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One Size Fits Few
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An Interview with Susan Ohanian
Published in the April 1999 issue of Curriculum Administrator
By Gary S. Stager

Susan Ohanian, a long-time teacher, is now a freelance writer and editor. Her books include, the award-winning "Garbage-Pizza Patchwork Quilts and Math Magic," "Who’s in Charge? A Teacher Speaks Her Mind," "Math: A Way of Knowing" and "Ask Ms. Class." Curriculum Administrator Contributing Editor, Gary Stager recently chatted with Susan about her provocative and timely new book, "One Size Fits Few – The Folly of Educational Standards." Susan Ohanian lives in Vermont with a husband and three strongly opinionated cats.

How can anyone be against educational standards?
These days it is not fashionable to admit that some students can learn trigonometric function and some can't. But knowledge is never pure, never unrelated to the knowledge seeker. Rather than arguing about whom will and who won't take calculus and read Hamlet, I'd like people to consider the terrible cost that comes from telling kids if they don't go to college they are worthless.

Standards makers commit a crime in offering a curriculum without regard to the students who are supposed to learn it. Standardistos who focus on the military-industrial-infotainment agenda care about how kids in Grosse Pointe measure up against kids in Larchmont and how both compare with the Japanese. I am worried about the kids in the South Bronx, in Chicago, in Los Angeles. The truth of the matter is that there is no better predictor of a child's success in school than the level of schooling attained by his parents. That counts more than who his teacher is.

Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new tests to prove new standards, why don't we buy library books for the ghetto schools whose need is so great?

I admit that as a teacher of more than 20 years experience I resent the implication that my colleagues and I didn't have standards until political functionaries put their stamp of approval on a discrete list of information. Piling the required standards higher and higher runs contrary to what thoughtful educators advise--digging deeper for real understanding. If people are worried about standards, why don't they worry about the fact that the city of Berlin spends more on the arts than does the U.S. government? France devotes vast expenditures on the arts, not to improve their GNP but because the French believe the arts are critical to peoples' well being.

What does the title of your book refer to?
My book title refers to the fact that a "one size fits all" curriculum meets the needs of few students. This mantra of everybody needing to learn the same thing is particularly offensive in the face of the gross inequality of educational opportunity in this country. Fully one third of our students attend schools in inadequate buildings. The buildings are crumbling; they are understaffed, overcrowded, and don't contain even minimal supplies.

Who is the audience for your controversial new book?
This book is written for every teacher, administrator, and parent who knows that children are unique, that they do not come to us from some mold marked: first graders, second graders, third graders, and so on. This book is for people who think third graders are more uniquely wonderful in their variety than they are same in their uniformity.

In "One Size Fits Few," you demonize the Standardistos. What is a Standardistos?
Standardistos are a band of academic pillagers roaming the land, burning their particular skill brand onto children's diversity. They look neither to the left nor the right, talking with neither teachers nor principals nor students. They keep their eye only on the government pot of government Goals 2000 gold. Standardistos’ mission is to keep the populace alarmed with tales of teacher malfeasance and student ignorance. Standardistos promise that if every kid takes algebra he'll get a good high tech job. They use such promises of "21st Century skills" to divert the public from thinking about the real issues of equity and justice. At best, Standardistos litter the land with documents that are irrelevant to the lives of children. At worst, they offer obscenity, poisoning public perception of what schools need to do.

Rush Limbaugh is a typical Standardisto, telling his radio audience that "Diversity has nothing to do with the greatness of America." For Standardistos, "diverse standards" are an oxymoron. For me, standard standards are both an insult and an impossibility.

Lou Gerstner, IBM's 91.5 million a year CEO, is a Standardisto. He advocates teachers don the pinstriped, avaricious attitude of Wall Street, not the conscience or social activism of a Dorothy Day, a Mother Jones, a Ralph Nader.

President Clinton is a Standardisto, insisting that what the children removed from the welfare safety net need is a national test.

Standardistos keep the populace alarmed. They rush to get every kid into algebra class in the name of skills needed for 21st century employment. The algebra hobgoblin keeps the public from thinking about the fact that one- fourth of our children live in poverty, lacking the minimum standards of food, shelter, and health care.

Isn’t this an elitist view? Shouldn’t we do everything possible to ensure that all kids can succeed in subjects like algebra?
If teachers can encourage more kids to take algebra, then God bless all of them, the kids and the kids. But it is dangerous and dishonest to posit algebra--or any other subject--as the key to economic success in the twenty-first century. Algebra has become the snake oil nostrum of the 90ies. The fact that a large portion of today's workforce has not mastered quadratic equations is not the reason U.S. industries are downsizing, not the reason so many of the goods in our stores are made in China.

I want to speak out for the weird kids, the obnoxious kids, the kids who, for whatever reason, are not successful in school. I know that when these kids are offered alternatives they can make a turn-around. But whether or not they master algebra need not and should not be the proof they and their teachers have standards. We must offer alternate education and career choices for students who can't or won't master quadratic equations. Or read Hamlet. I also find it offensive that mathematics is being sold solely on the basis of utility, telling students to study math for a paycheck. Where's the talk of the beauty of mathematics, the idea of studying math for math's sake?

We need to remember that our high school graduates will become chefs, plumbers, child-care workers, as well as musicians and artists. We must consider the possibility that the ability to manipulate quadratic equations might not be a realistic goal for all. Certainly we must not dump kids who don't achieve this goal to the slagheap of high school dropouts.

Don't parents want clear standards?
Parents want their children to be in the care of competent teachers who are capable to nurturing those children, teachers who like their children whether or not they read on grade level.

I sat on the plane next to a heart-broken father whose son was denied a high school diploma because he did not meet the reading standards. Dad kept telling me what a great kid his deaf son is personable, reliable, hard working, honest, helpful. And now he can't get a job in the Federal Express warehouse because he doesn't have a high school diploma. Dad didn't expect his son to get a high-tech job; he wanted his kid to be able to work in a warehouse. Parents aren't prepared for their children to be served with an academic death penalty in the name of standards.

We might consider another point about parents' concerns. According to a national survey, in 1997, parents talked to their children 38.5 minutes a week. These same children watched TV 1,680 minutes a week.

Who profits from the standards crescendo?
Politicians profit because their touting of standards offers proof that they care about education. You don't have to know anything to be in favor of standards. Publishers profit because districts won't dare not to order the new books based on the new standards, books that promise to deliver the skills tested on the new tests. Test makers profit because they are grinding out the new tests that promise to show how students measure up.

Who loses? Clearly, students lose. If, by grade four, after four years of standards, e.g., intensive direct, explicit, and systematic instruction in phonics, a student does not exhibit mastery of fourth grade skills, then Standardistos say he must loop back through the same skills sequence. Standardistos offer no hint that if four years of this lock-step instruction doesn't work, then it might be a good idea to try something else. For the sake of the students, we must shout, "Stop the conveyor belt and let the kids get off!"

You spend a portion of your book discussing the educational climate in California What's going there?
In the name of standards, California standards are not allowed to be exposed to the ideas of educational leaders of national repute who don't kowtow to the idiosyncrasies of members of the State Board of Education. Anyone who wants to be approved to teach in-service courses in California must sign a curriculum loyalty oath devised by the Board of Education. This loyalty oath actually forbids showing teachers how to help children use context clues when reading unfamiliar material.

The rest of the country must care about California for two reasons: a) When California teachers and children bleed from the outrageous practices of the state board of education, the rest of the nation must care. When freedom of speech is curtailed in any state, the freedom of residents of every other state is endangered. b) California is a textbook adoption state, meaning that the Board of Education has the final say on which textbooks get on the approved-for- purchase list, so California Standardistos end up deciding what children in the other 49 states will read.

We also pay attention to California because it is such a large, noisy state. But the truth of the matter is that the Standardisto mindset that has infected California politicians sits comfortably in just about every state house in the land. This is the "Get ready" insanity, telling teachers they must "deliver" students to the next grade ready to continue with the next, sequenced set of expectations. Standardistos see knowledge as a continuous stream of information and students as an undifferentiated mass into which this information can be poured. We should be wary of pointing the finger at California. Standardistos in most of the 50 states are on skills amphetamines, engaged in what amounts to a standards arms race.

Isn’t the latest clamor for standards just an example of the educational pendulum swing?
Educational pendulum swings are exaggerated. The truth of the matter is that over time most teachers stick to pretty much of a middle-of-the-road approach. Although the whole language movement, for example, has been influential, no more than 10% of the teaching population were whole-hearted adherents. Most teachers offer an eclectic approach, taking bits and pieces from various philosophies and pedagogies.

The Standardisto drive is different in that it is using the imposition of tests to force teachers to radically change their curriculum. Tests will force teachers to treat children like sardines, shoving everybody into the same small academic tin.

Who would you identify as allies on the side of children in the skirmish against standards?
I am reluctant to put words into the mouths of other people.

  • Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier hands-on truth-in-action for a nonstandard academic rigor that arises from local needs.
  • Patrick Shannon offers historical perspective as well as contemporary insight on why the Standardistos are nuts.
  • Gerald Bracey writes persuasive, date-filled articles in Phi Delta Kappan, demonstrating that one need not assume school failure in order to propose school reform.
  • Howard Gardner speaks to the diversity of children's needs, the diversity of their talents, and why and how we must offer different curricula to different children.
  • Jonathan Kozol has provided searing indictment of the lack of equal educational opportunity in the schooling we offer children.
  • Nel Noddings reminds us of the humanistic needs missing from Standardisto documents.
  • Alfie Kohn is launching a nationwide movement, asking people to reject the knee-jerk rhetoric of Standardistos. He challenges us all to think about how our actions affect children.

If you are against standards, what would you propose as alternatives?
Plenty of experts have shown us that we need small schools, schools capable of responding to the individual needs of students. The most important alternative to standards is an unwillingness to discard any student because of his score on a standardized test.

I worked with students who were so obnoxious they were excluded from the regular high school campus, and I know that when a teacher meets with such students in a small enough setting and they have no place to hide, they can be brought into a constructive, productive course of study. It is a course of study that is built by teacher and student together. It is not shipped out from a state board of education.

What do you suggest policy makers think about when their inclination is to endorse standards.
Policy makers need to remember that we are a nation that celebrates diversity. Policy makers should also realize that there is no magic bullet, no quick fix. We need to take the long view, realizing that it is more important that kids read a lot, and read for pleasure, choosing books that interest them, than they read on grade level by third grade. If a child learns to read for pleasure by the time he is in third grade, reading on grade level will come. In contrast, the children are doomed to recurring instruction of crises, when there's never any time in the school day for them to know the joys of literature, it is doubtful they will ever be successful.

What should concerned parents do?
Parents need to support their children. They need to make sure their parents are in the care of teachers who like them. Parents need to talk to their children; they need to listen to them. Although there may be an occasional exception, I'd also advise that parents never allow a child to be held back in school. In 20 years of teaching, I never saw retention help a child.

Social promotion gets a bad press these days. Parents should realize that social promotion is at the core of the Japanese educational system. The children who start together stay together until they finish sixth grade. This social bond is deemed essential by the people who run the Japanese school system. Imagine that: a social bond being more important than discrete academic skills.

Increasingly, schools are becoming high-stress skill zones. Parents need to realize that their children who do badly in such skill zones might function well in a less stressful environment. They need to insist on less stress rather than pills. Parents would not accept the judgments of education terminologists who talk about raising the bar of education standards. Their children are to steeplechase horses or pole-vaulters. Parents need to realize that it doesn't matter whether the students in Alaska are ahead or behind those of Maine in apostrophe acquisition.

How can creative, thoughtful teachers survive the standards?
We must not think in terms of survival but in terms of triumph. We teachers need to tell our stories, and in telling our stories we will be speaking out for students. It is particularly important to tell the stories of the oddball students, the students who don’t easily fit the norm. These stories will counter the hallucinatory, deceptive rhetoric of the Standardistos. Dr. Benjamin Spock told parents in his best-selling book, 'You know ore than you think." I would tell teachers, "You know more than they think." Standardistos attempt to strip teachers of their knowledge, their intuition, their pragmatic saviness, their flexibility, and their very hearts. Teachers must remind themselves every day: "We know more than they think. We know more than they think."

Teachers need to check the facts Standardistos spread about so casually. Beware of cooked data. Gerald Bracey's reports to Phi Delta Kappan offer useful ammunition.

Don't blame the victims. One in four of our students come to us from poverty and the correlation between lower test scores and the percentage of children living in poverty is .99. The average after-school program costs $3,000 per child. Each new juvenile correction facility costs around $102,000 per bed to build. It is our strength as teachers that we are empathetic people. We try to walk in the shoes of our students. We must nurture this empathetic quality, not deny it in the name of standards. We must remember the great words of teaching: read, write, teach, learn, work, skill, care, help, hope, trust, faith, love. When necessary, teachers need to choose passion over pedagogy. Teachers need to join with administrators and parents and say, "We're as mad as hell. Our students already take 4-6 standardized tests a year. We don't need any more."

What should kids do?
What can an eight-year-old do? Even high schoolers are pretty much at the mercy of their teachers and their textbooks.

What troubles you about the emerging reading and language arts standards?
The standards are intent on turning children into literary pedants, technicians who can identify plot and setting but who are never asked about how literature makes them feel, no mention of the emotional impact of reading, no mention that in books human beings feel more connected to one another. This approach to literature is numbing and nonsensical. Literary technicians testified to techniques of teaching systematic decoding. Nobody was asked to testify for the love of reading.

What are your primary criticisms of the new California math standards?
The verbs deleted by the California State Board of Education from the math standards reveal a lot. They deleted verbs like "model, understand, estimate, interpret, classify, explain, create." The word most commonly substituted in place of these verbs is "compute." The California standards turn their back on the work of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, insisting instead on a narrow definition of math as computation.

I’m sure you have lots of favorites. Can you share with us a couple examples of ridiculous standards.
My two favorite ridiculous standards are both in the California history standards. First graders are ordered to "know and understand" such documents as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Seventh graders are required to analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the civilizations of Islam in the middle ages, of China in the middle ages, of the Sub-Saharan civilizations, of Japan in the middle ages, of Europe in the middle ages, of Nesoamerican and Andean civilizations. This is one of eleven history standards for seventh graders. Anybody who has ever taught 7th graders is left speechless.

Surely, reasonable people may disagree about the need for educational standards, but how do you explain the mean-spirited attitude exhibited by the proponents of standards?
Two forces seem to prevent any fruitful discussion about the standards. The people in power, the members of state boards of education, for example, exclude dissenting voices. They even forbid the appearance of dissenting voices on materials used in the inservice training of teachers. The media, operating on the supposition that everything has two sides, puts everybody in one of two camps: if you're not for excellence, then you must be against it. Of course there aren't two sides to the standards issue. The last time I looked there were 123 sides.

Any time people pass a rule about education, responsible teachers will say, "Yes, but. . . " Any savvy teacher knows that every classroom has oddball exceptions, kids who need alternatives. As a longtime teacher in urban schools I am dismayed that people sitting in state departments of education insist they can come up with one standard mold of excellence--and that they are willing to throw away children who do not fit into that mold of a uniform curriculum.

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