Thursday, April 24, 2008

Socrates in McDonalds

She greets the students with a faux smile and haggard eyes, offering the same rehearsed line, "pick up your bell work," and like androids, they wander to their assigned seats. Though she resembles a Wal-Mart greeter, the classroom most closely resembles a McDonalds. With the prefabricated, inoffensive posters, brightly advertising fractions, there is a subtle message that math can be cheap and easy and fun. From the ordered desks to the grating fluorescent lights, the entire classroom has an atmosphere of edgy boredom, tempered only by the fact that the work is so easy students really can’t complain.

Students fill out prepackaged worksheets, photocopied and handed out with a time deadline. Though the knowledge may be superficial, they learn it quickly and can retain it long enough to vomit it back into the state-mandated, fill-in-the-bubble test. Later, the teacher delivers a freeze-dried, pre-packaged lesson with the same passion and charisma of the photocopy machine, quietly attempting to transfer knowledge that can be measured and quantified and consumed by these wild, hormonal teenagers whose eyes have grown glassy from the sedative of standardized instruction. Thus the factory-model continues with the uniforms and ID cards and rote memorization testing.

Sure, some students drop out, attempting a dollar menu effort and receiving a cheaper meal than others. Most settle for a value menu with inflated grades, specialized with fancy, descriptive words, but containing the same lethal dose of indoctrination. A few kids will go the extra mile and earn a super-sized education, banking on the hopes of an American Dream that promises a magical ticket to the posh suburban lifestyle if they can just behave well enough and memorize the quadratic formula. Except, just like a super-sized Big Mac Meal Deal, the drive for success might some day lead to a heart attack.

The cynic in me wonders if there can be any nutrition in fast-food education. I wonder if we can replace customer service with a relationship, management with mentoring, knowledge with wisdom. Perhaps I can teach a few practical skills, offer some opportunities to connect to the community, generate meaningful discussion an allow students to think independently. I feel like I am subverting the system, like I'll be caught one day. I imagine myself as a doctor replacing fast-food fare with something meatier, tastier and more costly. Other times, I wonder if I am becoming a sell-out; a practitioner trained to follow the bottom line. There's a subtle message that it's better to be mediocre than to try something different, make a huge mistake and disrupt the bulwark of bureaucracy. After all, if the sales aren't high and the results aren't measurable, I have failed the system.

I find it interesting that the values of the fastfood industry are identical to the values of the educational industry. Even the term “industry” bothers me, as if teaching humans is some kind of a business. Both value cost-effectiveness. A full restaurant and a full classroom both mean higher profits for someone – though not necessarily the workers at the bottom. A standardized, formulaic method works for creating a Big Mac and for educating a child. In both cases, the bottom line is efficiency, especially if it can be quantified. There is something disturbing when McDonalds keeps a marquee sign telling customers that billions of hamburgers had been sold. Now, I cringe when schools boast an “exceeding” test-score label on their marquee signs.

Despite my mocking of the system, there are days when I give in to the convenience of a fast-food education. I give a test or pop in a movie or simply re-use a lesson from the previous year. I disengage and manage, so that I can finish grading or fill out paperwork. In the end, like a trip to McDonalds, the result is wasted calories. I feel sick to my stomach. What is shocking to me is that some teachers act as fast-food junkies – sitting behind a desk all day and passing out worksheets and crossword puzzles.

Thus, it is all standardized. Who we teach, becomes mere data in a spreadsheet and categories based upon reading levels or math skills. The teacher becomes a mechanical practitioner, missing the creative notion of a vocation. There is a sense that, like the fastfood worker, curriculum is now “teacher-proof” so that no one deviates from the standardized norms. What we teach grows politically mandated, with strings connected to federal money. Curriculum maps guide the state standardized objectives so that we can assess students with standardized tests, based upon the standardized textbook material. Teachers deliver scripted lessons and students, for their part offer scripted answers in a sort-of mindless regurgitation – a meaningless, secular catechism.

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