By Dr. Laura Latta, M.Ed., Ph.D., Director of Post-Secondary Partnerships & Research
This is the second installment in the ImpactTulsa multi-part series, Equity in Education.
The first installment of the equity series, Defining Equity, Equality, and Standardization, discusses the conceptual differences between equality and equity. Equality refers to the equal treatment, opportunity, and access to resources. Equity is the personalization of resources to the needs of individuals that will help them reach common goals. This post explores the history and context of standardization in public education so that the reader can decide whether or not equity and standardization can co-exist.
Since the mid 1800s, schools in the US have embraced standardization (Alcocer, 2019). In many school systems, the content that children learn, the way that the information is shared, and how deeply it is understood are all standardized as content learning standards, curriculum, and standardized tests. The primary motivations for standardization in school systems are to protect students’ educational experiences and ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, have comparable school experiences resulting in similar learning outcomes.
However, every student brings a unique set of experiences, talents, resources, and needs that influence his or her learning. Two people can experience the same lesson and walk out of the room with very different levels of understanding. Standardization assumes that if every individual is exposed to the very same sets of instructional conditions (also assuming that every teacher teaches the exact same way), the result will be that all students walk away with the same level of knowledge.
This post poses important questions for the reader to consider: Does the logic of standardization take into consideration the individualized nature of effective teaching and learning? Moreover, can standardization and equity co-exist?
To answer such big questions, it is important to ground ourselves in historical context.
The History of Education and Standardization in America
The first free public school in America opened in 1635 (Chen, 2018). Schooling priorities in colonial America were limited to teaching skills to support the home, sharing puritanical values, and supporting literacy through biblical readings. When towns began to develop systems and structures for schooling, preparation for higher education soon became a priority (Harvard was the sole institution at the time). During the Jeffersonian era, one of the biggest challenges was equalizing the quality of education that students were receiving from town to town. This concern about equality ushered in the need for more consistency in education and the development of a school system. The first state board of education began in 1837 in Massachusetts.
Even with the presence of a state board of education and with the establishment of the federal Department of Education in 1867, the educational experiences of students in the 19th century varied widely and many students completed their educations in under-resourced, one room schoolhouses. In the 1900s, school systems continued to organize under the guidance of state and federal departments of education. Centralizing power to district and state boards of education was one strategy intended to standardize the experiences of students and improve the quality of education.
In recounting the 384 year history of American education, it is important to note that students and families of color were excluded entirely from attending or participating in the early development of the American public education system. Prior to the Civil War in 1861, educating an enslaved person was considered a criminal act. During the post-war Reconstruction era, African American, Native American, Latinx, and communities of color across the nation had to fight for their rights to attend school. It was not until the Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1954 that people of color were able to freely access public education.
The reality is that people of color have only been able to freely access public education for 17% of the time that public schools have existed in America. Many voices and perspectives were excluded during the development of the systems and standards of public education that shape our education system today.
What is being Standardized?
In Education Standardization: Essential or Harmful?, Marie Bjerede (2013) breaks down the elements of public education that are standardized and makes cases for their advantages and disadvantages. Among these standardized elements of school are the following (quoted from the article):
- Standardized level, pace, and path of learning
- Standardized curriculum
- Standardized assessments
- Standardized expectations
- Standardized level of digital access
Stepping back to view the different ways that the school experience can be standardized reveals how much of the school day is dictated by those who have set the standards.
Who Sets the Standards?
In today’s public education system, decision making power belongs primarily to the state and local governments (US Department of Education, 2017). In Oklahoma, the state legislature grants decision making power to the state department of education to develop and maintain standards of instruction (i.e. what students should learn and be able to do at each grade level). Many states have adopted Common Core standards. Oklahoma created its own set of standards, the Oklahoma Academic Standards, which were developed and reviewed by a committee comprised of Oklahoma educators. The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) selects the standardized assessments given to gauge student learning at the end of the school year. The Oklahoma State Board of Education grants approval for the selected assessments.
School districts (and some individual schools) have the power to select which curricula that teachers use for planning and implementing instruction. These curricula include the scope and sequence (learning goals and lessons) that dictate the level, pace, and path of learning for each lesson. Some school leaders require that teachers follow the curriculum as written with little variation (high standardization). Others grant teachers the professional autonomy to supplement and personalize the curriculum to students’ needs (lower standardization).
Benefits and Challenges of Standardization
As is the case in nearly every social sector, having a set of standards can serve to protect the experiences of individuals in the system (i.e. students, parents, teachers, administrators. etc.). Standards can also be helpful in supporting and reporting student outcomes. Paradoxically, they can also be just as harmful by preventing students from experiencing individualized instruction and equitable supports for success. The table below details how some of the perceived benefits of standardization can also be perceived challenges:
|Perspective A||Perspective B|
|Standardized Assessments||Measuring student outcomes with standardized tests can help to expose inequity in teaching/learning so that changes can be made to support learning for all.||Standardized tests used to measure student learning outcomes often don’t capture important elements of learning like soft skills, goal setting, and cultural competence.|
|Standardized Curriculum||Providing a common curriculum increases the likelihood that students will be exposed to the same information. Hence, they should walk away with the same learning.||Curriculum is delivered by an instructor whose presentation of that information is unique. Though the curriculum and information may be the same, the personal interaction associated with the teaching may support different learning outcomes for different students.|
|Standardized Learning Outcomes||Having a common set of learning standards and expectations about what students should know helps to level the playing field for all students.||The mere existence of a common set of learning standards doesn’t effectively level the playing field for students if the barriers to learning and the limits to education access aren’t first addressed.|
Are Equity and Standardization Compatible?
Recognizing that equity is based on the needs of the individual and the purpose of standardization is to provide common learning experiences for the masses, the two definitions appear to conflict. Make no mistake, standardization is an important part of education and thinking through how to navigate the tension between meeting the needs of individuals and protecting the quality of their experiences through standardization is very important. However, holding standardization as the most important priority risks overlooking the capabilities, talents, and learning needs of individuals. Taking into consideration the history of public education and the perspectives that have been included and omitted (communities of color) from the system’s development further drives the conversation about whether the public education system is developing standards that support an equitable education for all students.
Through the exploration of multiple sources of information, this blog post serves as a prompt to spark thoughts about equality, equity, and standardization. The reader is encouraged to consider the information shared, research more (see the reference list), and form an opinion, which can be shared in the comment section below. The closing of this blog post is not a statement, but a question for the reader. Reader: what are your thoughts about equity and standardization? Are they compatible?
Stay tuned for the next installment in the equity series: Equity in Education: Student and Family Centered Approaches
Alcocer, P. (2019). History of standardized testing in the United States. National Education
Association. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/66139.htm#1838-1890.
Bjerede, M. (2013). Education standardization: Essential or harmful? Getting Smart. Retrieved
Chen, G. (2018). A relevant history of public education in the United States. Public School
Common Core Standards Initiative (2019). Home: Common core standards. Retrieved from
Oklahoma State Department of Education (2019). Oklahoma academic standards. Retrieved
United States Department of Education (2017). The federal role in education. Retrieved from