Public School = Conformity?

Some say that a child who attends public school will grow up to become just another cog in the corporate machine – an unthinking, mindless conformist who is trained only to take standardized tests and is incapable of thinking outside the box. I think that’s a rather overdramatic view.

Sure, anyone who attended public school knows that it is indeed quite regimented: you’ve got your long list of school rules, you go to school at the same time every day, the bell rings at all the same times, you’re only allowed to wander the halls with permission, and you can only leave school when the bell rings or if you have permission.

But I don’t necessarily think the public school system’s schedule is what creates this supposed conformity. Getting kids used to a daily routine can make them more well-disciplined, but of course, there is such a thing as overscheduling your kids, and that is a blog post in itself.

They say that “teaching to the test” is part of what creates “conformity.” Not all children are good test takers, but are really smart in other ways. Some children are very good test takers, but they may not necessarily understand the material they’re being tested on. But in public school, children’s academic competence is determined by how well they perform on standardized tests – and because every student learns differently, that’s not fair.

The best of teachers recognize that standardized testing is a necessary evil, and they do prepare their students for the test, but that’s definitely not where their job ends. They ensure that each student is working to his full potential, and they genuinely care about students’ successes and failures. A good teacher does not encourage conformity in his students, but encourages them to think outside the box.

Teaching is probably one of the most difficult jobs there is, especially when you’re a public school teacher who has to worry about getting a certain amount of passing test scores to stay hired. I’ve heard that a lot of teachers wish they didn’t have to waste time “teaching to the test.”

Tests are indeed a good measure of progress, but standardized tests are too, well, standardized to be able to adequately test each student on his/her individual abilities – and public schools place far too much emphasis on them. Because of standardized testing, a truly brilliant child can get “left behind” if he doesn’t perform well on the test, and a slow learner can move along to the next grade if she happens to do well.

But I wouldn’t say that merely attending a public school turns children into little conformists. Not at all.

3 thoughts on “Public School = Conformity?

  1. I went to a public school for five years, before I let for private school in 6th grade.
    I don’t think public school makes people drones per say, but with this whole “teach to test” thing going on, it’s harder to innovate, and that can have two effects: one) as you said, bad test takers but brilliant children may be left behind and vice versa, and two) the lack of innovation can hurt you in work life. Training kids to just take tests isn’t preparing them successfully for the future.

    At the same time, private school has issues too. We aren’t taught to tests and often don’t know when the standardized tests are until the day of. This is good and bad: we do get to innovate (don’t know if that actually helps though) but we have no accurate marker of where we stand. Private school children tend to……let me put this gently…..get things handed to them, and tests can be one such thing.

    I guess nobody’s perfect.


    1. Yep… it’s impossible to come up with the perfect, most ideal educational model, just like it’s impossible to come up with the perfect government system. It comes with being human, I suppose.


  2. There is an element of truth in this (that “a child who attends public school will grow up to become just another cog in the corporate machine – an unthinking, mindless conformist who is trained only to take standardized tests and is incapable of thinking outside the box”), but I think it’s way oversimplified.

    I went to public school, and I prefer to think I’m not an unthinking, mindless conformist (and I think most people who know me would agree — I am far from perfect, but the flaws I have are not those). Thelonious Monk and the string theorist Brian Greene went to my high school also — definitely not mindless conformists. 🙂

    But, on a more general level, there are a lot of factors that this leaves out. For one big example, people who become teachers usually have aspirations other than pounding students into being cogs in the machine. I’ve seen a lot of examples of teachers pulling in one direction and school administration in another (and unions sometimes in a third direction). Also, schools are different, principals are different, school districts are different, and states are different. It’s a very complex situation, not just a single conveyor belt to a single ending.

    The situation (education in general) is not good, but no improvement is ever going to happen if people pretend it’s all the same and easily understood.

    Oh, and you bring out one very important point which has changed in my lifetime, and that’s the fact that teachers are now evaluated on the basis of the test scores their students get. When I was growing, up, kids were evaluated based on the standardized tests (we had that fact drilled into us, and as you say that’s a big problem too), but the teachers were there forever).

    I’d better stop — I hate it when my comments are longer than the post they’re responding to. 🙂


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