The following essay is adapted from my forthcoming book, The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Educational System Perpetuates Social Injustice. Pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or wherever books are sold.
Over the past several decades, the American educational system has seen a broad embrace of more and stricter standards. Variation and flexibility in curricula have been driven out in favor of uniformity in both the courses students are expected to take and how well they are expected to perform within them. This push to standardize has been going on at the local and state levels for a long time; since 2010, the action has happened at the national level, as the (in)famous Common Core is now enshrined in 41 states as well as several U.S. territories. (Among the nine states that do not use the Core standards, three adopted them only to later rescind their adoption, largely because the effort was perceived as an attempt by liberals to supersede state sovereignty.)
The basic argument for standardization is fairly simple. First, the essential conception of a liberal education presumes a certain breadth of knowledge, a diversity in the knowledge, skills, and competencies that all students should learn regardless of their eventual academic or professional focus. By enforcing a standardized curriculum, policymakers can presumably ensure that students are well-rounded as intellectuals. More importantly, if less often discussed, there is the relationship between standardization and the assessment of students . . . and teachers. In order to know how well different groups of students are performing, we need to be able to make comparisons among them, which in turn requires a degree of standardization in what they’re learning. And since assessment of student learning has long since ceased to be about students and become instead another system of surveillance for teachers, standards like the Common Core have been favorites of the ed reformers who blame teachers for everything.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with expecting that all students who graduate from a given school, system, or state have somewhat equivalent academic abilities. So what’s the problem? To put it simply, students are not standardized. Their minds are not standardized. Their abilities are not standardized. Their ambitions are not standardized…