thinking about “standardized” education

Thinking out loud…

Disclaimer: Today’s post is pretty-much stream-of-consciousness thinking in response to a question. I might not be able to defend some of my reasoning if pressed, but these thoughts should be good for discussion!

Yesterday I received the following comment/question in response to a recent post (Petraeus, Tampa Schools, and the Crime of Mediocrity):

“In my reading of JT Gatto, he blames, substantively, an educational system which he claims is systematically designed to produce mediocrity. His further argument, there are countless good and great teachers stuck in a system that demands, and even rewards, the mediocre rather than the excellent. As an educator, I was wondering if you agree, even in part, with that assessment. Or does JT have it wrong?” – Adam

Today – having participated in yesterday’s Great American Teach-In – is as good a time as any to throw out a few comments.

The Great American Teach-In

hursday I had the privilege of visiting one of our local high schools as part of The Great American Teach-In program. I guested in two reading classes designed to give a boost of encouragement for students who have failed – or re-failed – part of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

The purpose of the class is to equip young people with the skills necessary to take and pass the reading portion of the standardized assessment. Their teacher – Melissa – is obviously passionate about her work; she takes a very positive approach, loves her students, and is thoroughly engaged in the very specific task of preparing teenagers to re-take the test.

Teacher Melissa Roy, smiling her way through another day at Spoto High

ENCOURAGE: My role was simply to be a cheerleader for reading and writing, to point out the relationship between good writing and positive life experiences, and to share a few stories designed to increase the likelihood that the students might see making the effort to pass as a worthwhile investment of their time and interest.

The FCAT may be a skills-based testing instrument, but that’s only a small part of the picture. It’s abundantly evident that the road to passing such assessments is more about helping burned-out and discouraged students find the motivation to care than it is anything else.

BIG PICTURE: And this is where today’s experience dovetails into the proposed big-picture discussion about how we “do” school. Because it’s clear to me that our schools – the institutions, the administration, the teachers, and the students – are being increasingly hemmed in by soulless standardization.

  • There’s a kind of stenosis happening, and it’s largely because we’re stuck – philosophically – in the 19th-Century factory model of “success.” In fact, the state is fine-tuning the concept to deadly effect. Education is being squeezed so hard that all that’s left is teaching to the test.

NOT EDUCATION! Teaching to the test is different from education in that the whole purpose of standardization is conformity, and conformity is achieved by shaving off the edges and playing to the middle.

Education is about training the mind to learn and to grow, whereas standardization is a factory approach, where the goal is the production of similar widgets, end-products that fall neatly within a fairly narrow range of tolerances. “Success” means having a higher percentage of widgets pop out of the business end with a “passed inspection” stamp before marching happily into the workforce with a similar set of tools.

But standardization has more to do with conformity than actual education.

THAT’S NOT WHAT WE NEED: Fortunately, our world doesn’t need everyone to enter the workforce with the same set of tools. What our world needs is young people who have learned how to think, who have found their passion, and who are being encouraged to take whatever dreams they have to the next level.

Obviously, everyone needs a set of basic tools. But unmotivated kids are not going to do what it takes to acquire such a skill set just because the state’s Department of Education says they need to pass some standardized test.

Teens who have been struggling are only going to do what it takes if they’re motivated, and if they care.  The next time we take $100-million of someone’s money to “fix” education around here (no offense, Bill Gates), we should pass on sabotaging teacher morale, and instead use the money to figure out how to get students motivated and how to get the State of Florida to butt out and let the teachers teach.

I’ve decided that the next time we take $100-million of someone’s money to “fix” education around here we should pass on sabotaging teacher morale, and instead use the money to figure out how to get students motivated and how to get the State of Florida to butt out and let the teachers teach.

Just thinking out loud – DEREK


  1. Hey there Derek.
    How right you are! As a mom, I hate (yes I am using the word hate) high stakes standardized tests and cannot even fathom how policy makers believe that you get anything other than a snapshot of how that student did on that day when looking at numbers. And I (and my kids) hate the fact that science, social studies, and the arts get short-shrifted because of the emphasis on reading and math tests. Good test scores do not constitute well educated.

    A couple years ago, I came across this proposal from the late Paul Wellstone (Senator from Minnesota). I like it and wish some lawmaker would pick this up and run with it.

    Take good care.

    PS – wore my chicken costume all day on Wednesday in honor of Heifer Market!



    • I like that Wellstone proposal. Very well stated.
      And, yes, we missed you at Heifer. But, as you could tell from the pictures, we has a great evening and will top $20,000 easily.
      Missing you all – DEREK


  2. I definitely agree! Teaching to the test, which is what almost all traditional, public schools do in the US, thanks to No Child Left Behind, is NOT education. We are feeding the dumbing down of the country and only encouraging rigid conformity rather than encouraging children to find creative solutions to problems, to think critically, to express those thoughts, to be completely outside of the box.

    Kids have a natural thirst for knowledge. When we let them pursue those interests, and encourage them to do so, great things can happen.


  3. Hi, Derek,

    As you know from your work with me at Polk Correctional Institution, there’s a crying need for reform of our schools. We urgently need to teach to the demonstrated, real needs of each INDIVIDUAL student, and not to a standardized test that refuses to deal with individuality. We need to produce well rounded citizens who possess all kinds of skills and who also possess balanced minds.That include exposure to music, art, dance, film, philosophy, and life skills, and all kinds of things that establish and maintain students who think and act critically and CREATIVELY. There’s a world of difference between students who are truly educated rather than merely indoctrinated to meet some vague political agenda/end. Schools need to prepare people for LIFE rather than tests. I hate the regurgitate and graduate mentality.

    And how do schools meet the needs of students who are malnourished (mens sana in corpore sano), sleep-deprived, poorly clothed, abused, and in an amazing number of cases. actually homeless (there’s a terrifying number of homeless students in Polk County)?.

    I could go on but you get my drift.

    Peace and Blessings!



  4. The comment below came via email, but I’m reposting it here (with permission) because it is so pointed and thought-provoking. – DEREK

    Excellent! And please continue with the thought. This agenda of standardization is being promoted by people whose fundamental philosophy is essentially fascist: they want workers (and voters) who take orders instead of thinking for themselves. There are other hidden agendas that benefit them personally: the testing companies get huge amounts of money that otherwise could go to creative teachers; their unquestioningly belief in privitization means that non-public schools don’t have to meet the rules, even though they increasingly get tax dollars; and most especially, they want to break teachers’ unions. I’m not saying that the Republicans who promote “accountability” consciously are fascist, but they have that inclination and too easily buy into a methodology that is anti-democratic, anti-science, and especially anti-creativity. Rote memorization is all that matters to them — and too often with memorized “facts” adjusted to their liking. – Doris


  5. I like the teach-in. It’s sort of the reverse of what many homeschool parents do. Instead of going to the other places to learn about other jobs, the jobs come to you. In the system as it is, that’s certainly the most efficient way to do things.

    Derek (and Melissa) I love that you would take your time to encourage and teach kids who struggle with reading. Literacy really is the key to all learning. I can’t help but wonder, though: why do high school students struggle so much with reading (and, by extension, why newspapers are written at a 5th grade level).

    I suppose I’m wondering where the line between accessible information and dumbed down information is. (there I go channeling Gatto again).

    Are these kids burned out and discouraged because of the information or because of the system. If it is the latter (and I believe it is) is it even possible to find a systematic “solution” to the problem. In other words, how can any system, public or private, solve a unilateral societal ill? Doesn’t it all come down to choices?

    You’re right about the factory model. But I believe it goes back even further in ideology. It’s Prussian. It’s interesting that our government is based on Greek, Roman and French thought, but our educational system is, at its core, Teutonic. How in the world can this mesh? A free will, independently accountable society educated by a conformist cog in the wheel mindset…no wonder it’s broken.


    • Good observations, Adam. Ideally, education is the responsibility of the parents, and time spent at school is just one piece of that puzzle. But the way the world works (or doesn’t work) is constantly shifting, so the state ends up assuming more of the responsibility and there you have your system. Worth pondering a lot more….


      • Even though we have decided to homeschool, I still think about “traditional” schooling quite a lot. My wife taught for years and her kids LOVED her. I have several friends who are vocational educators with many, many beautiful stories of inspiration to tell. Most of us can look back and remember precious educators who played key roles in helping us become who we are. In thinking about it all, I tend to just chase rabbits in circles. Sort of how I feel discussing theology.


  6. Here’s a weird twist, though.

    The social engineers that are motivating politics and culture in this country have not needed an industrial force in (at least) a generation. They need consumers. So we get media meant to sell “fun” and the illusion of “choice.”

    And that is the current “solution” being offered by “education” reformers. Choice. But is it real choice? Not hardly. It’s just another controlled system. And that, at its core, is the issue. Systematic education – as a mechanism – is about control. Certain things are taught from a certain perspective. If you do not like those things or that perspective, you have another “choice” … often a parochial one.

    Suddenly, you are not a student, you are consumer…but is that really a choice? And, in asking this question peering down a rabbit hole that will unravel everything?


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