On the surface, it seems to make sense. US test scores are low compared to other nations. We fear this may pose a threat to our position in the world, our society, even our way of life. We feel we must act before it is too late. We conclude that our schools must not be providing a quality education to our students or the test scores would be higher.
The problem is, there are so many schools, students, and teachers in our country that we can’t even identify what is wrong. So first, we must standardize everything. Every school should be doing the same thing, and then we can tell who is screwing up our test scores, and what we need to do to fix it.
When I wear my IT hat, I can appreciate this logic. Tech staff face this sort of problem all the time. Some automatic alert is sent or the performance of some system is not optimal. This issue must be corrected before it turns into a bigger problem, possibly crashing the entire infrastructure. First we identify the systems affected, then we try to isolate the cause of the problem. Once the cause is identified, we take corrective action. Often this means applying software patches or replacing a faulty piece of equipment. Problem solved.
This “IT” approach is wonderfully effective. Straightforward, easy to grasp, and chances are, someone else has had the same problem so there is lots of advice available from others on what to look for and how to fix it. One of the best things about the IT part of my job is the feeling you get when you have successfully solved and corrected this type of problem.
If you want this approach to work well (and in IT, you NEED this approach to work well), there are certain conditions which must be met. In fact, a good part of what IT system engineers and managers do is to constantly strive to meet these conditions:
- Keep your systems and equipment as uniform as possible.
- Follow industry standards when selecting hardware and software.
- Continuously monitor and analyze metrics and keep them within accepted norms.
- Provide failover and redundancy whenever possible.
- Isolate your systems as much as possible from the dangerous world of malicious users and outside threats.
- Minimize radical changes in topology.
- Provide robust backup systems so that you can always go back in time to a place before the problem existed.
This method of operation is so powerful and effective that it’s been successfully applied to many industries, including agriculture, manufacturing, even shipping (have you seen the UPS commercials about logistics?). It’s infused into our culture. It’s even been successfully applied to human systems... think of the NFL, NBA and other professional sports. All based on a system of standardized, replaceable parts. Why wouldn’t it work in education?
The truth is, it probably would... IF we were willing to meet the conditions of standardization, which would look something like this:
- Keep all students, teachers, classrooms and schools as uniform as possible.
- Select a national, standardized curriculum all the way down to the text books, lessons and assessments. Control what is taught, when it is taught, and how much time is spent on it.
- Monitor progress continuously. Every day, every class, every student. Whenever a score is outside of certain narrowly prescribed limits, take immediate action. If necessary, replace the student, teacher, or lesson.
- Maintain extra students and teachers “on the shelf”. You can’t allow the failure of individual components to affect overall system performance. If possible and cost-effective, repair the component and then place it back in service. If not, discard that component.
- Isolate students and teachers from new ideas or approaches. Those should only be considered by the managers at the system level, and if approved, they should be implemented into the system following industry standard practices. Whenever possible, new ideas should be tested in an isolated lab setting where the effects cannot be spread to the entire system.
- Minimize change. Try to keep the same components in place for as long as possible, but when their specifications fall below standard performance benchmarks, replace and discard.
- If we find a systemic problem that cannot be easily corrected, go back to what was working before and try to avoid reproducing the problem.
Thank goodness I also wear a teacher hat! No thinking, feeling human is willing to meet those conditions. That’s the beauty and value of people. We can do many things, we can understand and appreciate different perspectives, different models. We understand context, we can see where a system might apply and where it won't work. We understand that people are not parts, that we’re not interchangeable components of some massive machine or system. And each of us knows that our value to communities, cultures and nations cannot be measured by test scores.
The problems with applying the “systems” model to education are obvious. The flaws in the logic begin with the assumption that when we compare US test scores to other nations, we are comparing measurements from equivalent components. I don’t know of anyone who would argue that the testing population of US students is functionally equivalent to that of Finland or Malaysia. And the problems continue with the assumption that international test performance is the primary product that the education system should be trying to produce.
There is no existing evidence that international test scores are any indicator of current or future national prosperity, economic power, workforce capability, or productive capacity. Nor are they indicators of human health or happiness. Since those relationships cannot be established, we thus distill the primary reason for the push to standardized, common curriculum. Raise test scores.
If that were our true goal, I’m completely confident it could be achieved. With a strong federal mandate and enough money to create the necessary curriculum and assessments, every school could be cranking out proficient test-takers and our national ranking would surely rise to the top. It would simply be a matter of cutting out the faulty components and replacing them with standard parts that do the job as intended.
We all know that education is an individual, intensely personal experience. We know that true learning involves failure, that self-confidence is bred in overcoming adversity, and that there are nearly as many different learning styles as there are students. We know that regardless of the learning style, one to one tutoring and personalized learning is the most effective model to attain proficiency in any subject. And we are starting to see the possibilities that new communication technologies, information access and teaching strategies can provide. All of these truths lie in direct opposition to treating people and their education in a systematized, standard way.
As students, as professionals, as a nation, we need to have the courage to stand up and demand that the purpose of education be directed to the learner, to our communities and to our national interests, instead of sacrificing individuals to the purpose of winning an international numbers contest.