My Kid Isn’t A Microchip. Is Yours?

Wouldn’t it be cool if kids were like microchips? If we could just program them with a few whisks of copper wire, or a cleverly inserted tweezer?

Just think: No socks on the floor. Homework finished promptly, and before turning on the television, computer, DS, phone.  “Please” and “thank you” would happen automatically. Bickering would be eradicated and family board games would no longer be blood sports.

Bliss, right?

If kids were microchips, they would master new information in sequence and on schedule; struggles over long division or how to use a semi-colon would go the way of vinyl records or typewriters.

If kids were microchips, we could bundle them tightly into big rooms and beam information at them using video, or maybe lasers.  We could remove people (with their pesky needs for a respectable salary, safe working conditions, and reasonable job expectations) from the equation.

If kids were microchips, we would know exactly when information has been mastered and we would know precisely when the process is complete. The finished batches of microchips could be slotted carefully into the machinery of the world, a new generation of microcogs.

A long time ago—1974, to be exact—a college kid with a bad haircut looked at an article about a new thing called a microprocessor, a tiny chip that only cost about $200.  The college kid and his buddy “looked past the limits of that new chip and saw a different kind of computer…our original vision glimpsed what lay beyond that Intel 8080 chip and then [we] acted on it.”

That bad haircut kid was, of course, Bill Gates, who with his friend Paul Allen, were able to see beyond what was in front of them and imagine something that hadn’t ever existed.

And yet, now Bill Gates—our generation’s answer to Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison, and a man whose educational path is not exactly standard, whose very success came from his ability to make intuitive leaps over conventional knowledge—now he’s decided that standardized testing is the cure-all for public education.  The Gates Foundation—which, don’t get me wrong, does many, many good things with its money—has offered millions of dollars in grant money in support of yoking teacher merit pay to student test scores, and using test scores as a measure of teacher “effectiveness.” 

The Gates Foundation isn’t alone in this belief, of course, as Diane Ravitch and others have pointed out, but the financial clout of the Gates Foundation makes its voice one of the loudest in the room, whenever school reform is being discussed.

Last night my friend Suzie brought me to a meeting of Parents Across America, an organization that believes parent voices must be heard in the national discussion about public education.  Isn’t it odd that in a discussion about public education, the parents are the ones not being consulted? Isn’t it our kids who are the subject of what Gates has called “experiments” in education? And yet over and over and over again, parents are left out of the conversation – which is how, in New York, we end up with the charming Cathie Black as our new chancellor. She with her admonition that parents in Tribeca turn to birth control as a way to handle school over-crowding, or offering a mocking “awwww” to parents angered about having their schools summarily closed.

Diane Ravitch—my new hero—had this to say last night about the policy of closing schools due to “low performance.”  Imagine, she asked, if cities were supposed to make themselves 100% crime-free by 2014 (according to the No Child Left Behind Act, all students should attain 100% proficiency by 2014).  And then, in those cities that don’t attain 100% crime-free status, the solution is to close the police stations. Doesn’t make any sense, does it? But in Reform-A-Land, making sense is not a priority.

Sue Peters, one of the co-founders of Parents Across America, asked another question: why do Eli Broad (whose Broad Academy trains school superintendents to think like CEOs and which lists “parents” as next-to-last on the list of “stakeholder engagement”), Bill Gates, and the Walton Foundation have more to say about what happens in our kids’ classrooms than we do?

Class Size Matters, an organization right here in New York, has campaigned hard against corporate education reform, but in Reform-A-Land, despite data showing that charter schools aren’t the answer, that standardized test scores are a deeply flawed measure of learning, and that merit pay for teachers doesn’t work, money keeps pouring into these same policies.

Reform-A-Land exists on the other side of the looking glass, in an office where the group that Ravitch calls the billionaire boys’ club of Eli, Bill, Mike Bloomberg and others (Cathie B is an honorary member) plays tiddlywinks with educational policy decisions.  Needless to say, no actual non-billionaire parents are invited to the party.

Here’s the thing about kids. They’re not microchips. They don’t learn on cue and on schedule. Kids have good days and bad days, good years and bad years. They don’t learn if they’re hungry or hurting or worried about where they’re going to live or if mommy will lose her job. They don’t learn much if they’re jammed into a room with 34 other kids; they don’t learn much if what they’re learning has no bearing on their lived experience.  And they sure as hell don’t learn much by bubbling in circles with a #2 pencil.

Well. Actually. Let me rephrase. They do learn quite a bit under these circumstances. They learn that memorizing matters more than thinking or asking questions; they learn that sitting quietly matters more than excited engagement; they learn that filling in the circles matters more than being able to draw a bird, or a rocket, or a map. They learn that their lives outside those circles don’t matter.

They learn how to be cogs in the machines of the world.

Kids aren’t microchips. But if we continue on the path laid down by Bill, Eli, and Mike, et al, that’s exactly what our kids will learn to be.