Prescriptive Teaching = Heroin

Posted: December 1, 2010 by trevorinmidstream in Uncategorized

by Trevor Przyuski

While teaching his young charges in the projects how to play chess, D’Angelo Barksdale asserts that in chess, like in life, “the King stay the King.”  The assertion is both ironic and poignant in that D’Angelo Barksdale, while clearly being the most thoughtful and self-possessed dealer in the low rises, is probably the least likely to succeed his ruthless uncle who heads the drug cartel.  It’s too easy to see how humanity and success in something as parasitic as the drug trade is mutually exclusive to draw some deep conclusion about the parallels to public education.  “The Superintendent stay the Superintendent” doesn’t have the same dark meaning.  In fact, for those whose business is “dealing” knowledge, humanity is everything.

What I found more compelling was the scene in which Stringer Bell, the cunning accountant of Barksdale’s drug business, explains to D’Angelo the strange reality of supply and demand in drug transactions.  If the product is good, he explains, the customers buy it. If it’s bad, they buy twice as much.  “The worse we do, the more money we make.” At which point he hands D’Angelo a huge cash bonus for selling so much of his admittedly inferior product.

Let’s talk now about the canned, prescriptive, self-paced, computer-based literacy products that our school divisions seem to be buying left and right. These products, to make a long analogy short, are heroin.  They’re produced by big education companies to be sold at a high price to schools in primarily poorer districts where lagging literacy rates are creating big problems for school administrators (and local politicians). Their stated purpose is to help children learn to read.  And while they make curriculum coordinators and school administrators feel good in the short term for doings “something…anything” to address the problem, what they mostly do is create a self-perpetuating need for more boxed programs just like it and lots of money for the CEOs of the companies who produce them.

By offering school divisions an alternative to costly human reading specialists who require a salary, expensive professional development, and resources, the corporations turning out products like i-Station and Read 180 are making actual human teachers more expendable.  What do we need teachers for when kids can simply switch on the computer, upload the program, and go through the paces of some video game simulation of actual engagement and learning experience? Besides, teachers are demanding. They’re always asking for stuff like new texts, smart boards, and pay raises.  This box of software asks for nothing but a licensing fee and maybe a contract renewal at the end of the agreed upon time. How can a besieged school administrator refuse? The saddest fact is that public trust in schoolteachers has eroded to such a point that we’re turning over our students with the highest need for human engagement to a computer program.  The unanswerable question is this: if an army of well-intended, highly trained, and compassionate human beings can’t win the war against illiteracy, what makes anyone think that a computerized reading program will have any greater impact?

Sadly, the recipe for success for these companies isn’t in ending illiteracy but cashing in on the endless parade of under-motivated, under-educated kids who enter our classrooms every year.  By dealing with reading deficiencies on a kid-by-kid basis and removing the x-factor of a compassionate human teacher who might actually have a larger impact upon a community of learners, the plug-and-play education folks pave a long road of profits at the expense of the very people they claim to help.  And by perpetuating the system in which the poor stay illiterate and the corporate chiefs make profits, they ensure the truth of D’Angelo Barksdale’s assertion that the King truly do stay the King.


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