The term power standards refers to a subset of learning standards that educators have determined to be the highest priority or most important for students to learn. In most cases, power standards are developed or selected at the school level by administrators and teachers. All fifty states have developed or adopted extensive lists of content-area standards that define, in great detail, the knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn in all major subject areas and all grade levels (kindergarten through twelfth grade). But on a practical level, it is often impossible for teachers to cover every academic standard over the course of a school year, given the depth and breadth of state learning standards.
Power standards, therefore, are the prioritized academic expectations that educators determine to be the most critical and essential for students to learn, and—in schools that use power standards—courses and learning experiences are designed to emphasize power-standards content and ensure that, at the very least, students learn the content specified in the power standards. It is important to note that power standards do not preclude the teaching of other standards—they merely determine the highest-priority material. For this reason, power standards may be limited to only a handful of standards, but these standards will typically require students to acquire and demonstrate strong understanding of a complex subject or sophisticated skill. For example, understanding the scientific method and applying it in diverse scientific situations might be an example of a power standard identified by schools.
The educators and authors Larry Ainsworth and Douglas Reeves are widely considered to have coined the term “power standards.” In Ainsworth’s 2003 book, Power Standards: Identifying the Standards that Matter the Most, he defines the concept and outlines a variety of strategies schools could use to select or create power standards. Reeves wrote the foreword. The book proposes three criteria for selecting power standards:
- Endurance: Standards that focus on knowledge and skills that will be relevant throughout a student’s lifetime (such as learning how to read or how to interpret a map).
- Leverage: Standards that focus on knowledge and skills used in multiple academic disciplines (such as writing grammatically and persuasively or interpreting and analyzing data).
- Essentiality: Standards that focus on the knowledge and skills necessary for students to succeed in the next grade level or the next sequential course in an academic subject (such as understanding algebraic functions before taking geometry or calculus, which require the use of algebra).
“While academic standards vary widely in their specificity and clarity, they almost all have one thing in common: there are too many of them,” Reeves wrote in 2005. Some educators have pointed out that many of the countries that perform best on international tests, such as Finland and Singapore, also have more streamlined learning standards.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.