What the “End of Average” Means for K-12

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My wife and I sat in the office of an educational psychologist as she explained the results of the IQ test she administered to our 9-year-old twin boys—they were each assessed across 10 subdomains. The twins’ score profiles were completely different, which, as fraternal twins, makes sense since they just happened to share a womb. Each child performed incredibly well in some areas and struggled in others. Their results were uneven, jagged so to speak.

At the end of the conversation, the psychologist shared that their average IQ scores were basically the same. “Wait, what?” I said. “How is that even possible? Their subdomain scores couldn’t have been more different.”

“You picked up on that, huh?” she said. “Averages aren’t always that helpful.”

In his new book The End Of Average, Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, argues that averages are not useful when it comes to making decisions about individuals. Averages mask our uniqueness, as we saw with my twins.

And averages can create a false reference point when we use them to define “normal.” Because virtually no one resembles the average. Virtually no one is normal.

Rose believes that society’s focus on averages comes with a cost: employers miss talented employees, large swaths of students fail to reach their potential, and patients can be misdiagnosed.

The End of Average explores how “averagarianism” impacts a range of industries and scientific disciplines, but, in particular, it raises lots of questions about how we organize education. Just as we buy skis, boots and poles that fit our bodies, what would it look like for schools to fit our children?

Here are four reflections on what the “End of Average” might mean for K12.

1. Our kids are “jagged,” and that’s a good thing. Because of the primacy of grade point averages and college entrance exam scores in college admissions, high school students are in an arms race to be “most” above average. Averages have two negative effects here: 1) they obscure the unique strengths and weaknesses students have across multiple dimensions in favor of a single composite score; and 2) students are motivated to hide the “jaggedness” – as Rose calls it – of their profile and put forth a persona that is master of all subjects, activities and achievements.

In an “end of average” world, schools would unearth the jagged profiles of our students so educators can make better diagnoses in class and match students to “good fit” programs, pathways and schools. We’d celebrate our jaggedness and use it as the basis to provide a better education.

But to end average, we need a deeper understanding of our students, which requires better assessments and more nuanced student profiles. And once he have a fuller picture of our students, we need to accurately diagnose and make sophisticated clinical judgments based on individual needs. Better assessments, more nuanced student profiles and sophisticated clinical judgments are more aspiration than reality in K12 today, but are focal areas for innovation.

2. There are multiple paths to excellence. One of Rose’s most provocative conclusions is that “there is not a single, normal pathway for any type of human development—biological, mental, moral or professional” (p. 129) He uses the example of babies learning to crawl; there is no one developmental path, and some babies skip crawling altogether.

Putting an end to average means knowing that there is no average or “normal” path. Rose argues that there are multiple paths to excellence, as well as faulty paths that need diagnosis and treatment. We need to study the different pathways individual students take to learn. Deepening our understanding of these pathways has the potential to make us better educators.

The study of individuals is labor-intensive, which is what makes using averages in science so appealing. But advances in technology make researching the “science of the individual” more feasible now than ever before.

3. Know thyself and thy students… in each unique context. There is an abundance of research showing behavior is situational, but Rose suggests even morals are contextual. For example, a person may consistently exhibit honest behavior in one setting and dishonest behavior in another.

Rose posits that individuals each have a predictable set of “if-then” patterns in their behavior (if context x, then behavior y), and that students can be placed in educational settings that are a better fit for those patterns.

To end “average,” educators would think about how the school context impacts student behavior, instead of assuming that poor behavior is simply due to some deficiency in the student or problems at home.

4. Schools should fit our students. The implications of Rose’s work can be overwhelming: how does a school customize individual pathways for each child based on their jagged talents and context-dependent behaviors? Each child is their own snowflake—but is it fair to assume that every teacher “will know what to do” and everything will work itself out?

To put an end to average, schools would become much more flexible in how they serve students – Roses suggest self-paced, mastery-based learning – and/or public school systems would provide a diversity of programs to choose from.

Can Better Fit Lead to More Equitable Schools?

Rose is a talented researcher and education appears ripe to benefit from the science of the individual. The End of Average shines a light on education to highlight the opportunities to create better fit in our schools. But getting to better fit in education is complicated, so complicated it may not be worth the effort.

On the other hand, we see more affluent families seek better fit (dare I say personalize?) through some combination of school choice, school-based advocacy, tutoring, afterschool and summer enrichment, third-party assessments and online learning.

There is a black market for personalized education in America. The question is how do we make educational fit available to every child in our public schools—not just those who can pay for it.

Rose sees “equal fit” as the new foundation for an education equity agenda. Is fit a more compelling, less controversial rallying cry than family choice? Or just another means to sort children into schools or classrooms based on affluence?

Alex Hernandez (@thinkschools) is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation's best public charter schools and an an EdSurge columnist.

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