Against Standardization: Moving Beyond Taylor

I have a deep, viscerally negative response to standardization. It’s hard for me to articulate.  It’s sometimes hard to understand.  And honestly, I wish this wasn’t the case.  It certainly would make things easier.

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled into a discussion about the Common Core with an educator I have much respect for.  She was appalled that anyone who cared about learning couldn’t support the Common Core. I felt bad.  I wanted to support it. I wished I did.  But that wouldn’t have been honest. And I couldn’t get to the bottom of my argument, there wasn’t enough time.

I wasn’t sure how to articulate it.

So I want to try to do that here- as simply and directly as I can.

Any form of standardization rests on hidden assumptions about what it means to be human. And the assumptions that standardization rests upon are reductionist, behaviorist, and economically motivated.

In their thought provoking book, Dancing at the Edge, Maureen O’Hara and Graham Leciester write:

Fundamentally what matters is the view we hold of the person:  who we are and what we are capable of becoming.

Over a hundred years ago Frederick W. Taylor’s scientific management inspired both Henry Ford and Vladimir Lenin with the idea that breaking every job action into small simple steps that can be measured and analyzed would lead to improved efficiency. So it proved in practice- and this style is now all-pervasive in our modern world, including in education.

It has brought huge improvements in efficiency, productivity and the effective management of ever more complex processes.  But what is less obvious is the particular view of personhood that Taylor’s theory and its 21st-century descendants have enshrined as the cultural norm.  This is the behaviorist view, inherited from the Enlightenment:  that human beings are in essence no more than autonomous agents motivated to act in predictable ways by prompts which provoke responses aimed at predetermined outcomes. ..This logic has driven industrial age thinking since the 18th century and accepts implicitly a simple and direct relationship between causes and effects even in the complex lives of persons, groups and communities.  Administer the right prompt and you will get the desired response.

Human beings can thus be managed through the careful application of efficient design coupled with appropriate rewards and punishments.  The role of leadership and management is to design efficient systems, monitor outcomes and reward success.  In essence this view suggests that what we need are smart systems to compensate for dumb humans.  It is not a mindset likely to foster the development of persons of tomorrow.” (pgs. 50-51. Emphasis added)


Clearly the whole corporate education reform movement is built on this model.  And clearly its reliance on high stakes testing is an outcome of Taylor’s approach to reward and punishment for the sake of efficiency. Less clear, though, is that, regardless of the quality of any particular standard, any attempt to “scale up” standards across the board is really an attempt to control and manipulate human behavior in a way that is deeply reliant on Taylor’s scientific management.  And, though such an approach may have a context where it is beneficial, it is also a grossly reductionist view of what it means to be human.  And such a view misapplied to the complexity of being human, and the complexity of being human in the context of relationships and a culture, is bound to be harmful.

In referencing research done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, O’Hare and Leicester show how the OECD tried to determine competencies needed “for a successful life and a well functioning society in the 21st-century.”  In doing so, the OECD ran into a problem.  “They  were looking through cultural lenses that attempted to identify specific, isolated competencies…They were also trying to locate competencies from individual, written assessments of performance in each area, comparable across nations and across cultures.  In other words, they were trying to assess complex holistic phenomena using reductionist, atomistic and statistical reasoning.”

In other words, they made the mistake of reducing “competencies” to standards that could be assessed across the board.  Sound familiar?

They continue, “That approach is doomed to failure.  Effective action in a complex and pluralistic world is always culturally and context-specific. No 21st -century competence can stand alone.  They are all aspects of a single, whole and unique person and are in constant flux and interplay.

The OECD mournfully concluded that the 21st-century competencies cannot be delivered through 20th-century structures of measurement, standardization and accountability.  That has not stopped people trying to do so- with inevitably disappointing results.” (pg. 58. Emphasis added)

We need to understand that measurement, standardization and accountability, especially as applied to the complexities of living humans and living human systems, are relics of the past that now function as obstacles to the development of the capabilities our students will need for the future.





6 responses to “Against Standardization: Moving Beyond Taylor

  1. Standardization of children implies that they will all come out at the end of the education pipeline thinking and acting the same. And all values will be the same.

    However, if education is about discovering individuality through critical thinking, problem solving and debate—where it is agreed that there are many solutions and answers to an issue and/or problem—then young adults leaving public education at age 17/18 will be individuals who do not think the same as everyone else but are willing and capable of questioning the logic and/or reality of anything political or religious.

    Standardization, by definition, is the opposite of individuality and free thinking. Standardization is what the extremes on either end of the political/religious spectrum demand so no one disagrees with their often radical and dangerous agendas.

  2. Yes Bill… Post makes me think of Danielle Pink’s Drive. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for this. I share your natural distaste for standardization. Every time someone observes, “Well, of course, we need some sort of national standards,” I want to ask “Really? Why?”

    My line on standards has been that standards are a way to make other people act as if they share the same values (i.e. yours). And trying force other people to follow your conscience instead of their own is, for me, a profoundly unethical act.

    Human beings make choices based on where they stand– the complicated intersection of experience, knowledge, place, time, bonds. To try to make a decision as if one were standing someplace else entirely seems to me to be a terrible way to live one’s life.

  4. Standardization is but educational laziness….the inability on the part of the educational system to look (and see) sideways….assembly line methods on how to teach….jejejeje!!….forgot….an unabashed and shameless plot to profit fm our children’s need to learn….

  5. Pingback: Against Standardization in Schools: The Demeaning of Humanity -

  6. Pingback: Front-Loading Change: Why Scott Walker is so Wrong (or Maybe Right?) -

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