Standardized Education Caused the Learning Pandemic

This op-ed was originally published in Deseret News on March13, 2023.

There is a pandemic spreading across our nation. It was exposed in March 2020 with school closures, but has been building since the late 1800s. I’m talking about the lack of great learning

No one sang the praises of school test scores before the COVID-19 school closures. I don’t like bringing up school test scores, but it seems like the only metric that matters to legislators, experts and some school choice advocates. School test scores are a poor measure of a quality education. 

Consider a better measure. We are seeing a decline in the number of great artists, philosophers, and scientists with an accelerating decrease since the late 1800s. Why?

During this time, Horace Mann wanted to standardize education. He created “common schools” to teach the masses. Kerry McDonald points out that just two years before the establishment of the common school in Massachusetts the adult literacy rate was 97% , but in 2003 it was just 90%. 

Are people dumber today than they were one hundred years ago? No.

But standardized schooling became commonplace. Some schools are removing honors classes to promote equity, causing pushback from parents and students. Removing advanced classes inhibits greatness, but promotes standardization.

Ask parents what they should do for their 5-year-old’s education, and they will tell you the child should be enrolled in kindergarten. It is the standard answer. 

Ask high school seniors how they feel about school. Most will say, “Fine.” It is another standard answer, but fine is not great. “Standard” is not great.

The reality is people are far from standardized. Forcing students into a box can be accomplished, but it comes at great cost. Robert Frost’s road less traveled is looked down upon today in the education world.

There is hope. An individualized education promotes greatness.

An individualized education can come in many forms. 

Michael B. Horn, in his book “From Reopen to Reinvent: Recreating School for Every Child,” reveals a path public schools can take to individualize education. While it is legally possible for a public school to do this, public school culture is the larger hurdle to overcome. Many schools will be unwilling to take that step.

A new education market could offer even brighter hope. Adam Peshek identifies that successful education choice programs have few restrictions on students and teachers. Arizona is experiencing an explosion of innovation after passing their education spending accounts bill. Utah followed suit with their own education spending accounts program. 

There are perceived risks because not many people are taking them, but the outcomes are much greater.

We can guide children into becoming great artists, philosophers and scientists again. But standardized education won’t get us there. We need the individualized education that came before standardized common schools.