Challenging work on the dangers of American-style standardised education

ONE SIZE FITS FEW: THE FOLLY OF EDUCATIONAL STANDARDS by Susan Ohanian. Pub: Heinemman, Portsmouth, NH, USA, 1999. Pp.: 154. Pbk.: US$16.
Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Progler

Ramadan 08, 1420 1999-12-16

Book Review

by Yusuf Progler (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 20, Ramadan, 1420)

Despite the proclamations of a post-modern era, of an age driven by information, many of the trappings of modernity drive western civilization. Mechanization, reductionism, and rationality are pervasive in most of the supposedly newly-emerging realities in western science, technology, economies and politics. The norms set in place by the industrial revolution, despite being a little rusty, still hold sway over many corners of the west, not to mention in its quasi-colonial fields of influence. One area that is stubbornly wedded to modernity is education.

It is still generally assumed in the west, and anywhere else where western schooling has taken root, that schools are akin to factories, where students are processed to fit various needs of society. Entering as so much raw material, children exit the other end of an elaborate mechanism lasting 12 years or more as manufactured products, ready to take their place in the larger machine of society. There are certainly exceptions to this model of education, but they only prove the rule. The assumptions of industrialization and modernity are still alive and well in the way our children are educated in western systems, and the discourse of business and manufacturing is pervasive.

One assumption from mechanization found increasingly in educational discourse is that education can be standardized. A quick search of books in print, with the keywords “education” and “standards,” will yield at least 300 titles, while searching for “standards” alone brings up nearly 3,000 titles. The uniformity of the list is astonishing. With few exceptions, this plethora of recent books on ‘standards’ is about celebrating and implementing them. There are books by politicians, corporate executives and education technocrats, all endlessly extolling the virtues of standardized testing, standardized curricula, standardized methods and standardized administration.

However, if one listens carefully to the chorus of support, a few dissenting voices do emerge. Educational Freedom for a Democratic Society by Ron Miller (1994) sounded the alarm against the rush to standardize. Another more recent title, The Schools our Children Deserve, by Alfie Kohn (1999), is also strongly critical of standardized education. Although their voices are nearly drowned by the din of the pro-standards tomes, their popularity with readers suggests that dissenting voices are gaining an ear. One interesting similarity, incidentally, is that the dissenting books are written by teachers, people who have dedicated much of their lives to working in classrooms with children and teenagers.

Susan Ohanian, an experienced teacher of English and Language Arts in rural and urban schools from New York to California, weighs into the fray with her recent work, One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards. The book is a compilation of essays about her trials and tribulations among the “Standardistos,” the lock-stepping cadres who are behind the current standards movement in the US. She pulls no punches in her hard-hitting, irreverent and humorous denunciation of what she sees as the wrong-headedness of the rush to standardization in education.

Contrary to what is implied by the title, Ohanian does not impose a class analysis onto the standards movement. The “few” are not an elite segment of society whose norms are foisted off onto the masses. Rather, she makes a case that the standards are so detached from the lives of most students that, in their rush to colonize every aspect of educational experience, the standards are in fact irrelevant and do not apply to anyone at all, regardless of race, class, gender or anything else.

She does attempt to describe who is behind the standards movement, but this is relatively short work since any observers of American education know that a coalition of business and political interests is driving the rush to standardize. Corporations want schools to take over job-training, but with little economic support and with no attention to the broader role that schools can play in society. Ohanian’s “Standardistos” include in their ranks people like US president Bill Clinton and IBM chief executive officer Louis Gerstner.

Once she has established the “who”, Ohanian turns her attention to the “what” of standards: their content and substance. Drawing on her own experience, this leads her to several case-studies of her own students, whom she sees as “nonstandard kids,” and reflects on what happens to those who are not standardizable. She then moves into a discussion of the way standards are intertwined with poverty and downward mobility, suggesting that rigid educational standards provide the poor with a means to recognize their own ‘inferiority’, and to quantify and justify inequalities that are not the result of education but of corporate greed.

Additional chapters look at the male-oriented metaphors in the discourse of education, especially those emanating from sports, warfare and technological medicine. She also includes case-studies of standardized folly in New York and California, two of the leading states in the American rush to standardization. Ohanian concludes with the humble assertion that she is not arrogant enough to say she has the solution to all the problems she describes, but does suggest that one positive step would be to put more trust in students and teachers, and less in executives and politicians who have never been in a classroom since their schooldays.

Although she seems to keep up with most of the latest standards jargon and debates, Ohanian does miss a few crucial points. While she is endlessly critical of the “core knowledge” standards movement, she is less outspoken about, or perhaps less aware of, a parallel debate among the Standardistos and some of their less radical detractors. The “core knowledge” standards movement, headed by E.D. Hirsch, wants all American students to learn the same core set of facts. In Cultural Literacy (1983), Hirsch argued for a uniform set of facts that all Americans should know, the possession of which will help build a civilized and democratic society. Ohanian rails against Hirsch’s hubris, yet she misses some of the more subtle debates on standards.

For example, the “performance standards” movement is less concerned about what students learn, and more fixated on how they learn. Howard Gardner, whose “theory of multiple intelligences” is often seen as a liberating antithesis to the core-knowledge movement, is a major proponent of the liberal-dominated process and performance-standards movement. But in many ways the liberal discourse is more insidious and seductive than the conservative standards Ohanian chastises, and no less damaging, with its mind-body split and fragmented interminability. Ohanian misses this distinction, and future volumes ought to work through the so-called liberal discourse on standards.

In any case, given the paltry number of dissenting works against the rush to standardization in education, One Size Fits Few is a challenging work that ought to be read by anyone submitting their children to an American style education.

[Dr Yusuf Progler is Assistant Professor of Education, Brooklyn College, City University of New York. USA.]

Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1999

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