Thursday, April 4, 2013


A mentally ill young man left a legacy of carnage in a Connecticut classroom last December.

That's an obvious and extreme case of education under attack. But a couple of recent articles show an even more disturbing "war on education."

Wonkette wrote Tuesday about this; the points of the post were echoed even more poignantly in the resignation letter of a New York state teacher, Jerry Conti.

Both articles dovetail neatly with a trend that many observers have fretted about: the rigid standardization of basic education.

The arguments for standardization make sense. If you have standards, it should be easier to tell which students, instructors and school systems have problems. A valuable added benefit is that standardization should reveal particular areas in need of improvement. In theory, this standardization will identify which students need more work; which teachers are exemplary and which are sub-par; and which districts are most in need of assistance. Seeing results in specific educational areas will also allow districts to hone their focus.

But here's where standardization doesn't make sense: is teaching by rote truly instructive? Kids will memorize what they need to memorize; that's never going to change. But is our children learning?

Recently I was in a seventh-grade geography class. Students were working on memorizing nations, capitals, landforms and bodies of water in Asia. It was challenging work; had someone put the empty map in front of me, I know I couldn't have named all the things they were trying to remember. I would have been lucky to get 70 percent of it. Now, if the test had a list of every item, I maybe could have pushed that to 90 percent through process of elimination. Since they were working on the study, I don't know if the test would include a list, or if everything had to be done from memory.

Prior to the class, the teacher talked about holiday traditions in Asia. He had put together a PowerPoint presentation with great images and notes. This wasn't something he had just found; he had clearly spent a lot of time preparing a five- to seven-minute presentation that would be the only time in the entire year he could use it.

Standardization, according to Mr. Conti, will take all that away.

The problem with standardization is that it stifles creativity and innovation. Kids need to explore their creativity and innovation. So do teachers.

So does our nation.

American education is strictly middle-of-the-road when compared to other nations. We love winners here, and shun mediocrity. Maybe the most important aspect of our society -- educating our youth and preparing for the future when they will be in charge -- is allowed to be second-rate.

That's basically taking a lottery approach to our future... hoping that "just because" the U.S. will have some prodigies rise up and lead.


The best people I've worked for have been those who set expectations and deadlines, made themselves available for consults and leadership, and then got out of the way. They knew that there were many ways to accomplish goals, and trusted their people to get things done. It's a true meritocracy and really what should be the standard thought: The bottom line is the bottom line.

Educational standards should consist of getting kids from K-12 ready for college and society at large. One of the kindergarteners I met Tuesday was an obviously bright kid who showed a knack for computers. But in this class, he was someone who had to be handled differently because the traditional coursework didn't interest him.

The schools here try and find a way to let these kids take different paths. To me, that's somewhat enlightened. I sat individually with this boy and incentivized him to read a book that he didn't want to read. I had shown him the only card trick I know earlier; when I pulled it off, they were astonished. I told him it was a "trick" that he could easily learn, and that I'd teach it to him at the end of the day if he put in the work.

Now, was my approach "According to Hoyle" in this classroom? I don't know. It might be frowned upon. But, the student responded to it, did the work (exceptionally, if that matters), didn't disrupt the other classwork and got through the day. If I went back for another day, what would I do to incentivize him?

But the bottom line was, he did the work, he was engaged. To me, this was a win. But it didn't follow any scripted, standardized methodology.

Standardization discourages or outright prohibits any variation from the program. Mr. Conti eloquently describes in his resignation letter how he was always seeking to enhance his knowledge and consider alternatives in the service of his students. Standardization frowns on that. So he's out.

Is this a good thing for our students? I say no.

Teachers teach. Getting all kids to learn exactly the same way won't work. It wasn't working for the young man in that classroom the other day. What happens to him if he's forced to adhere to a standardized instruction schedule? I don't think it would work for him.

There's a belief in some quarters that school is a form of indoctrination. It's Orwellian and scary: kids are trained from before they can comprehend it to get on a schedule, to move through the chutes from class to class, to learn what someone else thinks is important to learn, to obey the rules, to not be different...

It's very corporate and official. It's totally anti-individual. Think about that. Is this the launching pad for creativity and innovation? It sounds like the prescription for submission and order.

A great teacher naturally wants the kids to learn readin', writin' and 'rithmetic... but a great teacher really wants a lot more than that. It's important for students to have the basics, but what's most important is to develop students who know not WHAT to think, but HOW to think.

Standardization doesn't address that at all. Standardization just wants something in black and white that they can coldly label either "success" or "failure." It's inhuman. And I don't think it's an accurate measure of whether or not a student has become educated.


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