How Schools in New Orleans Are Trying to Grow Children Like Monsanto Grows Corn

A teacher in New Orleans sees some startling similarities between the education of the city’s children and the way that commodity crops are grown on industrial farms…

By Stefin Pasternak
The way we educate our children in many schools in New Orleans these days shares some startling similarities with how industrial farms raise commodity crops. Industrial farms prefer the complete uniformity of straight, orderly rows of a single crop rather than the organic relationships of different organisms that support one another in a true ecosystem.  Many of our schools prefer to educate children under the veil of a culture of straight, silent lines, seeking to produce identical outcomes rather than cultivating the organic interactions and freedoms that breed healthy children and communities.1

Industrial farms prefer to control as many variables in the growing process as possible instead of encouraging a diversity of variables to yield different growing environments.  Many schools try to control as many variables in the teaching process as possible instead of encouraging a diverse array of teaching styles and critical thought.

Industrial farms prefer to genetically engineer crops for yield at the expense of taste and nutrition, leaving us with a surplus of tasteless, nutrition-less food-like plants.  Many of our schools prefer to educate kids who score basic or above on a battery of dozens of standardized tests, but who cannot fend for themselves in the real world, rather than kids who lead happy, healthy lives and build healthy communities.

And as is well understood these days, industrial agriculture does all this to the complete and total devastation of our ecology and climate.  So what of the schools who raise kids this way?

(Agri)CULTure: Over-yielding discipline, under-nourishing kids
During my fourth year teaching in New Orleans, the principal of my highly-regarded open-enrollment charter school kicked off our first professional development session of the school year by introducing the idea that we would make our school’s culture like a cult—every kid following every expectation with precision all of the time. He asked us to use the term *CULTure.*

During my fourth year teaching in New Orleans, the principal of my highly-regarded open-enrollment charter school kicked off our first professional development session of the school year by introducing the idea that we would make our school’s culture like a cult—every kid following every expectation with precision all of the time. He asked us to use the term *CULTure.*

Much has been written about the continued perpetuation of the school-to-prison pipeline in many of the New Orleans’ schools serving mostly students of color.  Too many of our schools are still continue to promote and perfect a *no excuses* approach that they justify as *holding a high bar.* Some of the ubiquitous examples of this approach are silent, seated classes, silent lunches, and silent lined transitions at all times for kids pre-K-12; detailed punitive codes for the smallest of violations down to a patch of color on shoes; and zero-tolerance isolation, suspension, and expulsion policies for even non-violent infractions without any formal appeals process.

At my aforementioned school, kids were in school for nearly 10 hours a day, and in that day they were allowed a maximum of 20 minutes of unstructured time where they were permitted to talk to their peers without adult instruction—and that was only on a day where everything went as planned.

The sincere intention of all of this was unity and safety, but the problem was the complete and total lack of questioning on the part of any of the 40 adults on staff.  In contrast to the intention, the implementation was approached from a dominating attempt for control that inhibited unity and undermined safety by creating a false sense of calm.

Starved, Sleep-deprived and Over-worked: Uniformity in Staff CULTure
This lack of critical thinking amongst staff is a carefully designed element of school CULTure these days too.  A well-respected colleague of color was recently hired by a new school as their assistant principal. But she returned horrified after attending the first day of summer development for teachers.

The day’s course—the first day of staff development for the new year—was being led by a multi-armed consulting group affiliated with a *high-performing, no-excuses* charter school in Boston—a consulting group whose market share has increased each year since it opened shop in New Orleans.

The instructor opened by asking the room full of teachers and administrators: *Who thinks discipline is the most important thing in our school?*  My colleague was alarmed when hers was the only hand in the entire room that didn’t go up. She figured education, happiness or even health might trump discipline. Her alarm quickly turned into disgust, though, when the facilitator rebuked her for having the wrong answer, praised everyone else for understanding that key point, and moved on without a moment of debate or discussion.

This lack of critical dialogue about the profession of teaching and the work of education is widespread across this city of mostly new teachers from out-of-town…I’ve talked to scores of teachers in dozens of schools across New Orleans, but have heard of almost no schools that spend any of their time promoting professional discourse among their staffs.

This lack of critical dialogue about the profession of teaching and the work of education is widespread across this city of mostly new teachers from out-of-town. Instead of real exchanges, new teachers sit through weeks, even months, of school and network-organized professional development, like that which my colleague endured. I’ve talked to scores of teachers in dozens of schools across New Orleans, but have heard of almost no schools that spend any of their time promoting professional discourse among their staffs.

What I have heard countless examples of in Pre-K–12, charter and even traditional public schools in New Orleans are teacher work-weeks that regularly reach 70 hours per week and occasionally eclipse 100 hours.  Built into that is an increasingly pervasive culture of teachers who go all day without eating or using the bathroom, who frequently sleep very few hours each night, who work seven days a week, and who sometimes neglect their own physical and mental health care in response to the demands being placed on them by administration and staff CULTure. These are the same strategies that cults use to indoctrinate their followers.

When a critical mass of a school’s (not to mention a city’s) teaching staff are starved, under-slept, and over-worked, it emaciates teachers’ ability to develop their craft or the system in which they practice it.  What so often goes unfinished on a teacher’s endless work list are the personal reflections, difficult conversations and perspective gathering that are required to build a healthy culture.

Mono-cropping
Rather than cultivating (notice the root of that verb) a diverse ecosystem of humanizing, whole-kid and staff cultures that grow an incredible variety of happy, healthy humans in our schools, we are mono-cropping our poorest schools with an artificially modified CULTure of silence and conformity. Schools in New Orleans today relentlessly pursue higher academic *yields*—test scores—propped up by the pesticides and herbicides of standardized testing. Some point to the growth of these yields as proof that the system works and should even be exported. But is the underlying nutrition of what youth in New Orleans are receiving as education actually nourishing them? And by mono-cropping our schools in pursuit of a single goal, do we risk devastating the rich culture from which our students come?

1To better understand the analogy to modern agriculture see Mark Shephard’s Restoration Agriculture, in particular chapter seven.

Stefin Pasternak is a chef educator in New Orleans public schools and a freelance writer. He’s currently at work on a piece about how schools can address structural racism. Contact him at stefinp@gmail.com.

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Print this pageEmail this to someone

10 Comments

  1. Great article. I know too many teachers that can’t help raise and cultivate healthy kids because they are too busy keeping a system in line and unable to question fundamental principles.

  2. “Our aim is to improve the long-term well being of our students, families, and school community, by integrating hands-on organic gardening and seasonal cooking into the school curriculum, culture, and cafeteria programs. We work to create a strong and vibrant school community where students are engaged in experiential learning through hands-on kitchen and garden classes and special events…”
    http://esynola.org/about-esynola.html

    Makes me curious… which standardized test is that narrowly teaching to?

    1. Note that this isn’t a school but a nonprofit that works with schools. There are some terrific groups doing work with the schools in New Orleans, but sometimes the relationships can be a bit, uh, fraught. I interviewed a guy who worked with another school gardening program where the kids gardened in silence and the curriculum seemed to be premised on the idea that New Orleans had no native food culture. Btw: did you catch the reference to the organization in Stefin’s account that’s based in Boston and now provides professional development throughout the city? It’s the very one to which you are so intensely devoted!

      1. Jennifer: “Note that this isn’t a school but a nonprofit that works with schools.” This is what they say:

        “Edible Schoolyard New Orleans is a signature program of FirstLine Schools. This means that FirstLine has developed and owns this unique garden and kitchen-based food education program, which serves the over 3,100 children and youth who attend five FirstLine Schools.

        “Students come from all over New Orleans to attend FirstLine Schools. Families indicate that ESYNOLA is one of the reasons they choose to send their children to our schools. ESYNOLA offers numerous opportunities for family involvement, including Family Food Nights, Open Garden Days, Parent Cooking Classes, and more.

        “The visionary leadership that created the city’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School (NOCMS) in 1998, and later established FirstLine Schools, created the fertile ground where the ESYNOLA program could take root and ultimately grow into an autonomous, fully-integrated daytime gardening, cooking, nutrition, and healthy cafeteria food program at all five of our campuses.”
        http://esynola.org/family-center.html

        “It’s the very one to which you are so intensely devoted!” Thanks! I wondered about that. But to be clear my admiration for good Boston schools is more broadly dispersed than you may imagine.

  3. Changing the teaching culture is what the reformistas want. They’re making it easier to start teaching by not requiring teachers at charters to have professional certifications. They’re “innovating” so-called graduate schools like Relay and Sposato, where “learning” is dispensed from on-line modules. They’re encouraging newbies to think of teaching as a two year gig, not a career. On the other end, veteran teachers – who once served (formally and informally) as mentors – are being pushed out by punitive evaluations based on test scores, or just hanging up their hats early because they don’t want to spend all their valuable time gathering data.

    Like the Chinese policy of the Sinofication of Tibet, the traditional teaching and learning culture is gradually, inevitably being supplanted by this new CULTure.

    1. According to the Sposato Graduate School of Education: “96% of the graduates from our third cohort returned for a third year of teaching. 97% of the graduates from our fourth cohort returned for a third year of teaching.” They seem proud of that. Rightly so. Hard to reconcile that with “encouraging newbies to think of teaching as a two year gig”.

      1. I recently reviewed a forthcoming paper by a professor who studies teacher preparation. He was unable to get Sposato to provide even the most basic information about student enrollment and retention despite repeated attempts. This seems odd given that their retention rates, according to their website, are so outstanding. As he documents in his paper (that I’ll be talking to him about this fall), Sposato and programs like it make all kinds of claims that can’t be verified but are used to argue for their continued expansion.

  4. Thanks for writing this. Hopefully heightened awareness of this misguided approach will encourage change.

Comments are closed.