Standardization vs. Innovation
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently wrapped up its annual conference. This year's was in Minneapolis so attendees could celebrate 20 years of charter schools (though the first charter school was actually in Saint Paul). Charter schools, perhaps more than any other widespread element in our national education debate, show the tension between two competing values: standardization and innovation.
One of the recurring themes of the conference was the need to focus on charter school quality. Charter schools have become controversial as they've picked up political allies that want to use charters to undermine the traditional public system or create a simulated (and ineffectual) “marketplace” for education. During that process, the focus of the charter school debate shifted from innovation in pedagogy to standardization of outcomes.
Standardization has a long history in education, and it has been the core priority of education reformers since at least the publication of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983. That report set off a national debate about standards and outcomes that seemed to peak about twenty years later with the No Child Left Behind law.
The desire to standardize education manifests in various policies. Some are obvious – standardized tests, the Common Core standards, and state-level graduation standards to name a few. Others are more subtle. Scripted (“teacher-proof”) curricula, fixed percentages for test scores in statewide evaluation systems, and even the traditional grade structure are all examples of a desire to standardize educational programming and outcomes.
Kids don't all come standard, however, and that's where innovation gets its chance to shine. Developing new technology-enhanced pedagogy, experimenting with school design, and up-ending the grade structure (or even the classification of course material into the usual subject areas) are just some of the ideas people have considered to find new, better ways to reach kids who aren't achieving their full potential in more traditional environments.
As you can imagine, innovation sometimes runs afoul of standardization. High-potential ideas, like using technology to help personalize students' learning (allowing them, as a result, to be in different “grades” in different subjects), can run afoul of the standardized assumption that all kids should advance the same amount in everything each year.
Right now, standardization is winning in the public discourse. While there is certainly a place for it, I think schools and districts need more freedom to innovate. High quality schools (charter and traditional public) should look very different from one another and should have a chance to strong-yet-nonstandardized outcomes.