Friday, April 18, 2014

What if there were 50 standards?

(Part II of a series; Part I is here)

Sol Stern has been trying to cyber-argue with Diane Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider lately (you can read his latest thrash here and watch Schneider shrug it off here). His latest flight into the higher altitudes of Mt. Dudgeon builds to a roar and finishes with this closer:

If Diane Ravitch and other anti-Common Core campaigners on both the left and right succeed in their destructive mission, we will go right back to “50 states, 50 standards, 50 tests.” Ravitch and her allies can then celebrate their political victory—but the children in America’s schools will be the losers.

I know that I'm supposed to recognize that going back to fifty states, fifty standards, fifty tests is clearly and unarguably a Terrible Thing, but here I where I differ with the Fans of Standardization. Because I have yet to hear a single, solitary convincing argument for why having one standard and one test for fifty states is a Swell Thing.

I'm actually going to skip over the "one test" part of this, because my contention is that the correct number of high stakes standardized tests to give students is "zero," so we'll just set that part of the argument aside for another day. Let's just focus on my other assertion.

One set of standards for the nation is not a good thing. It's not even a human thing.

Yes, there are useful standards, such as standards for railroad gauge and electrical plugs. These sorts of standards are helpful because they make manufactured objects more useful. Everybody understands that schools are not for making useful manufactured objects, right? I don't need to go over that again, do I?

National education standards for live humans should fail. The notion that every state should produce exactly the same education at exactly the same rate is just so bizarre that I find it painfully difficult to argue against because I have a hard time understanding how anybody could think it's a good thing.

Within our country, we expect places to be different. That's normal. People are cool and  flinty in the Northeast and warm and gooshy in the South. People are all packed together in the city and all spread out in the country. December means one thing in Los Angeles and another thing in Syracuse. The human experience is very different depending on where you live.

Corporate forces have actively worked against that human variation for about 100 years, with a huge turbo-boost of standardization activity in the post-WWII period. To really make money, we need to get people to eat the same food, wear the same clothes, shop at the same stores, buy the exact same stuff from Wyoming to Delaware. Plopped down in the middle of any mall in America, you would be hard-pressed to guess where in the world you were standing.

This sort of standardization demands that everything unique and richly interesting about local human experience be erased, all pointy spots and rough edges be ground down. So tear down the Santa Monica Pier and put up a McDonald's. Knock down the 16th Street Mall in Denver and put up a Wal-Mart. Make the beaches in Hawaii available for developers to purchase directly. Condemn Clark's Trading Post and let an outlet mall have a shot at really opening up the Kancamagus Highway. You, dear reader. don't even know what all of these places are, because each is a unique local experience, and that's a good thing, because all together they add up to the rich, varied, human beings on Earth experience.

Why would we want to create a world where nobody ever needed to travel because there was nothing to see anywhere else that you couldn't see at home? Why would we want our ideal world to be one where nobody agonized over where to live because it didn't make any difference? What does "home" even mean when all places are pretty much the same?

"Calm down," I hear somebody saying. "We don't want to turn the world into a bland boring land of commercialized mediocrity. We just want to standardize education."

But local school districts are an expression of local personality. Sports teams are named after local features. School buildings are part o local history. Teachers are still, in many places, public figures of the same sort as city councilmen or police officers.

Schools' priorities, strengths, weaknesses, triumphs, disasters are an all expressions of and part of the local culture, which is in turn an expression of the live human beings who live in that community. You cannot turn schools into a chain. Yes, it's swell that you can walk into any Starbucks anywhere and get exactly what you would get at any other Starbucks, but that is not a worthwhile aspiration for a school. I do not see any value in a future in which, when you ask a student what makes his school special, he answers proudly, "Why nothing! Nothing at all! Isn't that awesome!"

What we want for every human being is that each person should know herself as a unique, valuable, and special, with something important and valuable to offer, a unique constellation of qualities and history, a product of individual hard-wiring and history. I don't mean we need to raise self-indulgent sociopaths, but no healthy society ever developed by saying to its young people, "We want you to grow up to be exactly like everyone else." And our schools have to express that value, and they cannot express that value if they are organized the principle of standardized mass-production.

Now, the other big argument for standardization is, "What if the local values are ignorance and dumbosity? What if-- given the freedom to school as they wish-- they choose poorly?' I hear you-- and that's where I'm going in Part III.


  1. I understand the premise completely. Was in Cancun: Planet Hollywood, Coach store, you get it. I said to my partner if I went to Miami, I could see this exact same street and wouldn't need a passport. Standardization sucks the juice out of life. Incredibly sad and dangerous notion.

  2. When I read your words it makes me tear up...and smile at the same time...but mostly want to cry. I am surrounded by people who are so detached from the reality that you so effortlessly lay out, that trying to inspire individuals to flourish in their boundless liberty to be unique and special seems like chasing the breeze. I love your thoughts so much. Thank you for taking the time to write them down.