Heather Wolpert-Gawron

I’ll Take that Education to Go: Individualization vs. Standardization

By on January 21, 2010

We live in a world of double-decaf-non-fat-lattes-with-room. We live in a world that is slowly beginning to customize everything from our coffee orders to our spa treatments. But it won’t just stop with luxury items.

Some teachers complain about the effort that differentiation entails, that need to offer rigorous curriculum for a wide range of learners. But just you wait: individualization is coming just around the corner, where students will be able to order up their own education, their own schedule of classes to go. And those schedules won’t be limited to what’s only offered on their school site.

One student’s schedule could look like this:

Period 1 – Offline Chemistry

Period 2 – Online French (in computer lab)

Period 3 – Offline PE

Period 4 – Offline – Geometry

Period 5 – Lunch

Period 6 – Online World History (computer lab)

Period 7 – Online World Lit. (computer lab)

Period 8 – Offline Choir

And you could see in a single computer lab, students taking other online classes simultaneously; the school site, therefore, merely providing the equipment and supervision so there’s equity in online class opportunity.

Education is about to take a step through a mirror, and it’s a remarkable world we are entering into. But where do schools fit in to this wonderland?

I was in a meeting the other day regarding setting up a distance learning sub-district within our own. You know, it’s the conversation that’s happening at many tables these days. What does it take to offer the alternative education in a district? Who teaches the classes? How is the program funded? How do we still get ADA? What about those kids without computers or online access at home?

I would like to see my district become a hub, offering distance learning opportunities to students both inside and outside our district. We could earn more ADA and establish ourselves and our staff as 21st Century educators. But the suggestion that someone proposed at the table did not reflect that vision and, frankly, seems far easier to make a quicker reality:

“We can have have our district sign up to join an online district’s network, open up a computer lab for a period a day, and a teacher can just facilitate the lab which can then serve multiple students and their individual online classes.”

So in other words, we would be providing an equitable way for students to have this hyper-individualized education by giving them access to our computer lab during the week. Period 2, let’s say, would be “online learning class,” where 36 kids would sit down during their day and take 36 different classes. Where some other district would receive additional funds from our district to be a part of their network. And where our teacher would be out of the curriculum picture, only used as a study hall supervisor of sorts.

Now, schools have been doing study hall for years in education as an elective alternative. But if this kind of thing becomes more common (and I’m not saying I’m against the opportunity that this allows students to have) where does the offline teacher fit into all this?

It could create a highly specialized minority within our profession of those who deliver material and those who merely supervise its delivery. So now it becomes a real Race to the Top: with those districts vying for the spots as “curriculum online schools” while the rest become dedicated “computer lab” sites. Science-fiction? Maybe. But it’s hard not to go there, and it’s important to try to predict trends in an attempt to jump hurdles before we encounter them.

Because I don’t believe we can stop going down this road. After all, society is traveling it with gusto, and as always, education seems a beat behind. Nevertheless, however, we are going down that road after them. I think I worry more for the teacher who is not reading the writing on the wall, who is not redefining himself or herself in this upcoming online era.

I also worry on a greater scale because it seems we are headed down a two-lane highway that is about to split: one leading to hyper-individualization and the other to standardization. And ne’er again shall the twain meet. For to train kids all differently and then try to assess them the same will create a bottle-neck of sorts. A pile-up on the educational highway.

I think we as a society are far more aware of why we differentiate or even individualize then why we have standardized tests. And to tease apart this bottle neck before it happens, I think we have to get focused about our true reasons for continuing to use these antiquated standardized assessments and tackle what’s really at the heart of their use.

Is it that they reflect the standards, the minimum, that our kids have to know? If so, why do testing companies dump questions that 90% of the students get right? Why are questions embedded with tricky wording or biased regional jargon? And don’t these tests assess the skills we know the students really need: critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication, etc…Or is it that we just have yet to devise a cheap test for the masses that can actually be scored in a timely fashion? Sure bubble tests address the need for an ease in scoring, but they don’t differentiate the content of the assessment, reflecting the differentiation that should be going on in the classrooms.

We have to hone in on why we use these standardized bubble tests because we have already stepped through the mirror and student choice, in an uber-way, is upon us. We have to let the dog have its tail back, and design the assessments for the education we want to provide, not the other way around.

And I cannot deny individualization’s pull. After all, I used to be a black coffee gal. Now, if given the choice, I’ll take a grande-non-fat-chai-latte anytime.

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