The other side of the coin | pakistanpolicyideas | Some Reflections


A couple of days ago, I wrote about some issues related to the use of standardised testing for accountability on this blog.  In an update to the same post, I mentioned a statement issued by a gathering of members of Pakistan’s academic, civil, and political society at the Harvard University.  This statement also mentioned the idea of minimum standards that was not the focus of my discussion in the last post. This post is about minimum standards.

The statement calls for formulating the ‘minimum standards’ for education at all levels and ‘measuring’ them for all children through standardised tests. In an article contributed to Pakistan Today today, Dr. Faisal Bari elaborated this need for minimum standards with reference to the above-mentioned statement as under:

The provinces need to stipulate the minimum standards of reading, writing, arithmetic, and other areas that are considered to be important. These stipulations will be useless if there is no way of checking if every child, across each province, is achieving these minimums. And since we have both private and public providers of education, it really means measuring the performance of each child. via The other side of the coin | pakistanpolicyideas.

Dr. Bari also noted the issues/difficulties with the use of standardised testing for holding the schools and teachers accountable:

There are many issues with standardised testing, and even in places like the US, where standardised testing has been there, in one form or another, for quite some time, there are plenty of critics of the approach: testing tends to be narrow, there can be issues of teaching to tests, it encourages competition and can encourage corruption, it distorts teacher rewards/incentives to a disproportional weight for student performance in tests, it lowers the importance of nontangibles in educational experiences and many other concerns. via The other side of the coin | pakistanpolicyideas.

This blog resonates with the concerns expressed by Dr. Bari. They are also noted in earlier posts on the subject of teacher accountability and standardised testing. The issue is not just measuring through the tests though, but doing this in a way that allows for inter-group comparisons. That is where it is likely to become a bit, in fact extremely, difficult for a country riddled with sharp inequalities.

The other issue is that of minimum standards.  This perhaps calls for some more deliberation. I have also spoken with friends and colleagues about the idea of minimum standards with some favour in the past.  Some people also call them Fundamental Quality Levels or (FQLs).  But it seems to me that there is a danger worth considering when thinking about a minimum standards-based education policy alternatives.  Or perhaps, it is not as much a danger as a check on the possibility of crafting minimum standards in the presence of another set of standards that are ‘not minimum.’ If the latter do not exist, then the former will be the only standards and, therefore, not minimum standards.  It is also possible that prioritising the  ‘minimum standards’ may render them indistinguishable [in practice] from ‘the standards.’ Requiring uniformly high standards, as is well understood through experience, does not seem to work either in the absence of robust mechanisms to support the individuals and organisation to meet them.   But it is also difficult to see what kind of incentives for schools and individuals will need to be put in place to make them move up in the empty space [or perhaps one filled with incremental standards-ladder] between the ‘minimum standards,’ and ‘the standards?’ Are we looking at a dilemma re the standards here?

It is possible that the purpose of relying on the minimum standards by the members of the group that met at Harvard was to provide a floor beneath which the quality of services should not be allowed to fall. Yet, if we give priority to minimum standards, then it is also likely that minimum standards become the sticking glue that would not [easily] let most [if not all] of the individuals and schools using them to rise above the floor.  If this line of reasoning makes sense then the minimum standards are less likely to lead to ‘educational justice for all,’ or they would require its redefinition in a way that is consistent with the existing and uneven nature of an unjust society.

Below, I will give two examples of the use of the term minimum standards in ways that makes them indistinguishable from the standards.

1. The Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) has a set of minimum standards for INEE. But interestingly, those seem to be the only standards. Which effectively means that the minimum standards are ‘the standards,’ in a situation characterised by emergencies. Nothing would change if they were referred to as standards and not minimum standards.

2.  The second case of the use of the term ‘minimum standards,’ I pick from my favourite country, the United States.  This case for ‘minimum standards,’ was advanced in response to persisting inequalities in California’s education system in the wake of the famous Serrano v. Priest cases in California’s Supreme Court.  It requires some more description:

Initiated in 1968 in the Superior Court of Los Angeles CountySerrano v. Priest (John Serrano was a parent of one of several Los Angeles public school students; Ivy Baker Priest was theCalifornia State Treasurer at the time) set forth three causes of action (quotes from the decision).

1. California’s method of funding public education, because of district-to-district disparities, “fails to meet the requirements of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the California Constitution.”

2. “[As] a direct result of the financing scheme they are required to pay a higher tax rate than [taxpayers] in many other school districts in order to obtain for their children the same or lesser educational opportunities afforded children in those other districts.”

3. “[That] an actual controversy has arisen and now exists between the parties as to the validity and constitutionality of the financing scheme under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and under the California Constitution.”

The Court agreed with the plaintiffs, largely on equal-protection grounds, and returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings. via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serrano_v._Priest

The Serrano cases are a series of cases decided in 1971, 1976, 1977, and 1978, and some of their details can be accessed in the documents above.  In 1999, nearly 21 years after the case, Hanif S. P. Hirji reflected on these cases in the Loyola Law Review [32 (2)]. This paper spoke of the minimum standards as a compromise, since the equality based on an equal distribution of funding to the public schools did not seem to be achievable in a capitalistic society. The case for the minimum standards is made as follows:

California’s current public school system is in desperate need of restructuring to ensure equality in education. The following is a proposal to reduce the impact of the current crisis revolving around educational inequalities.

The first step in achieving this solution is to accept the fact that complete equality can never be achieved in any aspect of our lives. Once we concede that we live in a democratic country that promotes capitalism, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the wealthier constituents will always be capable of spending more on their children’s educations by placing them in private schools or by supplementing their public education through independent programs. This Comment rejects the solutions proposed by Serrano I and Serrano II, which sought to equalize funding amongst the various school districts, and instead focuses on establishing minimum standards of education. (p.606)   As such, our goal should be to provide each and every student with an education that satisfies the minimum standards promulgated by the people of the state.

The paper further proposed the establishment of a committee in addition to the existing State Education Board:

In conjunction with the State Education Board, the Committee shall organize standardized testing, which should encompass the minimum curriculum adopted by the Committee. These standardized tests shall be administered by independent agencies to all students of the public schools. No student may proceed to the next grade level without passing the test administered for their present level and each teacher will be paid a bonus based on the number of students in their class that graduate to the next level. The standardized tests will ensure that students are not being allowed to move on to the next grade without having achieved an appropriate degree of proficiency for their current grade level. (p. 607-608)

Notice that though termed minimum standards these are effectively proposed as the only, and therefore, the standards.  

Furthermore, the notion of standardised tests as presented in this paper calls for some reflection on the idea of using tests for accountability in the context of this conversation.  Hirji argues for standardised tests as a check on students in a way that is intended to make them either meet the minimum standards or face the consequence of falling behind in the same grade level.  It is noteworthy that in the absence of a check on students, such as the one proposed in this paper, the onus of their performance lies on the shoulders of anyone–i.e. the teachers, school systems, parents, so on and so forth–except the students themselves.  Again, I am not suggesting a pendulum swing from teachers to students in our thinking about accountability.  I am only suggesting there is a danger that in our eagerness to hold someone accountable, and in setting our sights on the teachers to do so, we are likely to let everyone else off the hook.  Will it improve the system? I haven’t the slightest idea.  But there is evidence that this can most likely lead to the sort of undesirable practices pointed out in other posts as well as in Dr. Bari’s article.

I will stop here, hoping to elicit some useful ideas from the readers of this blog on the idea of minimum standards in education.

Disclaimer: The external websites are quoted on this blog to provide the readers with a range of opinions on any given topic to help them reflect on their own questions concerning the issue being discussed.  This blog does not endorse views expressed on external websites unless explicitly stated

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About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

One Response to “The other side of the coin | pakistanpolicyideas | Some Reflections”

  1. Nicely written post on an important issue. Offers too much thinking and desire to reflect on it.

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