All the Children are Above Average

“Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

UnknownThose are the closing words Garrison Keillor spoke each night on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion. He was summarizing the fictional hometown Lake Wobegon – a special place. It’s an interesting concept – this idea that “all the children are above average” and, I believe, can be a detrimental one when viewed through the lens of government-mandated testing.

From No Child Left Behind to the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, from OTES to PARCC Assessments, these Federal and state mandates share a common theme – all expect our children to be above average, by their standards. Our federal and state policy makers expect all children to perform at a specific level.

It’s a model of educational conformity at its finest. The “ideal” of what each child should be able to achieve.

Here’s my problem – children aren’t widgets.

Lake Wobegon, as wonderful as it sounds, is fictional.

Each child we have the blessing to educate is unique. Each child, as I recently heard from education thought leader and bestselling author Sir Kenneth Robinson, “is a fountain of possibilities.” The young people in our schools can’t be considered to be outputs. As educators we must cultivate the right conditions for learning; we must find each child’s passion, talent, and creativity. As educators we must capitalize on the great diversity in our schools and guide young people to find their talents with an eye toward using these to positively contribute to society.

I am not opposed to accountability or assessments; I believe we should continually assess students on individual progress. I believe data is essential in directing instruction and evaluating performance. Statistical analysis is necessary at a classroom and building level. I also believe that we must take individual differences, developmental differences, and life experiences into account.

There is no – none, zero, zilch – assessment that can accurately assess all children.

There is no one-size-fits-all test, fix, or easy way to measure student academic performance. It is difficult, challenging and messy work. We must abandon the idea that we can fix education with more money, a new program, and a piece of legislation. You can’t legislate learning any more than you can legislate love; learning is organic, it happens when passion meets opportunity, when a great teacher creates an amazing experience for students to embrace.

Let’s commit ourselves to the monumental challenge of making educationpersonal for each child. Let’s tap into the passion, talent, and drive of parents, communities, and our dedicated educators nation-wide and explore every opportunity to motivate each individual student in our care. We must celebrate our diversity – the amazing differences in background, experiences, talents, abilities, and beliefs – and capitalize on opportunities to prepare each student for success after public education. We know we need a diversified workforce to drive our economy. We don’t need every student to be the same; we need every graduate to have skills, passion, and desire to be ready for productive lives as adults.

Our current school structure works very well for a certain segment of our population; it fits their personal learning styles and they flourish in the experiences a traditional school offers. Our current structure is inadequate and antiquated for some students in our education system – we must seek different opportunities to cultivate the personal styles and needs for these students. As Ken Robinson reminds us, “we all started with the miracle of birth and each life is a unique, unprecedented moment in history.”

Each child is gifted in some unique way; each child has a passion, each child is creative, and every student in our schools deserves the opportunity to write his or her own compelling and engaging success story – utilizing a unique voice no government mandate or standardized test could possibly measure.

All of our children are above average . . . just not in the same areas.


  1. Breck Quarles said:

    Great post! I appreciated your quoting of Ken Robinson. It was one of his talks that opened my eyes to the fact that our educational systems tend to group children by birthdate rather than ability and interest. I am firm believer that, if we could connect to every child in their area of strength and interest, we would not only have more successful schools but also a more functional society. You are right in calling this a “monumental task.” However, with the right support and lots of hard work, it can be done. Thanks for sharing.

    April 13, 2014
  2. Mrs. Trigg said:

    I appreciate your comments as well as your reference to the work of Ken Robinson, but mostly I applaud your reference to using data to drive the decisions we make for and about our students. As teachers we make a million decisions a day and thankfully we are permitted to trust our professional judgment and the assessments within our classrooms to personalize and structure instruction to help reach students where they are at, BUT there is also a need for the baseline testing that helps us find starting points.

    In many communities there is a return to a nomadic lifestyle making it important for school divisions to implement baseline testing that allows for common understanding of where a child is at academically. This information is powerful and when communicated in a timely manner for every student it helps remove barriers to nomadic learning rather than build them.

    I, too, am opposed to high stakes, high pressure testing, but I believe strongly in the merit of baseline testing in literacy and numeracy that will allow for the consistent communication of crucial data to impact the decision making GREAT teachers engage in to maximize student potential and personalize instruction.

    April 14, 2014
  3. Tish Malone said:

    There are baseline tests then their are the tests that we now hold everyone accountable for. Not everyone is endowed with the same skill set and our baselines should reflect required everyday living skills. This does not mean we should abandon tests that have above average expectations, but use the information to help students maximize and utilize the skills that they do have.

    April 14, 2014
  4. said:

    The author is arguing against a straw man. Assessments do not assume that all children are the same or that all must be above average, whatever that means; no one believes that. Assessments are (or should be) a measure of what our children know and what skills they have that are basic to being a functioning, responsible adult in our society. They are also a measure of how well or poorly our instruction is helping children achieve that status. Despite the hand-waving about uniqueness, no child is completely unique: if children cannot read at a certain level, think creatively, express themselves clearly, we don’t do them any favors by assessing their ability to, say, play video games, even if that is their “passion” (a much over-used word). Making assessments the be-all and end-all of education (making them high-stakes) is certainly wrong, but attacking assessments in general is a cheap shot: to say “There is no – none, zero, zilch – assessment that can accurately assess all children” is to say nothing useful. The question should be, “What can we do to make our assessments useful tools for improving instruction for all students and meeting their personal needs and interests in the academic and educational spheres.”

    April 14, 2014
    • David Hornsby said:

      I don’t believe you have understood John Marschhausen’s comments. He is not saying there are no useful tests. He is not “attacking assessments in general”. I’m puzzled by your decision to misrepresent what he wrote.

      April 14, 2014
    • Nancy Kress said:

      I fully agree with your statement (question): “What can we do to make our assessments useful tools for improving instruction for all students and meeting their personal needs and interests in the academic and educational spheres.”

      However, I find it to be an extension of John’s comments. John is addressing the use of testing scores to represent far more than what they are really capable of showing us in any accurate way. The American Statistical Association’s statement about the use of testing results in evaluation is a good resource for information about the shortcomings of tests:

      It’s true that there is no test that can accurately represent any child’s meaningful learning. That’s not to say that there aren’t assessments that are useful for giving us data, as long as we keep in mind exactly how the test was written, what it is intended to measure, and what mitigating information we might have about the particular child for whom the data is being used. This is why test data should be used on a local basis, in the context of a meaningful relationship with real people, and not used to determine teacher retention or student advancement to the next grade.

      April 15, 2014
    • J Smith said:

      You need to reread the author’s statements. You’ve twisted the author’s words and thus, the meaning behind the words. You’re picking a fight that isn’t there. THAT’S a perfect example of exactly what’s wrong with our educational system.

      October 13, 2014
  5. Interesting discussion. Sorry, I must have missed the “straw man.” The author says that assessments have their proper place in ensuring accountability. Saying so doesn’t remove the fact that there is no assessment that can accurately assess all children–who are multiply gifted and intelligent. When we start giving all students assessments that assess their musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, inter- and intra-personal intelligences, as well as their linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, then maybe we will be a little closer to an “all student” approach. One of the things Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in his ASCD keynote this year was how there was a teacher in Liverpool many decades ago who missed the fact that she had half of the Beatles in her classroom. I wonder who we are missing for having such a narrow view of assessment.

    At that same ASCD conference, Dr. Russ Quaglia (@DrRussQ on twitter) called for us to consider each student’s aspiration as the measure our our efforts in schools. [Full disclosure: I work with Dr. Russ.] Encouraging students to pursue their dreams by working in the present towards them requires us to attend to the self-worth, engagement, and purpose that bring about such efforts. This should be the new “normal” in education. Doing that requires us to use methods that stand the inherited model of schooling on its head–such as flipped classrooms; project, rather than discipline based learning; or My Aspirations Action Plans (, which help students personalize their learning, rather than requiring teachers (impossibly) to personalize instruction. I am convinced that only then will our assessments be useful tools (i.e., means) rather than the goal (i.e., end) of improving instruction for all students and meeting their personal needs and interests in the academic and educational spheres.

    April 14, 2014
  6. Ashwini Bissa said:

    Thanks John! For sharing this article, also appreciate your reference of Sir Ken Robinson. I firmly believe that every child has a strength of its own and she has an far above average level of intelligence and creativity in her area of strength, but there are majorly two problems that students are facing, one, either they don’t know their area of strength & second they don’t know the use of their strength in terms of career building which the current education system is not taking care off (India).
    Your article was very refreshing am looking forward for more such article from your end.

    April 15, 2014
  7. DH Tickles said:

    It has become cliché to point out that in a complex world, simple solutions don’t always fit. The axiom appears to hold when it comes to one type of complexity: the aspect of learning management labeled “Assessment.” On a literal level every learner is constantly receiving feedback from a variety of sensory sources both in and beyond school, and as educators we want to make sure that the feedback signals received as a result of a managed learning episode, don’t just appear to be, but are in fact, just as valid as the other unmanaged environmental feedback loops. Take this example from a university course syllabus:

    Modern organizations can be understood as complex adaptive systems. This understanding leads us to new insights about managing these systems, particularly the role of information and information systems in this task. The purpose of this course is to explore these new insights. We will discuss salient management implications of complex adaptive system theories with particular attention to specific prescriptions for information systems.

    Basic characteristics presented to managers by the fact that organizations are complex adaptive systems include the fundamental un-knowability (sic) and unpredictability of the world, the importance of nonlinear relationships in defining reality, and the role of self-organization, emergence, and co-evolution in organizational dynamics. We will emphasize sense-making, learning, improvisation, thinking about the future, and designing and managing relationships as substitutes for traditional activities of command, control, prediction and planning when managing complex adaptive systems.
    Fall 2011
    University of Texas

    As the above passage demonstrates, the study of complexity as it pertains to assessment, can have you quickly asking whether the learning being evaluated can be measured beyond an accounting for – as opposed to “the” functioning of – the variables. And so the debate rages on about the “accounting of the learning” with the camps of “how” and “how much” we test, ‘testing’ the other side’s logic.

    Just as there is no one-size-fits-all test, rarely does the testing, from any kind of test, result in perfect alignment of scores. But that is the point. To assume that everyone is going to achieve the same result would mean that there really is no such thing as complexity when it comes to learning.

    This puts the “how we should test” proponents in a tough spot: remove complexity (their argument for re-emphasis of testing-type) by ‘making’ everyone “Above Average”. The problem is, it is the complexity they want us acknowledging in making this emphasis change, until complexity gets in the way of the outcome they want to see. I believe the author’s desire to balance out the personal nature of learning with the need to be able to function in a larger learning system (where the environmental feedback is relentlessly unpredictable), necessitates two types of validity checks:

    1. A recognition that “average” means just that…that all learners are part of a greater whole, and that knowing where our learning is, is measured against that whole, and not just ourselves.
    2. That as the people responsible for the management of the resultant data, we take into account as many “in sample” data points pertaining to “the function of” variables as we can manage for each individual. These data points define variation and will be of a complex nature, but are in no way “more valid” and are not a substitute for, the first validity check.

    April 15, 2014
  8. […] Each child we have the blessing to educate is unique. Each child, as I recently heard from education thought leader and bestselling author Sir Kenneth Robinson, “is a fountain of possibilities.” The young people in our schools can’t be considered to be outputs. As educators we must cultivate the right conditions for learning; we must find each child’s passion, talent, and creativity….read more […]

    April 16, 2014
  9. ganesh khanna said:

    What is said resonates with how most of us think ………. though the educational system we operate in tends to restrict most of us , yet Institutional Inertia can be overcome by individual faculty contributions ………Entrepreneurial mindset is the way forward………….

    April 16, 2014
  10. Tyclone Skydesk said:

    I think you bring up a very good point. However, I disagree that all children have passions, and will benefit more from individualized curriculum. Many children have talents, but very few will follow through with their passions. Individualized curriculum just gives students a loophole to get out of doing work. Unless if they are academically motivated, they will not achieve. A standardized curriculum is a guideline so that students have a general path to follow. If the standard are to change at all, it should be a greater workload not a vague one.

    I think it’s the teachers that need to change, not the curriculum. We all remember those nasty teachers in Middle School. Children should want to learn, and the teacher’s job is to kindle and facilitate that passion. Right now, that’s not happening. There should be a tailored curriculum, but it should be in addition to, not in place of, required curriculum.

    October 21, 2014

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