taught and measured to Standards. You no longer study a subject, such as Biology. You study, specifically, a discrete component. This may sound like the same thing as a Subject, but it’s not.
It’s hard to truly understand the effects of Standards without teaching in a classroom according to its directives for awhile, but a sense can be gleaned if one examines how Standards impact curriculum development and lesson planning (an impact that is hard to overstate).
If you were in school before the Y2K catastrophe-that-never-happened, the classes your teachers planned likely involved a lot of content and lecture and subject tests. You’d read Romeo and Juliet, talk about it a bit, maybe read it aloud as a class and take notes, and at the end you’d take a lengthy test or write an essay and then move on. You might spend a few weeks researching a subject, maybe jotting all your details on notecards, writing out an outline and then staying up all night on the final draft. Every subject usually involved quizzes and a comprehensive final exam. Content content content, and one grade atop each quiz, test, or project. A teacher planned according to the Subject, with lectures and explanations and exams or projects. Classroom management was largely a matter of controlling behavior, keeping kids awake and behaving (which often meant simply listening).
If you don’t really know what Y2K was, school was probably a different experience. You likely saw ‘Daily Objectives’ on the board every day, and ‘Essential Questions’ for every unit. Your syllabus may have been ten to thirty pages long. A great deal of your work recieved multiple grades for specific actions. Today, teachers plan lessons around thoroughly defined Standards. Gone are the days when one studied ‘Cells’ in a Biology unit. Now, the Daily Lesson might center on ‘Cell respiration and understanding the chemicals behind energy transfer,’ as part of a Weekly Unit on Cells and Energy, as part of a Month Unit on Cell Function. The ‘Objectives’ are as narrowly prescribed and defined as possible. Classroom management is less about broad behavior and more about very specific action, centered around narrowly defined tasks and objectives. A teacher today designs activities and actions, scripts group work and mini-lessons, and targets every action to measurable ‘skill’ or demonstration.
One of the markers of the Standards movement is a very narrow way of defining what students are doing at any given moment, often into easy to digest ‘I can’ statements. ‘I can identify the parts of a cell,’ or ‘I can use capitalization properly,’ or ‘I can recognise the environmental factors that affect human migration.’ A teacher planning a Standards-based class will often create as many of these kinds of definitions as possible, for everything a student will be doing for every moment of the class.
Thus, very likely, everything a student does has some kind of very specific Rubric outlining what is expected, what is assessed, and precisely how each grade is determined.
Which is the Second Big Development: the Rubric.
I graduated high school in 1983, and cannot recall a single rubric either there or in the college years that followed. The grade was the grade. On a test, answers were either right or wrong and they added up as one might expect. Essays were filled with margin comments followed by a grade and maybe a short explanation.
When I started teaching high school around 2000, I increasingly found myself designing outlines for every assignment. It was the thing to do, and also made sense. Grading is complicated for an English teacher. It’s also absurdly time-consuming. Imagine you have 120 students. Imagine each of those writes a 3 page essay. Imagine reading each essay at least twice with the goal of making it as strong as possible, in every aspect, from grammar and mechanics to vocabulary and syntax, to transitions and paragraphing, to idea and support. Done even marginally right, each essay takes at least 15 minutes. Four an hour, into 120, 30 hours of grading essays alone. Why not have a general list of the things that make an A, a B, a C, and a D, attach to the essay, circle the appropriate one, and be done with it? With a rubric I can grade a full class in about 2 hours.
But it’s more than ease or simplicity that drives a Rubric.
Imagine teaching a book but grading through an essay. What, exactly, are you ‘teaching’, then? Essay writing or the book? And if you are teaching the book, what is it about the book that you are teaching? Is it the act of reading, which itself is complicated? Are you teaching a component of the book, such as ‘characterization’? And if so, what aspect of ‘character’ are you teaching? What, exactly, is it that you want your students to know and demonstrate at the end of the class? How are you going to assess that knowledge? How does it fit into the overall unit?
With a rubric, I’m only looking for a few specific skills, and since these are so narrowly defined I can skim and circle and move on quickly.
This is the engine that drives Standards, the ever-narrowing questioning of a class’s purpose and function. It’s also the authority behind Rubrics, an attempt to put in writing both the specific task being taught and how one demonstrates skill and understanding.
The whole thing makes sense; if it didn’t, every state in the nation wouldn’t have adopted Standards and Standards Based Grading systems.
So this is where we are today in our schools.
Whatever complaints one might have of school, now or then, the teaching of Subjects, when done right, draws from a well of passion. An inspired teacher or student can motivate the least potential, because it’s not about the skill, or the test, or the class or the grade. It is about the magic of the thing itself that inspires the teacher to such heights that they are compelled to share and the student to such investment that they are compelled to work. A great deal of school involves tedium and drudgery — hard effort, concentration, repetition, and so forth — but the SOUL of a class is passion and care. To understand the truth of this, all one really has to do is recall their most formative and memorable classes and teachers.
It’s almost too easy to empty a Subject of passion in school, and in all too many ways the very institution itself — its structure, its schedule, its methods — does this as a matter of ritual and habit. Passion wasn’t really a concern of schools before Standards and Rubrics steamrolled through, and it’s not much of a concern now.
But while the teaching of Subjects may not concern itself with the aspect of care in the classroom, it isn’t fundamentally destructive to it. The same cannot be said of Standards and Rubrics.
Childless friends often ask you what it’s like to have kids. If it’s ‘worth’ it. They can see the tangibles clearly: the expense, the time, the frustrations. You start right there in the construction stage — 9 months of increasing weight and not exactly much joy, certainly not enough to offset the pain. Then sleepless nights, constant need, and an endless series of unasked-for exit ramps to your life, doctor visits and diaper trips and 3 am stumbles around the living room, the baby howling in your ear. That goes on for 18 years and more, with no material profit that isn’t technically often against the law. By some measure, a kid costs a quarter of a million dollars to raise — with absolutely zero monetizing power whatsoever.
If you add up the money and sacrifice, it’s assuredly NOT worth having kids.
But of course it’s more than that. We don’t love our kids for their monetary value. Children bring an incalculable intangible value to a life. Investment. Passion. Self-Sacrifice. Love. They open the world in indescribable ways, and so on and so forth. Kids, like all the good things in life, bring a measure of care that cannot be gained in any other way.
Standards and Rubrics are the monetized accounting of an education. They demand a specific inventory of the experience and attempt to add up those experiences into some kind of sum total that then can be measured. They act as a kind of balance sheet for education, which is fine as far as that goes.
As far as that goes.
Which isn’t, in the end, all the way to the end.
Because if we return to the having children analogy, we might ask ourselves what happens when the parent focuses entirely on the child’s balance sheet. Imagine everything your kid did was not only standardized and described, but assessed against a carefully worded set of criteria, from poor, to merely adequate, to excellent. Imagine if every task and activity, every interest and action, every ritual and habit, had a carefully written set of standards and a rubric. Consider the effect if everything the child did was defined by its value relative to some required future monetized skill. This is the source of the hesitation one ought to have if they consider having kids. It’s entirely rational.
What makes kids worth having is the magic, for lack of a better term. It’s impossible to fully describe what it’s like to open Christmas presents with your five year old, to run and let go of your daughter as she rides her bike without training wheels the first time, to tend your 8 year old from fever into health, to hold your kid’s hand at a crosswalk, to read to them. It is impossible to predict the surprises your children will spring on you. There is a magic in experience, in the unpredictable daily event of being alive.
Education, like having children, concerns practicalities. One shepards the young mind into maturity, giving them skills and knowledge needed for survival and success. But education is also about something else, something with an ineffable soul. That thing cannot be defined; it can only be experienced.
There will always be a tension between these two forces, but at present we have one overwhelming the other. We take every lesson and tie it to this rock of a rubric, these frames of standards.
And in the process, we are draining the life out of an enterprise that needs a soul.