Review of: The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal

by Cory Nikkel and Matt Townsley

The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal touts the expertise of two practitioners who have worked ceaselessly to make standards-based learning (SBL) the perfect fit for Champlain Valley School in Vermont. The authors quickly remind readers that SBL will not look and operate the same in every building and that the book will “provide a way—not the way”—for each school’s efforts .

The Standards-Based Classroom breaks into the educational scene as a fresh voice revealing the evidence of SBL’ s impact. For schools and classrooms dabbling in standards-based education, this book is the perfect guide for next steps.

For schools and classrooms dabbling in standards-based education, this book is the perfect guide for next steps. 

Practitioners Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams provide a humble, in-the-trenches perspective on this topic that has often been previously filled by consultants and those further from the classroom. Proficiency-based learning is a requirement of the Vermont Agency of Education, and this context provides the authors a unique platform for sharing their experiences. Rinkema and Williams assume the reader already knows why SBL matters and desires to know how to make it happen in a school or a classroom. The authors’ main intention is to reveal their proven methods, which they have developed through eight years of wrestling with SBL.

Educators will appreciate the authors’ deep understanding of SBL, which allows the book to go well beyond “the basics” typically found in competing texts. As former classroom teachers and current instructional coaches, the authors note, “It’s every student in your class who deserves the best you have to give” (3). The best way to achieve this is a dedicated SBL approach heavy in relationships where every student knows how deeply teachers care about them and their learning.

The Standards-Based Classroom is organized into four sections: articulate desired results, develop targeted assessment, design effective instruction, and monitor and communicate learning.  

Rinkema and Williams use the acronym KUD (Know, Understand, and Do) as the book’s framework. Each piece is foundational in building learning targets and grading scales in a standards-based classroom. Several examples are provided in various content areas, including one for a cooking class. The authors build on this foundation, demonstrating practical ways that targets and scales reinforce learning and also suggesting how SBL practices can be easily modified for a special education context.

The section about developing targeted assessment unpacks the world of summative and formative assessments, showing methods used to construct informative rubrics that display exactly what students need to do to succeed. Relevant examples of tests, essays, projects, performances, and exams are provided. Readers are reminded that knowing the purpose behind grading and the power of feedback is the gold standard for SBL.

In the section about designing effective instruction, the authors’ passion for student relationships and individualized learning shines. The resources provided in this section alone warrant a read for any educator. With a strong emphasis on the mind and habits of learners, this section challenges the reader to move from being a teacher to being a student. The authors explain their Big Blue Head model (a must-read), providing readers with a three-step process describing how to think like students (90).

Rinkema and Williams round out their book by reviewing strategies of handling the infamous standards-based gradebook while tracking learning with or without a customized electronic tool. In this section about monitoring and communicating learning, the most compelling part is the guidance about communicating with parents. The authors again provide evidence for how relationships drive deeper learning and how natural parent partnerships are the basis for student success in the classroom.

Teachers who are moving toward SBL—and who desire a step-by-step “middle of the road” process with an approach somewhere between prescribed lockstep and fully theoretical—will appreciate this book. The authors provide implementation challenges along the way and invite readers to engage in the “guilt-free box” at the end of the chapter in which small steps forward are strongly encouraged. Furthermore,   The final chapter describes an overview of how to change grading practices. However, teachers struggling to implement new grading practices may finish the book wishing a stronger emphasis was placed on this often controversial topic.

There hasn’t been a more applicable book for educators when it comes to SBL than Rinkema and Williams’s The Standards-Based Classroom. The gritty nature of these authors’ journeys in the standards-based world is the guidance that educators want and need. Educators who have been tinkering with SBL for a few years, those who have a strong desire to improve on existing practices, and those who hope to get started for the first time will equally appreciate this book.

Although this book is not written specifically for Christian educators, if we as educators think that developing relationships with students is important, SBL provides an enhanced opportunity to do so. The Standards-Based Classroom provides natural opportunities to pair educational practice with the development of student relationships that empower learners to impact the world for Christ. There are seamless ways to apply the authors’ content to the current context, not only in grading practices but also for nurturing a student’s learning in a way that demonstrates that classroom teachers care about the student’s future and about their heart.


Work Reviewed

Rinkema, Emily, and Stan Williams. The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal. Corwin, 2019.


Cory Nikkel is the director of spiritual life and middle school assistant principal at Des Moines Christian Schools in Urbandale, Iowa.

Matt Townsley is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.