education philosopher

Between Standardization and Pluralism: Yong Zhau and a Middle Way

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Politics of Education, Uncategorized by KevinCK on July 28, 2009

ZhauHere is an interesting vido, where Michigan State University Professor of Education Yong Zhau talks about finding a balance between the push for standardization and pluralism/individualism in American education. (The video takes a few minutes to load and is a bit less than 10 minutes.)

A professor of mine at the University of Delaware, Amanda Jansen, pointed me towards this link after following my discussion with author James Bach (who seems to favor a form of self-education where students are the prime movers of their own education). I, on the other hand, am a strong supporter of a voucher system of the type I think is hinted at in Zhau’s video.

It seems that the issue – like many issues – is often framed in a very extreme binary way: either we allow students 100% control to study what they want when they want, or we push for a highly standardized, NCLB style education where a student’s educational trajectory is quite inflexibly decided for them. As a supporter of a voucher-style approach (whether by voucher, tax-credit, or wholly private but subsidized), I think there is a third way, whereby states could mandate certain minimal curricular objectives while leaving parents and students (not just students, mind you) free to choose what kind of education they, or their children, should have.

As Zhau notes in the video, the largest benefit of such a system is that while certain standards do exist in order to ensure that students acquire the basic skills (reading, writing, math) that would need to be employed to acquire more specialized skills, parents and students can choose the type of school that they think would best suit their child. Not only can they choose the type of school by approach (Montesorri, disciplinarian, online, etc) but they might choose the academic focus they want for their child (arts, humanities, technology, etc.) As it stands now, unless parents want to pay above and beyond the taxes taken to support public schools, parents and students have no choice of where to attend school and very little choice of what to study.

Another advantage to this type of arrangement is that having competing choices in education leads to greater flexibility. While Zhau brought this up only in passing, I think it is one of the most important arguments for a pluralistic system. In fact, it is very similar to the arguments that economistsLudwig von Mises and Thomas Sowell made against socialized control of any industry: the more socialized a system becomes, and the larger the socialization, the less flexibility that system has. Businesses act quickly, while government (especially large government) acts quite slowly. When businesses set prices, they are in a position where they have intimate knowledge of all relevant factors and if a price is set too low or high, they can quickly and easily adjust. When government sets prices, they are seldom in a position to have access to all the relevant factors and often cannot act as quickly or correctly in determining fluctuations of the market (as they don’t have intimate knowledge of the business).

I think that Zhau’s point about less standardization leading to more flexibility is much like Mises and Sowell’s case against socialization. The more standards we have, and the larger the scope of those standards, the less each district, school, and family can individualize education to suit their market. If one locality wants more emphasis on business skills while another wants more emphasis on agriculture, the highly standardized system lacks the flexibility to accomodate. If the locality that last year wanted emphasis on business skills and now would like to see a more humanities-based focus, the highly standardized system cannot quickly produce this type of flexible reaction. But a localized system, where schools are in control of the majority of their curriculum and methodology, could handle both situations easier than could the standardized approach.

Anyhow, the video is quite interesting. I hope that it reminds us all that the issue of standardization v. pluralization is not a binary one, and reminds us not to extremize the issue in ways we often extremize issues. The case is seldome where there is not a “third way.”


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