Fundamentally Opposed to Mandatory Standardized Education

So I was in the mood for a rant today… You’ve been warned…

Based on all my life’s experience, all the principles I hold dear, and all my study of human history and development, I am fundamentally opposed to having a standardized education imposed on young people by the government. It is the most effective tool of the totalitarian state, and all the more pernicious when wielded by the highest levels of government in a democratic society. I fear that it will continue to erode the underpinnings of the democratic principles the United States was founded on, continuing to teach each successive generation that the powers that be know best and you better get used to that if you want to succeed in life.

Looking back at my own youth, school was the one public institution I was forced to participate in, and like most of my fellow “inmates”, I internalized the diminution of my own unique self in favor of a passive-aggressive acceptance of arbitrary authority. This got so bad that by my teenage years I had become expert at staying under the radar and exhibiting as few signs of my own imagination and intelligence as possible, for fear of eliciting the wrath of my equally subdued school peers. (It took me at least a decade after graduation to recover my sense of self-worth and self-direction.) Later as a parent when I saw the same thing happening to my own kids I was distraught, until my partner Sally and I figured out that we had the power to say no to this coercive institution, and set our kids free to develop by their own initiative.

An institution that mandates what, where, when, how, why and from whom you must learn runs diametrically counter to the values that I believe this country was founded on, and that I have adopted to guide my own life. Those values revolve around a human community as a circle of equals (rather than a hierarchy of control) based on the inherent uniqueness, worth and dignity of every individual person. The constant evaluation, judgment, grading and ranking endemic in school was antithetical to all that I held dear.

My extensive study of human history highlights our species’ developmental narrative moving from hierarchies of domination and control towards more egalitarian circles of equals. The great empires that emerged in antiquity were massive exercises by elites to control the majority of people by diminishing them to the roles of subjects, slaves or serfs. It has taken millennia to try and repudiate and overcome those constricting and exploitive structures. We need all our institutions today, particularly those that involve the development of our youth, to celebrate the continuing liberation of the human spirit rather than embody to old order of domination and control by arbitrary authority.

I do accept that the American public education system was launched in the early 19th century with the stated goal to be the key developmental engine for a vibrant democratic society. To do so by giving our young people, including the children of immigrants and the unprivileged, a “common core” of American values. And I do acknowledge that our public education system has given millions of our kids an opportunity to learn the basic skills to give them a path out of poverty.

But by creating a universal, mandatory school system with a standardized curriculum controlled by the state government, we created a powerful social-engineering tool to be wielded by the politically empowered (and hopefully enlightened) elite. Horace Mann and the rest of the intellectual and academic elite that championed this sort of education system were arguably enlightened (though also arguably xenophobic about non-Protestant Catholic and Jewish immigrants bringing divisive revolutionary ideologies to their America). And the business elite that took over the public education system in the early 20th century, replacing purely academic goals with “business efficiency”, did so with general public acceptance. They changed the governance paradigm of schools from a hierarchy of teachers to the management/labor paradigm of industry, which I believe led to the emergence of teacher labor unions rather than professional organizations in mid century.

But in either case a small privileged elite was entrusted with an institution with the mandate and the mechanisms to control everyone else’s development. I strongly urge you to ponder this point. I believe we are naïve if we think our public school system is simply “the people’s schools”. It is instead the “the people’s schools… brought to you by your friendly and enlightened elite”. The same elite among us that arguably brought us the Great Recession.

The elite that continues to set the policy for our public education system (certainly with continuing support from the overwhelming majority of the citizenry it would seem) has created a system that, unsurprisingly I would think, celebrates respect for and compliance with designated authority figures. It also celebrates acceptance of a world view where human development is a judged competition for the acquisition of approved knowledge where those dubbed “well educated” are the appropriate “winners” and the rest the inevitable “losers”.

Unlike the more libertarian types among conservatives who oppose the existence of any sort of a public school system (favoring universal private or home education), I am a progressive that believes that venues for learning need to be part of the “commons” available to everyone and financed by our taxes. Like other progressives I believe that even kids lacking economic privilege should have access to educational resources comparable to the more privileged among us. But unlike most progressives I believe that those public educational resources should be offered without a strict state-mandated agenda for what, where, when, how, why and from whom you must learn.

What I find most frustrating is that the position challenging the fundamental ethics and effectiveness of a standardized mandatory education system does not even appear on the radar of public discussion in the media. Surveys of public opinion on education don’t even ask the questions that would register even a small percentage of support for this position. There is a small nationwide network of supporters of “education alternatives” beyond standardized schooling that I’m connected to, but rarely do any of our voices break through into the larger education discussion. (The couple people that I notice breaking through occasionally are Sir Ken Robinson and Alfie Kohn). Don’t know if we are an insignificant fraction of the population or represent a position so counter to consensus reality that it exists in a different sort of space-time continuum.

And when it comes to education policy in the political process I have no candidate I can support. Both Obama and Romney appear to believe in teach-to-the-test standardized public education, with Obama perhaps more inclined to improve educational access for the poor and Romney more inclined to support educational options. As a progressive I’m supporting Obama, but definitely for reasons other than his education position.

So am I a crazy marginalized extremist or part of a small but significant minority of opinion, still mostly invisible?

10 replies on “Fundamentally Opposed to Mandatory Standardized Education”

  1. I don’t think you’re crazy. I agree with some of your points. But I think you push these points to an extreme that I do not support, because I think this extreme view would not be in the public interest.

    Let me pick on what seems to be the core of your policy position. You say:
    “I believe that… public educational resources should be offered without a strict state-mandated agenda for what, where, when, how, why and from whom you must learn.”

    I think this position is hard to support. Presumably the rationale for public support of education is that we think that there are public benefits. The reason I should invest in “other people’s children” is that the overall society and economy benefits when everyone is more educated. But this necessarily involves SOME standards for what is to be learned through this education, and what kind of citizens, workers, and people come out of this education.

    Now, I think there is reason for debate as to how these standards for education should be set, and how they should be monitored. We can debate the relative role of elected school boards, state legislatures, the federal government, teachers and parents at individual schools, etc. in deciding on these standards. We can debate the relative role of standardized tests versus less standardized assessments versus more subjective evaluations by principals, etc. But I don’t see how public dollars can be rationalized without some public process for determining what those public dollars are paying for and ensuring that in fact that occurs.

  2. Cooper –

    In many ways I agree with you but, at the same time, it’s difficult to see how we can honor such libertarian ideals while also guaranteeing every child at least a basic education. Reality, of course, is that not all parents have the wherewithal to home educate their kids or to place them in private schools (and there are some who will make a conscious decision NOT to educate their children at all if they have the option) and I think it’s definitely in our community’s ethical and democratic interest to make sure all kids have access to educational opportunities, regardless of their parents’ situations.

    As a teacher, I consider the mandates we’ve been handed to be impossible to reconcile and, sometimes, patently ridiculous. We’re supposed to differentiate instruction, indeed to essentially individualize our teaching, yet all students are subject to the same standards and the same tests on those standards. Many districts are encouraging or requiring common assessments and even common lesson plans. Research doesn’t back up this approach, and most teachers are well aware that it’s not best practice; unfortunately, we usually have no choice in the matter. Frankly, the idea that a principal should be able to hear me say “Good…” in my class and then walk across the hall to hear another teacher say “…morning”, is completely absurd. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation as to how this approach is best for students.

    With that out of my system, in an ideal world I’d like to see grade-less classes; students wouldn’t be arbitrarily separated by age but, rather, would move between subjects and topics as they showed individual readiness and interest, and they wouldn’t have the coercion of letter grades to influence their work. Teachers would act as mentors rather than task-masters, each teacher facilitating for 10-15 students, and that teacher would stick with that group for their entire elementary and secondary education (matching students up with subject matter experts, university professors, etc. as necessary).

    It would be nice.

  3. I consider public education part of the “commons”, like our transportation infrastructure, parks, libraries, Internet. Like roads, libraries, parks, the Internet, etc, we can make it available to people without requiring that they use it and detailing every aspect about how and when they use it.

    I have faith in people’s natural desire to learn and to take advantage of opportunities to learn. Forcing people to learn IMO is counterproductive.

    If taxpayers are paying for schools, then we should be providing schools that are good facilities, with good staff and other resources that create an enriched environment for learning of a broad range of skills and other knowledge, while also respecting students and adult staff’s civil rights. No more than that! Let all those learners loose in these enriched learning environments!

  4. I’m for working towards your ideal world, where you as a teacher would have only kids in your presence who wanted to be there! Removing the 19th century mandate that kids must go to school and do what the teacher says or else, would completely shift the current paradigm and make the experience for both teachers and students so much better.

    This of course is based on my belief that human beings naturally want to learn and would come to schools, even if not coerced, because of that opportunity to learn. I know others (not you) believe that human beings hate learning and school so they must be forced to comply against their will if necessary for their own good.

  5. I think we just have some fundamental disagreements. I don’t think that whether a child receives an education should be left to the free choice of that child (they’re too young to make that choice) or to their parents (some parents are neglectful). Our broader society has too much at stake. And the potential future adult that may or may not develop from that child has too much at stake to give full sovereignity to the child and parent.

    So I think people should be required to have a certain basic education. But I agree with you that we should not “detail every aspect about how and when they use it”.

    And I disagree that “forcing people to learn” is always counterproductive. I don’t agree with the way you’re framing that issue. For example, how many elementary school students like memorizing multiplication tables? But if you want an easy familiarity with numbers as an adult, which is important in many careers, then you later on will be quite grateful that this memorization was required.

    It also seems to me that your later statement is conceding SOME level of accountability. “If taxpayers are paying for schools, then we should be providing schools that are good facilities, with good staff and other resources that create an enriched environment for learning of a broad range of skills and other knowledge, while also respecting students and adult staff’s civil rights.”

    Well, what is a “good facility”? What is a “good staff”? What is an “enriched environment for learning”? What is a “broad range of skills”? Someone has to answer all these questions in deciding what programs get funding. Someone has to have some sort of accountability system in deciding how to measure whether a given program is meeting these criteria. We can debate whether that someone should be federal, state, or local governments, and the extent to which that accountability relies on quantitative measures or more qualitative judgments. authorities. But there has to be some system of determining what programs are really providing a good education, even if we use a relatively broad definition of what that means.

  6. Tim… I guess I would agree we have some fundamental differences. You don’t see the same degree of downside I do to coercing people to try and learn things against their will. I agree with radical educator John Holt when he observes that, “Good students forget the material after the test” (where bad students forget before).

    I don’t see the problem you state evaluating an educational venue based on what it offers rather than based on the outcomes of users of that venue. We offer libraries to the public and evaluate how well they are operated and the services they provide without testing all the people that use the library to see if they have acquired more testable knowledge after library use. I think schools can be evaluated without all this high-stakes evaluation of the students.

    So do we really have a fundamental disagreement on human nature? Do I see it as naturally inquisitive and proactive while you see it as naturally lethargic and lazy? If we weren’t forced to learn we would naturally choose not to?

    BTW… I appreciate you engaging in this discussion. I learn from it the underlying reasons why people have different beliefs than I and how I can better present my take on things! Thank you for that!

    I also post my blog pieces on Daily KOS, where I usually get a much more robust discussion of the ideas I put forward. Check it out if you are interested at

  7. Hi Cooper, I’m the one who wandered in and read (and commented on) one of your older posts (F**g Math about your pulling your child from the school system due to the math stuff.

    I’ve read some of your new posts now. Very impressive to have a comprehensive view of what’s wrong with education and with the various efforts to reform and re-engineer it. I looked for an “about me” on the site to see if you had any history of how you arrived at your positions and as to whether this is a career or not for you. Either way, it’s striking writing and I’ll follow it.

    I’ve always had radical views on education although my own experiences in public schools and traditional universities were great. Look forward to reading more…

  8. So now I’m really curious since you indicate that you always have had radical views on education. What do you think of my transition from hierarchy to circles of equals world view and how it calls out the context behind our issues with education? Very foundational to that world view are the work of three writers, Riane Eisler and her book The Chalice and the Blade, radical educator John Taylor Gatto and his book The Underground History of American Education, and radical educator John Holt and his advocacy for “unschooling. Have you read any of these three’s work?

    I would enjoy hearing more about your views of public education, influenced by your good experience. My own was very mixed! If you are blogging or would consider blogging, you might consider participating in our “Education Alternatives” group on Daily KOS, a progressive political blog site where you can post your thoughts and have the opportunity to get some readers, some feedback, and generate discussion. Let me know if you are interested and I will tell you how to sign up, post and participate.

    Thanks again for commenting… It’s all about the dialog towards human development!

  9. Hi!

    Thank you so much for sharing your ideas:). Blogs like yours have bean and still are a lifeline for our family.

    Have you seen the work of Peter Gray, I think you can take a look at his book Freedom to learn. He makes the case that we as human beings actually have evolved in a social environment where living within the circles of equals was the norm for thousands of years.

    Parant from Norway

  10. Nusreta… I appreciate your comment, it made my day!

    I have not read Peter Gray’s book but I am familiar with work, seeing some of his white-board presentations on Youtube. But from all the reading I have done about human history and anthropology, I agree with Peter that for most of our specie’s existence we have been egalitarian and that is our basic nature, driven by our love for our kind. Ironically, it was basically fear that was the organizing principle of “civilization” as it emerged some 5000 years ago, going against the circle of equals in favor of a hierarchy of control.

    I’m dedicating my life to witnessing and cheerleading for a needed return to our egalitarian nature. Glad you are on board for that quest and happy I can be some sort of a lifeline to you.

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