Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Standards Conversation #1: Should Education Take a Tip from Starbucks?

By on July 5, 2009

Starbucks is the ultimate in differentiation.  In fact, it’s built an empire on providing individualized, one-on-one product to any member of its clientele, no questions asked.  Cute, young baristas (some with piercings, some without) hand out drinks with a smile, acting as if our order were the most important. 

I think the public believes that education should also be like that.  Every person in the classroom should be able to order his or her own specialized education.  And it should come delivered with a smile and the certainty that your journey is more important than anyone else’s.

Today’s educational crossroads is both blessed and cursed to share the road with that of Generation S (otherwise known as the Starbucks generation).  As teachers, we have grown tremendously by being reminded that each student is an individual with different needs and different skills.  Howard Gardner explored multiple intelligences with just such a realization in mind.  coffee

But we in education are also pulled in the direction of standards and standardization, a movement that, while it is meant to ensure schools performing at least at the minimum, really maintains that minimum for all.  

In other words, in the world of Starbucks, we are told that we need to cater to any student who walks into our room, regardless of their order, be it a Tall Chai Latte, a Grande Non-fat Hot Chocolate, a Blended Frap with Caramel, or a Venti Pumpkin Latte with Double Whip.  But the standards, frankly, insist that we serve up the same tall coffee with half-and-half to each student.

I’m not against the standards, mind you.  In theory, I believe that schools do need that list of topics and skills that must be taught to every student regardless of county, economics, race, or religion.  But we must have the flexibility to serve a more varied menu of lessons and skills.

We need to teach and assess 21st Century skills.  We need to teach and assess critical-thinking.  We need to teach and assess appreciation of our past, predicting our future, and improving our present.  We need to teach and assess our students’ awareness of the world around them, and their ability to collaborate and function in that world.  

There must be a balance.  Not every beat of the day can or should be differentiated.  It’s OK to have the same drink as your neighbor.  It builds common memory, a universal language, and empathy.  But it’s also vital to individualize for our students and for schools to be appreciated for their ability to differentiate.  

It’s tough to blame teachers for not differentiating when so many are being lambasted for not achieving standards. These are two such incredibly different masters.  

Many people use the words standards and differentiation like they are the answer to education’s woes.  But in fact, they must be married together to really help achievement.  And I’m not so sure that National Standards addresses this discrepancy (post to come).

Parents yell that teachers don’t know their kids, but they are off in their finger pointing.  It is the tests that don’t care about their students, not the teachers.  And these tests drive instruction, even more so if merit pay becomes tied to them.  

On the other hand, schools yell that teachers don’t achieve the standards, didn’t get to this unit or that, yet demand to see evidence of differentiation as well.

The message is not clear from above.  It is no wonder that the message is equally muddy in the classrooms, and that there are coffee grounds in the cup.

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