Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Is Standardization a Virtue?

One of my largest points of disagreement with the champions of reformy stuff is on the value of standardization.

For instance, lots of folks (including some who don't like the Common Core) will observe as an article of faith that it would be better to have national standards than have different standards from state to state. To them, it seems as obvious as air that this is true. To me, it seems as obvious as dirt that it is not.

I am not in favor of some anarchic Land of Do As You Please, but I also see nothing inherently good about a standardized educational system. I've made my case against standardization itself many times before. But I'm going to argue that beyond any inherent value or lack thereof, standardization cannot help but become toxic in any system where it is viewed as the biggest value.

Many reformsters live by the rule, "Anything worth doing is worth doing at scale." Arne Duncan often discusses measuring the value of an educational program by whether it can be scaled up or not. "If we can't make it work for everybody," he seems to suggest, "then it's not a real success."

But if your guiding value is It Must Be Excellent, you will have to make some compromises on how easily it can be standardized for an entire country, deliver scalability, and be mass-reproduced.  However, if your primary value is It Must Be Mass-Reproducable and Standardizable, then you will make compromises on excellence.

If you go to a painter and say, "Make me a painting that painters all across the country can reproduce within certain narrow tolerances," you will not get the Sistine Chapel or Starry Night. If you go to a great jazz musician and say, "Play me something, but make it one that any musician in the country could re-play on any instrument" you will not get "Anthropology" or "Two Tickets to Georgia." If you go to a great chef and say, "Make me something delicious, but make it something that can be made pretty much the same in any kitchen in the country," you do not get Gordon Ramsey's Greatest Hits.

And if you put publishers, thought leaders, politicians, and bureaucrats in a room and say, "Create a revolutionary system of education, but it has to be one that's the same for everybody and can be implemented in every classroom in America with little variation," you do not get excellence. Even if you really want excellence, if your primary value is standardization, you cannot get excellence.

Excellence is specific. It is specific to time, place and people, and it is often different, and usually at the end of a new path, and only people who have the freedom and nimbleness to adjust for ever-changing situations can hope to pursue it. And if the excellence involves providing a service for other humans, the variability increases exponentially.

Standardization does not drive the bus to The Valley of Awesome. If standardization is your primary value, your prized virtue, your guiding star, your metric for achievement, you will never achieve excellence. You can't throw out all standards, or simply flail randomly, but building an national educational system based on national standardization is a fool's game. It is not what we need, and not what our students deserve.


  1. Well put. Why would we want teachers to all be the same? Do we really think all children are the same?

  2. McDonalds built one of the largest corporations in the world using the philosophy of standardization. For decades they were successful, but now standardization might be their downfall. Chipotle's anyone?