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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's Note: One Size Fits None

Thoughts on standardized education.
By James Daly

What happens when one size fits all becomes one size fits none? If you're trying on a pair of stretch pants, it's an awkward sartorial moment. When you're talking about the education of our children, however, it's a disaster of a higher order. But that's the very question we all should ask our public education system.

In the business world, there is a manufacturing concept known as mass customization. It sounds oxymoronic, but companies such as Dell Computer take it to heart and have built great businesses on it. Simply, Dell takes a commodity product -- the personal computer -- and personalizes it according to the buyer's needs. Want to upgrade the RAM? No problem. A different video card? Easy. The result is a PC simultaneously standard (that is, it's assembled like every other PC) and customized (it reflects your needs and interests).

Unfortunately, that is not the case with our public schools. Our formalized public education system is a state-sponsored project by which, in concept, students become mature members of their communities through a thirteen-year program that helps them develop knowledge, skills, and character. To do this with millions of kids at the same time requires some sort of standardization -- that's understood. To free the process of all such guidelines would be an invitation to chaos.

But right now, the simple assembly line of standardized learning won't suffice. You merely have to look at average high school graduation rates (which now hover at around 60 percent) to see that it isn't working. We now understand that children learn in many ways, in many places, from many people. This has always been the case, but it is particularly obvious in today's world of multiple and customizable mass media streams.

Some people understand this concept very well. Tom Horne, Arizona's state superintendent of public schools, is one of them. Horne has proposed a state law under which each middle and high school student in the Grand Canyon State will have a customized learning plan by 2011. The purpose of this plan, which parents and teachers would review annually, is not to make more work for overloaded educators, but instead to ensure that every student, whether top notch or desperately struggling, helps create a plan that will make his or her education resonate.

These individualized plans would help students identify their personal strengths and challenges, then set goals and communicate their needs to their families and teachers. Educators, community-service personnel, family members, or anyone else interested in supporting the students could access these materials to help them succeed.

Personalized instruction is not new. Individual Education Plans, or IEPs, are mandated for students with learning disabilities, but the broad use of such plans outside of special education is new. Increasingly, though, a number of states are considering their broad usage.

Horne's proposed education plans are not exactly IEPs. They would be set up to guarantee that all students get one-on-one advice from educators in identifying a career path. The plans would require teachers to assume the role of academic guidance counselors, frequently checking on students' progress and helping establish career goals. If a student wants to be a financial analyst or an architect, for instance, he or she must be told it is tough to get into college with fifth-grade reading skills and a transcript full of Ds in math. A Web-based program would personalize and streamline updating of these plans to make them into living documents.

The upside of the idea is that it could push students to be more active in deciding what they are learning and understand why they are learning it. And isn't that what public education is all about?

Editor in Chief
James Daly


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Kirsten's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After 10+ years of teaching I have often wondered when this mentality in education will stop. In a society that pushes individuality, why must we persist on shoving every students "foot" into the same size shoe?

I agree with Daly in his comments regarding the "assembly line of standarized learning", what are we achieving? Nothing yet....it seems.

I look at the faces of my students every year when we start talking about the state mandated tests. It's almost a point of shut down for them. There are two categories of kids, those who pass and those who don't. Unfortunately, we are seeing more and more students who don't pass and give up.

When will we learn that we need to approach learning the same way we buy clothing and shoes? We buy what fits...then we have success and comfort.

Cathy Brady's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Keeping students as individuals is extremely important. Each student has their own learning styles that are enhanced by using different multiple intelligences. Each student has their own experiences in life, with cultural and social backgrounds. The students crave relevant learning experiences that are pertinent to them. You cannot "bottle" learning with so many factors that play a part in students' learning.
I have been teaching 13 years and have always used different types of multiple intelligences for teaching. College with so many lectures was torture for my personal type of learning. Hands on activities that allowed me to work independently were and are my favorite. This does not mean that all of my students learn the same.
Finding out about prior knowledge is important to the student's success. I have been trained in SDAIE strategies that good for all students, not just English Language Learners. I have been to trainings for gifted students that should be used by all students. Use whatever works in your "bag of tricks" and do not assume that all students are equal, because we are all unique.

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