Thursday / April 25

Keeping It Simple With Standards-Based Learning

At its essence, standards-based learning is simple. We set learning targets for our students, determine where they are in relation to those targets, and then do everything we can to help them reach or go beyond those targets. Standards-based grading and reporting is equally as simple at its essence: at certain points in the learning, we communicate where students are in relation to the targets and what we (and they) will do next to ensure growth. Simple. But there are so many variables that can fight against that simplicity, and when these variables take up the majority of our time in schools and communities, we risk losing the power and potential of a standards-based system. When we get lost in the variables, teachers and students lose control, and systems become complicated, externally-driven ways to assess, track, and report numbers. When we stay true to the essence of SBL, however, teachers have more autonomy, students are more engaged, and the system allows for more innovation.

For teachers, standards-based learning should allow for greater autonomy.

Standards-based learning is not standardized learning. While some districts have taken a standardized approach to SBL—providing mandatory checklists of national standards, requiring pacing guides or common lesson plans—other schools have chosen a different approach, one that stays true to the essence of SBL, but allows teachers to use what they know about their students and their communities to design their own learning experiences.

In our school, we have four 9th grade humanities teams. All teams share the same 12 learning targets and some general content outcomes in the form of a K-U-D (Know, Understand, Do), but each team has autonomy to get students to those targets and outcomes in any way they choose. The teams meet regularly to share successes and challenges, calibrate understanding of the targets, and to develop benchmark examples. Teams design experiences that allow students continuous opportunities for practice and achievement of the 12 targets, and throughout the year, they report student achievement and progress. Because the targets are transferable, not content-specific, they can be used throughout the year with varied content, which allows for deeper learning, more flexibility, and increased teacher autonomy.

For students, standards-based learning should allow for more personalization and greater engagement.

Having the same standards does not mean that students have to do the same things at the same time; in fact, clear, transferable targets allow students to propose alternate routes to the same destination. Once we know our learners, we can help them tie their interests into their learning, thus increasing engagement and retention. Just as checklists of mandated standards can prevent teachers from quality teaching, they can also prevent students from quality learning. When students have a reasonable number of clear targets, not only are they much more likely to reach or go beyond them, but they are much more likely to take ownership of their learning along the way.

In our Think Tank course, a heterogeneous class about educational innovation, students in grades 10-12 have the same four learning targets for the semester. After some initial common experiences and instruction, students will choose what they want to learn more about and how they want to learn. Whatever relevant content grabs their interest, however, they will all be practicing the same four essential skills, which are articulated in our learning targets. We see this all over our building, as teachers let go of control and allow students to make decisions about what and how and when they want to learn.

For schools, standards-based learning should set a foundation for innovation.

So much of what is exciting about the future of education relies on a solid, standards-based foundation. The inspiring systemic and structural changes that are happening in pockets around our country become more possible and replicable when we know how to ensure rigorous learning and have systems in place to communicate that learning. If teachers and schools are busy rushing through checklists of national or local standards, teachers and students do not have the time or creative space necessary to take risks with innovative practices and structures.

At our school, many innovative programs are growing from the foundation of standards-based learning. We have Nexus, a place for students who want a truly personalized learning experience; we have a growing Sustainability Program, where students work with faculty to build barns and bat houses, raise goats and chickens, bring trout to the fire pond, and plant and maintain gardens and berry bushes; we are starting a year-end studies program that allows teachers and students to share learning and passions; and we have so many smaller, class-based innovations that challenge conventional ideas of school. All of these innovative ideas must be grounded in standards-based learning practices if we want to ensure integrity, allow for personalization, and increase engagement for all students.

As more and more schools take on standards-based systems, we will continue to see a variety of approaches. In our experience, keeping it simple by focusing on the core of SBL and resisting the pressures of standardization will lead to greater transformation—for our students and for our schools.

Written by

Emily Rinkema is a co-founder of the Vermont Standards-Based Learning Collective, a grassroots organization that brings together educators interested in improving education through SBL. Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams are the authors of The Standards-Based Classroom by Corwin Press (2018).


Stan Williams has taught and worked in the Champlain Valley School District (CVSD) in Vermont for over twenty years. He is currently an instructional coach for the district and spends his time supporting standards-based learning (SBL) and instruction at the high school and the four district middle schools. Besides his work as an instructional coach, Stan co-teaches a class called Think Tank, which has students examining education and learning and has kids at the heart of educational transformation.

No comments

leave a comment