Pictures at an Educational Exhibition: Still Life with Elephant

What is right with this picture, and wrong with that one?

I have reported before on Loreto College, the Mancunian comprehensive school a majority of whose pupils come from impoverished wards of Manchester. The school is one of Great Britain’s best and has a 50% acceptance rate of its applicants to the ancient universities (Oxford and Cambridge). Loreto High School is now adding to the physical nourishment of its students, too, by hiring excellent chefs to prepare tasty and nutritious lunches in the school’s kitchens. The object was to get away from pink slime, white goo, green gunk, and steaming mysteries in gray and brown. What happens when the new dishes are rolled out? The students of Loreto sit down and eat their vegetables.

Consider by contrast other schools where, in lunch “hours” as brief as twenty-five minutes, Daddy’s little vacuum cleaner gobbles a Chick Fil-A or a Big Mac prepared by a “nutrition” company and supplied ready to go at the schools’ cook-free “kitchens.” The political and operational situation of these schools makes genuine nutrition impossible, but the refusal of students to eat such food would subvert even the best plan to fix good lunches.

What does the wrong picture typify on more than one level?

There is a striking parallel of the politics behind factory feeding to the inclusion of “education” companies in the rollout of the Common Core as a business model featuring morsels—gobbets?—whose “digestion” is assessed by multiple-choice standardized tests. Just as factory food provides junk nutrition, factory testing certifies junk education. The parallel is made nearly exact by my former colleague the public-university administrator, who reports that students at that university savage their demanding teachers in course evaluations, refusing the “dishes” set before them.

What are the people who report on the second picture telling us?

Many reports do not tell us what we need to know. They mention incidentally or not at all the complete failure of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to come anywhere near the impossible goal it set for achievement in 2014—a goal that is still on the books. Nor are they paying any critical attention to the incipient impossibility of the goals in the sidestep plan, RAce to the Top (RAT).

Two Living Rooms and Two Elephants

NCLB called for universal proficiency by the end of high school. Since that elephant is politically impossible to remove from the living room, we now have a plan to tiptoe into another living room with another elephant[1]. The plan says, in effect, that a country that could not be made universally proficient in ten years by public education will now be made universally “college or career ready” in two or three years. What is more, this magical thinking appears to be accepted at face value by those reporting on it.

The Visionary Gleam Stops Here

Hence a recent report in The New York Times about the schools of Washington state, which stand to lose their Federal funding because they have refused to enter either of the living rooms. The reporter cast their decision as a “political” move to an “outdated” program whose “benchmark” is “all but impossible to achieve.” The whole truth behind this half-truth is that the “benchmarks” of both programs are all but impossible to achieve. What is more, the non-“outdated” program requires teachers to be evaluated by a demonstrably idiotic and ineffective system.  Is it possible that Washington, like the Montgomery County schools, could decide that enough junk is enough?


[1] I imagine Arne Duncan in a sad echo of Churchill’s “chicken and neck speech” proudly declaiming of RAT, “Some living room! Some elephant!”

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