The Downside of Standardization

Paul Graham wrote an essay on how the education industry is built to value good grades at the expense of learning outcomes. Graham focuses on how testing as a standardized measurement tool is a hackable process that for many doesn’t align with maximized learning. Instead, testing standardizes the learning process creating outcomes that are biased towards getting students to the next level. This creates an environment of pushing to achieve minimum standards or a sense of “good enough” to move on rather than maximizing the transfer of knowledge.

Standardized processes like education are easy to manipulate and they create unintended consequences. These second and third order effects are what I think of as reality distortion.

As an example, Graham discusses standardized testing and highlights how students frequently cram for exams, join extracurricular activities and adjust themselves to emphasize and enhance their profile to reach the next level of education (or get hired). The adjustments students make are focused on the final outcome of advancement as opposed to learning.

Think of all these actions as mandated by the rules of “the game”. Want to get ahead of the curve in life? Then play the game. The individuals that seek to play the game and win, use tactics that can distort the truth to achieve a favorable outcome.

And so here is what I think of as the reality distortion, that the actual intended purpose of standardization and the inevitable game-ification of that process yield unintended outcomes.

Do we go to school to be learn and be educated or to become productive members of society? (You can obviously do both but it seems as though standardized education is structured for the latter rather than the former)

If you assume that standardized education is created primarily to produce productive members of society then what happens to individuals that don’t fit well within standardized outcomes?

Visualize society as a bell curved distribution. Standardized processes are built to address the bulk of the curve. The average block of people. Using standardized testing as our example, its not a problem for the 50% of society that can play the game well. But the other 50% struggle under the standardized process and struggle to find traction on traditional paths of advancement.

Reality distortion is created at the periphery of the curve where people change their habits and processes to become more like the people towards the center. We raise our children to be just slightly better than normal. The safe path. We teach them to play the game by eliminating natural traits and replacing them with standardized skills and methodologies designed to excel in society’s mainstream game.

You see distorted outcomes in traditional testing when test grades are curved to the average. Adjusting grade outcomes showcases that advancement is more important than learning. I was always flabbergasted when a professor would curve a test. To me, it meant that the professor had a poorly designed test or that the students didn’t actually learn most of what they were supposed to. Curving felt like it was used to cover up mediocrity.

Learning outcomes can become warped through large scale standardization as we learned through the enactment of No Child Left Behind. A seemingly well intentioned federal policy placed incentives and deterrents on schools to shape learning outcomes. This created an environment of teaching to pass tests and a just good enough mentality to ensure schools received federal resources and avoided penalties.

Standardization creates another type of reality distortion for individuals that are good at playing the game. These people can struggle to operate in environments without well defined rules. The ambiguity of life can pose a true challenge for people that are so accustomed to the guard rails provided by mainstream thought.

Distortion is created when standardized accomplishments become miss-priced status symbols in the market of public opinion. Take a college diploma for example. It was believed for a long period of time that getting a college diploma would lift you above the average individual and improve your employment outcomes and wealth creation over time. Individuals that couldn’t afford this path would take on loans to follow the path towards better outcomes.

Over time, this became the standardized path. Everyone wanted to get a diploma and improve their lives. The majority of college attendees sought out loans to pay their way.

The increasing supply of college bound minds eventually surpassed the demand for college educated workers. Cost for education continued to rise but the desired outcomes plateaued. Many students were trapped with a lot of debt and limited employment options.

As a society, we once thought that the diploma alone was enough. As the market dynamic for a more highly educated workforce changed, the game also changed. It shifted away from a pure status play to a game of status plus whatever additional value a person can bring to the table.

Distortion was created when the market of potential students didn’t understand that the rules of the game had changed. The new outcome had shifted to desire what you learn and how you turn that into actionable value for a hiring manager.

It seems as though many colleges either don’t know or don’t care that the rules have changed as well. They are most often interested in graduation rates as their primary outcome. Take Michigan States recent bizarre example of removing Algebra from the general curriculum requirement by rationalizing that it’s not necessary or relevant to most students lives.  Further, an official said, “Ideally, it will lead to more successful graduation outcomes.”

Standardized processes are easily gamed and don’t always end well. When motives and processes don’t align with intended outcomes there are unintended consequences.

In the example above, a lot of people played the game, received their diploma but became loaded with debt and limited options in terms of employment.

Standardization makes sense. It has value and shouldn’t be shunned. Instead, when standardized processes are implemented they should come with a regular review of the outcomes. A way to test whether we are achieving the intended outcomes. When we ask why are we operating this way and the answer is that it’s how we’ve always done it, there is more than likely a problem.

One of the most important lessons from the internet age is the profitable proliferation of long tail distributed economics. You can build communities around any topic and profit along many new concepts with affordable internet access. This includes education. As a society, we can now successfully move away from traditional mainstream learning processes. We now have the ability and means to diversify how we learn and the types of profitable outcomes available from these methods. We can standardize educational processes at much smaller scales and still successfully promote quality learnings outcomes. We can Adapt Education to the On-Demand Economy.

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