Standards without Standardization

Gil Gallagher
With a seemingly infinite array of concepts and skills, we need to narrow our vision and hone in on those skills that are mission-aligned and of value for the world our students are coming into—as much as it is possible to know what that world will be.


We are in the process of shifting towards standards-based teaching, learning and assessment. At the center of this shift is a desire to make sure that students leave our courses and our program with a clear picture of our learning goals and a sense for how deeply they have developed those skills. It is also driven by a desire to be clearer with ourselves about the skills that matter to us.

I came to Field in 2002, our first year on the Foxhall Campus, and as a new teacher with no experience in the classroom I struggled to decide what was really important. I had some beliefs about the discipline I was teaching in—English!—but at the time we didn’t have much in terms of a set of goals that mattered to us as an institution of learning. We believed in students—and in the power that teachers had to influence students, but we didn’t have a clear vision for pedagogy or for curriculum—for how  and what students would learn.

I worked closely with my department chair to develop goals for my class, lessons that tried to get at those goals and assessments which, I hoped, would allow me to know at what level my students were learning. I did my best—and in many ways was very successful with my students. But looking back on those times, I can’t really say that I knew what students left my course being able to do.

We have come a long way since then, and our thinking about who we are as a school has evolved and matured. What made me successful as a teacher in 2002 was a belief in my students and the strong, open relationships we formed together. In education, relationships matter, and that has formed the foundation of a Field education for as long as I’ve been here. What we are building now is a clearer vision for what students will leave our school being able to do—to think critically, to communicate effectively, to collaborate with purpose and compassion, and to have an impact on the world. And to ensure that all students leave our school with these skills, we are adopting and, in some cases, adapting standards for each of our core disciplines.

There is a paradox at the center of this choice. We see students as individuals, and we know, both from our collective experience and from educational research, that students need a wide range of strategies in order to learn well. Standardization in education has a long history and is built on a factory model of the schools. Sir Ken Robinson in his Ted Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity”, describes this factory model and makes a powerful case for what schools should do. This animated version of one of his talks is also particularly illustrative. That is not us and will never be us.

But in order to deliver on our promise that students will leave Field with skills that matter, we have needed to take some of the guesswork out of the process. With a seemingly infinite array of concepts and skills, we need to narrow our vision and hone in on those skills that are mission-aligned and of value for the world our students are coming into—as much as it is possible to know what that world will be.

When we talk about standards-based learning, we are not talking about ensuring that all students have the same experience or are taught the same way. We know that is folly. What we are trying to ensure, as much as is possible in any human endeavor, is that we are clear with ourselves and with our students what we want them to learn and to give them a more coherent and unified learning experience. The ways we get students to the standards will necessarily be as different as our students’ minds.

And just as brilliant.


Gil Gallagher, The Field SchoolGil Gallagher is the Dean of Curriculum at Field and an educator in History and Anti-Racism. 
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