Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Food Plate" Standards in American Education

IF YOU HAVEN’T NOTICED Americans are much thinner than they were a few months ago. That’s when the federal government wisely changed eating standards.

Yep. In June the Food Pyramid was replaced by a new “Food Plate.” Since then the American people have been shedding pounds at a fearful rate.

In fact, it’s only a matter of time until we all have six-pack abs like The Situation, that fine fellow on Jersey Shore.

You can be equally sure it’s only a matter of time before federal standards written for schools start having the same wondrous effect.

If you pay the slightest attention, you know this year’s Big Idea in U. S. education is that what we need to do to fix the schools is write up some really cool national core curriculum standards. Even as we speak, deep in the bowels of Washington, D. C., experts are hard at work, like Santa’s elves. Tap, tap, tap. They are turning out those standards!

Trust the experts. This is going to be great!

I guess I feel bad, because I’m so skeptical. I know states tried to raise standards in the 1990s with all kinds of state testing. When that didn’t work No Child Left Behind was passed in 2002 and the federal government got involved. The budget for the U. S. Department of Education ballooned to $71 billion in 2011 and Secretary Arne Duncan handed out fat grants to states that won the “Race to the Top” competition.

There was progress, here and there, but not as much as you might expect when you were spending billions. In New York City, for example, reformers crowed because high school graduation rates rose significantly. Then again: the percentage of high school grads coming out of the city’s “improving schools” and ready for college level work declined. Scores at low-performing schools in Washington, D. C. rose. Same in Atlanta. Then huge cheating scandals shattered the illusion of progress. Scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, often considered the surest barometer of national, academic improvement or decline, fell between 2002 and 2011. [Since publishing this article, scores have declined again in 2012 and 2013.] Math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose slightly. It was a rare hopeful sign. Despite all the talk, talk, talk about standards, NAEP reading scores were as flat as an education expert run over by stampeding kindergartners.

So: what could be wrong?

ACCORDING TO AT LEAST ONE EXPERT (okay:  according to me), our biggest problem in education reform is that we focus only on teachers. We look at low test scores and scratch our heads and say: We have to deny teachers tenure. We have to tie their pay to tests results. We have to have standards and benchmarks and indicators and complicated formulas to determine “value added” performance. And we need to have way more paperwork to document everything.

Unfortunately, education experts and government leaders have fallen prey to an idea that, boiled down to its essence, goes like this: To be a successful football team all you need is the right playbook.

In fact, there’s only one playbook and we’re going to give it to every team.

Don’t get me wrong. Every good teacher knows his or her efforts have a dramatic impact on student achievement. But good teachers are like good football coaches. They have their own plans, their own trick plays and their own philosophies. It’s ground-and-pound for one, spread the field and throw it all over the gridiron for another. Every good coach knows to be a success you need more than the right playbook. You have to be able to adapt your plans to fit the strengths of your personnel. You have to be able to relate to individual players and those players have to be willing to sweat every day in practice, and have to want to get better and work at that goal. In fact, one key on the football field or in the classroom is knowing how to motivate, being able to convince ordinary human beings to give more than their best.

There is no magic playbook.

If all we plan to do is keep putting plans on paper, instead of focusing on player effort and motivation, we’re going nowhere fast in American education. It won’t matter how many billions of dollars the U. S. Department of Education is willing to spend.

If it all came down to just the right playbook, to a core curriculum, to a Food Plate standard, then, in no time at all, every football coach could be Vince Lombardi.

AND ALL AMERICANS WOULD be smart and thin.


  1. Good teaching requires good relationships with students, and putting a standard one-size-fits-all playbook between teachers and students makes those relationships more distant and less likely to produce learning. Educrats have so little respect for teachers that they literally want them to read from scripts part of the time. That's not teaching, that's indoctrinating.

  2. I so agree with you. I don't know the answer to everything (even if I think I do) but I know even more standardized testing is not the answer. All of the teachers I loved during my school years were all profoundly different. Different in their teaching styles, and simply different personalities. kids are like that too- kids have different learning styles and the best teachers are able to help and adapt to each kid. With all the standardized garbage it leaves little room for one on one with the kids.

  3. You have so eloquently put into words what I have been feeling! Thank you! I see that you have never once in 33 years regretted becoming a teacher. Although have been in the profession much less time, I truly feel that teaching students is a "calling" in the truest sense. However, my positive outlook is waning as I grow to doubt my ability to be an effective teacher and question the sacrifices that I and my family have had to make for me to continue in this profession.

    1. Wow, I just noticed, I never replied to your comment. I hope you hang in there and keep teaching. It is a calling and people who know that are usually good.

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