George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Editor’s Note: One Size Fits None

Thoughts on standardized education.

April 20, 2007

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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