Should Education Be Standardized or Individualized?

The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. Plutarch

I like to listen to WFSU while I drive, and there is one sponsor advertisement that always gives me pause. It is for Maclay School, a local private PreK-12 school, and it concludes with the tagline, “Maclay- where education is individualized, not standardized.”

Isn’t this at the heart of what parents desire for their children’s education? We send them off to school with a wish: see my child for who they are. Let them know they are valued for who they are, as they are; neither a problem to be fixed, nor an empty vessel to be filled.

This is true for adults as well. On the final episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Winfrey reflected, ““I’ve talked to 30,000 people on this show and they all wanted validation. Everybody wants to know, ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything?”

This tagline, promoting individualization over standardization, is central to the marketing message of a highly regarded school that parents pay thousands of dollars a year for their children to attend. Yet it is completely contrary to our state’s current approach to public education, where standardization and accountability are vaunted above all, regardless of common sense and public outrage.

This is one of the fundamental hypocrisies of the education reform movement that has dominated Florida’s, and most of the nation’s, educational policymaking for the past fifteen years. It preaches the values of personalization and individualized learning, especially if it takes place on a computer or tablet, but it practices standardization and accountability for students and schools that don’t meet the dictated cut scores and levels for the standards assigned to each grade.

Our supposed epidemic of failure, which is also ironic given the touted success of the “Florida Formula” for student achievement, is in a sense a manufactured crisis because if we truly met each student where they are, saw them and valued them for who they are, and then shaped their learning around this, there would really be no need to label children and schools as failures. Teachers across this state are trying their best to do this with their students every day, despite the obstacles and barriers thrown up by Florida legislators and the Department of Education.

So whom does the current system serve? The education “reformers” like to talk about how their policies serve the children instead of the adults (ie. teachers) in the system. Is our current system actually structured to serve children and their families? Or does it instead merely serve different categories of adults: the privatization profiteers, the for-profit charter school industry, and the politicians that they support?

Instead of an education for the people and by the people, it’s become an education imposed on the people by a micromanaging government. When we look back on this phase in American education, I fully expect that many of its policies will be commonly viewed as the counterproductive and draconian attempts of a data-obsessive bureaucracy to assert control over what is essentially an endeavor based upon community and relationships- the education of our children.

We are seeing the tide start to turn in the opposite direction, with Florida’s district superintendents, teachers, and parents calling for changes to the state’s testing and accountability laws. Citizens want control over their schools to be returned to their communities and families. Florida legislators- heed their call.