Standardized Education Done Right-
How to Mass Produce the Right Stuff

Lamenting the effects of standardized education on children who have been subjected to industrialized factory model schools is a trope of many education critics on both sides of the political aisle. 

They complain that one-size-does-NOT-fit-all therefore standardizing education in our school system is really bad.

Standardized Education- A Historian’s View

The critics can often be criticized for setting up invalid straw man arguments when they rely on historical fantasies.

So, to avoid the straw man problem let’s start from the Stanford historian of education Larry Cuban’s book How Teachers Taught which is about the history of teaching from 1880 to 1990.

Cuban’s central finding was that teaching practice has changed in only trivial ways over the course of the hundred years he examined. 

The majority of the schooling practices that we inherited from our ancestors and that are normally being decried as examples of the standardization of education in the “industrial” mold arose out of a pressure cooker of massive population growth and rapid societal change combined with institutional inertia that is highly resistant to change.

The mainstream of schooling may exhibit some irrelevant surface differences now but the core function of teaching is basically the same as it ever was.
Confessions of a School Reformer, Larry Cuban’s latest book published in 2021, reiterates the points he made in his prior book but with a focus on the eighty years of his own lifetime. 

“Progressives, civil rights reformers, and standard-based promoters all left their thumbprints on public schools, yet, in the final analysis, these fervent reformers changed only surface features of the basic organizational structures and processes of schooling that had been put in place in the nineteenth century. … 

[T]he age-graded school and the grammar of schooling remain secure.”

Even though they sometimes use lame rhetoric, the critics are still correct that the large-scale system for standardized education created by the pressure cooking of schools by the forces of history does not work to achieve the intended purpose of effectively educating most children. 

Standardized Education Reconsidered

I will add from my expertise in psychology that another major contributing factor was the lack of key scientific insights into learning that have recently come into view. 

My name is Don Berg and I want to share with you my thoughts as I reconsider the potential for for standardized education using a one-size-fits-all approach to schooling children.

I want to be clear that there is a fundamental problem with using standardized academic tests for high stakes accountability for teachers and/or schools within State bureaucracies. 

That fundamental problem is with the disconnect between the deeper learning that is required in today’s society and the measures being taken to hold teachers and schools “accountable.” 

[Air quotes & eye roll.]

Neither standardized academic testing nor bureaucratic accountability for test results would be good on their own and the combination is worse. 

Those means of managing the school system suck at educating children.

The fundamental purpose of schools is to educate children, right? 

So let’s get clear about what that means.

Education is about ensuring that people have a productive relationship to reality. 

An educated person is someone who perceives accurately, thinks clearly, and acts effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations that are appropriate to their situation as they non-consciously maintain their mental maps of reality and how it works. 

Academics are a useful tool for relating to reality, but they are one of many tools we have available and they are not quite as important as they are usually made out to be.

Academic tests, especially when they have been standardized and are being used for high stakes decision making, do not have much meaningful relationship to the possibility that the test taker is educated.

Standardized education in this form does not work.

But, does that automatically mean that standardized education can’t work in any form?

Consider the possibility that this is a baby and bathwater type of situation and we need to be careful to throw out the waste, not our most precious child. 

Standardized Education- A Necessary Psychological Insight

Though many people don’t seem to realize it, we can make useful assessments that do have a meaningful relationship to education in the sense just defined. 

The key assessments are for motivation and engagement. 

It turns out that when a student’s motivations are more internal and engagement is more agentic then that student participates more successfully in whatever activities they have available, academic or otherwise.

The scientific community that has been examining motivation and engagement since the nineteen seventies calls their framework Self-Determination Theory, or SDT.

They did not set out to study learning per se, but it turned out that they gained some crucial insights.

One of their most central insights is that we humans all have primary psychological needs that were not previously recognized for the role that they play in motivation, engagement, and most important for our purpose right now, learning. 

You are probably familiar with your needs for air, water, food, and shelter. 

Those four needs are physiological and if you don’t get them satisfied then you die. 

One psychological need is familiar: the need for sleep.

It is psychological because it causes psychological distresses like anxiety and depression, but there is no credible evidence that the lack of sleep, in itself, can kill you.

But before I talk about our other three psychological needs, I want to circle back to our need for air. 

There are some nuances in reference to that need that will help us appreciate how our psychological needs contribute to the effectiveness of schools and open up the possibility for an effective one-size-fits-all standardized education. 

Building An Analogy

So, let’s imagine you want to see a spectacular shipwreck and the fish that now live in it.

The wreck is about thirty feet underwater and you figure it will take at least 45 minutes to satisfy your curiosity.

Do you just hold your breath and go for it?

The standard medical line on brains deprived of oxygen is that brain damage can start within five minutes and brain death after ten.

Since you don’t feel like killing yourself and you want to avoid brain damage, taking along a tank of compressed air seems like a good idea.

The next question is, how much oxygen should you put in the tank that Amazon delivered the next day?

If the tank is all oxygen then you should be able to stay down for the longest possible time, right?


Too much oxygen is poisonous. 

Based on a quick Google search you find that the regular air we normally breath is about eighty percent neutral gasses. 

Mostly nitrogen with a smattering of argon, water vapor, and other stuff.

So you guesstimate the ratio and throw it together figuring that as long as you test it out beforehand your suffocation response would alert you if you have too little oxygen in the mix.

Oxygen is such a central survival imperative that Nature surely created our suffocation alarm system to detect a lack of oxygen, right? 

Well, wrong, again.

Instead, she provides us with an alarm that detects when there is too much carbon dioxide in our air. 

She has attuned us to the waste product of our breathing process.

We know this because of tragic incidents at fruit warehouses where the oxygen is removed to keep the fruit fresh while it awaits delivery to the market. 

Workers have occasionally entered the room not realizing it was full of nitrogen, argon or whatever neutral gas they were using. 

The security footage shows that instead of gasping and becoming alarmed, they appear completely calm as they get sleepy, gently lie down on the floor, and die. 

Human suffocation responses are wired to detect too much carbon dioxide, not the lack of oxygen.

Making these kinds of mistakes is why there is a professional title for people who mix up air for other people to breath and my little scenario of DIY gas blending with the help of Google and Amazon is a terrible idea.

The professionals are called gas blenders.

And it turns out that there is a one-size-fits-all recipe for breathable air. 

You can NOT exceed one percent of the toxic gas, carbon dioxide.

You also can have NO LESS than nineteen percent of the nutritive gas, oxygen.

And no more than twenty-three percent.

That leaves us with a range of seventy-six to eighty percent of the neutral gasses in healthy air.

Applying the Analogy to Achieve Standardized Education

Now that we understand the one-size-fits-all recipe for breathable air, I want to turn our attention to schooling.

The first point is that all or nothing doesn’t make sense, it’s not a thing.

Second point, we need to understand the difference between active ingredients and neutral ingredients. 

Oxygen and carbon dioxide are both active ingredients; they matter the most even though by proportion they appear to be minor components. 

Water vapor, nitrogen, and argon are all neutral; they don’t matter as much, except that they are a majority of the air we breath. 

The question we have to ask is, what are the active ingredients in school?

Our intuitions scream out, “academics.” 

But that intuition is wrong. 

The active ingredients are the ways that those three primary psychological needs studied by the SDT research community are either satisfied or thwarted from being satisfied. 

Those three needs are for relatedness, autonomy, and competence.

If you would like more details about them and how they work I suggest you check out my video called, “What Does A Principal Do?” 

You can find a link on the page for this video.

For now I want to lump them together into the term agency. 

This works because when all three of these primary psychological needs are satisfied, then motivations are more internal. 

And when motivations are more internal then engagement is more likely to be agentic, not merely behavioral. 

Agentic engagement is the most important ingredient in deeper learning, and therefore the most important ingredient in schooling. 

So I’m saying that agentic engagement, or just agency, is the active ingredient, the equivalent of oxygen in the analogy to gas blending.  

I will also note that in addition to the primary psychological needs which apply to all humans there are also needs that are unique to an individual, situation, or culture. 

I call these particular needs to distinguish them from the primary needs studied by SDT. 

And they are included under the term “agency.”

The toxin in this analogy is the demands from others that tend to thwart the primary psychological needs. 

There are societal demands, organizational demands, and more directly there are demands from authority figures who may have been appointed rather arbitrarily to work with the students in that particular school or classroom. 

I will remind you that all or nothing are not even plausible possibilities. 

So what I am talking about is having those demands not exceed some threshold point that transforms them from being merely a proportionally tiny factor in the overall system into being an urgent toxic hazard that could damage the learning process. 

I am going to designate these demands as “imposed authority.”

I am choosing this phrase because I want to be clear that authority per se is not the toxin.

One of the things that SDT has revealed is that when a child has a particularly good relationship to an authority figure it is possible that the child can feel almost as autonomous about a choice made by that authority figure as if the child had made that choice themselves. 

This means that champions of no nonsense in the classroom are correct that under the right conditions “my way or the highway” is a perfectly reasonable demand by a trusted instructor. 

However, those who champion a less teacher-centric approach to operating K-12 schools, when they are responding to schools in which children had no say in the classes they are made to attend, also have an important and valid point.

There are negative motivational and learning consequences to being forced to attend lessons without meaningful recourse to resolving the inherent conflict that arises from that imposition.

So, I am clear that some degree of imposed authority is inescapably necessary and I am also clear that too much imposed authority creates inescapably negative learning consequences. 

The final ingredient that we need is the the combination of neutral elements that do not matter as much, but are still present and make up a major component in the overall system. 

In particular I will note that academics, science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, etc. are all neutral tools that can help folks understand and more productively engage with reality. 

In and of themselves, despite rhetorical flourishes to the contrary, they are not the be all and end all of education. 

They are important ingredients, but they are not the active ingredients.

Using this analogy then it is clear that schools tend to have too much of the toxin of imposed authority and too little of the active ingredients that make up agency.

The neutral ingredients of academic tools are treated as if they are an active ingredient, which is a mistake. 

Psychologically Standardized Education

Correcting that mistake is going to mean that we have to alter the proportions.

We need to create a healthier blend of agency, authority, and the tools we need to engage productively with reality.

We need to apply the management ideology that can give us a one-size-fits-all industrial factory model for mass producing motivated and engaged citizens.

The challenge is to ensure we have the levers we need to change the proportions of agency and imposed authority in schools. 

My new book Schooling for Holistic Equity: How to Manage the Hidden Curriculum for K-12, explains those levers and how we can push and pull on them.

If you would like to learn about the important distinction between leadership and management in schools you can watch my video about it under the leadership tab on my site. 

Schools that succeed at the balancing act between agency and authority have what I call a Catalytic Pedagogy. 

You can learn more about Catalytic Pedagogy on my site

Thanks for watching.

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