When I began as a teacher, I immediately found an easy villain in standardized tests. After watching students get nervous enough to vomit and teachers turn cynical and mean during testing week, I knew intuively that something was broken. I began pointing out the discrepencies in what we say and how we act: saying we believe in differentiated instruction and then testing with a one-size-fits-all model, claiming we support authentic learning and then offering something artificial, talking about critical thinking and then measuring baseline knowledge.
Over time, I realized that my approach had been myopic. The real villain wasn’t a noun. It was a verb. It was the process of taking something that might work in one context and pushing it across all other contexts blindly, transforming unity to uniformity and standards into standardization. I watched as a beautiful concept like the shared public commons became a prison-like description of lock-step adherance to the rules.
I began to listen to the language and recognize the semantic environment. They’d use military and industrial language, a throwback to the days when we adopted German militarism alongside the factory model, all in the name of “progress.” Education reformers had taken something relational and turned it into a cold, effecient procedure, leaving us with:
- Standardized standards with standardized assessments
- Standardized materials with a bland, standardized textbook format
- Standardized lesson plans, requiring all teachers to use the same format
- Standardized discipline plans with rigid rules and procedures
- Standardized physical climate, with the same Blackboard Configuration and Word Walls (we managed to align the words “hate the micromanaging tyranny” on ours)
- Standardized grade levels and classrooms, so that students of mixed age and ability never have a chance to mentor one another
So, I became jaded and bitter and thought about the best option. What’s the one, new model we need? I worked on a committee to redesign our school and for awhile it seemed like the district was open to turning our “failing school” into a twenty-first century classroom. After working on this committee, though, I recognized that we were doing the same thing. We were creating a newer factory. We were developing a one-size-fits-all model and expecting all teachers to fall in line with our thinking.
I recognized that the bigger issue of standardization is hubris. I saw in myself a dangerous tendency to bulldoze others in the name of change, using the same semantic metaphors as those I wanted to revolt against. ”Just get on board. If you aren’t on the same page, you need to find a new book,” I said at one point. Yes, both cliche and innaccurate and subtly dangerous.
Ultimately, if we want to see true reform, we have to recognize that it will look different in various contexts. It might be unschooling for some, home schooling for others, community schools for others and progressive public schools for others. It might mean building a new structure or it might mean transforming the factory into something beautiful.
When we move from “this is what works, you need to try this” to “this worked for me,” what emerges is a true sense of unity in ideas like authenticity and humanity.