International Opinion

The Coming Age of Post-Standardization

By Andy Hargreaves & Dennis Shirley — December 21, 2007 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

For too many educators, what used to be a positive, rewarding work life has turned into a school reform nightmare. Once thrilled by the unique personality of each child, teachers now find themselves poring over sheets of data to figure out how to meet their “adequate yearly progress” goals. Enthusiastic learning has given way to test-score gains and bland basics. But while they may not yet be noticing it, there are signs that this era of education reform is coming to an end. We may be entering a new age of post-standardization, and teachers, like good scouts, need to be prepared.

Some of the omens are already here. Consider the influential report “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” issued early in 2007 by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. This widely circulated manifesto called for “a major overhaul of the American testing industry,” to push the learning and achievement of America’s young people beyond the basics. The commission argued that most high-stakes tests do not promote “creativity and innovation” or “facility with the use of ideas and abstractions.”

“We categorize and dissect and compare and contrast,” the report noted, “but we do not often ask our students to create something new.”

We applaud this shift in emphasis (ironically, brought to us by many of the same policymakers who led the push for standardized testing in the last decade and a half). Although America is definitely behind in its conversion to creativity, better late than never. No nation should be left behind, least of all the United States. But what other options are there?

The United States today is making a final surge with an old and largely ineffective theory of change that is being sidestepped by more and more nations.

Imagine you are a newly appointed education official in a nation looking for policies to study and adopt in its school system. A couple of options stand out. Country A offers extensive measurements of learning gains for millions of pupils in all its public schools, generates only fair to poor academic outcomes, and ranks near the bottom of 21 industrialized countries in child well-being in a recent UNESCO study. Country B has no system of national testing at all, but its children are consistently at the top of tests used for international comparisons, and it is among the world leaders in the child-well-being rankings.

Which model looks the most attractive? Country A is great for number-crunchers and advocates of “data-driven decisionmaking,” but produces poor outcomes and yawning achievement gaps for students. Country B has world-class standards of living and learning for students, but is data-impoverished in comparison to country A.

Substitute the United States for country A and Finland for Country B, and you have a pretty good picture of why standardized and market-driven school reform in the U.S. has fallen flat. It turns out that the data-starved Finns, who have needed no annual testing of pupils to leave no child behind, beat the rest of the world in the math, science, and reading abilities of their 15-year-olds on international tests. What’s going on?

One of us visited Finland earlier in 2007 and co-authored a report for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the relationship between leadership and school improvement in that country. In less than half a century, Finland has used its schools to transform itself from a rural backwater into a high-tech economic powerhouse. Finns view science and technology as high priorities, though not at the expense of artistic creativity or social responsibility. Finnish high school graduates rank teaching as the most highly desired occupation, and only the nation’s top graduates are able to enter the profession, where they effectively lead Finns into their enviable position as one of the world’s top learning societies.

Within this dynamic and future-oriented social vision, the state steers, but does not prescribe, the national curriculum. Teams of highly qualified teachers write much of the curriculum together, in ways that their colleagues can then adjust to the students they know best. Tellingly, one principal said, “Unlike the Anglo-Saxon countries, we do not have to spend our time responding to long lists of government initiatives that come from the top.”

High-performing Finland has chosen a path to educational and economic reform that is very different from the government-driven, market-prompted short-term strategies that dominate U.S. policy. The Finns build their future by wedding education to economic development, without sacrificing culture and creativity. They promote a broad and enriching curriculum, rather than obsessing only about literacy and math; they raise standards by lifting the many, rather than pushing a privileged few. And they morally inspire, rather than financially incentivize, a high-status profession. Why can’t our political leaders learn from this?

Almost equally high-performing Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, experimented with several years of market-driven standardized reforms in the late 1990s, and the public rejected them, as well as those who proposed them. Education was one of the big issues to bring about a change in political control in Canada.

It’s time to accept that standardization has gone down like a lead balloon, utterly failing to inspire teachers, students, or the public at large.

Ontario’s new policies are making the curriculum more flexible once again, moving closer to the Finnish and away from the American model. The government has settled grievances with and secured support from the unions, developed ways for strong schools to help their weaker counterparts, and invested fresh financial resources to make all this happen. Results are promising, and the public’s confidence in public education is rising. Here, indeed, is a kinder, gentler path to educational improvement in a country with many cultural attributes similar to those of the United States. It involves working with and through the teaching profession, rather than around and against it. Shouldn’t Americans learn from these strategic and adaptable Canadians?

The United States today is making a final surge with an old and largely ineffective theory of change that is being sidestepped by more and more nations because it cannot raise standards in the creative, high-level skills that knowledge societies need.

In places like Finland and Canada, the world is increasingly embracing a second theory of change that we call “post-standardization.” This new theory pays more attention to developing teachers’ capacity to meet higher standards, rather than emphasizing the paper standards themselves. It replaces imposed standardization and privatization with networks and peer-driven improvement. Assessment for summative quality assurance is replaced by assessment for learning, where data are used to inform ongoing decisions to produce better outcomes. In this second theory of change, the teaching profession is a high-caliber resource for and responsible partner in modernization, not an obstacle to be undermined.

It’s time to accept that standardization has gone down like a lead balloon, utterly failing to inspire teachers, students, or the public at large. Post-standardization, on the other hand, inspires people’s commitment to and capacity for change by connecting a visionary future to a sense of pride in the best of one’s past. New economic and social needs beckon, and existing strategies are self-evidently exhausted. Other countries are beating better paths, and it’s time for America to follow their lead. The future is not going to be soulless or standardized. Why should our schools be?

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

International Opinion Why Other Countries Keep Outperforming Us in Education (and How to Catch Up)
Money from the American Rescue Plan could be our last chance to build the school system we need, writes Marc Tucker.
Marc Tucker
5 min read
A student climbs stacks of books to reach the top
Tatyana Pivovarova/iStock/Getty Images Plus
International Global Test Finds Digital Divide Reflected in Math, Science Scores
New data from the 2019 Trends in International Math and Science Study show teachers and students lack digital access and support.
3 min read
Image of data.
International Pre-COVID Learning Inequities Were Already Large Around the World
A new international benchmarking highlights gaps in training for digital learning and other supports that could deepen the challenge for low-income schools during the pandemic.
4 min read
International Part of Global Trend, 1 in 3 U.S. High Schoolers Felt Disconnected From School Before Pandemic
UNESCO's annual report on global education progress finds countries need to make more effort to include marginalized students, particularly in the United States.
4 min read