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May 01, 2004 3 min read
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Standardization may be a solution to mobility, but it’s not a good one.

A Midwestern state legislator recently expressed second thoughts about his support for the creation of small, unconventional schools that offer a greater variety of educational opportunities to an increasingly diverse student body. Although he believes in the value of such schools, education leaders have just about convinced him that public schools must be as standardized as possible to accommodate the growing mobility among students. They rightly point out that many children change schools at least once a year and that some, especially in cities, do so several times. Students who transfer across district and state lines in particular are apt to be either ahead or behind classmates in their new schools.

Standardization may be a solution to mobility, but it’s not a good one. On closer analysis, the standardization argument reveals what is fundamentally wrong with public education and why there is a need for new, nontraditional schools. The current system is designed more for the convenience of adults than for students. It’s based on the assumption that all kids should be grouped into grades according to chronological age, then force-marched through a curriculum where they study the same things, in the same grades, at the same time. This kind of standardization stifles the spontaneity and flexibility that characterize good teaching and learning.

Given the enormous differences among kids, it makes no sense to treat them as though they’re all the same and expect them to perform accordingly. The hallmark of the new small schools is that they personalize education. They focus on each child and seek to adapt to that child’s needs, talents, interests, and unique circumstances.

The law requires schools to provide special ed students with individual education programs because of their differences. Why shouldn’t every student have an IEP that addresses differences in strengths and weaknesses? When I suggested this to a middle school principal, he replied that schools are not structured to handle students as individuals with unique learning programs. And that’s exactly the problem. Since we can’t restructure kids, we need to restructure the system. Imagine a health care system that treated all 8-year-old patients alike, regardless of specific medical problems.

Students spend about 14,000 hours in school before they reach age 18. We now spend an average of $7,400 per student, per year, nationwide. And the ratio of students to teachers in the United States is 17-to-1. If we didn’t have to cover an elaborate, rigid, academic curriculum that stretches for 12 years and tries to cram in the accumulated knowledge of mankind, we could use those hours, dollars, and teachers more effectively. In the process, students would be more motivated to pursue an education plan they helped create, and they’d take far more responsibility for their own education.

With more personalized education, we wouldn’t be able to rely on standardized tests to assess student learning and evaluate schools. We would have to find ways to measure real performance and real achievement, activities that have more substance than bubbling in answers on multiple-choice tests. Teachers’ roles would change, from mainly imparting information and monitoring busy work to advising, managing, tutoring, and monitoring students. Teachers might have to work harder, but anecdotal evidence suggests they would be more gratified.

Most folks would probably call these ideas pipe dreams that would be impossible to implement. But I’m convinced this reform strategy would not demand any more work than the standards-based accountability strategy we’ve embarked on—creating grade-level standards in half a dozen or more subjects, crafting a comprehensive curriculum, developing elaborate assessments to align with the standards, retraining the teaching force to teach the standards, and motivating the students to meet them.

There are hundreds of schools successfully educating students one at a time. And when education is personalized, students who transfer don’t suffer because they take their “curricula” with them.

—Ronald A. Wolk


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