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Learning at its Best

10 Ways to Fight Standardization

In the midst of a staff meeting, I decide to write an angry poem in order to retain my sanity:

Recipe Book
They hand me stacks of binders
and I put on my blinders
to the chart and the graph
of our golden calf
so we can find who’s best
on the standardized test

They make me take it
I try to make it
But when I break it
I have to fake it

If I could . . .

Create it
And relate it
They couldn’t rate it
So they would hate it

I feel like . . .

Picasso with a coloring book
A chef as a short-order cook
Plato on a worksheet
Louie Armstrong with a techno beat

Until then we’re . . .

Academic androids
feeding children steroids
while the data whores
with their testing scores
are pimping out each brain
students go insane
from the indoctrination,
with no emancipation

Standardization can feel overwhelming. How do I, as a teacher, make any difference in a battle against standardization? I think the answer involves being part sage and part lunatic.

The sage is the one who calmly reshapes the system, gaining the respect of the power brokers and deal-makers. The lunatic, by contrast, rages against the system, speaking out boldly against what he or she sees as inhuman and unjust.

Sage Approach

  1. Communicate Results: I hate the tests. However, I recognize that standardized teaching occurs at such a low cognitive level that authentic learning will almost always lead to higher test scores. People thought I was crazy for using customized and authentic learning strategies until they saw the test results.  It gave me a bit of a “free card.”
  2. Be Sneaky: When told to create a word wall, I used the word “asinine” next to “standardized tests.” When told I had to use the math book, I had students examine the pseudocontext of the word problems.
  3. Use Their Language: I learned to talk about data as I explained the authentic assessments. I learned to structure customized learning into lesson plans under “enrichment” and “intervention.” I learned to find the standards that fit with differentiated instruction. In other words, I found a way to do what I wanted to do and use standardized language to explain it.
  4. Decide When To Conform: I tell my administration each year that I will not write referrals. I will refer to procedures are “shared rituals” and I will work within a philosophy of “the freedom to learn.” My class runs smoothly, precisely because I abandon the system of punishments and rewards. However, I also recognize that I have to grudgingly follow silly rules like shirts tucked in, straight lines and silence during tests. I explain to the students why I disagree with these rules and why I choose to conform on some of the small things. I use the following litmus test: Will this ruin learning?  Will this dehumanize students?
  5. Find Common Ground: Often the proponents of standardization are not mean-spirited people who hate kids. Instead, they want students to thrive and fear that a progressive approach will water down standards. A sage is able to build a bridge between traditional reformers and authentic reformers so that people see a rational side to our argument.

Lunatic Approach

  1. Reconfigure your class: I use groups, allow for movement and create specialized centers that students can go to at any moment. My students paint classroom murals and works of art on classroom canvases. All of these are small, subtle steps toward humanizing our classroom environment.
  2. Teach the Reality of Tests: I tell my kids about the rigged system they are up against. Many of them have written letters speaking out against these injustices.
  3. Speak Out: I talk to parents, district office representatives and the larger blogging community about my feelings regarding standardization. I’ve written a book and a guest article for the Washington Post blog.
  4. Be Bold: When people told me that students needed to hand-write all drafts before using our classroom blog, I defiantly refused. When a curriculum specialist once told me that we couldn’t do a documentary, because it wasn’t “real learning,” I told her I would rather lose my job than give up the project. There is a time when teachers need to stand up and say, “Okay, write me up. Fire me. Go ahead. This is too valuable of a learning experience to give up.”
  5. Provide an Alternative: While it’s easy to bust on professional development, the lunatic can articulate a crazy vision of a better method of teacher learning (such as a PLN). Similarly, a teacher who hates standardized tests needs to have a list of alternative assessments that work better. In a Waiting for Superman world, it’s key that we create a non-standard, alternative story that will be more compelling, authentic and inspiring than what’s currently being peddled by the press.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


20 thoughts on “10 Ways to Fight Standardization

  1. Love this! But I think you might have forgotten to finish a thought in point #1 under the Sage Approach section?

    Posted by Sarah | May 10, 2011, 11:22 am
  2. Wow John!

    All I can say is one of your best posts ever. Practical and passionate all in one.

    Posted by Mike Kaechele | May 10, 2011, 11:30 am
  3. Thanks, Mike! I loved your last Teach Paperless post, by the way.

    Posted by johntspencer | May 10, 2011, 12:05 pm
  4. This is a great post John. We need more posts like this! I would love to visit your classroom. From someone who got a BFA in Film/video from Cal Arts…. documentary is for sure learning…. it is more authentic, risky, challenging, skill based, and requires a balance between cooperative group work and individual work. I honestly think we would be better off in this world…if every student had to make a documentary instead of take the test. The process changes the way you view the world and your own voice along with the voice of others. You often can see more about what students know or are passionate about from film work then you can ever see in a 3 part Essay.

    Thanks for sharing this!


    Posted by dloitz | May 10, 2011, 12:59 pm
    • People have no idea how hard it is to do a quality documentary. The research process alone requires tons of critical thinking. However, there are creative and critical components in decisions about editing, lighting, creating smaller skits, etc.

      Posted by johntspencer | May 11, 2011, 12:30 pm
  5. i love it. nicely done.
    thank you John.

    David – if you haven’t read John’s book: it’s a great way to get a look at him in action.

    Posted by monika hardy | May 10, 2011, 1:07 pm
  6. I think that if more of us adopted those “lunatic” approaches, our classrooms would be better for kids and our school systems wouldn’t come crashing down. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it might be the start of a better one.

    Thank you, John –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 10, 2011, 3:00 pm
    • What many teachers don’t realize is that the power is on their side most of the time. Principals don’t want to fire good teachers for being subversive. Even in a place like Arizona, it’s hard to fire a teacher for doing a mural, documentary, learning centers, project-based learning, critical thinking, debates, etc. These are small steps, but if taken by many people, they can have a profound impact that can’t be rooted out easily.

      Posted by johntspencer | May 11, 2011, 12:32 pm
  7. I love how you break the two approaches down and show how you can work within a system and still accomplish what you know is right. I hope that other teachers and admin begin to realise that what you do works.

    Posted by Tami | May 10, 2011, 3:26 pm
    • It’s a challenge and often a very confusing one (for me at least).I don’t have it figured out, but I do know that it’s part of a paradox of fighting / participating.

      Posted by johntspencer | May 11, 2011, 8:21 pm
  8. I think you mean to say the “lunatic” “speaks out boldly” either (not “for”) what is unjust; or for what is – and the lists are excellent!


    Posted by Monty Neill | May 12, 2011, 2:59 pm
    • Hey Monty,

      Are you interested in doing a post about the efforts of Fairtest and how teachers, students and parents can affect change in their schools?

      Posted by dloitz | May 12, 2011, 4:08 pm
      • Not immediately, but we are working on a few pieces in that direction, and already for example have on our website (under our fact sheets) ‘7 ways to work to overhaul NCLB,’ which heads in that direction. Remind me via email – I had thought I marked to be notified if someone responded to me, but did not get such an email.

        Posted by Monty Neill | May 16, 2011, 12:02 pm
  9. Great! Stand up!

    Posted by Kirsten | May 16, 2011, 10:33 am
  10. This is an awesome post and a very effective way to start changing things one classroom at a time. However, I fear that I wont be able to do the same. Not because I don’t want to, but because once I get my classroom it will take time to prove that my teaching methods are effective before I start basically giving the school board the finger and teaching kids the way that they should be taught. I have yet to graduate and start a true teaching job, so I don’t have the first-hand experience that you have in dealing with administrators and such. What do you have to say to a “not-yet” or new teacher about this?

    Posted by Megan | April 17, 2012, 8:11 pm
  11. Hi there,

    I love this post. I sent it to all my colleagues.

    Is it OK if I use your poem as a launch for a post on my blog? I would give you credit and a link of course.

    Posted by Erin | April 18, 2012, 10:29 pm


  1. Pingback: Broken or Transforming? | Connected Principals - May 12, 2011

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