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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  1. Renee / TeachMoore
    July 5, 2009

    Thank you so much for this post. Your parsing of the imbalance (currently) between demands on teachers for differentiation and standardization is especially thoughtful and useful. Many of us truly find ourselves between this rock and hard place. Masterful teachers know who to marry the two; it’s those outside our classrooms or less well-prepared teachers who seem to fall more into the dichotomous pit.

  2. heather
    July 5, 2009

    Thanks for the comment. It’s always great to hear from you. I agree that it’s those who know the profession the least that seem more susceptible to the difference. It’s either those who think they know, or new teachers who are just struggling to keep their heads above water and are listening to every directive. Actually, I take that back, there are veteran teachers who also fall into the pit. They are the ones who believe, for instance, that differentiation is a lot of hoop-la or that teaching standards is a flash in the pan. Again, it is the extreme ends of the spectrum that have it wrong; a marriage, as you say, is always best to address the needs of most students. Thanks again for checking in.
    aka Tweenteacher

  3. Fran Bullington
    July 11, 2009

    You hit the nail on the head! Thank you for your insightful post.

    Just to let you know, I also wrote a post comparing Walmart to public education. I included it in my meme post – as well as a suggestion to the authors of 5 great blogs in my reader to consider taking part in the meme.

  4. MizLit
    July 12, 2009

    Love the analogy!

    1. It would be great if providing a learning environment for all students was as easy as making a coffee drink.

    2. The same parents who are frustrated and angry that every moment of their child’s life is not tailored to the child or they don’t get enough individual teacher time are the same parents who don’t bat an eye when district administration raise the number of students in our classrooms or do away with class size limits.

  5. tweenteacher
    July 12, 2009

    It’s so true. Why is education the first to go when looking at budget cuts? And why don’t people understand what it takes to teach – not just babysit? It’s amazing that many parents forget that as hard as it is to have, entertain, and give attention to one child or one child and a sibling, they still expect teachers to do that with upwards of 30-45 students per class. I am a trained in teaching, not mere crowd control. Thanks for the comment, and I see that you’re now following me on Twitter. Cool!
    aka Tweenteacher

  6. MizLit
    July 12, 2009

    I love following educators on Twitter. When else will we have these conversations about education? During the day, we’re all too busy teaching! 🙂

    Mainstream American culture has to think that being a teacher is not a challenge or difficult job, otherwise it flies in the face of the current definition of “being successful”. People who are sold on the attitude that one’s income defines who they are and their own value in the world cannot believe that anyone with any “real” skills would choose to teach.

    One of the reasons I like teaching in an ethnically and/or economically diverse classroom is that there are still kids who are being raised in families who have not given over to that belief — either because of experience or heritage.

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