Standards-Based Education: The 'Ironic Distance'

standards-based educationStandards-based education is a reality in the structure of public education in the United States. With its forty or so years of application, the idea of standards-based learning is nearly invisible in educational practice. Teachers think in terms of standards. Administrators find their days bogged down in standards applications. Yet, standards-based education carries with it an intense burden on teachers, students, and administrators alike. That burden is what Slavoj Žižek calls 'ironic distance.'

What is 'Ironic Distance?'

The speed limit on the interstates in the Phoenix Arizona metro area, where I live, is set to 65 mph. That is the law. Yet drivers routinely exceed the speed limit by ten to fifteen miles per hour and sometimes more. The law is clear but the enforcement of that law is almost a lottery. Enforcement is spotty at best and missing at worst. While the speed limit is etched in stone, the practice is flexible leaving most people giggling silently as they speed along. This is an example of 'ironic distance' that I am certain most of us can relate to.

Standards-Based Education: How does 'Ironic Distance' Emerge Here?

The argument for standards-based education is, on its face, an exercise in liberal ethics. (I am using 'liberal' here as a catchall for both left and right wing politics. The term is indicative of post-enlightenment politics rather than as a political identifier.) Standards go the argument, lay out a performance bar, that when understood by teachers and students alike, insures that all children succeed in school. In this sense, standards-based education is geared to level the playing field. Wealthy or poor, black or white or other, gifted or special needs, all children are provided an equal chance to succeed.
Doesn't this sound like a robust way to make sure that all children succeed in school? The problem is, that the formula doesn't work. It is flawed from the core. The entire argument is based on a 'conjunction fallacy.' The fallacy assumes that an outcome simultaneously satisfying multiple conditions is more probable than an outcome satisfying a single one of them. The argument for standards-based education is one that conflates many issues into a single idea. In doing so, it misses very real differences between groups of people, differences that contribute to learning.

'Ironic Distance'

I argue that those founders of the standards-based education idea created the system to be deliberately vague. The idea, on its face, appears to have no counter argument. It elevates all students to the same level, makes standards transparent, and provides every opportunity for students to succeed. In practice, however, the opposite effect is realized. Assessment of performance based on standardized testing separates students into two groups. On one side, the 50% that fall above the mean and the 50% that fall below. The assessment practice flies in the face of equity by creating winners and losers. This leaves ample room for the supporters of standards-based education to argue for even tougher standards.
Here is a case of 'ironic distance' not unlike the speeding example. The main difference is that in this case, the system not only builds in failure rather than simply tolerating non-compliance.

Standards-Based Education is Biased Education

There is a bias in standards-based education that favors white, middle-class and wealthy Americans. Poor people and racial minorities tend to fall below the mean, while white and wealthy students tend to succeed. This creates a clear separation between the rich and the poor. The middle-class bridges the gap along racial lines as well.
Even if the standards themselves were not biased, the testing instruments certainly are. Testing is biased toward a level of experience that takes money and time to ingest. No consideration is given to the idea of cultural differences. Nor are there considerations for linguistic differences. These have a clear impact on how one performs on a standardized test.
The 'ironic distance' is one between the rules and one's ability to adhere to those concise rules. The door is opened to point fingers at those who do not perform well. Claims that one group is superior to another is a clear result of performance. Standards-based education provides ammunition for renewed racism and cultural bias.

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