Mankind’s mistakes: standardized education

Faulty premises

Mankind’s mistakes is a series of articles that explores some of the worst ideas that our current societies came up with, and how we can fix them. In the second part of this series: why we shouldn’t standardize education.

Our increasing obsession with quantifying everything in society is arguably nowhere as harmful as it is in our education system. Quantification requires easily comparable information. And so we’ve taking to standardizing everything. Within schools, across schools, even across countries, everything has to fit into the same mold. This is an incredibly ineffective to teach.

The supposed benefit of standardized education is twofold. First, it should provide some guarantees about the quality of teaching, and ensure that students will be equipped with all the necessary skills they’ll need for their future career. And second, standardizing everything makes it easy to compare the performance of students across schools, which can be a valuable signaling tool to prospective employers.

How successful is our education system really when it comes to achieving these goals? While education is important for employment prospects, studies estimate that as few as 27% of people actually end up working in the field they studied for. And while opinions vary on the importance of formal education versus actual experience, by some calculations the impact of the former might be as low as 10%. On top of that, our ongoing degree inflation is making degrees less and less valuable as signaling tools to employers. Most people learn more from self-study, informal talks and encountering problems than they’ll ever learn from education. And yet we’ve seemingly accepted the premise that our current education system is the way to go. So what exactly is our standardized education system achieving?

“The ever-increasing demands we place on our students, mean that the education system is actively competing with these informal learning mechanisms for time and attention”

One pace to rule them all

For some reason we’ve decided that everyone needs to go through the same curriculum at the same rate. This is absolutely ludicrous. For example, we know that brains develop at different rates across genders: the female brain tends to be a few years ahead of the male brain. ‘Coincidentally’, girls also tend to get higher grades in school than boys in just about every subject. And the differences across genders are just averages. Within genders we obviously also see large discrepancies in development rates from person to person.

So why do we group children together based on their age? Social dynamics? There is no reason why children should only interact with others of their exact age. This has never been the case in history, and there is no compelling reason for it. In fact, having children of mixed ages play together might actually be preferable, because older children facilitate the learning for younger children.

In addition, we all have different affinities for different subjects. Some people might have a knack for languages but are terrible at geography. Some are math wizards but do terrible in biology. Others are economic savants but don’t know how to spell if their life depended on it. Yet we make everyone progress through all topics in school at the exact same pace. Why?

And the premise that there is just one right way to teach that’s applicable in all areas is ridiculous. For example, wealthier areas often have students that do better in school than poorer areas, for a whole host of environmental reasons. Yet due to standardization, students across both areas face the same expectations, and are subjected to the same curriculum. If we would treat the situation from an economic perspective, there is a clear mismatch between supply and demand. By standardizing everything, we limit the capacity of schools to adjust their approach to the needs of their environment.

Ironically, to make matters even worse is the (admirable) stance that every child should be able to succeed in education. But by making education something that everyone can succeed in, we’re in fact just handing out participation trophies instead of focusing on the actual progress of students. A great example of this is the “No Child Left Behind” act, implemented in the United States at the beginning of the millennium. While intended to aid and promote the educational attainment of those who are disadvantaged (which is great!), it didn’t result in any actual learning improvement. What happened instead, was that the creation of a standardized approach accessible to all limited the growth opportunities for those students who did do well. As a consequence, the act has since frequently been relabeled as “No Child Gets Ahead“.

“We need to start accepting that some students might fail some subjects.”

With an approach that’s completely standardized, where everyone goes through the same motions, it’s no wonder we’ve had such a massive degree inflation over the past decades. In a sense the two goals of standardization are in opposition: by equipping every student equally, degrees lose their value as a signaling tool for the capabilities of the student.

The price of ideas

So if standardization is inherently self-contradictory, why are we so insistent on implementing it? Simple. It’s because it’s easy, and because it’s cheap.

But this justification is mind-boggling. Most countries see access to education as a universal right, and rightfully so. Education is arguably one of the most important causes for prosperity, both for individuals and for entire countries. The education attained by individuals is a pretty good predictor for their future health, income, and wellbeing. So why on earth do we spend so little on education? While education spending did increase slightly over the past couple of decades, when you account for the increase in average years of education across the population, spending per educational year actually decreased quite a bit.

Of course this is no big secret. Budget cuts for education feature frequently in the news, and it’s well known that the salaries of most teachers are a pittance.

So what happens as a result of limited spending? Schools start competing with each other for budget. And they main way they can do this is by promoting the results of their students. As a result, the incentives for schools shift from teaching students about the world, to getting students to score high grades. And when this happens, anything that’s not conducive to higher grades is left by the wayside. Critical thinking? The standardized tests don’t measure it, so why try to foster it in children? Art? Not tested, so who cares? What matters instead, is that students are turned into test maximizers. Instead of teaching students how to excel in life, they are taught to the test instead.

And schools where students do well become more popular. This increases competition for housing surrounding those schools, making housing prices go up. This prices poorer families out of those suburbs. Schools that do well will increasingly attract wealthier students, further increasing the cost of housing in these areas. This contributes to further segregation between rich and poor, and enhances societal inequality.

To test or not to test

Students are in turn also increasingly pressured by their schools to do well. This transforms their motivation into an extrinsic one as well, centered less around learning and more about doing well on tests. The result is a system where students are encouraged not to fail, yet the freedom to fail is a crucial part of effective learning. But instead, they are expected to succeed at all costs, which causes significant levels of stress. And when all that matters is the outcome, undesirable practices that are beneficial for doing well on tests, such as cramming information or cheating, become appealing options to students. Society no longer cares if you’re the next Einstein or Tesla if you don’t do well on the standardized test. But as long as you pass the test, it doesn’t matter if you barely remember a thing about it a month later.

“Most teachers don’t need tests to know if their students are going to do well or not”

Focusing on standardized testing also means there is also no more room for deviation in the curriculum. Teachers can be very knowledgeable about certain areas, but if these areas are not part of the core curriculum there is no way to leverage this expertise for the benefits of the students. When significant recent events occur, there is no room to examine them in depth if they’re not tested for.

And standardized tests are a terrible way to determine the actual capabilities of a student. How many real-world scenario’s mimic the conditions of a test? These days, when you need a piece of information, you have a smartphone with all the knowledge you could want at your fingertips. So why are smartphones prohibited during exams? In nearly all aspects of real life are you able to use sources or ask for clarification, so why do we insist on testing students in conditions where they’re prohibited from doing this?

On top of that, standardized tests require standardized answers. This leaves no room for creativity, innovativeness, or out-of-the-box thinking. In fact, innovativeness actually negatively correlates with grades! And in many subjects such as the humanities, standardized testing doesn’t even work because it’s not always clear what the right answer is. What our system rewards is skills like memory, literacy, and listening quietly. Is that really all our schools want to teach?

Finally, what do the outcomes of standardized tests really tell us? Most teachers don’t need tests to know if their students are going to do well or not. Our grades are also poor predictors of how successful we are later on. People who do well at tests excel in a formalized setting, but this tells us little about how well they’ll do in their jobs, which often requires more informal skills.

Standardized tests make the whole system seem legitimate, but in reality they’re nothing but a facade. Learning goes on in all aspects of life, and our education system is just the part of learning that we’ve made explicit and measurable. But without the support of all the informal learning that we constantly experience in our daily lives, the whole system would crumble. Yet the ever-increasing demands we place on our students, mean that the education system is actively competing with our informal learning mechanisms for time and attention.

Educational self-determinism

Our society is full of institutions whose main motivation is self-perpetuation. Our educational system is no different, we’ve become convinced that we cannot do without the current system. But if you stop to think about it, the mandatory attendance enforced for education is actually incredibly manipulative. We know that in our current system, the actual impact of education is surprisingly low. Yet we simultaneously perceive our current system as the only valid way for education.

For example, society tends to look down on auto-didacts, just because they lack a formal degree. But auto-didacts are allowed to explore their own interests and their own pace. Does that not sound like a more promising way to stimulate true learning? Throughout history, we’ve had many self-taught people who did quite well in life, from Leonardo da Vinci, to Henry Ford, to Blaise Pascal, to Benjamin Franklin. I’m not saying that we should do away with all structure in education, but giving more recognition to more flexible pedagogical approaches does seem to warrant some merit.

But more broadly, what we need are educational systems that have more autonomy. Especially in this day and age, with all our modern technological advancements, there is no reason why this shouldn’t be feasible. We have several digital tools at our fingertips that could make it a cakewalk to monitor progress and understanding of individual students, and allow them to develop at their own pace.

Instead of a 10-year-old doing the exact same things all other 10-year-olds are doing, why not let them do history equivalent to a 13-year old, geography at the 7-year old level, math at the 11-year old level and writing at the 8-year old level, if that’s where their competencies lie? Better yet, instead of equating content with what’s deemed appropriate for a certain age, let students progress at their own pace. Right now, all curricula go through a certain amount of content in each given year. But there is no way that a standardized level of content matches up exactly with the pace that all students prefer and can keep up with.

In that sense, universities might provide some ideas for how to structure education, as their approach is a lot more flexible and provides some room for autonomy. Give students more freedom in pursuing the topics they want, at the pace that suits their needs. Learning will be much better for it.

The other crux is that as a society, we need to start accepting that some people might fail certain subjects. These days it’s become nearly impossible to get a job without a degree. But the only reason for this is because everyone else has one, so not holding a degree sends out a strong negative signal.

Think back to all you’ve learned in high school. How much of that information do you truly use in your daily life? How much of it has never been useful to you at all? Our insistence that we all have a certain level of understanding about an arbitrary set of topics makes no sense and is hard to justify. We all have different skills and capabilities, not all of which fit the exact mold we’ve shaped our education around. Perhaps we need to start acknowledging that educational success is not the be-all and end-all for success in life.


Ron Maas
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