When will we stop judging elephants by how well they can climb trees?

You’ve probably seen the 2012 cartoon where there is a long line of animals: a monkey, penguin, seal, fish, elephant, bird, and a dog. Then there is a man sitting behind a desk saying, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” Welcome to the common mindset behind some of the most dominant educational policy discussions.

This cartoon relates to a conversation I once had with a school district superintendent. I was talking with her about the possibility of launching one or more magnet or charter schools within the district she serves and she was initially interested in exploring the possibility. We had trouble finding a time to meet, but a few months later I reached out to see if we could grab lunch and revisit the conversation. Her reply was something like this. “I’d love to have lunch, but I’m not sure about this charter or magnet school thing. It seems to me that if it is good for one kid, it is good for all of them. Do we really believe that? Do we believe that a uniform educational experience is the key to equity, access, and opportunity? Does that mean we think the same education or training is required for every role in family, society, and the workplace? Is this the path to helping each student discover and develop her unique gifts, talents, abilities, and passions? Is the “what is good for one is good for all” philosophy of education the best way to help people make their unique contribution to the world?

I do not question the value of a common body of knowledge to some extent, but that is different from arguing for the same type of education for every child driven by the same tests. True equity, access and opportunity will come from educational choice and a diversity of educational options. This is why I continue to argue that a great strength of the United States educational landscape is the rich diversity. On the K-12 level I’m referring to legacy public, public magnet, public charter, independent, parochial, homeschooling, unschooling, world schooling, project-based learning schools, game-based learning schools, STEM academies, bilingual schools, democratic schools, Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, and a myriad of others. On the University level I’m referring to everything from small liberal arts colleges to state Universities, blended and online options to technical and community colleges, public to private and faith-based, elite schools to a wonderfully interesting collection of alternative schools, even (maybe especially) the self-directed and uncollege options available today.

Have you noticed the recent articles and blog posts critiquing Arne Duncan for sending his children to the University of Chicago Lab Schools. Part of the critique is that he is sending his kids to a school that does not align with many of his educational reform efforts as US Secretary of Education. I appreciate that critique, but from another perspective, I commend him for selecting a school that he thinks is the best fit for his kids. Now all we need to do is to pursue more national and state policies that make such choice more widely available to the rest of the families in the country. Duncan knows that you don’t test an elephant by how well it can climb a tree, and he knows that the same thing is true when it comes to finding the right fit between a student and a school.

What does this have to do with testing and the cartoon? Standardized testing is a powerful educational technology, so powerful that it can reshape an entire school or district. It can drive schools and leaders to redesign their curriculum, schedule and priorities to make sure that students perform adequately on a given test or set of tests. That means prioritizing certain core competencies over others. It means celebrating the strengths and passions of some students while paying little attention to the gifts and interests of others. It means that some will believe that they are “good at school” while others don’t think so. It means having some students who strive to simply tolerate or survive the school day. That is a waste of a person’s gifts, talents, abilities, passions and potential; especially given that there are so many schools today that would be a great fit for these students.

Some might argue, “Haven’t you seen how poorly many charter and choice schools are performing?” Yes, there are problem schools, but there is also a problem with measuring the performance of these schools using those same tests that make elephants try to climb trees. I respect how this is a tidy want to compare schools, but it is a bit like doctors using standards for dentists. Both are healthcare workers, but they have enough differences that they probably call for a different measure of effectiveness. If we are going to measure across wildly different schools, maybe we should use measures about student engagement, holistic and personalized student growth and development, and the discovery and development of their gifts, talents, abilities, and passions.

Isn’t this just another sign of our increasingly self-absorbed culture? Students want everything their way instead of sucking it up and doing the work? I’ve talked to more than a few people who think as much, but I look at it differently. Yes, this is about a more personalized and customized approach to education. It is a recognition that people are different and we can best celebrate and maximize those differences by matching the student with the best fit school. This isn’t about catering to every whim and preference of a person. It is instead a perspective that doesn’t want to see a single student go to waste, one that aspires for learners to discover their unique contributions to the world. This is ultimately not about self-service, but it is about best positioning students to discover how they can live a rich and fulfilling life that benefits themselves and the people around them. And while some argue that focusing on STEM in our schools is the key to winning some international economic competition, I continue to defend the position that a nation and world will be better off if we invest in maximizing the potential of each person instead of sifting out those who don’t fit the STEM mold. In fact, by choosing a more personalized approach, we may find that we gain more traction than ever on everything from crime reduction to workforce and economic development.