Thursday, May 01, 2014


The Standards Driven School & Testing Monopoly - Multiple but Rightable Wrongs

Updated/revised May 30, 2014

The standards driven school & testing monopoly is a systemic model for education within which school teachers must work and children must attend that veers towards obsolete, unethical, unprofessional and illegal. The Net and makerspace are modeling interesting alternatives. These are  tall claims and hypotheses whose evidence is worth exploring.


There are so many ways to say that a system or design needs replacing: antiquated, out of date, outmoded, outworn, old, stale, behind the times, old-fashioned, anachronistic, old-fangled, antique, antediluvian, passé, démodé. Tony Wagner, Harvard Innovation Education Fellow says "The system has become obsolete". Wagner analyzed the nature of education's obsolescence in his books Global Achievement Gap (2010) and Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World (2012). They beg the question as to what is making the current education system obsolete, a thought to be considered further-on.

The never-ending teacher-driven authoritarian explicit-instruction of the test-driven state standards classroom is perfectly in sync with the skill set needed by a worker on the factory line or most non-autonomous lower middle and lower class jobs. It is very out of sync with the learner-driven, collaborative, international, project based, creative, entrepreneurial, exponentially-changing, and disruption-focused economic and social culture that has emerged as the greater producer of better jobs and wealth.

I find that a key element of the curriculum problem centers on the issue of redefining composition, the one traditional approved method of "making" for all school children. Over a decade ago this skill was defined as the Neglected ‘R” by the National Commission on Writing (2003). What has become more clear with the passage of time is the need to build competency in inventively creating and problem solving not just with text but all the other media and means in wide use in cyberspace and makerspace today.

This new cyberspace and makerspace culture continues to build a Digital Academy Fixing 21st Century Illiteracy, a digital academy of personal and collaborative learning networks that has broken away from the traditional standards-driven education system. This binary system for communicating and composing with both bits and atoms is the world's largest system for processing questions/problems, ideas, alternative solutions and for organizing multi-age collaborative teams leading to new organizations and businesses. With an opportunity to be a kind of service center for real questions that are local and global, instead public schools and increasingly higher education are starved for funds and mis-focused for the twenty-first century.


An overriding professional ethic is to do no harm. To keep students "on-task" for the volumious numbers of standards requires year-by-year increase in the levels of soft and hard coercion skills to manage behavior. Conversely, there is a year by year decrease in engagement.

"The Gallup Student Poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades five through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states in 2012.  Gallup measures three constructs, hope, engagement, and wellbeing, because our research shows these metrics account for one-third of the variance of student success. Hope, for example, is a better predictor of student success than SAT scores, ACT scores, or grade point average.  The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure" (Gallop, 2013). Such a system is harmful to the health and well-being of both children and educators. 

Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education at the University of Oregon, finds that such a system drives out initiative, creativity and invention that are essential to the new economy and culture as noted in World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students (Zhao, 2012).  "We not only fail to embrace entrepreneurial students in our schools, we actually neutralize them" (Gallop, 2013). Unfortunately, the  time needed for inventiveness is seen as an inefficient use of time and a subtraction  from time needed to teach how to meet standards.  This results in far too many indecisive, confidence-lacking, initiative-absent, teacher-dependent learners that are either disengaged or dropping out, an observation already obvious by 3rd grade.

When I meet with teachers amidst the love of their profession I find pain and hurt. The systemic requirements of enforcement and standards that are impossible to achieve for all students given the resources at hand also leads to too many frustrated and angry teachers who remain in their posts, along with too many disheartened and/or burned out teachers leaving the profession, many before they can pay off the college debt that was required to complete the degree to teach. As a university professor in a teacher education career, I confess that it took me far too long to conclude that the system was seriously outdated, and in turn the system was abusing and breaking students and teachers. I participated too long in facilitating the maintenance of a system that needs to go, waiting too long to confront and object, to lobby for alternatives.

Whether by conscious intent or not, the current system is designed to reinforce itself. Those with the most wealth are logically taxed the most, have the most wealth to influence the legislative system, and generally work to reduce taxes which reduces the funding available for public schooling. Greater income requires greater education. Poverty is a kind gravity in which poverty is a restraint on getting better health, better education and better jobs that provide the wealth of money and time to create a better education for their children. Poor families and their children generally cannot get the "escape velocity" needed to escape the gravity of poverty on their own. Beyond poor families, most of a child's education comes from their family, which can provide antidotes to the subservient fostering nature of classrooms. These antidotes enable them to gain positions of leadership and greater wealth. Without a stronger universal ethic to create a tide that lifts all boats which in turn lifts the entire community, it is difficult to see when this will end well within the economic system in place.


To observe consistently poor results and avoid making changes until a remedy becomes actually effective is unprofessional. The standards driven school succeeds with a minority of students, some 1/3 graduate high school ready for college (Wagner, 2010). Data also argues for an even lower number, less than 25%. After 13 years in the educational system only 24% of high school senior scored proficient in the last national writing assessment; only 19% of high school freshman graduate from college in 4 years in an era of an astounding knowledge explosion and powerful cheap tools for adding value to analyzed knowledge.

The dominant model of education is perversely addicted to compelling young human beings to review, remember and follow orders.  Computer science starts with a machine without an iota of curiosity, incapable of making decisions and inventing and then works very hard to make computers and their software ever better decision makers that can handle a growing range of challenges. By contrast we have an educational system that begins with a brain that is highly curious, a biological system designed to invent and make choices, and has conversely developed a set of standards which excludes those special abilities and fosters a methodology of explicit teacher driven orders.  Such a system reduces these most unique characteristics of humanity in most and suffocates it many. Why do we allow such an educational system persist?

From Montessori Schools to the progressive education projects of John Dewey to Friere, Piaget and Papert, seminal educational and scientific thinkers have had their arms out pointing to a way beyond the social efficiency driven school system, an 1800's download and derivative of the powerful factory model for producing consistent, reliable, predictable widgets.

Einstein's thought is wonderfully concise on this issue.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift" (Samples, The Metaphoric Mind, 1976, p. 26). I believe in intuition and inspiration. … At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason. When the eclipse of 1919 confirmed my intuition, I was not in the least surprised. In fact I would have been astonished had it turned out otherwise. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research" (Albert Einstein, 1931, Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorism. p. 97).

Have we simply failed to compare the differences in expectations that we should have between a thing and a brain or is it only with the digital age that there is a need for everyone's brain to be optimized for its distinct capacity?

An educational system that has a failed definition of learners and their capacity then creates problems for those who must implement it. Finding and retaining qualified teachers who will stay in such a tightly constrained and narrowly defined system of learning is a challenge that will only grow. "Teacher flight" begins with moves to states that pay better (Helms, 2014; Khrais, 2014), and then is followed by teachers recognizing their extraordinary skill sets and shifting to less stressful and more lucrative careers (Allen, 2014). As master teachers in the immediate years ahead become masters of one-to-one student-to-computer classroom settings, their value to the larger economy as skilled knowledge thinkers with great leadership abilities in coordinating the work of diverse and digital teams will be so great that having salaries at half of their professional peers will lead to a significant gutting of an already precarious teacher education workforce. In the near term, this will exacerbate the socio-economic divide between high and low wealth schools as some will be able to offer hiring bonuses and some not. Long term, it suggests a disabling of the nation's teacher corps. Being "first in teacher flight" is not the race for which states should be competing.


Judge Manning has been the NC Supreme Court's legal monitor of a long standing legal struggle that began with a court battle in 1997 known as the Leandro Case. The struggle has continued to this day: "The state has abandoned its constitutional commitment to provide all North Carolina children with a sound, basic education, say lawyers for low-income school districts, who cite years of budget reductions, jettisoned programs and tens of thousands of low-scoring students" (Stancell, 2014). Judge Manning has issued multiple decisions that have concurred with that position (Court filings: Too many NC children aren't receiving adequate education). The court case appears to be caught in a constitutional gap in the state government system. The state Supreme Court has ruled that students have a state constitutional mandate to receive a free and equitable education and they concluded that with vast numbers of students in low wealth counties, that they are not.  Given the separation of powers between the legal system and the legislative system, the Court has not been willing to rule that the state legislature must spend the money to fix the system, as it is the legislature's constitutional prerogative to decide how much to spend and on what. In short, the state legislature's policies are unethical at best and illegal at worst.

The larger issue is how this plays out across the other states of the United States. All state constitutions require a public education system, which implies an education for all of some given level of quality and equity. If the educational system is illegal in NC, then there is an implied issue of illegality in every state. In point of law, the legality of the equity a state's system resides in the rulings of its state supreme court. To date, I know of no comparative summary of the rulings of the other 49 state supreme courts.

Will putting more money into our system of high pressure, high stakes testing yield equitable results? If we accept that the command and control teacher centered system is obsolete for preparing even the best students for the collaborative and creative needs of the current culture and by it nature is demoralizing for most students and especially for poorer students who predominantly live in low wealth communities, then radical systemic reform is required before funding is applied.


If we finally repel from a system with the characteristics of obsolete, unethical, unprofessional and illegal, what characteristics are the positive pull of the alternative?

Other solutions to the problems above begins with significantly changing the model that is not only driving out teachers and pushing students to disengage or drop-out but drives down the reputation of teachers who remain and therefore the state's interest in paying them better.  Addressing teacher salaries is a serious but second order problem. Those committed to the value of teaching and a great educational system have sufficient need and justification to collaborate in doing something distinctly different, something that abolishes the standards driven factory model. Historically, it was not that long ago that Child Labor Laws were passed (1938), legislation that is still insufficient for the ongoing abuse in the field of agriculture. Such legislation could be expanded to also include aspects of the standards driven testing system now abusing children and educators.

However, an actual revolution, one that produces radical change, does not come from mere rejection but with simultaneous hope provided by a tenable alternative. Some see hope in the map of 1:1 computing which shows the steady though glacially slow movement of digital power into the hands of every student, which is building nicely in North Carolina. What prevents that digital power from merely reinforcing the dismally functioning status quo is the more important ray of hope for a learning revolution, what I title "Dewey's revenge".

John Dewey, "the most significant educational thinker of his era and, many would argue, of the 20th century" (PBS) produced some of the world's most seminal educational thinking. One of his more relevant and elegant works to the topic at hand was titled Interest and Effort in Education, which proposed a rationale for alternative options to rote-learning focused and authorization models of schooling. In short, the degree of interest in a topic or project generates a proportionate effort. Are the too often lamentable efforts of American education and students an indication that today's learners are no longer so interested in learning or challenging problem solving?

There are at least two areas of development outside of the educational system that indicate there is an intense large scale self-motivated interest in learning: the Internet and makerspace. They raise further questions. Why is there such a contrast? Is it the same group of people that did well in school and are merely transferring from school to "after-school" and "after graduating" learning?

The Net

The Net allows researchers to put real numbers on self-motivated human activity. Hundreds of billions of online searches are conducted every day. Many are interested in much. More clear indication of ongoing persistent effort that is more equivalent of the hoped for intensity of classrooms can also be found in Mary Meeker's much acclaimed Internet Trends Report of 2014:
  • In an increasing global world the need to communicate across languages is significant and yet a difficult topic for most. Yet, over 25 million people, a 14 fold increase of the previous year, use Duolingo to learn a new language. 
  • Khan Academy's heavily used YouTube channel of tutorials has achieved 70% growth with over 430 million views to date.
  • iTunes University has seen the downloading of over 65 million courses, over 59% growth from year to year.
  • The online coursework model of Coursera has attracted 7 million users, doubling growth in the last year.


The Web remains an ongoing global project about composing and designing and sharing many virtual things. Makerspace is the dawning global project-based makerspace movement focused on learning how to make things. It is in part in parallel to cyberspace world of the Web and yet it is also gradually subsuming or integrating the rich, powerful, still rapidly evolving and more mature virtual systems of cyberspace. Some of this development is explored nicely in Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (2012) by Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine. (Don't forget the next Maker Faire in North Carolina in Raleigh, Saturday, June 7.)

One article that addresses such factors is found in the featured essay of ISTE's Leading and Learning with Technology magazine, The Maker Movement: A Learning Revolution, by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager (Apr 18, 2014). A book-length treatise on the larger global cultural setting for such change can be found in Jeremy Rifkins 2014 published Zero Margin Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism (summary and GoogeTalks video of the author). The exploration of this hypothesis will expand faster if many will share ideas that support or refute these claims.

There are schools that have already moved on to full makerspace constructs (Bricolage Academy, New Orleans) or in advance stages of diluting the dominating yet obsolete system in place with makerspace project based learning (Albemarle Schools, Charlottesville, Virginia). These schools that are advancing cyberspace and makerspace ideals are so busy reinventing themselves that their stories are hard to find and thin in description for those who might follow or explore and expand on this leadership. They seldom have time to create the tweets, blog postings and chapters that explain and promote their story. These stories and case studies need to get told and told in sufficient depth and detail.

There is also a parallel development emerging. The Maker Education Initiative led by a Maker Ed Board appears to be in the early yet rapidly developing stages of a kind national "Maker Scouts" movement (my phrase not theirs), a kind of parallel to the Boy and Girl Scout movement. It operates outside of the national educational system, outside of the state's teacher education programs and outside of the professional development requirements of practicing teachers. Such effort is well intentioned and being effectively done. Is it sufficient?

Is it also time to ask the  hard questions about the system of schooling that is currently in place? Is it time to ask the nation's colleges of teacher education for their alternatives to a broken system? Is it time to offer a different model of education for the approval of state legislatures? The progress of transformation will be glacial in comparison of having the force an entire state or nation behind it.

Will we measure progress in generations or years? What, exactly, if anything, should we be measuring?

We have arrived at an interesting trifecta of knowledge systems, two of which are steeped in digital knowledge and skills of the 21st century. They excel in supporting and facilitating the ideas and advice of numerous seminal education thinkers including and beyond Dewey. They conflict at fundamental points with the current public education system, a design that emerged in the 1800's, which does not support such seminal thinking.

The Web/Internet (the Net) and makerspace represent sites in which so much is being reimagined and hold so much potential for reimagining education. Our challenge it seems is to invent how to reimagine the entertwining of the Net, makerspace and our national systems of education around the globe.

There are many ways to proceed. I, for one, would like to see it begin with a curriculum of authentic questions and problems, a database that can be be sifted for problems from local to global in scale, a database that offers hooks to the numerous social Web options for assembling resources and teams to solve them.

Tap into the comments area below. What say you? What is your school system's story?

Where is the bibliography for further related thought? Please make me aware of more, but here are a couple of further places to start: ;

Hashtags: #edchat #pbl #pln #makerspace #makeed #Teacherpreneurs #edreform #EducationNation

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Updated May 30, 2014

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