Since its beginnings, America has directed most of its educational energies toward creating average students.

Already in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his classic Democracy in America,

“I do not believe that there is a country in the world where, in proportion to the population, there are so few uninstructed and at the same time so few learned individuals. Primary instruction is within the reach of everybody; superior instruction is scarcely to be obtained by any… Their education ends at the age when [Europeans’] begins.”

The goal of Horace Mann (1796-1859)—sometimes called the “Father” of American education—was not to increase the number of exceptional students, but to increase the number of people with enough basic learning skills to participate in self-government. As education historian Lawrence Cremin writes,

“Throughout [Mann] was concerned with the greatest general proficiency of average students. Thus it was never the remarkable progress of a few which captured his attention but, rather, the more general progress of all.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, states passed laws making high school education compulsory. But this did not necessarily increase the quality of education; it simply increased the length of schooling. In fact, I might argue that it made high school education worse, in the same way that college standards have declined with the massive influx of students over the past 30-40 years.

On the local level, we in Minnesota know that the recent focus of our state’s education system is not on helping students excel, but on closing graduation and proficiency “gaps” between different races and income levels. The system’s success is thus being measured based on how many more average students it can produce.

On the national level, American students’ latest scores on the PISA (Programme of International Student Assessment)—the international test taken by 15 year-olds around the world—demonstrate the fruits of focusing on mediocrity. Depending on the subject, American students are average or slightly below average compared to their international peers:

These results are in part a reflection of the fact that, unlike many other countries, students of varying abilities are tested in America. However, a breakdown of the numbers also shows that America’s best performing students are being outperformed by many of the other countries’ best performing students. In other words, our best students are being brought down by the current system.

So, what is to be done? Is American education destined to forever remain focused on creating average students?

If things are to change, I think America is going to have to revisit the more simplistic understanding of equality on which our education system is based.

The current system still associates equality with sameness. It is designed in such a way that it fails to effectively take into account differences in academic capabilities and talents. Its stated goal is to make all students “college-ready,” and it increasingly wishes to subject all students to a common curriculum through high school. (Of course, all of this is quite ironic for a system that so frequently preaches about “diversity.”)

However, at the secondary level (where the complexity of concepts increases), when you throw students of diverse abilities and desires in the same school together, for the same amount of time, with the expectation that all of them should become proficient in the same material, you’re going to have to lower the difficulty of that material. You’re going to end up with a mediocre curriculum and education.

Most other countries don’t operate with this same simplistic understanding of equality. They provide all students with opportunities, but recognize that different abilities and desires require different kinds of opportunities. Many of the top scoring countries on the PISA exam—China, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, to name a few—have separate tracks for students when they reach high school age. Some students go on to a traditional academic track; others go on to a vocational track (with some classes in traditional subjects) that more swiftly prepares them for employment. 

Maybe it is time for the American education system to look at expanding vocational opportunities in high school? It would make the academic track more rigorous, since it would be populated with students who have the necessary skills, knowledge base, and desire to be there. A separate vocational track would offer more alternatives to those students whose desires and talents lie elsewhere than the traditional academic path. In the end, I think it would better allow all students to flourish.

All men and women are created equal in dignity, but not all have the same abilities and desires when it comes to education. Only when the American education system recognizes this will it become better than average.