Sunday, March 22, 2009

Factory Farms and Factory Schools Share Similar Goals

I just read a debate about whether charter schools in general are bad or good for the public schools and urban children. It seems that it helps the urban children who attend them for the most part. It was deemed bad for the public schools as a whole, though, because the best, most motivated students with the parents that are involved have left the traditional public school setting and left only the troubled, struggling students whose parents do not have the time, resources or will to attend to their children’s education. It seemed, then that the argument was that charter schools are really not in the best interest of the public good.

As a former traditional public school teacher, I can see the validity and truth of this perspective, though I can’t help thinking that the individual students that are better served in a charter school setting should not sacrifice their shot at a quality education for the betterment of those in the traditional schools. Their very presence, their parents’ involvement and the dollars that stay with them in the public school may indeed bolster a traditional urban school’s general performance, but at what cost to that student? Do other students really benefit if a student stays in the traditional urban setting to suffer a mediocre education? Or does it just make it easier on the teachers and the administrators if they stay? The standardized test scores and attendance rates are indeed improved if they stay, but can we really ask a promising, well-behaving student with motivated parents to stay for the purposes of bettering the schools numbers and making life easier for the staff? I don’t think that is a fair argument for that student and his family and we do our nation no favors thinking this way.

All of this makes me wonder if this is more about the industrialization of education than whether to offer specialized schools within the industrial system. It seems that urban public schools kids are suffering the same fate as a cow in a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).

In a factory farm setting the livestock are raised in confinement at very high density. The confinement, density, growth hormones and feed that is not a natural part of their diet causes many health problems that led to the use of prophylactic antibiotics given to the animals as a standard industrial practice. It also has led to some serious environmental hazards, as the high-density waste is not something that is easily assimilated by the natural environment. The goal of the factory farm is not the health of the environment or the animals in their care, rather it is the highest output at the lowest cost.

This seems alarmingly similar to the urban school setting, including the school where I taught. In a large urban school district with many schools under its management, the goal is the highest output (test scores, graduate rates) at the lowest cost (fewest possible teachers and programs and structural improvements). There is confinement (reducing or removing recess) and high-density and food that is more cheap than nutritious ($1.40 for a full priced lunch at Denver Public schools will get you plenty of artificial colors and flavors, nitrates, and high fructose corn syrup).

What if we approached the urban school problems and the factory farm problem with a similar solution - that of reducing density? If the density goes down there are more resources to devote to the students and the animals. With less density and less responsibility by few people at the top, there is an opportunity to better understand and make adjustments to meet the needs of the “occupants”. Lower density would make those overseeing the organization more able to focus on the individuality and humanity (or animal-ness as the case may be) rather than the numbers. It would enable them to focus on the goal of quality of output rather than the highest output for the fewest dollars. Isn’t that really in keeping with the point of education anyway?

What if we approached the question, then, more in terms of limiting the size of a district or doing away with districts altogether in favor of independence? Would the reduced density correspond to a reduction in the problems associated with density? Just as a cottage farm is far healthier than a factory farm, the same goes for a smaller school or district than for a mammoth urban industrial education organization. This is one of the many reasons for the rise in home schooling, and the increased enrollment at private schools and even at charter schools. Parents intuitively know that a smaller, independent environment promotes higher quality.

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