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Learning at its Best

Suffocating in Standardization

My students spend twenty five full school days a year taking standardized tests.  That’s more than the combined total of hours for the bar exam, teacher certification and MCATS.  In other words, the test we develop to see whether an eighth grader understands the Pythagorean Theorem is longer than the tests we create for doctors, lawyers and teachers.And yet . . .

The enemy isn’t the test.   The enemy isn’t Waiting for Superman, either.  Nor is it Rhee or Duncan or Gates.  The enemy isn’t a single, solitary human or even a single, solitary idea.  Instead, the real issue is  the process of standardization.

I’m not sure it’s a new enemy, either.  It’s the same enemy that forced hemlock on Socrates and the same enemy that killed Jesus and the same one that led to the excommunication of Galileo.  It’s the confusion of uniformity for unity and efficiency for effectiveness.

Here in America, it began when we first created factory-model schools.  We adopted the industrial model to prepare students for jobs in the “real world” (never questioning the reality we were creating), the German model (based upon militarism) and  a social engineering model (based upon the perceived need for assimilation).

Standardization takes the idea of one-size-fits-all and pushes it toward one-fit-sizes-all, where an idea that fits one particular student is then used to size up all others.  It’s a system where the processes and procedures are placed above the human reality, where the end results are a lack of respect for both collective cooperation and individual freedom.

I see it everywhere in my school:

  • Discipline: Zero Tolerance discipline programs that do not respect individual student needs
  • Behaviorism: Systems of rewards and punishments to coerce, bribe and threat students into a particular behavior. One example includes the awards assemblies that rank students based upon test scores.  Another is a program that bribes students for reading books.
  • Instruction: The use of “behavioral” and “observable” objectives driving the lessons rather than a cognitive process or essential question.  Indeed, for all our talk of differentiated instruction, teachers create lesson plans based upon a rigid format (I do – we do – you do) with rigid categories that require students to do the same thing at the same time.
  • Assessment: The excessive use of multiple choice tests and the time devoted to preparing for such tests
  • Curriculum: Rigid curriculum maps with “common” assessments all based upon state standards
  • Materials: The use of textbook resources from transnational corporations who create the tests, test preparation materials, consulting firms and tutoring programs for failing students.  (The system is rigged worse than Vegas or Chuck-E-Cheese)
  • Space: desks in rows, students in individual seats, walls separating all classrooms.
  • Professional Development: teachers sit in one meeting, experiencing the same lesson in the same format, regardless of need.

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.


17 thoughts on “Suffocating in Standardization

  1. I completely agree John. It’s strange to me that we have this diverse world with literally thousands upon thousands of different professions, and people still argue that standardization helps people find employment. Certainly there are some skills which are common to all of those professions, but I’m willing to bet that only a tiny percentage of them, for example, require the ability to solve a system of equations, or write a 5 paragraph essay.

    Posted by David Wees | May 10, 2011, 11:18 am
  2. When I was a kid, they complained that the Gen-X-ers would be too lazy and such low performers that they would suck in business. They mocked authentic learning environments. Then I watched as the Google guys, who had been exposed to an authentic, Montessori-styled environment and heavy exposure to experts in their fields, revolutionize the way we do life.

    When will the business community get the fact that standardization is the enemy to innovation?

    Posted by johntspencer | May 10, 2011, 11:25 am
  3. John,

    I am so sorry to hear this story of standardization so honestly stated here by you.

    Zero tolerance, behaviorism and instructionism (and the other things you mention) clearly do not respect any human being – never mind children who are entrusted to us as learners.

    We hope here where I live that we don’t go crazily down the same path. Oh, we have issues and we have many schools who fall into that trap that you describe – but, we are lucky in some ways. Those are practices held over from the past. Our educational government leaders and policy makers do not espouse such practices.

    This stance from the Ministry of Education in Ontario affords school leaders and teachers to do it differently.

    Rather than zero tolerance, we look to implement harm reduction approaches.

    Rather than behaviorist, Skinnerian, instructionist paradigms, we are encouraged to use inquiry-based project approaches arising from the driving questions of the students (yes, within a defined curricular framework, but nevertheless…).

    How do you systemically make the shift where you are? I do not have the answer to that. I struggle with issues of systemic barriers and how to overcome them.

    I guess those who are political can use their skills there. Not my strength.

    It seems the best approach for many is the ‘power of the individual’ – help each person to ‘step into their greatness’ as an educator.

    Thx for this post John.

    Our little school at the YMCA of Greater Toronto ( isn’t perfect, and we struggle with some of these issues too – but, I love the attempts to do things better.

    Posted by peter skillen | May 10, 2011, 11:26 am
  4. Hey John,

    I forgot to add this wee story…a little cheeky, but…

    For several years I submitted a conference proposal to ISTE. It was a devilish title and hence got refused for three years.

    Then I thought that I would contact my friend David Thornburg to see if he would do the session with me. He is very well known in the ed tech field and is well-respected by ISTE. Surely, ISTE wouldn’t refuse him.

    And they didn’t. In fact, David and Norma Thornburg, Gary Stager and I did the session which had actually been made a spotlight session.

    It was overflowing!!

    The title:

    Standards. Up Yours! How Project-based Learning Can Help.


    Posted by peter skillen | May 10, 2011, 11:33 am
  5. You hit the nail on the head. There is no time for the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. I do think that “Waiting For Superman”, Rhee, Gates, and Duncan are the enemy in the sense that they are forcing all of this standardization on us I hope you don’t mind if I pass this post on via my blog..

    Posted by Rick Davidson | May 10, 2011, 11:35 am
  6. I agree completely with your thoughts. In addition, I’m concerned with the amount of instructional time that is taken for mandated testing. I’m not opposed to testing on the whole. After all, the society we live in requires entry-level testing for many professions, from firefighters to the military to beauticians.

    We have gone test crazy in education. In my state (Missouri) it takes two weeks of instructional time to administer all the required tests at the high school level. Compare to three hours required for the ACT. Our state testing has very little consequences for students, while the ACT impacts their futures in dramatic ways. Why all the testing?

    Posted by mprater | May 10, 2011, 12:05 pm

    Calling all teachers to participate in a NON-UNION sponsored sick-out on 9-21-2011 to protest:

    –> federal meddling in public education
    –> public education profiteering
    –> excessive testing
    –> scripted and narrowed curricula
    –> gutting of arts, vocational education, science, and history
    –> wasteful bureaucracy
    –> incompetent and antagonistic administrators

    We demand local control and accountability for public education!

    Facebook page: National Teacher Sickout
    Twitter: follow teachersickout, #sickout

    Posted by sickout | May 10, 2011, 12:55 pm
    • Very interesting concept. I wonder what it would be like if it really happened . . . or should I say, “When it really happens?”

      I agree with the list, except for the one about admin. My administrators have been, on the whole, competent people who have the children’s best interest at heart.

      Posted by johntspencer | May 11, 2011, 12:25 pm
  8. John, I struggle with how to help others – and, at times, myself – not feel helpless in the midst of what you see. I don’t think it’s quite fair to blame ourselves for conspiring with the system’s inequities, but how do we organize to be accountable for them and take responsibility for changing them?

    What organization do we join or create to help students, parents, and teachers challenge harmful practice?

    How do we protect change agents in the system who want to say more and engage students in real conversations about school’s limits – how does #teachin11 become the status quo until things change radically for the better?

    These are the questions I ponder all the time. Our thoughts?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 10, 2011, 2:56 pm
    • On my latest post I try and address this issue. It’s hard. It’s often lonely. That’s why the online community I’ve met has been a huge encouragement for me in this fight.

      Posted by johntspencer | May 10, 2011, 7:22 pm
  9. John, this post spoke to me BIG TIME. The illusion of standardization has us confusing excellence with uniformity, rigor, specificity and victory.

    Standardization has us thinking that providing an excellent education for kids means that we need to provide the same education for all kids. This is insanity because we know that one-size-fits-few… and until we stop trying to provide learners with their needs by pretending all learners have the same needs, things aren’t likely to get better.

    Thanks for sharing this!


    Posted by Joe Bower | May 11, 2011, 1:34 am
    • One of the things you get that others sometimes miss is that the bigger issue is standardization rather than simply THE TEST. I appreciate how bold you are on a consistent basis.

      Posted by johntspencer | May 11, 2011, 12:14 pm
  10. Hey John, Just to add another little piece, the persistent notion that students have to be “forced” to learn, and they are wily little so-and-sos who are always trying to wriggle out of it. I hear this everywhere when I’m out in mainstream schools.

    You just can’t oversee ’em enough–vigilant surveillance is the key?


    Posted by Kirsten | May 16, 2011, 10:32 am

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