A Case for Playwriting and Supporting Standards in Education

What are standards in education?

Briefly, standards are agreed upon learning points in specific disciplines that are specific to a grade level and the skills that the average student in that grade should acquire. Standards can be found in every content area from English and Math to Physical Education and Theatre Arts. There are different groups that have organized and authored standards. In Washington State there are the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR) that are comprehensive for every discipline in Washington State Schools. Nationally, there are the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading, writing, and mathematics. These standards have widely been adapted across the states so that the education of one child is (ideally) the same as the education of another child in a different part of the country. In general every public school and many private schools have adapted the use of the CCSS into the regular curriculum. There are also National Standards for the Arts that are comprehensive for all grades, K – 12, and the four major artistic disciplines of Theatre, Dance, Music, and Fine Arts. Given the movement to standardize the content of the classrooms across the country it is a best practice to, at the very least, integrate the national standards into the local standards of the classroom.

How do teachers use standards?

Most importantly, standards do not tell teachers what content to use for their instruction. Standards are simply a list of skills that students should develop. For example, when studying plot structure, the teacher may ask the students to read a grade level appropriate book or craft a narrative that includes essential plot points. The teacher may integrate a historical lesson about the Fraytag Pyramid or use a modern construct such as the five and eight part story structure.

Standards help to measure student performance. They do not need to be summative (resulting in a numerical grade). These measurements can be formative (descriptive of the student’s work) in either a formal or informal application from the student, peers of the student, or the teacher. That is to say, students should be made aware of the standard and be asked to evaluate their work in the context of the standard. They will gain two important things from this. First, the students will be accountable for their own learning. Second, they will not be caught off-guard when that standard reappears in another format or when the instructor discusses their work in the context of the standard.

Using standards is only a small part of being a great teacher. It is still up to the teacher to fill the gaps left in the framework that the standard provides. Standards are benchmarks on the roadmap to learning. There may need to be alterations, backtracking, fast-forwarding, or absolute disregarding of the standards to make sure that the learning of each student is addressed.

Why use standards?

The arts continually fight to be justified in the context of traditional education. By utilizing standards at the state and national levels for both the arts and the areas of overlap in the common core, teachers and artists can justify the existence of arts programing in a school. This is especially important today when arts programing is cut and when often teachers with low qualifications to teach art are at the helm of a dwindling arts program.

Second, standards are used to clarify and support the education of each student. Think of each standard in the same way that you would think of a painter learning the primary colors, or a ballet dancer learning proper alignment, or a drummer learning to count the rhythm, or an actor learning the difference between stage left and stage right. These are all basic standards in the arts. You can think of standards as the building blocks of knowledge, the rules of the art form, that help artists create.

As it is well known, one must learn the rules to break the rules. Artists are no exception. Standards are the rules that the creative spirit can use or break to create new and interesting pieces of art.

How does playwriting fit into all of this?

Writing a play is the ultimate task in writing. It requires the author to be both creative genius and literary technician. The CCSS addresses both aspects of writing, though it does more heavily cover the technical aspects of writing well. The playwright must learn to tell a story, develop a character, use contrasting points of view, follow the syntax and format of a play, use established writing structures, and most importantly follow the arduous process of writing, rewriting, revising, peer editing, critiquing, and then writing again. These are all found in the common core state standards.

Testing Does Not Measure Teacher Effectiveness 

test-taking-tipsTeacher evaluation is necessary; it is a needed part of overall education reform. But – teacher testing is not the solution to improve schools. The current model of evaluating teachers, students, and schools, based on a snapshot test, results in counter-intuitive results, counter-productive teaching, and damaging practices to the entire school system. There are better ways to improve teaching outcomes and evaluate teacher performance. Continue reading “Testing Does Not Measure Teacher Effectiveness “

Standards in Education are Good

A Standards based education is essentially a good thing under the following conditions:

  • Standards are applied equally to all grade levels and content areas
  • Standards take into account student differences (learning abilities especially)
  • Standards are used diagnostically for improvement in both teachers and students
  • Student history is integrated into any standards based assessment

Condition One: Equal Application

Currently the Common Core State Standards are not applied to the arts or social sciences. I applaud the national application of standards that allow states to bring every student to the same level. However, the focus on writing and math is very, “old-school.” Students must engage in topics that expand beyond the “R’s” for a high-quality education, something that No Child Left Behind aimed to do for every student in the country.

Condition Two: Student Differences

Not every student is made equally. Students may have disabilities or superior talents. If a standards based approach is to work it should function more like Karate Levels than grade levels. Standards should be comprehensive and thorough. When a student passes one level they should be expected to have mastered a dependable amount of the material in that level for a given subject. This means a revolution in the school system. A student can be at level X in one subject and level Y in another. This happens to some degree with advanced placement courses. However, it should happen throughout education. Students advance at different paces and have different learning abilities. There should be no reason that a student should take algebra simply because they are in ninth grade. A student should take algebra because they have mastered the content that supports algebra.

Condition Three: Focus on Improvement

Students and teachers can both benefit from the feedback that standard based assessment can offer. Standards can highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the learning process. A good teacher and a good student can respond to the diagnostic standard test and use the feedback to greater effect in their learning. However, students and teachers should be allowed to not pass a standard in curriculum content. When the pressure to pass is removed, students and teachers can have the freedom to assess their abilities and strengthen their weaknesses.

Condition Four: Student Chronology

Just as standards should be used to evaluate the matriculation of a student from one level to the next, the past experiences and testing of a student should be weighted along with current student performance. A student may have a history of difficulty in a given subject. This historical information must be used when creating an individualized education plan for that student in that subject. The student should not be allowed to continually fail. If they are placed in a course designed around their leaning abilities they are more likely to succeed. This is both a pro-active and retroactive approach to teaching. The most specialized teachers should be diagnosticians that can bring the students abilities to light and prescribe the treatment appropriate to the individual.

Proposed Changes: Revolution

The changes that I propose here are not entirely simple to administer. They would require a revolution in the education industry for the United States. More teachers would be needed to provide an approach to teaching that embraces differentiation and individualization. Classrooms would need to adapt to a level based education instead of a grade-based education. Teachers would need to design coursework that was appropriate for multiple age levels. These adaptations would need to account for student development as well so that content could also be adapted to chronological maturity. Students would need to focus directly on the learning of the content and ignore the passing of the time from August to June. Lastly, the nation would need to agree on a system of content specific standards that are aligned to ability not chronology and further agree on the meaning of a high-school diploma.


Standards Based Education is an essential component to effective teaching practice; teachers must use learning targets that are connected to the standards and effectively measure student progress toward those standards.

I have come to embrace the rubric as an essential standards based teaching tool. Used correctly, the rubric can:

  • Guide student learning throughout the lesson.
  • Support student self-assessment.
  • Proved feedback for future student improvement.
  • Direct teacher assessment that is qualitatively and quantitatively equal from one student to the next.
  • Align to standards and measure desired outcomes.

In teaching my introductory monologue unit for sixth grade drama, I utilize a rubric that is effective in all four areas. The rubric provides simple statements that describe student achievement across five essential areas of acting. I expect that all five of these areas will continue to progress across the three year sequence; consequently, I do not expect students to achieve a perfect score in their initial performances.

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 10.59.48 AMMany teachers will use a rubric at the end of a unit to grade a project. While this is an effective use of the rubric, there is often a missed opportunity to use the rubric throughout the lesson. In my sixth grade drama class I use the rubric to guide student learning. Students that pre-view the levels of achievement in the rubric have the opportunity to stretch their learning into the desired category. I purposefully include levels of achievement that are beyond typical sixth grade achievement. I introduce the rubric as “level based” and not point based. Using the metaphor of Karate Belts, students can conceptualize the idea that different students will be achieving at different levels. Pre-viewing the rubric will also give students an understanding of the entire project in advance of starting any work. This pre-view will help students make connections from one area of assessment to another and plan accordingly.

A well-designed rubric can be easily read and understood by each student. I take the time to explain the content in my rubric for this unit and ask that students explain it back to me. The student voice component here is an essential element of assessing the student achievement in relationship to the learning target aligned to the lesson. The rubric also includes the content of each learning target that is included in the unit. Because of this, a rubric will also help students to self-assess their progress throughout the lesson or unit. Students that work from the rubric can see where they are fully completing the task and where they need to continue to work (O2).

During the process of the project, the teacher can use the rubric as a quick method of assessment and feedback for the student. They can ask the student where they believe they are at any given level, reflect to the student on their observations, and use the rubric as a common language. The teacher can also point to work on the rubric that would take the student to the next level. If the rubric is organized for learning, each step should follow a logical progression of skills.

Regarding formative and summative assessment, the teacher can use the rubric for assessment. This assessment will clearly have a quantitative value where points are assigned across a number of categories. However, the categories can also be viewed with qualitative assessment in mind. I can use the rubric to describe the academic journey of the student.

Lastly the rubric includes the content that the learning targets support. If students work with the learning targets in each lesson and demonstrate developing or basic mastery of each learning target, they will easily score in the mid to high range of the rubric.

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 12.32.03 PMIn future editions of the rubric, I plan to increase the effectiveness and include the actual learning targets for the unit within the rubric. This will increase the connection for each student form the individual lessons to the culminating project of performing a monologue. It will also assist students to assess their daily progress in relationship to the rubric and the learning targets simultaneously.

Assessment Cycle Formative to Summative

Responding to the learning progress of every student is a crucial step of successful teaching and can improve instruction in multiple ways; teachers must use standards based assessment that can be used for both formative and summative outcomes; students should use these same standards for self-assessment (P3).

My eighth grade drama class is currently working on scenes from “Merchant of Venice.” In the previous year, they passed the eighth grade Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR) standards, dictated by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). This year, they are working towards basic high school proficiency (9th and 10th grade EALR levels). To do this they must pass a series of Grade Level Expectations and OSPI Assessments. These assessments cover areas of character physicality and speech. Both of these components are tested in a summative rubric used at the end of the 10-week long unit. This summative rubric is derived from the EALR standards at the desired grade level.

Prior to this year the student skill level was assessed qualitatively, in comparison to state EALR, without the OSPI Assessments. This year, the rubric is completely derived from these assessments. In doing so, I improve the reliability of the student outcomes.

Continue reading “Assessment Cycle Formative to Summative”


A teacher is a practitioner of education. Because of this, their understanding and contextual information continues to grow. To nurture this growth, they must collaborate with colleagues, reflect on their experiences, and evaluate their progress based on the feedback from their collaborations and reflections.

One deep aspect of reflection that I engage with continually is the relevance of arts education. Continue reading “STEM v. ARTS?”

Essential Theatre Standards in Washington State

Context: In 2002, the arts were identified as a core academic subject in the State of Washington by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); this act defined the arts as consisting of four distinct disciplines: dance, music, theatre, and visual arts (Dorn, Joseph, Vavrus, 2011). ESEA essentially established that the arts were equally important to all other subjects because only a well-rounded education can increase the academic development of every student. Because of this, standards were created for each of the arts (O1).

The learning standards for the arts, including Theatre, can be found on the website for Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). They can be viewed online or downloaded as a PDF or Word document.

Searching for standards is easy, providing that there is an existing knowledge of the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR) for the arts. The first EALR is centered on student understanding of arts knowledge, the second focuses on the student artistic process of creation, the third emphasizes student communication through the arts, and the fourth demands that students make connections across the arts and other disciplines (Dorn, et. al, 2011). A comprehensive chart of the four EALR can be found at the conclusion of this document (see Figure One). Continue reading “Essential Theatre Standards in Washington State”