• Unspecial interests
    April 04,2013
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    When we talk about special interests, we commonly mean groups that are especially looking out for themselves and exerting pressure on government to act in their favor.

    Urging someone to act in your favor isn’t necessarily immoral, and you can’t really blame someone for lobbying on his own behalf, anymore than we can blame ourselves when we plead our own cases or act in our own self-interest. The trouble comes when something that’s good for a special interest is either morally wrong or bad for everyone else.

    Public education is plagued by special interests, each pushing its own agenda and program. Unfortunately, many of these lobbying groups are selling or promoting something that interferes with teaching academics to America’s students, the agenda public schools are supposed to be addressing.

    Setting aside their dubious benefits, their sheer number means it’s often a case of how many special interests can fit in a public school Volkswagen before education itself gets crowded out. Consider the following sampler of suitors for public education’s time and money.

    As American schools are hijacked onto education reform’s latest bandwagon, the two consortia behind the Common Core State Standards have decreed the technology “standards states will need to meet” to access the mandated online assessment program the consortia have designed, promoted, and will soon be administering at public expense. The 45 “participating” states were prompted to cooperate by cash incentives doled out through the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program.

    Since all Common Core testing will be administered online using computers that meet exacting specifications, schools and taxpayers will need to purchase boatloads of expensive computers and software.

    It’s not a coincidence that the driving and governing forces behind the Common Core’s time-gutting, unproven, often educationally inappropriate, technology-heavy, mandated curricula and assessment system are the Pearson Company and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, both of which were also instrumental in implementing Race to the Top.

    Pearson is the world’s largest educational software and publishing conglomerate, and Bill Gates is Bill Gates. Before he became a foundation, he did some work with computers and software, too.

    While schools are busy scrambling to conform to the imposed and imposing Common Core, as august a body as the American Medical Association has called for legislation that “would require classes” and a “yearly curriculum” to teach “the causes, consequences, and prevention of obesity for first through 12th graders.”

    Doctors are “encouraged” to “volunteer their time to help teach” classroom lessons. One pediatrician speaking on behalf of mandatory obesity education in public schools cited the “number of 40-pound one-year-olds I see every day,” an observation which ignores the fact that most one-year-olds aren’t in first grade yet.

    At the same time, as non-august a body as the National Education Association has developed a “new resource for teachers” in its campaign to “fight childhood obesity.” The NEA’s partner and chief funding source for the project is Nestle, the people who bring us Butterfinger candy bars, Toll House cookies, Edy’s ice cream, Nestle hot cocoa and the aptly named Chunky.

    The NEA is particularly concerned that obesity “disproportionally impacts minority students,” a statement rife with social consciousness that inadvertently implies that obesity wouldn’t be as serious a problem if it affected children of all races and colors equally.

    Of course, the point of all this isn’t simply to teach children about nutrition. The program includes a “family engagement component,” so that in addition to teaching America’s children how to eat, schools will also be teaching America’s parents how to feed them.

    The NEA has plans for classrooms on those ordinary days when volunteer pediatricians and neurosurgeons aren’t visiting. These lessons, allegedly “linked to academic standards,” include “Move It, Move It,” a “great example” that teaches students to “practice” the “concepts of sedentary, moderate, or vigorous physical activity.”

    When the teacher names an activity, “dog walking,” for instance, students either “stop” moving, “walk in place,” or “jog or play in place,” depending on how active they think the named activity is.

    Like-minded advocates, including the first lady, want schools to compensate for American children’s sedentary home lives by providing an hour of physical activity during every school day. Mrs. Obama’s initiative, “Let’s Move,” has attracted $70 million worth of sponsors, including $50 million from Nike.

    Other experts prescribe “activity permissive” classrooms without chairs, where students alternate between sitting on balls, standing, and reclining on mats. One enthusiastic professor’s “dream” is a school where kids are “shooting hoops” during spelling lessons.

    I’m not sure how much this will shrink Americans’ waistlines, but I can predict its effect on the accuracy of their spelling.

    Another contingent favors “dancing classrooms” as a means to “educational excellence.” These ballroom dancing sessions consume 20 class hours every year for all fifth- through eighth-graders in an effort to “build social awareness, confidence, and self-esteem.”

    When they’re not watching students dance, teachers are increasingly expected to “encourage” them “to challenge and question the dominant culture” and “take social action.” The USDA’s Farm-to-School program has commandeered class sessions so students can till gardens, compost trash, support local agriculture, and learn, in the words of one high school sophomore, that “food grows and doesn’t come in a package.”

    Place-Based Learning boosters want students out of the classroom “engaged” in community projects like “building a house with green materials.” Advocates for “student nomads” want schools to alter their grade level programs to accommodate individually students who show up from other districts in the middle of the year.

    Then there’s the anti-bullying lobby, the career education lobby, the character education lobby, the school safety lobby, the “non-cognitive,” emotional education lobby, and that doesn’t count the districts where onsite dentists schedule teeth cleaning during English and math classes.

    Everybody wants a piece of the school day.

    Education reformers and policymakers have for decades made clear that they are recasting public schools as a “seamless” delivery system for social services and life skills, despite A Nation at Risk’s 1983 warning that expanding schools’ nonacademic role is producing graduates with markedly poorer academic skills.

    American society has many problems. Until we free ourselves from the doctrine that school should be involved in solving all of them, school will continue to be one of them.



    Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.
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