The Curse of Standardization: Equal is not Alike

Standardization (verb)

  • The process of making something conform to a standard.
  • To bring into conformity with a standard.

Standard (Noun)

  • Something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example.
  • A structure built for or serving as a base or support.

 Standard (Adjective)

  • Constituting or conforming to a standard especially as established by law or custom.
  • Substantially uniform and well established by usage in the speech and writing of the educated and widely recognized as acceptable.
  • Sound and usable but not of top quality.

~Merriam-Webster Dictionary


Conformity. Authority. Established by law. Uniform. Acceptable. Not of top quality. Words that I, personally, would not want used to describe me, my own children, or my students. Yet these words encompass the implicit message to teachers and students communicated by the Culture of Standardization.

When I think of “conformity,” the first image that pops into my head is a scene from one of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. (NOTE: I will be referring here to the book, not the movie, although they are very similar.) In this excellent young adult science fiction novel, the main conflict takes place on a distant planet called Camazotz.

All things and beings on Camazotz are in strict conformity to a dark power called “IT.”

Camazotz houses

Houses, lawns, streets, toys, children, and adults – designed to function identically. Children come out to play at the same time, they jump rope and bounce balls in exact rhythm, and mothers call the playing children inside in perfect unison. It is the epitome of standardization. The book’s heroine, Meg Murray, is brought to Camazotz with her prodigy brother, Charles Wallace, and close friend, Calvin O’Keefe. Their task: to put an end to the conformity, enable people to think for themselves, and defeat IT.

We in education also face a dark power demanding complete uniformity. It is the Culture of Standardization. Ken Robinson (2007), in his viral TED Talk How To Escape Education’s Death Valley, stated that, “No Child Left Behind is not based on diversity but conformity.”

“No Child Left Behind is not based on diversity but conformity.”

The Culture of Standardization had it’s beginnings in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk. This report set in motion educational reform movements defined by accountability, assessment, and acute standards. This was the birthplace of the 2002 reform No Child Left Behind, described by Robinson as “a highly ironic piece of legislature because it leaves millions of children behind.” Another significant legislature that came out of the accountability and standardization fervor was the Common Core State Standards in 2010. A Nation at Risk, NCLB, and Common Core have created an educational climate driven by high-stakes standardized testing.

Proponents of standardized testing say it is objective, non-discriminatory, and equivalent for all students regardless of background or situation. The practice of testing has been hailed as fair, identical, similar, and free-of-bias. (Is the Use of Standardized Tests Improving Education in America?). Sound familiar?

They are fooled by the same lie that drove the villain, IT: Equal means Alike.

Image result for equal is not the same

Students today are expected to learn, act, and perform in exactly the same way, much like the imprisoned inhabitants of L’Engle’s fictional planet. Robinson stated that, “Human beings are naturally different and diverse individuals.” Reducing children to automatons that need objective, identical, equivalent, and similar teaching and testing conditions “severely hampers the ability of students to express their passions through alternative means” (A Nation at Risk Turns 30).

“Human beings are naturally different and diverse individuals.” 

Standardization, and the belief that when we are alike we will be equal, has caused:

  • A “creativity crisis” compromising the individuality of our country Zagursky, 2011
  • An inability to adapt to different learner needs Brady, 2011
  • A decrease in equity gains in students and increased segregation among students by “ability grouping”  Strauss, 2015a
  • Overall harm to students’ development as self-directed contributing members of society Strauss, 2015b

For a comedic take on the “frustrating absurdities and uncomfortable truths about our country’s testing obsession” (Strauss, 2015b), check out this article from The Onion:  The Onion Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing

In another environment of children waging war against a dark and powerful enemy, we travel back to the distant planet of Camazotz. When we left them, Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin were facing an evil conforming darkness that was trying to control the minds of the entire universe. In the height of the battle, as Meg fought for consciousness, she started reciting the opening of the Declaration of Independence:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ she shouted, ‘that all men are created equal.’  

The familiar lines broke IT’s control over Meg’s mind, allowing some reason to shine through. In an attempt to regain control, IT responds with the line that dooms him:

‘That’s exactly what we have here on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.’  

Light bursts forth as Meg realizes that the truth:

‘No! Alike and equal are not the same thing at all!’

Let’s break the control that the Culture of Standardization has over the minds of our students. The words alike, conformity, and uniformity have no place in education. We need equity, individuality, and unity.

Wake up from the Culture of Standardization. Shine light on the Culture of Diversity and the Climate of Personalized Learning.

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