A cross-national calibration of programs of vocational education and training rests on the prodigious intellectual effort necessary to abstract from practice those instances or features that capture the essence of competency and then embody these features in assessment tools that provide an appropriate metric. This complex chain of analysis and interpretation that moves from work performance to standards is certainly fraught with difficulties, especially as one attempts to capture a 21st Century emphasis on collaboration, problem-solving, self-direction, and creativity in the workplace (see Baethge, Achtenhagen, Arends, Babic, Baethge- Kinsky, and Weber, 2006).
In the present analysis, I would like to focus on the equally formidable issues that are confronted as one turns toward the education and training side of competency, to the bringing of competencies to life in educative activity. The contrast I see is between, on the one hand, the macro world of universalities that frequently anchor discussions of assessment and international comparison and, on the other, the micro world of educative activity which is local and particular and in which effectiveness is a situated accomplishment.
Modern curriculum theory provides a rich set of tools to inform the chain of analysis and interpretation required to move from competency standards to types of educative activity that purport to foster competency. To do this, I will first address the nature of curriculum work as I see it and then turn to the task of tracing the complex processes involved in transforming competencies as content into curriculum and enacting curriculum as educative activity in preparatory contexts.
I would like to frame my remarks around two themes. The first is the gap I see between, on the one hand, the crystal clear and compelling logic of standards and assessment schemes which promise to rationalize and improve educational opportunity and quality and, on the other, the often reported failures of these schemes in whole or in part to fulfill their expectations. In other words, there often seems to be a disconnection between the rhetoric and reality and, since the rhetoric promises utopia, reality is often disappointing. What I hope to suggest is that we would be far better off in education and training to focus on understanding reality and inventing ways to make that reality rich and rewarding.
The second theme is suggested in a recent paper by D’Agostino, Welsch, and Corson (2007). They investigated the connection between scores on the Arizona standards-based assessment (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards—AIMS) in 5th grade mathematics and the ways in which a sample of teachers brought the standards to life in the classroom. To do this, they asked teachers to describe and give examples of how they enacted key standards and had these teacher descriptions judged by mathematicians in terms of the quality of the mathematics presented. The investigators discovered three broad categories of standards enactment by the teachers. One was enactments that did not adequately reflect the standard. A second was enactments that matched exactly or mimicked the way in which the standards were brought to life on the test. Of course, students in the classes of the second group of teachers had higher scores on the assessment than those in the first group. But there was a third group that was of particular interest. In this group, the teachers brought the standards to life in the classroom in mathematically legitimate ways but these ways did not match exactly the ways in which the test brought the standards to life. In these classes, the students scored better than those in classes in which an inaccurate enactment occurred, but lower than those in classes in which the enactment mimicked the test.
D’Agostino and his colleagues concluded that the assessment was instructionally sensitive, but in a very narrow sense that undermines the very idea of standards-based reform. It produced, in other words, the very narrowing of educational potential that David Berliner addresses so eloquently. We must be cautious, I think, about the power of assessments alone to revolutionize the quality of educational experiences for students.