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What Do We Lose By Measuring 'Average' In Education?

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 Excerpted from The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose. Copyright ©2016 by L. Todd Rose, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 

I hope I have captured just how incredible a pilot Killer C is. But I would never be telling you this story if the U.S. Air Force still insisted that our pilots fit inside a cockpit designed for an average pilot: Colonel Kim N. Campbell, whose real call sign is Killer Chick, is five foot four and weighs 120 pounds—and she could not be any further from someone’s idea of an “average” pilot.

There is an important lesson here about the nature of opportunity. When the military adopted Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels’s radical idea of creating adjustable cockpits that fit any person’s body, nobody was talking about expanding the pool of pilot talent, let alone advocating for gender equity. They just wanted their existing pilots to perform better. The air force did not get Campbell because they designed a female-friendly plane, they got Campbell because they made a commitment to build planes designed to fit the jagged profile of individual pilots, whatever their jaggedness might be. “When I climb into the Warthog,” Campbell said to me, “the seat needs to go to its maximum height and the pedals go all the way back—but it fits.”

This is the lesson of Kim Campbell: fit creates opportunity. If the environment is a bad match with our individuality—if we cannot reach the controls in the cockpit—our performance will always be artificially impaired. If we do get a good fit with our environment—whether that environment is a cockpit, a classroom, or a corner office—we will have the opportunity to show what we are truly capable of. This means that if we want equal opportunity for everyone, if we want a society where each one of us has the same chance to live up to our full potential, then we must create professional, educational, and social institutions that are responsive to individuality.

Rose End of AverageThis is not how we usually think about equal opportunity. During the Age of Average we have defined opportunity as “equal access”—as ensuring that everyone has access to the same experiences. Of course, equal access is undoubtedly preferable to older alternatives such as nepotism, cronyism, racism, misogyny, and classism. And there is no doubt that equal access has improved society immensely, creating a society that is more tolerant, respectful, and inclusive. But equal access suffers from one major shortcoming: it aims to maximize individual opportunity on average by ensuring that everyone has access to the same standardized system, whether or not that system actually fits.


Imagine if the Air Force had passed a policy to allow all men and women the opportunity to become fighter pilots if they had the “right stuff,” but continued to create cockpits designed for the average pilot. The Air Force would have rejected Kim Campbell, not because she lacked the talent to be a world-class pilot, but because she didn’t fit inside an average cockpit. It would be difficult to argue that this is equal opportunity.

Equal access is an averagarian solution to an averagarian problem. For generations, people have been discriminated against because of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class. Our response to such discrimination has been to try to balance the scales of opportunity—on average. If we see that the Average Man of one group is receiving different access to educational, professional, legal, and medical experiences than the Average Man of another group, then averagarian thinking suggests that the fair thing to do is to try to make those two Average Men as similar as possible. This was the right thing to do in the Age of Average—because it was the best we could do to address unfairness in a standardized world.

But now we know there is no such thing as an average person, and we can see the flaw in the equal access approach to opportunity: if there is no such thing as an average person, then there can never be equal opportunity on average. Only equal fit creates equal opportunity. Equal fit may seem like a novel idea, but it is ultimately the same view of opportunity expressed by Abraham Lincoln, when he declared that government’s “leading object is to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

Equal fit is an ideal that can bring our institutions into closer alignment with our values, and give each of us the chance to become the very best we can be, and to pursue a life of excellence, as we define it.

The good news is that we have it within our power, right now, to implement equal fit as a new foundation for equal opportunity in society. We no longer need to compel people to conform to the same inflexible standardized system, because we have the science and technology to build institutions that are responsive to individuality. But this transformation from an Age of Average to an Age of Individuals will not happen automatically. We must demand it.

If we are looking for the institution where implementing equal fit would have the biggest immediate impact on opportunity, the place to start is clear: public education. Despite the fact that “personalized learning” is the biggest buzzword in education today, and despite efforts of many organizations seeking change in the system, almost everything in traditional educational systems remains designed to ensure students receive the same exact standardized experience. Textbooks are designed to be “age appropriate,” which means they are targeted toward the average student of a given age. Many assessments (including many so-called high-stakes tests) are age or grade normed, which means they are based around the average student of that age or grade. We continue to enforce a curriculum that defines not only what students learn, but also how, when, at what pace, and in what order they learn it. In other words, whatever else we may say, traditional public education systems violate the principles of individuality.

Although it would not be easy, it’s not difficult to imagine how to introduce equal fit into education. For starters, we can require that textbooks be designed “to the edges” rather than to the average; we can require that curricular materials be adaptive to individual ability and pacing rather than fixed based on grade or age; we can require that educational assessments be built to measure individual learning and development rather than simply ranking students against one another. Finally, we can encourage local experimentation and sharing of successes and failures to accelerate discovery and adoption of cost-effective, scalable ways to implement student-driven, self-paced, multipathway educational experience.

We can also apply the principle of equal fit to social policies that influence the workplace, such as policies that influence hiring, firing, and pay. Imagine the talent that we can unleash by redesigning our schools and jobs to fit the individual, instead of fitting the averagarian system—even if that averagarian system is motivated by the best of intentions. We would unleash a society of Kim Campbells—a society of individual excellence.


Todd Rose is president of the Center for Individual Opportunity and faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

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