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Genetically Modified Teaching

As children grow in the real world, slowly enough, if we provide them with caregivers who understand their social and emotional needs, if we tend them with the individual attention they so deeply desire, they will flourish, but on their own time.
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Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.
~ Marge Piercy, The Seven of Pentacles

In his film exposé of the unholy alliance between the pesticide industry and the FDA1, consumer advocate Jeffrey Smith digs into the dangers of genetically modified organisms. He explains that at their most basic level, GMOs are newly formed entities, created by taking genes from one species and forcing them into another species. This can lead to crops that may resist bug infestation, but also may yield adverse side effects for public health. One example is a pesticide producing crop in which the DNA of the crop itself has been modified, becoming toxic to the insect when it nibbles on, let's say, corn, breaking open its intestines and killing it. (There is evidence that the same chemical reaction may be occurring in the human gut as we consume our morning cereal.) The transformed crop is a new species having undergone the swapping of its original genes, creating a new organism that was not part of any evolutionary process. This process of genetic engineering creates "unpredicted side effects" and "massive collateral damage." The film goes on to point to the huge spike in diseases related to inflammatory reactions in the body since the insertion of GMOs into the American diet. The efficiency of the process to boost market returns seems to trump public health concerns.

I would argue that a similar calculation is taking place in education.

There is an unholy alliance between big business concerns and the education policy establishment - at the federal and state levels in particular - to make education more efficient and market driven. College and career readiness for our children is the educational equivalent of farm to market for our produce.

Both policy and punditry conspire to move teaching from a sacred mission to nurture youngsters' development, to a spread-sheeted, competitive enterprise with winners and losers. For example, a new approach to teacher evaluation mandated by the federal Race to the Top program is precipitating a wrenching shift in educational priorities, creating a new - and malignant - strain of teacher emphasis, one that looks at children and sees a collection of data points. The DNA of good teaching - focused on social and emotional well-being, understanding developmental needs of children, and concerned about the dignity of the learner - is being swapped for test-obsessed, numbers-driven, standardized delivery systems. In the land where test-score-decline can equate to dismissal, data is king.

And then there are feckless (and clueless) politicians who take regular swipes at educators for not being competitive enough, vilifying the teaching profession, using the vocabulary of the business world. The governor of New York recently said, when commenting on his push to ratchet up the teacher evaluation system: "I believe these kinds of changes are probably the single best thing that I can do as governor that's going to matter long-term . . . to break what is in essence one of the only remaining monopolies . . . [to put in place] real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools."2

And then there's Jack Welch, a businessman's businessman, who ran General Electric, one of the largest corporations in the world, second guessing the New York City Chancellor's administrative hiring decisions, making sure to cite what you couldn't do if you made decisions like she did: "You couldn't run CNBC, you couldn't run GE, you couldn't run Apple, you couldn't run Google. . ." He goes on to condemn the whole public school system: "[In] that system of no meritocracy, of no differentiation, we're all equal, you don't get performance. You can't do it. You just can't do it."3

This incipient perversion of the evolutionary process of teaching and learning is causing collateral damage throughout the world - a global inflammatory reaction that we see in stressed out, burnt out teachers and tense, risk-averse kids in schools that have become numbers factories. Efficiency and market forces trump wholesome, child-sensitive learning communities.

Another public health debacle in the making. Want evidence?

Ask any teacher who loves her students dearly but has been labeled ineffective for poor test results or any student who has tried his best but has been saddled with a test score below the state proficiency level. If you're paying attention, you can see their guts bursting.

Ask any kindergartner whose recess and play time has been reduced, swapped for more academic preparation time. (The original kindergarten, first established in 1837 in Germany, was created for children ages 3-7 years as a way to develop mentally, socially and emotionally through interactions with the outdoors and with opportunities for growth through movement, music and play.) Kindergarten is no longer the "children's garden" that was once envisioned.4

Ask those who know something about what makes a great school, like Regie Routman, a leading literacy expert for four decades, and they will talk about the complex eco system that is required to create an atmosphere where" trust, collaboration and authenticity" are the hallmarks of a great school - "not test score" results.5

Look to the work of world-renowned sociologist Max Weber who warned over a century ago that "as administrative efficiency trumps all other values and principles of social policy, the world we create for ourselves increasingly resembles an 'iron cage of servitude' in which beliefs, values, and attitudes are streamlined to produce a degree of mental conformity that bodes ill for the intellectual and cultural diversity that are vital prerequisites of creativity and innovation." 6 When a punitive administrative bureaucracy, fueled by self-serving politicians and chauvinistic business people, controls the headlines, we may indeed be morphing our schools into a Weberian nightmare scenario.

Which brings us to the wisdom of poet Marge Piercy.

As children grow in the real world, slowly enough, if we provide them with caregivers who understand their social and emotional needs, if we tend them with the individual attention they so deeply desire, they will flourish, but on their own time.

On the other hand, if we force their teachers into unfamiliar territory, if we change their mission to data retrieval and manipulation, if we transform the safe spaces we created for children into iron cages, if we insist on on-demand and on-time consumption of learning, then we have altered an evolutionary process. We have transformed our schools - at a cellular level - into something they were never intended to be. We can already sense the side effects and the collateral damage in plummeting morale in the teaching force and in the reports of frustration and confusion from children desperate to succeed in learning tasks that are inappropriate for them.

As an educator for forty five years, I believe that responsible, caring adults have to take charge of this situation - those who can be patient because they understand that children's growth cannot be rushed.

We can't leave it to those who know nothing about gardening.

1. Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives. Film by Jeffrey Smith. The Institute for Responsible Technology
2. Lovett, K. (2014, October 28). Gov vow to bust school monopoly. The Daily News, p. 8
3. Short, A. (2014, November 11). What a dim bulb! New York Post, p. 4
4. Dodge, A. (2009). Heuristics and NCLB Standardized Tests: A Convenient Lie. The International Journal of Progressive Education, 5 (2), 6-22
5. Routman, Regie. (2014, October 22). What reflects a great school? Not test scores. Education Week, p.20,22
6. Berlin, I. (2002) as quoted in Dieter-Meyer, et al,(2014). Accountability, Antecedents, Power and Processes. Teachers College Record. Retrieved October 8, 2014, from ID=17547