Thursday, July 26, 2012

Standardization Will Destroy Our Education System, If It Hasn't Already

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

This summer I have made a commitment to reading more and have chosen books that I think will help me become a better leader.  A few weeks ago I finished Drive by Daniel Pink and am now halfway through with Linchpin bySeth Godin.  I highly recommend both of these book at any educators who is interested about the science behind motivation or overcoming resistance to become and indispensable component of an educational organization. 

Through my reading of both books it has become painfully clear that many of our current politicians and so-called educational reformers have it completely wrong when it comes to standardization.  Now I have always thought this was the case, but these two books have not only reaffirmed my views, but also given me a great deal of concern as we inch closer to an educational system that focuses on test scores as the number one determinant of achievement. 

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Dan Pink reveals that the keys unlocking and sustaining intrinsic motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  As a leader this is the type of teaching and learning culture that I want to foster and cultivate, one where creativity flourishes, students find relevancy and meaning in their learning, and teachers are given the support to be innovative.  A teaching and learning culture powered by intrinsic motivation will achieve this.

Unfortunately we are being forced in the opposite directions.  The current education movement is laden with "if-then" rewards and a carrots & sticks approach to motivation. If students score well on standardized tests they move on to the next grade level or graduate while their teachers receive favorable marks on evaluations.  These are forms of extrinsic motivation and will work in short term, but performance will not be sustainable as those motivated intrinsically.  The same can be said for merit pay.  Pink has provided a compelling case as to why this will never work and this is supported by the research. 

Students are not motivated by standardized tests, as they find no true meaning and value in them.  Teachers are motivated for all the wrong reasons, of which includes job security or a financial incentive.  A focus on standardization narrows the curriculum and creates a teaching culture where creativity, exploration, critical thinking are scarce or non-existent.  It creates a culture that students do not want to be a part of and one that can only be sustained with the use of "if-then" rewards or carrots and sticks.  Is this the direction we want to go in?  Do we want schools to squash creativity and reinforce a model that worked will in the 20th Century that will not prepare our students for their future?

Seth Godin describes linchpins as indispensable components of an organization that are artists in there own right.  These individuals don’t follow a manual, but instead are guided by an urge to do what is right.  In my opinion we want to create schools that allow teachers to become linchpins because in the end students benefit from their creativity, passion, and innovative mindset. However, standardization follows in the footsteps of a century-old education model focused on industrialization, which influences teachers and administrators in a way where the artist in each of them never evolves.  This entrenched system produces students that lack creativity, are fearful of failure, work extremely hard to follow directions (homework, study for tests, not question authority), and are leaving schools with undesirable skills in a post-industrial society. Schools focus more on filling the minds of students with useless facts and knowledge as opposed to learning essential skills that can't be measured with a #2 pencil.

Godin continues to provide example after example of how education has it all wrong.  Take the resume for example.  Virtually every school has students craft one to go along with their college application materials.  Students don't need resumes, they need to create artifacts of learning that provides detail as to what they can really do or know.  Godin provides a compelling alternative to a traditional resume and hiring process.  I have tweaked the business example he provided into an educational one. Instead of standardization, have students make a presentation of their resume and skills learned while in school.  Have them defend, answer questions, and lead a discussion with a variety of stakeholders.  Does this seem more meaningful and relevant? When analyzing the science of motivation presented to Drive I would certainly say so. 

My only hope, and this is wishful thinking, is that research and common sense will ultimately prevail to save our education system from future demise if those with influence and power keep steering us in a failed direction.  Let us learn from the past and create an educational system that instills a sense of intrinsic motivation and creates learners that are indispensable.


  1. Couldn't agree more Eric. Unfortunately educators continue to operate on two battlefields - on one front we attempt to engage students and help them become engaged, productive citizens and workers. On the other, we force them (largely through bribes) to be successful on a test. The two goals are not congruent but until we take politics out of education we will be hopelessly stuck in the middle.

  2. I came her to write the same thing as Mr. Ziegler, I couldn't agree with you more. The more politicians are involved in education, and their need to have a standardized testing, the US educational system will not improve. The real world is made up of linchpins and people who think out side of the box, those are the people who create jobs. Schools are still set up using the old formula where people came out of school and worked in a factory. They didn't have to think, they just had to follow a set of directions. That's not how the world works today, when people have amazing careers using the internet, having personal Youtube channels, and beginning businesses. They are the people who are creating jobs, business owners, not the government. I've read Linchpin, and I pride myself on being an Linchpin educator, and try to inspire my students to be creative and make a difference in the world through their talents, for them to become linchpins.

    1. One reason standardization has not yet ruined our education system is because there are still quite a few wonderful Linchpin teachers like you. Hopefully they will not get burned out trying to stay creative while adhering to mandates.

  3. I am sure that every educator out there would agree, politician don't see it or refuse to. Not sure what it will take to change but the world is changing at an alarming rate and education fails to change at the speed that is required.

  4. Amen brother- preach it. One book I might recommend to you also is by Charlotte Iserbyte, called The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America. I will warn you, however, this book is not for the faint of heart. I really struggled with why I was a teacher after reading this book for a while.

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