Let’s Ditch One-Size-Fits-All Schooling

It is high time that we ditch standardized curricula and lists of stuff that all kids are forced to learn. I am a former k-12 teacher and I used to believe in these lists. Now as a college professor teaching in a College of Education, I no longer do.

Unfortunately, just about everyone else does.

Most developed countries have a national curriculum ensuring that every student leaves school having learned the same content. While the US has no national curriculum, we have what is effectively a list of national standards – the Common Core State Standards – whose stated purpose is to “ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life.” Additionally, all 50 US states have their own standardized state curriculum.

But is there really a list of stuff we can generate that all kids should be forced to learn, let alone one that is twelve years in duration?

I want to suggest several reasons for doubt.

Your List Won’t Match Your School’s List

For the record, I do think there are things that everyone should know. I just happen to believe that those things are needed because of their pervasiveness in human life, but it also means that people would likely learn them without force.

We all need to learn how to speak, but language is such an essential feature to good human functioning that we do it without being forced to.

There are scores of things we teach in schools that are not necessary for students to be successful.

That’s the way we learn a lot of things, like how to navigate the norms of our culture, how to operate common devices like televisions and computers, etc. And if schools were free to choose (or create) curriculum, it is doubtful that we’d need government to ensure that things like basic math and reading were there. In fact, it is likely that parents would simply demand that those things be included in the curricula.

And conversely, there are scores of things we teach in schools that I’d argue are not necessary for students to be successful in the world. In a book called The Math Myth: and Other STEM Delusions, Andrew Hacker argues that a good portion of the higher level math we are convinced students need turns out less than useful unless they are going into one of a handful of fields (mathematics professor being one).

I’d argue that a lot of what we teach in schools are this way. Imagine a list of everything you learned in your years of K-12 schooling. Now, think about all the skills and facts you’ve relied on in the past, say, two years. If you are like me (and I suspect most people are), there is probably only a small overlap.

If we then took the number of things on your school list that aren’t also on your life list and calculated the amount of school time that took up, I’d bet there are a good many years represented.

The things that constitute the bulk of my life are in fact things I learned after I was out of k-12.

I’m a good illustration of the point. I am now forty, meaning that I was educated during the time when computers were gaining steam but the internet wasn’t really a thing, and certainly not what it is today. I learned a lot of stuff in school I don’t remember at all. But what I did not learn anything about – because no one foresaw the need – was all the computer skills that my work (and personal life) revolves around: how to create and maintain a website, write emails, navigate the web, etc. Essentially, the things that constitute the bulk of my life are in fact things I learned after I was out of k-12.

The Problem with Standardized Curricula

One big problem with the idea of creating standardized curricula is that we simply don’t know what knowledge will and won’t be relevant in 12 years. There will be many false positives (things we think students will need to know but won’t), and false negatives (things we have no idea students will need to know).

Some believe that a national curriculum is necessary so that everyone is “on the same page.”

In a recent book arguing for a national curriculum, Ed Hirsch writes that, “The duty of schools is to transmit… shared knowledge of the shared language – to transmit the cultural commons of the nation, its public sphere.” As I argue in more detail here, this grossly misunderstands how culture works.

Culture is so much more diverse than that, especially in the information age.

An economy works not because everyone has the same knowledge and skills, but because we all have different knowledge and skills. Culture is similar. Hirsch envisions a world where we all read and do the same things and talk the same talk to the same types of people. Culture is so much more diverse than that, especially in the information age. I can choose what to read, who to talk to, what to do, etc. And when I need to know something, I can find that out when I need it (without having depended on a national curriculum).

But isn’t it better to learn it while you are in school so that you don’t have to relearn it later? This assumes the likelihood that I would learn something when I’m, say, 12 (before I had any occasion to see its importance) and retain it years later when I might happen to need it.

A stark reality check about this likelihood comes from the hit game show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? which aired from 2007 to 2015. The show consisted of asking contestants a series of questions taken from standard first-through-fifth grade textbooks. During that time, there were only two contestants who answered enough questions (six) to win the grand prize. Yet these were all things we learned between first and fifth grade!

Formal curricula are fine, but we need to recognize that they consist of one group’s guess at what people will need to know a decade from now and what, of that, they will likely retain when needed. My advice is to allow each school to take their own guess, either by allowing them to design their own curriculum or sign on to one of a number of possible curricula (or even choose not to have a set curriculum at all). It just isn’t likely that there really is one list of stuff that everyone should be forced to know.

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