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Today’s education system is perfectly designed for no one

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In 2013, Harvard faculty member (and high school dropout) L. Todd Rose made the case that we should abandon the notion of the average student.

His TEDx talk, “The Myth of the Average,” explained that the United States Air Force used to build cockpits based on the “average pilot,” a profile made up of 10 different body measurements calculated from their 4,000 pilots.

{mosads}The common belief was that a cockpit built for the average pilot would work well for any pilot. They were wrong — and because of that, highly trained pilots and sophisticated fighter jets were not meeting expectations.


Finally, a researcher in 1950 went to work. He discovered that the total number of pilots who fit the “average profile” in all 10 categories was zero. Not one. 

Each pilot, instead, had what Rose referred to as a “jagged size profile.”

Rather than creating a cockpit for all, the Air Force had built a cockpit for none.

To fix this would require “building to the edges,” meaning building a new cockpit that would accommodate the needs of each individual’s size, build and maneuvering behavior.

Fears involving cost, time or impossibility created a strong resistance to design changes at first, but solutions such as adjustable seats proved that innovations are only limited by a lack of vision.

Just like these fighter pilots, every student in our education school system also has a “jagged size profile.” When we approach education based on the illusory “average” student, we create an education fitted perfectly for no one.

Now, many believe in dismantling the notion of the average student, but we’ve seen too little progress in “building to the edges” of our education system. So how do we build to the edges? One important step is to unite around an evolved, non-politicized understanding of education choice. 

The truth is that everyone supports education choice when the term is properly understood. Education choice is a mindset — one centered on offering families whatever options will help the individual student meet his or her potential.

Education choice embraces traditional public schools, public charter schools, homeschool and flexible spending accounts for private providers. It supports innovation in district schools, because differentiation translates to meaningful public choice options. It welcomes flexibility like competency-based education, which offer students “micro-choice” in time, pace and place of learning. It even celebrates giving students greater autonomy in classroom projects, allowing students to choose an education that is meaningful to the individual.

But the concept of acknowledging the individuality of each student is stunningly ideological. Even though common sense says that every child has unique characteristics — or a “jagged learning profile,” as Rose called it — some conflate this type of language with an older conception of education choice: vouchers.

But it shouldn’t be that narrow anymore.

A few weeks ago, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rallied behind a broader definition of education choice. She said we can rethink school through choice, but “[n]ot choice translated as vouchers, or charter schools, or private schools, or any other specified delivery mechanism. … Choice translated as giving every parent in this great land more control, more of a say in their child’s future.”

Who can’t support this? How tragic it would be if disagreement over a specific policy shut off meaningful conversations about the importance of choice for the individual student and perpetuated the myth of the “average” student.

Just last month, a slew of celebrities implored the nation during an hourlong show called “XQ Super School Live” to rethink education. Celebrities shared what was missing in their personal education, reminiscing about what they wished they could have learned in school. Though not overtly about education choice, the show’s underlying message is that too many of us have longed for something different in education. Ultimately, we have longed for other choices. 

Last month we also witnessed what happens when we don’t embrace a mindset of education choice: new methods of learning are held in suspicion. An audit of Western Governors University by the Office of Inspector General recommended that the innovative and generally respected university return $712 million in federal aid. 

The alleged infraction by the university stemmed from a federal statute’s outdated conception of instructors and distance learning. Many — including Forbes magazine — were concerned that the audit would squash an important higher education choice for tens of thousands of students and chill innovative options not yet imagined.

Let’s explore the edges of education instead of aiming for the average. This will require both traditional choice advocates and opponents to expand their vision of education choice. If not, we’re destined to offer all students an education perfectly fitted for no one. 

Christine Cooke, J.D., is a former public school teacher and is education policy director at Sutherland Institute.

Tags Betsy DeVos Betsy DeVos Christine Cooke School choice

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