Cory Doctorow: American education has all the downsides of standardization, none of the upsides
Cory Doctorow writes about technology, but this week he decided to turn his attention to education, and the problems of standardization.
We moved to America in 2015, in time for my kid to start third grade. Now she’s a year away from graduating high school (!) and I’ve had a front-row seat for the US K-12 system in a district rated as one of the best in the country. There were ups and downs, but high school has been a monster.
We’re a decade and a half into the “common core” experiment in educational standardization. The majority of the country has now signed up to a standardized and rigid curriculum that treats overworked teachers as untrustworthy slackers who need to be disciplined by measuring their output through standard lessons and evaluations:
This system is rigid enough, but it gets even worse at the secondary level, especially when combined with the Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which adds another layer of inflexible benchmarks to the highest-stakes, most anxiety-provoking classes in the system:
It is a system singularly lacking in grace. Ironically, this unforgiving system was sold as a way of correcting the injustice at the heart of the US public education system, which funds schools based on local taxation. That means that rich neighborhoods have better funded schools. Rather than equalizing public educational funding, the standardizers promised to ensure the quality of instruction at the worst-funded schools by measuring the educational outcomes with standard tools.
But the joke’s on the middle-class families who backed standardized instruction over standardized funding. Their own kids need slack as much as anyone’s, and a system that promises to put the nation’s kids through the same benchmarks on the same timetable is bad for everyone:
Undoing this is above my pay-grade. I’ve already got more causes to crusade on than I have time for. But there is a piece of tantalyzingly low-hanging fruit that is dangling right there, and even though I’m not gonna pick it, I can’t get it out of my head, so I figured I’d write about it and hope I can lazyweb it into existence.
The thing is, there’s a reason that standardization takes hold in so many domains. Agreeing on a common standard enables collaboration by many entities without any need for explicit agreements or coordination. The existence of the ANSI/SAE J563 standard automobile auxiliary power outlet (AKA “car cigarette lighter”) didn’t just allow many manufacturers to make replacement lighter plugs. The existence of a standardized receptacle delivering standardized voltage to standardized contacts let all kinds of gadgets be designed to fit in that socket.