Fast Food Education Reviewing the Facts about Education Reform

Back several decades ago the food industry discovered something called “fast food” and it exploded on the American landscape as a vehicle for providing food fast in economically savvy ways that would bring food cheaply and efficiently to the “unwashed masses” (meant sarcastically) in every corner of the globe.  Fast forward a couple of decades. We have become more informed as public consumers about the health dangers of fast food.  We have become more informed about the merits of locally grown and organic food products.  Yet, in any impoverished neighborhood, largely those in large urban settings, one can see a fast food chain dotting almost every corner yet not a large grocery store will exist for a mile or more. These are called food deserts. And volumes of research have shown the correlation between poverty and health concerns such as obesity and diabetes; both of which are directly associated with the food availability (or lack of) in those neighborhoods. Once hailed as a great way to provide food cheaply, thus creating more food “choices” to those with less income, and a means for ensuring a “common standard” of food production (i.e. a Big Mac pretty much tastes the same anywhere you go in the world) this system of streamlined production, once touted as a good thing, has revealed an ugly underside to the ways in which food availability (quality versus quantity) parallel socioeconomic divisions.

Under the guise of education “reform” we are doing to children’s minds what fast food has done to their bodies. The motives and the outcomes of education reform provide an eerie parallel to the fast food industry.

The latest trend du jour in education is what called “the National Common Core Standards”  (NCCS).  It has been widely embraced by a host of organizations and individuals, most of whom have a political or economic stake in its adoption. Like a fast food chain, the Common Core is spreading across the nation, being adopted in 46 states, being “forced” in some cases, even on those who opposed its implementation.  It ensures “accountability and streamlining” in education supposed to raise the standards on student achievement. But there are scores of research, and scholars, and teachers who have serious and well-founded concerns over the Common Core. Their voices have remained largely marginalized in the mainstream media, and many have been told to remain silent lest they jeopardize their own careers or public positions. Fear and compliance.

The Common Core does not stand alone. It is part of a “trifecta” of reform measures which many believe will be harmful to public education and students’ well-being. This trifecta also includes new teacher evaluations (mostly PARCC and SBAC) and increased implementation of high stakes testing across all grades beginning in kindergarten and across more content areas.  These high stakes tests are being used in ways for which they were never originally intended: to punish students, teachers, and schools for low test scores, regardless of the myriad of factors which influence students achievement, but which are ignored.

Like fast food, this trifecta provides a one- size- fits- all, and supposedly more economically viable, way of “feeding the minds” of children.  But, like fast food, this reform initiative, in addition to what it promises, has some negative outcomes as well.  Common Core claims that it reduces the number of standards and thus allows for deeper content analysis in certain subject areas. Going deep instead of scatter shot of too many standards. Chik Fil A only serves chicken. That doesn’t make it any healthier for you. Plus, when you add the pressures on teachers and schools to “make the numbers” on high stakes tests, using fear and coercion as motivators to educators to make sure all their students pass the test, you lose any potential quality the common core might have had in actually delivering some substantive learning outcomes. Teachers, especially in schools at risk of failing, will teach to the test out of fear for their jobs. Take a potato. As a vegetable (or starch if you wish) it has the potential to deliver nutrition to the body. The Irish survived on it for decades. But…process it. Fry it. Add sugar. And it becomes something else not so healthy. The common core is so closely intermingled with practices of high stakes testing, that are so pedagogically and ethically unsound, it loses any “brain nutrition” it might have promised.

So, who is this being produced for?

The same people who have come to rely on fast food of course.  It is designed for those who are at an economic disadvantaged. It is aimed to delivering fast food education to those who cannot afford anything else. Schools in socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods are under attack by reform measures that wish to close public schools and replace them with privately owned for profit “schools;” schools  which have never been shown to be any better and are often worse than the public schools they replace. No matter. It’s profitable. These public schools, more than their wealthier suburban counter-parts are under the gun, against wall, to “perform” on the test, designed around the common core.  The common core may not be “as bad” in wealthier schools, where, because the money determines test scores more than ANY other factor, these teachers and students might have some wiggle room to remain creative and open. Think of parents who occasionally indulge their kids in a fast food meal. Not so bad, because the other days of the week these kids are provided nutritionally sound meals. These parents do not worry as much if their child’s teacher is teaching to a test. No worries. Outside school they get piano lessons, art classes, and trips to museums or far- away places.  But we know what happens when children eat fast food on a regular, perhaps daily, basis. The same will be true of education.  For some children living in poverty, schools are where they must be afforded the most enriching and stimulating opportunities because life outside of school comes with any number of challenges that limit their opportunities to flourish.  Renowned scholar Stephen Krashen has documented the effects of poverty on learning, as published in the New York Times, on several occasions.  Research for decades has proven again and again that the number one determining factor in test scores is zip code, or socio economic status. Why? A few reasons I will mention quickly. First, these schools because of how school funding is distributed using state and local taxation as the basis, have far more resources. Second, children from wealthier families come to school with a great deal more “cultural capital” (better pre natal care, richer early childhood experiences, parents with higher education themselves, more books in the home etc ,etc).

So what will happen after a few years of implementation of these new education reforms?

The quality of education between rich and poor will widen. Students force fed only a poor diet of Common Core standards, strained through the food processor of endless tests, losing PE, art, and recess to ensure their “test performance” will be dramatically impaired in their mental and intellectual health.  And the wealthy private schools? Well, that’s like eating Whole Food every day. In fact, literally speaking, most of them serve food that is of better quality than the finest restaurant.  And the Common Core? They can take it or leave it. They provide creative, meaningful, rich curriculum and smaller class size to their students. Money buys quality. The rest of us will have to live with cheap, highly processed but widely accessible intellectual food of a poorer quality. And we all know who profits from fast food. The corporate CEO’s who own the companies. The people who are profiting as a result of the common core and new tests/evaluation measures will do the same. They promise delivery of quality material intended to serve what “best for us.”

If we really wanted to create a world class education for all children we would look closely at, and attempt to replicate, what private schools do:  Smaller class sizes; creative dynamic curriculum that make learning meaningful, creative, and engaging; and resources for whole child learning through the body and mind. I don’t buy the excuse that this would take too much time and money. The initiative to implement the Common Core and nation-wide testing, through rtTT, takes billions of dollars, spent on: producing new materials related to the Common Core, paying “trainers and presenters” to travel nation- wide selling the Common Core to schools, “training” teachers in how to implement it, developing, disseminating, and evaluating new and more testing materials, and payment to third party companies like Wireless Generation to “house” student data. Tremendous amounts of money, time, and effort gets channeled into making this happen.  But is the time money and energy well spent?  For the testing and textbook companies yes, yes it is.

But is it the best way to spend public tax dollars for our children? The Common Core and the new tests have not been piloted or trial-tested yet. We are launching a nation-wide initiative without any assurance that what we’re doing will be best for our children. There is, and will continue to be, a myriad of debate over whether or not the new standards for various content areas such as language arts and math are in fact going to improve instruction.  There will never be a consensus on this, as much depends upon the students, the teacher, and the school.  Some teachers and children will embrace parts of the Common Core. Other teachers and students may find many of the Common Core standards sorely lacking. There are many standards which I have read that sound good on the face of things.  And perhaps they are.  But others are hotly debated such as the change in language arts standards which dramatically reduce the reading of fiction (and thus the merits of the imagination as a valuable tool to cultivate in children), and significantly amplify “non fiction” or “informational” texts in which students will be pressed to simply regurgitate what was read and minimize students own thinking.  As David Coleman, one architect of the Common Core famously stated, “No one gives a SH*& what you think” in the “world of business.” That is, unless you’re the CEO, and probably attended a private school that encouraged you to believe that what you think matters.

What do we know for sure that the education reform trifecta WILL do?

We know it will make it infinitely easier to track and streamline the collection of student data (once known as learning) into warehouses of what private equity firms like to call “big data.” Like the cookie cutter frozen patties of beef circulated as “food” in major fast food chains, expediency and reproduction are more important than quality.

What else do we know for sure? We know that profits to textbook and testing companies will sky rocket. While class size increases, teacher supports diminish, arts and music programs dwindle, and athletic materials, playgrounds, parks and libraries crumble in public schools, the monies that could have gone to rebuild those resources are being passed along to private corporations.

Maybe you are a parent living in an upper middle class community with great schools. I am. And it may be easy to evade really thinking about the effects of reform on poor urban communities; we sometimes liken it so global warming: sure we agree it’s terrible but it feels too far removed from our daily lives, and really, what can we do about it? But these reform measures do affect all children in public education-even yours.  The Common Core standards were designed in tandem with new tests and teacher evaluations (perhaps even designed for the purpose of justifying more tests and student tracking). Research studies, one after the other, document the ill effects of high stakes testing on child development. Even in the “nicest of upper middle class schools” these tests have been known to cause anxiety and depression in children as young as 3rd grade. We know for a fact that high stakes testing compels teachers to narrow the curriculum, and “teach to the test.” None of this is morally, developmentally, or pedagogically sound for any child.

What else do we know? That the crafters of education reform policy, including the Common Core, teacher evaluations, and tests, (while they represent players from “both sides of the political aisle”), all of them actively support a corporate model of reform, the end goals of which are to:  privatize public education, to transform education into a commodity for corporate profits, and to ramp up surveillance and control of public information into the hands of a few elite individuals and groups. This is not conspiracy. This has been solidly evidenced in facts. But these are facts that the mainstream media for political reasons, continue to evade reporting. Truth is replaced with emotionally charged rhetoric aimed at blindsiding parents to keep them from taking action or to resist the take-over of their children’s education. But the truth can be found. It’s available. Metaphorically speaking, you just have to look past the shiny packaging and commercial promises and read the side label under “nutritional value” and “contents.” For every parent who has labored hours over researching the nutritional content of this food or that, who labor over hot stoves to make home-made unprocessed foods, and spend large chunks of their paycheck on grass fed this or organic that, should stand up and take notice. Use your economic and intellectual privilege to investigate what’s happening to your child’s education. You may be surprised. Let the chart below be a start of your inquiry.

What they claim and we hope, or project, but cannot prove… We we know (and can prove)…
The NCCS will increase student achievement The NCCS has never been tested. There have been no trials or case studies to document its success or failure
That NCCS will provide “quality” content for all children in all states and locations The largest factor influencing student achievement is social class/poverty regardless of the curriculum
The new standards will allow children to go “deep” within specific areas of study Testing and textbook companies involved with NCCS have had record level profits in the billions. scholars have outlined places in the NCCS in which the changes to the curriculum may be detrimental. Good instruction is being re-packaged and diluted (i.e. Writers Workshop).


New teacher evaluations/testing policies will inspire better teaching that demands more rigor High stakes testing has led to: 1) cheating, 2) teaching to the test, 3) accusing schools of cheating in order to close them down anyway, 4) increased levels of student anxiety and depression
NCCS will ensure that the poorest students of color will have the same expectations as their wealthier white peers. Billions of dollars are spent on NCCS and new testing measures. 80% of school funding comes from state and local taxes, thus poorer communities always have poorer facilities and programs. While we spend billions testing all them more on a new curriculum, nothing has been spent on shoring up the larger disparities which create the largest gaps in student achievement. In fact, we spend LESS on them: libraries shut down, larger class size, fewer teaching personnel, less arts, music and PE programs (for poorer communities).
Charter schools, driven by the closing of public schools based on these test scores, are intended to create “choice” and higher quality schools. Corporate/private charter schools have NOT overall outperformed the public schools they replaced. Many under perform their public counterparts. Charter schools have also been PROVEN to increase racial segregation.
Charter schools are intended to “empower” parents Parents are forced to send their children to poor performing charter schools, or to send children to schools outside their neighborhoods, at great inconvenience to the family structure. Charter schools can often elect which students they will admit or kick out, leaving the most difficult to teach, with no educational options.
NCCS and testing/evaluations will make schools and teachers more accountable. NCCS and test scores and student data will be held at third party private organizations, paid for by funds that could have gone to schools, to pay billionaire companies owned by Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch to “own” student information. makes the data collection a cheap and seamless process, and transforms learning into measurable chunks of big data needed to manage schools as a business. (see McKinsey and Companies presentation on the value of big data in investing in school reform). and pubs/MGI/Research/Technology and Innovation/Big Data/MGI_big_data_full_report.ashxSchools that “fail” by the testing standards are replaced with private for profit corporate charter schools.
The Common Core was developed with feedback and support of seasoned and caring educators. The financial supporters and designers of NCCS are all directly involved with giant corporations and “think tanks” which unilaterally support the privatization of public education.
NCCS will allow teachers to streamline learning for students who move around a lot. NCCS universal standards make it easier to provide education “on line” replacing site-centered interactive learning with computer-based learning opportunity for various states to tweak or determine how they will shape implementation of the NCCS standards will dramatically eliminate any benefit “universal standards” may have offered. They’ll be different-affected by location, funded, ideology, culture etc. and children will no longer find they can seamlessly move from state to state.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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