Friday, December 6, 2013


Sameness. Stultifying standardized straightjacketed sameness.

If I had to put my finger on the one most troubling aspect of the wave of reformy stuff that is currently battering us, it would be this. The standardization. The premise that education is a big machine with interchangeable cogs. The one size fits all. The sameness.

It is troubling because conformity and standardization are seductively appealing to schools and teachers.

In "The Good Student Trap," Adele Scheele lays this out as brilliantly as anyone could. Scheele talks about learning system dependency, because in school, we learn how the system works, and all that is required of us is three steps:

We were learning the Formula.

• Find out what's expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked. We always made the grade. Here's what that process means: You took tests and wrote papers, got passing grades, and then were automatically promoted from one year to the next. That is not only in elementary, junior, and senior high school, but even in undergraduate and graduate school. You never had to compete for promotions, write résumés, or rehearse yourself or even know anyone for this promotion. It happened automatically. And we got used to it. 

The formula rewards conformity. It rewards obedience. And it produces a platoon of students moving in lockstep, because each one marches to the same beat of the same drum.

Let's not kid ourselves. That's how many teachers like it. I have talked to teachers who think CCSS is awesome. I have talked to teachers who think scripting is the best thing since sliced bread. I have talked to teachers who wish that certain smart-ass students would stop bringing up questions and ideas that aren't supposed to be part of the program.

I deal every year with honors students who have learned that it is most efficient and expeditious to turn off their brains to deal with school, that assignments go better if you DON'T engage and you DON'T think, but just figure out what's expected and do it. Plenty of students like it. They're good at it, and it's easy.

And I have met far too many students who have come to really believe in this system. They believe that standardized lockstep is how the world works. "Look," I tell my juniors, "You act like you are all running in one race to one finish line and if you win the race, someone pops up and rewards you with a life. That's not it. You are each headed to a different place. You are each running on your own path, to your own finish line." Some of them get it. Some of them do not.

Scheele's good student learns to erase himself. In that three-step formula, there's no place for that individual student's point of view, attitude, personal history, personal goals. A good student learns to ignore her own self. Just find where the lines are and stay within them.

Stay within the lines, and you will be rewarded with safety and success.

This approach of sameness, of standardization, of conformity, or union under the beat of the same big drum is absolutely enshrined by current reformers. Educational programs should be teacher proof, i.e. it shouldn't matter which teacher is delivering the material. Schools should be marching all students down the same CCSS path to the same CCSS destination. Every aspect of education should be measured by the same yardstick. Every student should get the same grade on the same test by giving the same answers.

Every single aspect of current reform, from TFA to charters to most especially CCSS and the testing program to which it is irrevocably tied to the programs being hawked by Pearson et al-- every single aspect is aimed at one thing. Sameness. Standardization. A system in which individual differences, whether they're the differences of students or teachers or schools, do not and can not matter.

This is not right. This is not how we human beings are meant to be in the world. It doesn't even work (let me be the one gazillionth person to point out the irony that most of these reformers would have fought and failed against their own system if they had to come up through it). It's a lie. It's terrible preparation for our students, and it seeks to deny and stamp out the humanity of every teacher and student who passes through a school.

I'm not an anarchist. I'm not here to argue that schools should be centers for anarchic rambling. I've seen open classrooms and fully-student-directed learning and I'm well aware that the population well-served by such set-ups is small. The vast majority of students need some sort of structure, just as the vast majority of teachers need some sort of curriculum direction.

But here's a thought. What if we set up a system where every learner had a personal education professional who saw the student on a daily basis, face to face, and who got to know him well enough to chart a course that factored in the content area, the strengths and weaknesses of the learner, the strengths and weaknesses of the education professional, the individual learner's personal goals, and the unique qualities and history of the place where they were working. It would have to be a very robust and resilient system to accommodate all the zillions of individual differences, but we could achieve that robust resilience by empowering the educational professionals to make any and all adjustments that were necessary to accommodate all the factors listed above.

Or we could just require everybody to cover all the same material at the same time in the same way while ignoring all of the individual factors involved with the live human beings in the room. We could standardize everything. We could make everything the same.

I'm going to vote for the first choice. It has the virtue of reflecting reality, plus it has the virtue of using a system that we already had in place. We just have to put teachers and schools back to where they ought to be.


  1. I am a NY teacher, and got a twitter link to this. I like it, and will be doing a "follow" to you on my blog. "Common" and "standardized" should not be our goal, other than a shared "common" goal to do what is right for learners.

  2. I am a NY teacher, and got a twitter link to this. I like it, and will be doing a "follow" to you on my blog. "Common" and "standardized" should not be our goal, other than a shared "common" goal to do what is right for learners.

  3. Just tried sending an email to the address in your profile. It didn't work. Please send me your email. Thanks.

  4. Educational professionals helping students chart their course..... Isn't that a Guidance Counselor? Maybe we should stop laying them off. Just a thought. smh