Standards Opinion

One by One

May 01, 2004 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
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


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
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

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

Standards Florida's New African American History Standards: What's Behind the Backlash
The state's new standards drew national criticism and leave teachers with questions.
9 min read
Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation Hangar in West Columbia, S.C. July 18, 2023. For DeSantis, Tuesday was supposed to mark a major moment to help reset his stagnant Republican presidential campaign. But yet again, the moment was overshadowed by Donald Trump. The former president was the overwhelming focus for much of the day as DeSantis spoke out at a press conference and sat for a highly anticipated interview designed to reassure anxious donors and primary voters that he's still well-positioned to defeat Trump.
Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference in West Columbia, S.C., on July 18, 2023. Florida officials approved new African American history standards that drew national backlash, and which DeSantis defended.
Sean Rayford/AP
Standards Here’s What’s in Florida’s New African American History Standards
Standards were expanded in the younger grades, but critics question the framing of many of the new standards.
1 min read
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the historic Ritz Theatre in downtown Jacksonville, Fla., on July 21, 2023. Harris spoke out against the new standards adopted by the Florida State Board of Education in the teaching of Black history.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the historic Ritz Theatre in downtown Jacksonville, Fla., on July 21, 2023. Harris spoke out against the new standards adopted by the Florida state board of education in the teaching of Black history.
Fran Ruchalski/The Florida Times-Union via AP
Standards Opinion How One State Found Common Ground to Produce New History Standards
A veteran board member discusses how the state school board pushed past partisanship to offer a richer, more inclusive history for students.
10 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Standards The Architects of the Standards Movement Say They Missed a Big Piece
Decisions about materials and methods can lead to big variances in the quality of instruction that children receive.
4 min read
Image of stairs on a blueprint, with a red flag at the top of the stairs.
Feodora Chiosea/iStock/Getty