Why one-size-fits-all could save public education

Why one-size-fits-all could save public education
Image by opensource.com
submit to reddit
(6 votes)

One-size-fits-all is vanilla ice cream.  It’s plain white athletic socks. It’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with a recorder.  One-size-fits-all is an assembly line and a Model-T Ford and a straight line of school children marching to their class.   It’s industrial.  It’s lock-step.  It’s mechanistic.

And it just might save public education.

Sometimes I use one-size-fits-all synonymously with standardization, when, in fact, they are entirely different. One-size-fits-all is boring and industrial, but it only becomes standardized when it cannot be modified.  Permit a little freedom to one-size-fits-all and it becomes unique.  It becomes the palate for creativity.

See, I hate vanilla ice cream only when I’m not allowed to add peanut butter and chocolate chips and crushed-up pretzels.  I hate tube socks until the day when my wife says, “Let’s tie-dye these bad boys.” I imagine a Model-T might have felt unique if my ancestors had discovered flame jobs and hydraulics.

I understand the desire to burn down the factory altogether, but I’m not sure it’s the answer.  If it’s an absolute rejection of all things industrial, it quickly becomes a new dogma.  We fall into the same mentality that led people to bulldoze the one-room school house and cover a democratic institution with thick industrial concrete.

What if we began with common standards?  Truly common.  Not imposed-by-politician standards.  But something loose.  Something vague enough that we could allow students and teachers and parents to customize and personalize the learning.   What if we asked “what do all children need” and begin with that as the basis of education?  Could we at least agree that kids need creativity, autonomy, unconditional love and critical thinking? Could those be our common core standards?

Could we agree on certain content and strategies as well?  Could we hold a common standard that students need to know how numbers work?  Could we share a sense that all students need some level of phonemic awareness along with a holistic view of language?  Could we decide on some larger guiding principals and build bridges rather than barbed-wire fences?

I want change.  I want reform.  But if it’s simply a new system based upon new ideas built with the intention of reaching a new generation, then the novelty will wear off.  But if we start with common, if we begin with a true, inclusive sense of one-size-fits-all, we can let grow organically.  We can repurpose what’s already there.  We can recover the beauty that we’ve already lost.

We can give students the freedom to tie-dye tube socks and crush up pretzels.

Ultimately, that’s the cheapest and the most costly reform: freedom to learn.

This article originally went live on Cooperative Catalyst and was posted with the author's permission.

Creative Commons License


chrisod's picture
Open Enthusiast

There are only three things that every kid needs, the "vanilla" so to speak. They need to read well, write well, and handle math up through about Algebra I and Geometry. After that, everything else is an elective, IMHO. And those electives can be art, music, or advanced physics. Once you have the core mastered, you can learn, or even teach yourself, anything else you want to learn.

lukeburns's picture

There is another and that is the skill to learn well -- to investigate using the internet, books, and people, and convert that to further exploration or directly to knowledge.

This needs to be an explicit goal of the education system. Give our youth the freedom to grow experience teaching themselves. Then they'll be set to follow their curiosity for life. We need to be deliberate about this.


Syed Wasim Ali's picture

Learning begins at home. Parents are the first teachers in the child's life. If the foundation is strong, the tallest building can withstand the difficult surroundings. I see children of poor immigrant families with language barriers thriving in the same schools where the comfortable American families are struggling. Not all is lost in the eduction that we get in the schools today, not to say that we shouldn't do forward thinking on that front as well. Just looking around my neighborhood, I see how the parenting affects the children's grades and interest in activities. Have good parenting and the child can overcome the shortcomings at school. If your own house is not in order, the best teachers and schools cannot help the child. It all starts at home. America needs a lesson in parenting.

Nolan's picture

A principle based approach is appealing, but the difficulty comes in determining what the principles should be. (Difficulties are things to overcome, not reasons to not try). My concern with education is that is focuses on facts, figures, and memorization. I wonder how much difference education would be if moral values (expectations) and work ethic (taking challenges on to completion) would make. It is my fear that laziness and moral decline (entitlement) may be the largest challenges our children will face. Other challenges include an increasing sense of 'truth as relative rather than absolute'. I am not suggesting close mindedness, rather a moral skeleton for life to flesh out.

Bob's picture

I agree on the reading, writing, & arithmetic. That is the core.

Every time we compromise, and allow the scholastic organization to scale larger, we give up accountability. As a parent, I am accountable to society at large (yes, you can make the argument that that is not accountability), and in turn I demand accountability for the education of my children.

    We have home schooled - my wife and I have demanded the accountability of each other in what we are teaching our children (and this is the best I have ever had that accountability and feedback!)
      We have had our kids in private school - not as good on the accountability front (300_ kids), but livable
        Public School - 1500 kids - accountability is getting painful. Much harder to find who is responsible/decision maker. They are happy with the 80% success. I'm very unhappy if my kid is one of the 20%. And there is not much I can do about it.

        Now, as far as ripping down the factories, yes I think that is extreme. At the same time, the system is set up to support the administrators/educators. People naturally build kingdoms, and that has been done in education all over the place.

        Our first hundred years, we were able to educate our populace much better than we have been in recent history. I think it is time to look back and rediscover what did work. What we are doing now, is by and large not working.

nydiarra's picture
Community Member

One size-fits-all approach is appealing as an education system. It is easier to implement it when the society in general is less divided on the vision it has for future generations and on moral values.
Now, how to make it happen in a society where there is an ever increasing divide between people on what are basic values and what are not? At least the size of what can be considered as basic values is shrinking as social groups are ideologically opposed as they are radicalized.
Could we at least agree that kids need creativity, autonomy, unconditional love and critical thinking?
Yes, certainly. However the biggest challenge seems to be somewhere else. The content and the methods to teach children those skills is where all the controversies start. Maybe a system based on compromise will be more efficacious than a clutter of different and opposing systems and even far better than a minimalistic consensus.