Beware the ‘be all and end all'

Here's what I think happens: A well-meaning school official – a principal, a superintendent – goes to a conference. The keynote speaker is dynamic and inspirational, and what's more, he has the Be All and End All that will fix education. The audience is first mesmerized and then fired up. This is The Answer they have been looking for, the light that will banish every darkness.

Back home, the school official tries to kindle the fire in the district personnel. Edicts are announced, memos are written, inservices scheduled. The Be All and End All becomes codified into a rule. What had started out as a great idea becomes a forced directive. The people who have to implement it feel burned instead of enlightened. Rather than being hailed as a visionary Prometheus, the school official is scorned as a one-eyed Cyclops.

An even better Greek myth that describes this all-too-frequent scenario in education is the story of Procrustes, an innkeeper who offered room and board at a terrible price. Travelers who didn't fit the exact measurements of the bed were either shortened by amputation or lengthened on a rack. His motto – like that of so many well-meaning administrators – is one size must fit all.

Procrustean mandates

The start of a new school year is always fraught with Procrustean mandates. Recently a teacher told me about what undoubtedly started out as a genuine effort to engage students actively in a lesson but which has become a stumbling block in the classroom. Teachers at her high school are required to break every lesson into 10-minute segments. Students alternate their work time with time to walk around the room. Finally, each lesson has to include some artistic performance or product – a song, a picture, a poetry recitation.

It's easy to see why someone created this template for a lesson. Some students have trouble concentrating for more than 10 minutes at a time. Some students need to move around physically to stay focused. Some students enjoy writing music or choreographing a dance.

For those students, this lesson plan is helpful. It presents content in a way that makes learning easy – or at least easier.

But for other students – and for many lessons – this lesson plan is disruptive or inappropriate. Instead of enhancing instruction, it keeps teachers from tailoring their teaching to the needs of their particular students.

Same tests for every student?

Another Procrustean dictate that rears up frequently is the idea of uniform assessment. To a certain degree students already undergo uniform assessment each time they take a high- stakes standardized test such as a high school exit exam or an end-of-grade test.

However, some schools require their teachers give uniform assessments for their classroom grades as well. For example, the English I teacher in Room A would give the exact same quizzes and unit tests as the teacher in Room B who is also teaching English I.

Again, it is easy to see why a school might like this idea. It seems impartial and fair – students have the same difficulty levels on their tests as their peers in other teachers' classrooms.

But the reality is different. Although good teachers plan their assessments before they plan their instruction, things happen that make tweaking the assessment necessary.

For example, one class might have difficulty with a concept and need more time and practice to master it. They might need to have two tests to prove proficiency, or one test that zeroes in on the trouble area. Forcing those students to take the uniform assessment simply because it is what the other students are doing disregards their needs as learners and violates the first rule of teaching: Know your students. Assessment should be consistent, yes, but uniform, no.

Lockstep curricula are also a Procrustean tendency in many school districts. I know one district that requires all subject teachers to teach the same lessons on the same days. When teachers first told me about this a few years ago, I was sure I misunderstood them. What if you have a class of exceptionally bright students who need to move quicker, or a class of exceptionally challenged students who need to move slower? Too bad, I was told. The curriculum guide – the Be All and End All – must be obeyed.

Shakespeare's warning

When Shakespeare put that phrase into the mouth of Macbeth, he wasn't holding up an exemplary idea. As Macbeth considers whether or not to kill his king, he says that if he knew that Duncan's death would be the “be all and end all” – the only crime he would have to commit in order to ascend and keep the throne – he wouldn't hesitate.

But it didn't turn out that way. You know how the play ends – lots of dead bodies and wrecked lives by the final curtain. The Be All and End All rarely is.