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The Pros and Cons of Standards-Based Education

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With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards across the United States comes the resurgence of the debate over standards in general. While most states have a set of standards for all core subjects, educators have differing ideas about the usefulness and benefit of standards at all.

What Is Standards-Based Education?  

First, what is a standard? An educational or learning standard is a written description of what students are expected to know or be able to do by a certain time in their educational career. Standards do not indicate the curriculum or materials to be used to meet student goals.

Standards-based education, therefore, involves using pre-determined standards to plan the scope and sequence of instruction, as well as what activities and materials will be used to achieve the goals of each standard. Assessments are used in standards-based education to determine the ongoing progress of students, which will drive instruction choices and to document that students have reached mastery of the standards for each grade.

Why Are Some Educators in Favor of Standards-Based Instruction?

Most educators admit that no one approach to education will work for every student. Many teachers, however, feel that working with standards is the most logical approach to public education. The Professional Learning Board teacher site describes why standards-based instruction is important:

  • Students are completely aware of what they are expected to know or be able to do. The standards are clear and precise, often written in kid-friendly language. Many teachers post the standards for each content area so students see how each lesson fits into a bigger plan.
  • By adopting and following standards, and informing students of their goals, administrators can hold teachers and students accountable for classroom progress.
  • Standards-based instruction guides planning and instruction and helps teachers keep their focus on the learning target. Teachers are aware of what materials were taught in previous years and what will be taught in years to come. They are free to concentrate on the limited number of skills and concepts included in their grade-level standards.
  • Well-written standards include not only what students will be able to do and what they will know but also the expected time in their education they should have mastered the skill or concept. Students can set their own goals and track their own progress.

What Might be Wrong With Standards-Based Instruction?

The concept of teaching to a standard emerged in 1980 and offered great promise in terms of planning for comprehensive and complete education for students at every grade level. Not all educators agree that the promise was fulfilled. 

Lauren B. Resnick, professor of psychology and director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, has some concerns about the present state of standards-based instruction, assessment and grading:

Who should set the standards? Resnick does not go so far as to say that standards should be created for each individual student. She is concerned, however, that if expectations are written by those out of touch with students, such as businesspeople and politicians, they will remain unreasonable, and educational practices will be reduced to bean counting. 

What about the standards themselves? Resnick is concerned about the selection of standards writers and how they determine criteria and timing for standards. She maintains that by pursuing achievement based on a rigid set of goals, children are missing the pleasure and motivation connected with simply solving a problem. Students who work only for points do not understand that “knowledge matters” and that “active processing of information is the only reliable way to acquire knowledge.” 

Do the tests match the overall goals? Standardized tests, also known as high-stakes tests, have been the norm for assessing achievement since early in the standards-based education movement. These tests, often conducted online, are generally disliked by teachers and students. And, because they test to the grade-level standards and only those standards, Resnick concludes that “these tests help to perpetuate the ‘mile-wide, inch-deep’ curriculum, rather than promote teaching that pushes for solid knowledge of important topics.” 

According to educator Jenny Froehle, the No Child Left Behind initiative of the early 2000s led to unreasonable assessments and unattainable expectations for both students and teachers. She maintains that having goals is a worthy concept, but a plan that isolates discrete pieces of information and lines them up to be learned in isolation is not meaningful. She refers to that method of teaching, learning and instruction as a “constraining cocoon of regulatory nonsense.” 

Instead, she proposes that students study age-appropriate concepts and ideas and build skills that will form integrated solutions to real problems, answering these three questions: 

  1. What are the most important ideas here and why?
  2. How can I communicate these ideas to others?
  3. How can I solve this problem?

The Role of the Administrator 

As a principal or instructional coordinator or director, you will be responsible for implementing or assisting in the implementation of standards-based instruction, as adopted by your district. You will also be involved in the statewide testing and in the reporting of the results.

While there are differing opinions on how standards should be incorporated into instruction, a district or building administrator is in a position to lobby for what is best for the students. Stay informed about the requirements in both your state and your district. Keep up to date with the mandates and education laws and how they affect your students, and inform your faculty and staff of these important issues. Weigh in on conversations about instruction and assessment. 

As an administrator, the majority of your time will be spent doing what needs to be accomplished to provide a fair and complete education for all students. But, at the end of the day, you will have had both the burden and the privilege of helping students succeed no matter what program in instituted by your district or school. 

Learn more about the University of Wisconsin-Superior online Master of Science in Education – Educational Administration program. 


The Glossary of Education Reform: Standards-Based 

Professional Learning Board: Importance of Standards-Based Instruction 

Education Next: The Mismeasure of Learning 

Education Week: What the Standards-Based Movement Got Wrong

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