FAQ: What is “Standards-based Instruction”?

From time to time, we address questions on key/core education concepts from adult education practitioners like you. These blog posts are collected on the EFFTIPS FAQ page for easy reference.

Question-puzzle imageEFFTIPS is designed to be a place for adult education teachers to learn and exchange ideas about implementing standards-based instruction and/or instruction based on quality instructional principles.

Q: But what exactly is “Standards-based instruction?” What do we mean when we say that?

In adult education, we feel that standards-based instruction starts from a BIG IDEA:  that the quality of the adult education services we offer is better when we focus teaching, learning, assessment, and accountability processes around the knowledge and skills that adults need to accomplish their goals in life.

Thus one part of the answer to “What is standards-based education?” is this: Instruction that is structured around the content that people widely agree is most important to be taught, learned and assessed.  ‘Standards” then, are a set of clear and broadly understood descriptions of that content. You may also have heard some other phrases lately: “core standards,” “performance standards” “content standards,” “state standards,” etc.

So going back to our BIG IDEA, “Content Standards” for adult education must then DEFINEthe knowledge and skills that adults need to accomplish their goals in life.”

Q: But what is that knowledge? What are those skills?

Well, different sources have different but often overlapping lists of knowledge and skills ‘adults need.’ The Adult Education Content Standards Warehouse maintains a database of adult education content standards from roughly 20 states and organizations in reading, math, and English language acquisition. You may also have heard of the ‘Common Core State Standards’.  These standards profess to, “…define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.1  In other words, they are designed to prepare youth for education and training beyond high school.  And, of course, the Equipped for the Future (EFF) Standards in particular were developed to describe “the knowledge and skills adults need to accomplish their goals in life.”

Q: But where did EFF’s list of knowledge and skills come from? How was it developed?

Back at the beginning of the development of the EFF standards, the work was guided in part by what was then referred to as “Goal  6” – one of the six National Education Goals established by a presidentially-appointed panel in 1992:

Every adult American will be literate and possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

The developers of EFF understood that, in order to address that goal, we would have to clearly define what exactly adults need to know and be able to do in order to reach it. And we would have to have a broad national consensus about what knowledge and skills adults actually use when they are being effective workers, citizens and family members (notice we added that last aspect – family – to the national goal).

The EFF Standards are drawn from what 1,500 adult learners (nationwide) identified as important and meaningful things “adults need to know and be able to do” in their everyday lives. Through an intensive four year process, and in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, EFF developed the 16 EFF Content Standards that define the knowledge and skills adults need in order to successfully carry out their roles as parents and family members, citizens and community members, and workers.3

Here is an example of one EFF standard  – Read with Understanding. In the graphic at right, the definition of the standard is central, surrounded by the three major roles and the four major purposes for learning drawn from those 1500 adult responses.

Q: OK, so now I understand what a “content standard” is for adult education – is standards-based instruction then just a matter of teaching that specific knowledge and those skills?

Supposedly it could be, but innovators pushing for educational change feel strongly that standards-based education is much more than that. As standards are based in the knowledge and skills that adults need to accomplish their goals in life,” then instruction should also be designed to support adults’ ability to apply knowledge and skills in various real-life contexts – empowering them to attain their goals.

A very important thing to notice about the EFF standards is that they are named and described in terms of skill application (‘read’) for a purpose (‘with understanding’). Each component listed for a standard (those “bullet points” listed in the center of the graphic at right) is critical to the process of actually using the skill to accomplish goals and purposes. So with EFF Standards we’re talking not only about what people know, but about what they can do with what they know when they have to meet a need or get something done.  So teaching and learning of an EFF standard means teaching and learning the process of using the skill described by the standard.

This then leads us into the second part of our answer to “What is standards-based education?”Instruction addressing standards is based in quality instructional principles.

One of the great things about establishing clear standards of any sort is that they allow teachers and students to have a shared understanding about what a skill “means” and, hopefully, what instruction in that skill might look like. With a well-defined skill process described by each EFF standard, teachers better understand what they need to teach (in this case the whole skill process defined by those “bullet points”) and can communicate that to students. Students then can better understand what they will be expected to learn and are better able to monitor how well they are learning it. Following instruction, teachers should test their students only on what they have taught about a skill process, and students will always know what they will be tested on. This shared understanding made possible by standards leads to “mutual accountability” between teacher and students and is at the heart of standards-based instruction.

Q: Is that all? Can you tell me more about ‘Quality Instructional Principles’ and what standards-based instruction might look like?

Based on research in developmental and cognitive psychology, neuroscience, adult education and other fields, EFF developed five foundational research principles for quality adult educational practices2. Based on these principles, quality standards-based instruction has the following characteristics:

  • It is purposeful. Skills are taught in learning activities that are explicitly linked to student goals and to themes that matter to them.  [Principle 1]
  • It is contextual. Skills are taught in learning activities that are anchored in real-life contexts and situations (and draw upon authentic materials). Students learn that you don’t always use a skill the same way. Teachers teach students how to choose strategies that will work for a particular purpose and situation.  [Principle 2]
  • It is transparent. What’s being taught (and why) is made explicit so that students understand how it connects to their goals.  [Principle 1]
  • It builds expertise. Learning activities build on the prior knowledge, experiences, and perspectives of students. Teachers build on what students know about using the skill and also what they know about the context (work, the health care system, etc.). [Principle 3]
  • It addresses the full standard (not just specific ‘sub-skills’ out of context). Learning activities include explicit instruction on the knowledge, skills, and strategies included in the whole skill process described by the standard.  [Principle 3 & 4]
  • It promotes students’ independence. Teachers teach students how to identify signs of their own progress and how to think about what they need to learn next. [Principle 4]
  • It promotes continuous learning. Progress is documented and test results are communicated in a way that provides useful information to students and teachers as they think about next steps.  [Principle 4]

In all of these ways, standards-based instruction takes us back to that BIG IDEA where we started. It proposes that we adult education providers can best serve adult learners by aligning: what gets taught, what gets learned, what gets assessed, and what we are accountable for with standards that accurately describe what is most important for adults to know and do in their key life roles. Now, doesn’t that make a lot of sense?

If you have any questions about standards-based instruction, or experiences you are willing to share with your peers– please let us know via e-mail or by commenting on this post. We’d love to hear your views!

Visit the EFF Teaching/Learning Toolkit for examples of lessons using standards-based instructional principles.  You may also want to take a look at the referenced documents below.

Post Contributors:
Peggy McGuire, EFF Trainer & Content Expert, Center for Literacy Studies
Duren Thompson, EFFTIPS Technical Editor, Center for Literacy Studies

1 Common Core state Standards initiative: About the Standards, (2011) http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards

2 Beth Bingman & Sondra Stein, (August 2001).  Results That Matter: An Approach to Program Quality Using Equipped for the Futurehttp://eff.cls.utk.edu/PDF/results_that_matter.pdf

3 To learn more about how the EFF Framework and Standards were developed, try the Equipped for the Future Research Report Building the Framework, 1993 – 1997, by Juliet Merrifield, published by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) in March 2000. You may want to start on page 13.


Posted on June 28, 2012, in FAQS, Quality Practices and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thought we’d share this great feedback we received via e-mail:

    “[These] two posts, “What is Standards-Based Instruction?” and “What is Contextualized Instruction?”, are the clearest, most comprehensive, most straightforward explanations of the EFF Standards and EFF approach to T&L [Teaching and Learning] that I’ve seen anywhere.


    Ira Yankwitt
    Executive Director of Program Initiatives
    Office of Adult and Continuing Education
    NYC Department of Education”

  2. Aaron Kohring

    The Adult Literacy Education Wiki also has resources and information on national and international educational standards: http://wiki.literacytent.org/index.php/Standards
    Aaron Kohring
    UT Center for Literacy Studies

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