“When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality, choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” ~Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich’s quotation eloquently captures the true power educators have—the power not to teach reading, writing, or arithmetic, but to humanize or dehumanize the students under our care.
As educational leaders, we are charged with “seeing” our students, that is, working intentionally to create contexts for learning that honor our students’ sense of self. Of course, this is easier said than done, as the current educational landscape has been constructed in such a way that—whether consciously or not—actively evaporates that very sense of selfhood.
Content standards, classroom norms, grade level placement, and a host of other system-wide institutions all work to coordinate a uniform educational product—school-aged clones who learn the same material, at the same rate, while behaving the same way. Deviation from the norm is viewed, at best, as a deficit to be treated and, at worst, a threat to the very enterprise of education.
So what’s the end goal for all of this standardization? Well, it’s probably less “to create student clones” and more “to optimize complicated processes.” Truth is, there’s a lot of value to standardization. State standards provide a way to evaluate school systems and compare students (and educators) within and across districts. Teachers can save boatloads of time by recycling old lesson plans. We even see standardization in the buildings themselves; it’s far cheaper for school architects to reuse old plans than to design new ones (most large districts have a handful of school buildings with identical layouts).
Of course, a lot of harm can come from standardization, too. Students can be reduced to a single performance band on a year-end test. Curriculum can lose its relevancy, turning stale after a decade of photocopying. Kids can spend 13 years of their lives confined in drab buildings devoid of soul.
Some educators will agree that standardization should never come at the expense of our students’ autonomy. But what if it’s not even a good goal to begin with? It’s foolish to think that we can give the same input to more than one human being and expect the same output. It’s even foolish to expect it from one human being! So why do we as educators—the very people who should know this more than anyone—keep trying?
It is far past time to abandon our love affair with some standardized ideal that doesn’t (and won’t ever) exist in reality. We need to create educational environments that “see” and “hear” all students, communities that leave space for all to participate.
This makes the business of education much harder, but so much more worth it.