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Volume I, Number 9, September, 2003

Children are Not Hamburgers

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

The prevailing model for school improvement imposed by Washington these days is fast food education. We have leaders and self-styled reformers who see schools as assembly lines and deep fat fryers. Their response to educational distress?

  • Standardize everything.
  • Bring in the stop watches.
  • Get the routines straight.
  • Teach by recipe.
  • Follow the script.
  • Flip the burgers.
  • Stamp out anything that seems unique, special or magical.
This model treats children like hamburger patties, french fries, buns and chicken breasts passing along a conveyor belt. It treats teachers like unskilled minimum wage earners who are expected to follow instructions and do as they're told without questioning authority, without wandering off the prescribed course and without showing imagination, acting upon intuition or inventing customized interventions to reverse patterns of failure.

Children are not hamburgers and schools are not fast food restaurants.

Nutritional Warning! This brand of schooling may be injurious to your health, cause narrow-mindedness, steal away your zest for learning, cause ROSS (Repetitive Stress Syndrome) and force you to join hundreds of thousands of other young people in the Academy of the Streets and the Charter School of Dreams Deferred.

This factory approach to schooling is not new. It has been tried repeatedly in the past without achieving the miracles predicted by its advocates. Sadly, the main subjects of this unhealthy experimentation have been the disadvantaged populations of our urban centers who have attracted an amazing succession of silver bullets, bandwagons and quick educational fixes during the past few decades.

These fixes come and go like tropical storms creating lots of churn and what amounts to virtual change, consuming billions of dollars without making much of a dent in the overall pattern of school failure. They are usually, in Shakespeare's words, "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." They fail to address the root causes of poor performance and they do not give the children what they need. Despite claims to the contrary, they leave children behind by the hundreds of thousands.

“The New Colossus,” is a poem that appears on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The original words . . .

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

We might have to re-write the poem to match NCLB . . .

"Give us your poor, your hungry and your downtrodden so we can experiment with their minds and their futures using educational techniques we would never inflict upon the children of our best (and richest) citizens."

The basic failing of the factory approach is the way it ignores differences between children and their learning patterns while applying uniform treatments to all. Skilled teachers - the ones who achieve the most impressive student gains - are talented at diagnosis and customization. They figure out what each student needs and they make sure each gets her or his just deserts.

Skilled teachers spend a lifetime deepening, widening and enriching their repertoires. One size, it turns out, never fits all, so the teacher is on a ceaseless search for just the right intervention to change patterns of performance and provoke surges of individual progress. Some have termed this kind of collecting "craft knowledge" - a rich accumulation of strategies and techniques that can transform poor performers into solid students.

Sadly, the proponents of factory style schooling have little respect for rank and file teachers and dismiss the possibilities of reform that is customized or artful. They have sought "teacher proof" solutions and products for decades.

Warming Up Old Ideas

The current administration offers up a sad menu of warmed up leftovers from previous decades that are already discredited and untrustworthy, but they dress these strategies up in trendy language to make them seductive.

To appreciate fully the horror hidden behind the glib phrases and marketing claims of this group of right wing radicals, it helps to read books like Nickeled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. This book exposes the grim reality of minimum wage America, the children who were left behind by our schools and condemned to a future of marginal existence.

Despite their lofty claims, these conservatives are comfortable with such free market realities and see nothing wrong with workers living on subsistence wages. Despite frequent sanctimonious references to Jesus and God, they rarely show much compassion for the disadvantaged when it comes to voting for social policies that might benefit them.

Lurking behind the polished phrases and virtual compassion is a social and political agenda that tolerates or masks a high level of dropouts and views the public schools as a hugely wasteful enterprise worthy of dismantlement and replacement by a host of new private enterprise schools that would pop up like fast food restaurants to offer poor families "rich choices" and promises of educational salvation.

The vision is false. No private alternatives have proven cost effective or miraculous. There are no silver bullets. Parents who buy the false promises will awaken quickly to harsh realities. Children do not become great readers simply by changing schools.

  • Popcorn Reading
  • Popcorn Math
  • MacReading
  • Hooked on Syllables

Fast food may contribute to obesity, but when it comes to learning, fast food education is likely to starve rather than fill.

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.
What can you do to change this law before it does great damage to the schools and children in your state and town?
  1. Subscribe to "No Child Left" to stay informed about efforts to repeal NCLB. Click here.
  2. Speak with the school board members, administrators and teachers in your community to learn how NCLB will change schools and learning in your town.
  3. Start communicating with your Senators and Representatives to let them know you want this law changed to put more emphasis on capacity building and support rather than testing and punishment.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns. Illustrate the dangers of this law with specific and compelling examples.
  5. Emphasize concrete alternatives that would do more to improve the futures of disadvantaged children.

A List of ESEA (NCLB) Amendments

1. Fund social programs that impact school readiness so that all children actually enter school ready to learn as the first President Bush promised long ago.

2. Fund capacity building (enhanced teaching and learning) in districts and districts for several years before engaging in punishing labels and reckless choice provisions. Capacity building might mean providing hundreds of hours of training in effective reading strategies, for example. But it does not mean training everybody in a single highly scripted program endorsed by the administration for pseudo-scientific reasons.

3. Devote public money to truly public schools. Be careful not to divert funds to reckless experiments or diploma mills.

4. Fund enough construction of new schools within public systems so parental choice is real.

5. Support informed school choice within public systems.

6. Emphasize rewards and incentives rather than sanctions.

7. Hold all publicly funded schools to standards for performance and quality, whether actually private, charter or truly public. Be careful about simplistic notions of high stakes testing.

8. Fund recruitment and preparation of effective teachers and aides from all racial and economic groups to close the gap between current staffing levels and what is desirable.

9. End the insulting, broad brush assaults on teachers and administrators struggling against difficult challenges.

10. Capitalize on the good research conducted to discover what works best in schools and avoid simplistic panaceas and platitudes imported from the world of business and medicine.

11. Enrich the options available to all children. Forswear tightly scripted, robotic programs and the fast food approaches to school improvement.

12. Build school improvement on a richly defined foundation of alternatives and strategies.

13. Eliminate Trojan horses, hidden agendas and shameful politics from ESEA.

14. Stop using Madison Avenue techniques to hide the harsh realities of so-called compassionate conservatism.