Setting Standards

Life seems to be becoming more and more about “Setting standards.” Kids are supposed to meet a set of standards in school, set by the State and Federal Government. There are supposed to be standards for behavior; there are quality control standards in business, and now, they’re even trying to develop them for medicine- there are even internet protocol standards.

So what is all this really about?

Certain things, like internet protocol standards, allow us all to communicate effectively, and in the same language. God bless http, https, php, sql, xml and other standards- they’re instrumental in our ability to function online.

Standards keep assembly lines going, ansd quality control is all about maintaining a base level of sameness and predictability throughout a process. Every can of coca-cola should taste the same, whether it’s sold in New York or LA. Consistancy and standards can be very good in business and in mass markets.

Let’s take a quick look at quality analysis, quality control, and standards in medicine by contrast. I’m married to a doctor, and all the way along his training, issues regarding appropriate care come up. What should you do in this circumstance? What is the proper standard of care, and who decides what the proper standard is? Being a lawyer, this is the basis for most law suits, and something that is litigated all the time- Did the person, who allegedly caused another harm, deviate from the “Ordinary Standard of Care” in their actions? Did their actions amount to gross negiligence, by ignoring the generally accepted standard of care? How does anyone know, in the moment, whether they are meeting the standard, and even if they are, is it good enough?

Real life is messy. New circumstances, new twists on old problems come at you all the time. In order to solve these problems, we try to rely on the standards we have embraced. You may know, for example, how to deliver a baby or do a C-section, but how does this case change if the mother weighs in excess of 400 pounds? This doesn’t happen enough to get really good at it, or for there to be a well-established standardard operating procedure, so to speak. Or the time when a resident asked “What do you usually do when you find illegal drugs stored inside a patient?” This is not a question where the term “usually” is operable. It is UNusual. Life requires you to improvise and riff on what you already know, and everyone hopes, regardless of your profession, that you will do the best you can, “under the circumstances”.

Let’s take a quick look at education. Under No Child Left Behind, the States are testing students to make sure they are “being taught” and acquiring basic skills like reading, writing and math, commensurate with grade level. The purpose is to set standards for teaching- bullet points and lists of things that will be on the test and probed, so we can make sure every kid knows the pythagorean theorem, and can answer relatively innane questions after reading a short passage about the secret lives of tarantulas in the Amazon.

Everyone agrees kids should be able to read and write and do math. But we are raising people, not manufacturing widgets in a factory. There is some natural variation in the rate kids develop. There’s a vast difference in what they’re interested in, and even more variation in their native talents and skills. Yet everytime we sit these kids down to another standardized test, we are trying to see if they meet our widget production standard. And because we are looking for uniform standards, we’re asking teachers to “teach” more and more from scripted material, as if they were making phone calls to raise money. Can’t deviate from the script.

Even more frighteningly, schools seem most concerned about making sure every kid meets this widget standard. If every kid does, then the school is rewarded, and the teachers are doing a “great job”. But what about the kids who are really talented, and need to be challenged to be more than a widget? What about the kids who are slower to meet the widget standard? If we’re asking every kid to learn a certain piece of material in a certain period of time, are we getting to a point where we should just replace all teachers with videotapes (sorry- DVD’s) of people talking, so we achieve actual uniformity? It’s looking like Jonathan Swift and the Immodest Proposal is not far down the line.

And doesn’t commoditizing education take all the fun out of teaching and learning?

We’re looking for uniformity in a world where entropy rules- life does not abide by standards and benchmarks. There is always an exception to every rule. Life is messy and complex, whether we want to admit it or not.

Am I trying to say throw out all the standards? No. I am saying we have to look at what a standard is, why we need it, and what its implications are. For example, why should the standard for reading and math competency vary from State to State? Shouldn’t this be more uniform rather than less- when we are adopting “standards”? Why should the IQ level to be considered mentally retarded vary by as much as twenty points across state boundaries? Does someone get smarter or ‘stupider’ because they live in a different part of the Country? If standards aren’t really uniform, then aren’t they somewhat hypocritical?

We’re comfortable with sameness. Franchises work on the general premise that a Big Mac in Oregon will taste the same in Miami and Paris. Your double latte in Boston will be the same in Milwaukee. But the same also deprives us of variation and customization. And I see this as the biggest challenge we are facing these days- the tension between sameness and specialization.

There’s a great book called The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson, that talks about the online world making an infinite number of choices available. You are no longer limited by what merchandise is stocked in your local store- you can buy an antique Flintstones Lunchbox online if you want- just go to Ebay. Customization to your own specific niche tastes and wants is at your fingertips. And this can be a tremendously good thing. And it can be overwhelming, when we are used to a world with more limited choices.

You once had to settle for good enough or close enough. What was available. Now, availability and demand are changing, and only what you’re willing to pay and shipping time/costs provide the limits to meeting your needs. But this also has an obligation attached. You now have to sort through so many more choices, so many more options, it can easily become overwhelming. And we are reverting back to asking trusted filters to help us choose among this infinite selection.

It comes down to the following question: Are you following standards set by others, or are you following your own? Are these standards providing a consistant baseline level of performance, or are they causing a migration to the mean where exceptional and success are replaced by safe and reliable? And is this a good or bad thing? And how confortable are you with this whole process?

It’s an evolution and exploration for me, and I really can’t wait to hear what you think.

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