What is Good for One is Good for All: One of Education’s Most Dangerous Ideas

It is one of the most dangerous education ideals. “What is good for one is good for all.” Years ago I talked with the superintendent of a highly respected school district about the promise and possibility of designing a charter school in the district focused upon project-based learning, personalized learning, and helping students discover their callings. At first this superintendent was excited and welcomed a follow up meeting. Amid the tyranny of the urgent in our schedules, we didn’t follow up for several months. When I reached out about a lunch appointment, I learned that this superintendent’s viewpoint seemed to change. He said that he was happy to have lunch, but that he didn’t have much interest in a project-based charter school. He explained his change of mind with a single sentence. “I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve I tend to think that what is good for one student is good for all students.”

To be fair, we never had a follow up conversation about this, but this single sentence left me baffled. Is there a different way to read it? What is good for one is good for all? Whether it was the intent of the superintendent, there are plenty of people today who advocate for a national reform in education and strive to find the model, method, and universal set of standards that can be applied across the board for the benefit of everyone.

Here are my concerns.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a universal model, method or set of standards that are best for all students.

I have yet to see any solid evidence that there is a single best method, model or framework in education. There are some largely universal principles (like the idea that feedback is important in learning), but principles leave room for diverse applications. None have proven that there is a is standard template that will bring the best out in all learners. There is no universal set of academic standards that, if met, will assure that each learner thrives and is a positive and contributing member of society. Standards, models, methods and frameworks are helpful; but they are not universal when it comes to designing learning organizations.

Having a universal model for education is the educational equivalent of claiming to have a single magic pill that treats all ailments and conditions. Yes, there are some largely universal principles. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Get adequate sleep. Yet, even with those three elements, there seems to be plenty of evidence that different people benefit from different types of exercise, different diets, and maybe even slightly different sleeping habits.

While it sounds grand and compassionate, it risks disregarding the uniqueness of each human being.

I repeat this often, but people have different gifts, talents, abilities, propensities, life experiences, challenges, opportunities, and ultimately different callings in life. This means that they will benefit from different learning opportunities and experiences. There are good times for shared learning experiences, but I have concerns when the schooling options available to a student have a limited perspective on which gifts and abilities should be celebrated and strengthened. Yes, plenty of good can come from a core of shared learning experiences, but we also need to draw out, affirm, and amplify the differences in learners.

There isn’t an agreed upon philosophy of education. 

As I’ve written before, at the foundation of every learning organization is a self of values, beliefs and convictions about education. People don’t agree on these matters. I don’t know about you, but I am not ready to force my philosophy of education on the rest of the world, nor do I want that done to me. I might make persistent and passionate arguments in favor of my positions, but at the end of the day, we are better off finding ways to leave room for diverse perspectives on education to live alongside one another. That means a universal commitment…to diverse learning environments, to choices.

Children do not belong to the state.  

Given #3, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” That is a direct quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I realize that my readers have diverse viewpoints on this document in general, but this is a portion that I wholeheartedly support. Some have argued that children ultimately belong to the state. Others, including myself, argue that the family unit is a fundamental, foundational unit in society.

The fact that there is disagreement about this re-entered the broader public discourse back in 2013 when Melissa Harris-Perry argued that, ““we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.” For here rebuttal, read this, but what bothered me most about her comment is that she somehow seemed to miss or disregard that there is a real and historical debate about these claims. For a thorough exploration of the matter, check out Amy Gutmann’s 1987 book, Democratic Education.

And this is just one of many philosophical differences about education and children. There are many more when we start diving into curriculum and the ultimate aims of education. Given such differences, it seems reasonable that we stick with and maybe even expand a diversity of models and approaches to education. In such a climate, arguing for a universal model is a disregard for these important differences.

It is not acceptable to let some students slip between the cracks.

Each person is a unique creation, full of potential…too precious to disregard intentionally or unintentionally (but as a result of institutional structures). We learn too late that our convictions matter, so let me finish with one of my most deeply held convictions in education. Our pursuit in education should be to provide an excellent education for all. What is good for one is good for all, and what is good for one is a learning experiences that best supports, celebrates and launches that one person into a life of significance, meaning and impact.  That doesn’t happen with a one-size-fits-all approach to education.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.