The United States Handicapper General

By:

Jul 9, 2010

In the satirical science fiction short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron is too smart, too attractive and too strong. By official edict of the United States Handicapper General, under the authority of the 211th, 212th and 213th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, Harrison must be handicapped to bring him on par with the rest of society. These handicaps include headphones that play distracting noises, eyeglasses designed to give him headaches, a rubber ball on his nose, three hundred pounds of weight strapped to his body, black caps on his teeth, and shaven eyebrows.

Through this handicapping system, the government attempts to distress each citizen as necessary to achieve unmitigated social equality, normalizing everyone to the lowest common denominator.

America’s traditional public school system has converged on Vonnegut’s fictional dystopia to some extent. Each fall administrators assign 20-30 students to a rectangular classroom with a standardized teacher who spends a stringently regulated nine months trying to realize state-mandated general learning outcomes so that no child is left behind.

But currents of innovation are starting to bring fresh oxygen to the system. Kansas City and several other school districts are experimenting with eliminating grade levels; students—often of varying age levels—work at their own pace on assignments and projects tailored to their specific skill levels. The Open High School of Utah is promoting master teachers, like teacher-of-the-year Sarah Weston, to extend their unique teaching gift over the Internet to boundless additional children beyond the traditional classroom. Innosight Instititute’s upcoming case study about Apex Learning describes how West Auburn High School in Auburn, Washington offers four different programs—ranging from fully online to blended to traditional—to accommodate each student’s unique methods, styles and paces of learning. Other school systems, such as Western Governors University, are completely competency based, not credit-hour based. This means that students progress as they demonstrate required competencies, not as they fulfill government-mandated seat-time requirements.

Innovations like these are rich with promise. Rather than tethering students to a one-size-fits-all average, fresh school approaches are releasing the Harrison Bergerons of society to accelerate forward at their own unbounded paces.

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.