Standardization opposes liberty in education

Published 11:57 am Saturday, August 16, 2014

by Clay Scott

The Virginia Standards of Learning are nearly 20 years old now, which means that we have had a number of graduating classes that have gone from kindergarten through 12th grade using a uniform statewide curriculum. This experiment with accountability has added positions to the already cluttered bureaucracy and added countless hours of additional work to administrators’ duties. Unfortunately, these only represent the beginning of the cost of standardization in education.

Make no mistake; standardization is the enemy to liberty in education. Any move toward standardization is a move to restrict the ability of individual administrators, teachers and parents to make key decisions regarding the education of a given child. Here, however, I seek to make a different case. Even if freedom is not valued, standardization is still the enemy to learning.

A list of all material taught in a particular school, class, etc., is called the curriculum. It is the foundation of everything else that happens in the building. With the adoption of the standards of learning this work was largely removed from the school and even the district level. The state dictates what must be taught, then judges the quality of the schools based on students’ performance on tests covering that material. The tests give the regulations teeth. So, the state-mandated curriculum is the base of the curriculum. If there is space, school or district personnel may choose to fill it in with some other material. This represents the school’s official curriculum.

What we’ve learned from the age of accountability is that tested material gets covered in depth. Other material is often relegated to the sidelines. It is not unusual for the weeks leading up to testing dates to be filled exclusively with test preparation. Subjects not tested simply are not taught during that time period. Yes, you read that correctly. It has become a common and accepted practice to simply not have science class, for example, for an entire month because science is not tested in that grade. In similar fashion, I’ve heard numerous complaints over the years from middle school teachers about the poor understanding of grammar of incoming students. Grammar is in the curriculum, but the kids don’t know it because it isn’t tested until middle school. This over-emphasis on tested material to the exclusion of other, often times more valuable, content represents what is known as the “hidden curriculum.” Also included in the hidden curriculum are the values, behaviors, language and other material not specified but still modeled and taught, largely though the culture of the school.

The final type of curriculum is the area that standardization can do the greatest damage. It is known as the null curriculum. When you decide to include something in the curriculum, you are excluding something else. Think of it as the opportunity cost of including a particular point of content. The null curriculum comprises everything not included in the curriculum or the hidden curriculum. Every book not read, every equation not calculated, every bird not classified, every historical figure not discussed — these are the null curriculum. Perfect standardization means that, not only is the curriculum the same for all students, the null curriculum is also the same.

If we look at learning from a statewide perspective, the base plus all differences could represent all the learning that took place in that year. If we want the combined knowledge of Virginia’s students to be the greatest possible, the key is in minimizing the null curriculum. This is the exact opposite of what the practice of standardization dictates.

Standardization maximizes the null curriculum when viewed state-wide. This is the cost that is seldom discussed and can never be quantified. The total learning of Virginia’s youngest adults is less today because, nearly two decades ago, we enacted policies to maximize the null curriculum. How much knowledge has been lost? We’ll never know. What is certain is that the Virginia Department of Education should be encouraging knowledge within our society not depressing it. But should you expect any less from a Central Authority?

CLAY SCOTT is a former teacher from Southampton Academy and Franklin High School, and he was also an administrator at SA. He is the co-founder of Telios Academy and doctoral candidate at The George Washington University. He can be reached at