Education for Democracy: Does One-Size-Fit-All?


NOTE: This essay is the fourth in a series focused on education reform. Federal, state and local governments currently are contemplating policy and funding changes for education at all levels. These essays are intended to provide some context for these discussions.

According to the Digest of Educations Statistics for 2010, produced by the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education, there are currently about 55 million students enrolled in K-12 education in the United States. If you add students at all levels of post-secondary education, the number reaches approximately 75 million. By 2019, that number is expected to reach 82 million. This projected number exceeds the entire current population of Germany. These students are enrolled in more than 139,000 educational institutions across the country.

The number of teachers in K-12 education alone totals about 3.7 million and there are approximately136,000 school administrators at this level. Nearly 21 million of the students in these schools are eligible for the federally funded reduced fee/free lunch program, while 6.5 million students are served under IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Education in the U.S. is a system of incredible scope and complexity.

In general, the opinions we express about schools are often informed by observations we made through our particular experience – teachers and classrooms we have known. Yet, the immense scale of education in the U.S. far exceeds our ability to describe it in simple terms. Still, we tend to generalize from school to school, community to community, and state to state. Sometimes I wonder if there is a standard recipe used by state and federal governments for this purpose. If so, it probably reads something like this:

1.    Begin with a healthy portion of generalization sufficient to explain the entire problem.
2.    Then carefully oversimplify the circumstances to avoid complexity, ambiguity and cognitive dissonance.
3.    Reduce understanding to small set of solutions for purposes of implementation.
4.    Add a measure of false precision to be confident that a means-end reversal can be achieved.
5.    Mix the above in a “blue ribbon” panel, commission or agency. Stir vigorously.
6.    Present the one-size-fits-all results in the form of a written report, with charts and photographs.
7.    Garnish with an executive summary.
8.    Serve at a press conference.

We have been trying to bake the “one-size-fits-all” education reform solution for nearly 50 years. In our very large policy bowl, we have mixed various portions of innovative teaching methods, curricular standards, classroom technology, vouchers, charter schools, privatization, organizational redesign, high-stakes testing, financial incentives, institutional sanctions, and teacher quality and preparation. We then periodically hit the puree button to see what we get.  What we pour out is confusion, conflict and very little in the way of results.

Diane Ravitch in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, (2010) chronicles a seemingly endless history of failed school reform initiatives across the United States. It’s a breath-taking pattern of lowering standards and gaming the system to achieve phantom results in response to government demands. She notes:

Reformers imagine that it is easy to create a successful school, but it is not. They imagine that the lessons of a successful school are obvious and can be easily transferred to other schools, just as one might take an industrial process or a new piece of machinery and install it in a new plant without error. But a school is successful for many reasons including the personalities of its leader and teachers; the social interactions among them; the culture of the school; the students and their families; the way the school implements policies and programs dictated by the state and federal government; the quality of the school’s curriculum and instruction; the resources of the school and the community; and many other factors. When a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors. Even the principal and teachers may not know for sure…Success whether defined as high test scores or graduation rates or student satisfaction, cannot be bottled and dispensed at will. This may explain why there are so few examples of low-performing schools that have been “turned around” into high performing schools. And it may explain why schools are not very good at replicating the success of model schools, whether the models are charters or regular public schools. Certainly schools can improve and learn from one another, but school improvements – if they are real – occur incrementally as a result of sustained effort over years.  (pp. 397-398)

The latest one-size-fits-all approach is all about the teachers. Let’s check the key ingredients for our recipe.

We have decided that since little else has worked on an aggregate scale across schools, it must be the teachers who are the problem. Step one – generalize. Check.

So, if we hold teachers accountable for student outcomes based on standardized test scores regardless of the context and circumstances, we can certainly achieve results. Step two – oversimplify. Check.

In order to do this, we need to rate teachers on a scale each year based on current levels of student performance. Step three – reduce. Check.

We then take the ratings and rank the teachers so we know which ones are performing well. That way, we can identify the bad teachers and get rid of them. Step four – false precision. Check.

Let’s look at one example of the results. New York Times reporters Sharon Otterman and Robert Gebeloff recently reported on the release of teacher ratings for elementary and middle schools in New York. (“In Teacher Ratings, Good Test Scores Are Sometimes Not Good Enough,” February 25, 2012). They note that the ratings are “based on how much [teachers] help their students perform on standardized tests.”  They indicate, “The ratings have high margins of error, are now nearly two years out of date and are based on tests that the state has now acknowledged became too predictable and easy to pass over time.”

Yet, the results are still reported in precise terms and here is the effect as outlined in the article:

Though parents can get a peek inside school buildings for the first time to see differences among teachers, it does not help if the underlying information is incorrect, Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of P.S. 321, said.

“What people don’t understand is that they are just not accurate,” she said. “We are talking about minute differences in test scores that cause teachers to score in the lowest percentiles,” like a teacher whom she finds great and who scored in the sixth percentile because her students went to a 3.92 average test score from a 3.97, out of a possible 4.


If we continue to generalize, oversimplify, reduce and rely on false precision, we will invariably expend precious resources in time, energy and money with little to show for it.

How can we get back to being educators? Next time, the final installment in this series: Restoring Hope.

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2 responses to “Education for Democracy: Does One-Size-Fit-All?”

  1. Josh says:

    I’m not sure if you’ve seen this article in Orion, but it resonates with this series on education and democracy:

    I like Reece’s assignment for Freshman Composition and may try it myself. There is a time and place for students to learn how to function within a group, how to adjust performance to the expectations of individual teachers, how to sample and hone different approaches to learning. But a good teacher also knows how to speak to a particular student and to the unique cohort every class forms, and I wonder if an assignment like this might yield some key insights into how lockstep learning has failed students in the past and how to nurture their best work.

    I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about Dan Pink’s Ted Talk, “Drive,” in which he reviews the science behind what motivates us:

    I’m still mulling over how to incorporate autonomy and mastery into the classroom, and it’s pretty clear that grades aren’t the best rewards. I’ve always wondered why students would spend hours playing video games far beyond the point of pleasure, losing sleep, maybe missing meals, for nothing more than bragging rights in an utterly false reality. Addictive behavior surely plays a role, but even that seems triggered chiefly by autonomy and mastery. I think as liberal arts teachers we do a great job with purpose. I’m not sure we do as well at autonomy and mastery. Pink’s ideas really fly in the face of the traditional model of a single teacher as the authority on a particular subject; asking students to complete complex and abstract assignments for a grade (which students tend to think of in terms of a cash reward) fails to trigger what really motivates us. All of the students I’ve seen make big strides in writing have discovered an intrinsic drive to propel them through a robust revision process. This happens far more often in a creative writing class, where casting a spell on a reader is its own reward. It very rarely happens in Composition, the most democratic of classes, and I wonder if Reece’s approach might be one way to foster more of that independence and ownership.

  2. Don Huffman says:

    I really doubt whether there is a one size fits all solution to the problems of education in the U.S. However, if I had to look for the top ranked action that would help, it would be to focus greater attention on the personnel who are hired in any academic or administrative position. I’ve become convinced that the personal characterists and personal character of the candidates being considered for staffing of education positions is probably the prime factor in making improvements. That follows the old adage that that “people are more important than bricks and mortar.”
    That given, the personnel must be permitted to use imagination in making their academic products the best possible with the given resources.
    It’s not easy, but a good place to start.