A Second is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame, recently visited a charter school that immerses students in engagement, much like fries are immersed in hot oil.

Reader: as we rush to train minority students for the McJobs of the future, there’s not a second to spare. That’s why I was so glad to see CNN send Morgan Spurlock, the host of The Inside Man, to an outstanding academy of excellence that has figured out how to keep students engaged, interested and stimulated—every minute of every day. And there’s more good news. Spurlock just happens to be an expert on the nation’s fast food industry—in his documentary, Super Size Me, he ate nothing but McDonald’s meals for a month and almost died. Which means that he’s uniquely equipped to judge how well a school is preparing its students for the fast-paced world of tomorrow’s workplace.

Inside Man
But first, who is this Inside Man and what exactly is he up to? According to this explanation which I am copying and pasting from the CNN website, each week, Spurlock gives viewers an insider’s view of diverse sectors of American life, diving deep into hard-hitting issues like medical marijuana, the elder care industry, migrant farm workers, gun ownership, union workers, bankruptcy and the drought. In other words it was time for the Inside Man to tackle the hard-hitting issue of our failed and failing public schools. Why do we spend so much and get so little return on our investment? How come our students do so bad on them international tests? And why do American students keep falling off of their ladders of excellence and opportunity? Is it because their little hands are greasy from fried snack foods?

The Inside Man was off on a mission. First stop: Finland, where Spurlock joined a long and growing list of American visitors who descend on that country intent on learning nothing. Then it was time to find a school in this country that takes every single one of the elements of the Finnish success story and either ignores them completely or does the precise opposite of what the Finns do. Welcome to Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School in Brooklyn, USA, where there is no magical 100% solution but rather one hundred, individual 1% solutions. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Williamsburg Prep’s “immersion approach” relies on key special sauce ingredients like tracking the speaker plus some nifty new flavors, including lots of hand clapping and snapping. Most importantly though, neither these students, nor their hands, are ever idle. And that’s key because it is a well known historical fact that idle hands do the Devil’s work. Also, in the jobs of the future, there will not be much downtime, if you know what I mean. In other words, Williamsburg Prep looks a lot like a school in Finland, if Finland was actually called SLANTland and instead of educating students, the Finnish teachers were training seals.

Besides, I’m not convinced that Williamsburg Prep has actually cracked the code. Anyone can engage 100% of the students 100% of the time while they’re sitting down, but what about when they’re up and about, transitioning between work stations? Is there perhaps another academy of excellence and innovation that is taking the Taylorist approach to workplace management, obsolete since the 1930’s, and applying it to young minority children in the classroom?

In the time it took you to watch that video, I was able to replenish my glass twice because, in the name of efficiency, I now keep my winebox right next to me—every minute of every day. In fact, I think it’s time for a toast, reader. Here’s to standing AND stepping left on three, and, while we’re at it, here’s to clapping and snapping and to the jobs of the future that will require all of these skills. Unless, of course, those jobs are in Finland…

Should Finland change its name to SLANTland? Send comments to tips@haveyouheardblog.com.


  1. This is what I can’t get my head around (thereby demonstrating my own astounding lack of excellence, I suppose): I look at those videos and I’m horrified. I’d no more send my kids to a school like that than I’d send them to Dachau. But these are marketing videos – they’re intended to sell prospective parents on these charter schools. And they must work or else charter schools wouldn’t be turning out so many such videos.

    Someone help me out here – what exactly is appealing about these videos?

    I think I need to take up your approach to efficiency, Ed – it certainly beats the charter school approach. Got a particularly efficient wine box to recommend?

    1. The second video is actually from the Relay School of Education which trains teachers to teach in this style. I learned all about it via the most excellent Bruce Baker, a professor of Rutgers, who does the outstanding blog School Finance 101. So while videos like this aren’t intended to lure in parents, the people behind them certainly don’t think the videos or their contents are anything to be ashamed of.

  2. The Relay video is embarrassing. Do these kids ever make decisions for themselves. Are they timed eating lunch, chewing a sandwich, sipping a drink? Are they timed in the bathroom? I’ve seen a few before and I can’t get circus training or puppy obedience classes out of my head.

    In the video where kids start to raise their hands, the narrator considers this engagement. She said I see people are thinking, more start to raise their hands. They could be thinking about anything. The kids most likely want to please her. Raising your hand doesn’t signify learning, understanding, or independent thought. The lesson didn’t even feature students transferring the concept taught to independent work or discussion with peers so they could think and talk it through. It is simply complying with her directives.

    They really should take these videos down, but I don’t think they know now embarrassing they are. God help us.

    1. I know, the focus on immediate, enthusiastic hand-raising in a lot of the videos I’ve seen makes me think of what I’ve read about Straight, Inc, and its offshoots, where kids who used (or were suspected of using) drugs and alcohol had to sit day after day in rap sessions, “motivating” by waving their arms vigorously in the air with everyone chanting “Love you, [person’s name]” after anyone was singled out to share. Failure to do this indicated lack of commitment and would lead the child to be “confronted” by peers and the adult leader, not to mention taking longer to get out of the program.
      To be honest, I don’t have a problem with practiced routines for certain times in the classroom. It really does help for students to know what they’re supposed to do and when, even middle schoolers. But it seems like what’s being advertised in these clips is a way to use these routines all day long, instead of as one possible technique to use occasionally. There also seems to be an obsession with certain specific methods, and a requirement that all students throw themselves into it with fervor, whether they’re kindergartners or 7th-graders, and regardless of their individual personalities. I have some students who are happy to be enthusiastic members of the classroom, but they would rather die than do a hand clap. I have other students who mean well, but will lose their mind in a 77-minute class that doesn’t involve frequent movement breaks. It just doesn’t make sense to force all the students to act the same way all the time. If a kindergartner can move to her station at the right time and be ready to do the next activity, would she still need to be reprimanded for failing to do it in lock step with everyone else? Canned curricula try to teacher-proof classrooms, and engagement immersion gimmicks try to student-proof them.

  3. I didn’t know that preparing students to be “college and career ready” required them to become robots as early as kindergarten.

    Side note: Since when have class sizes been that small? And how amazing that students with free time should read! It’s never been done before!

  4. I suppose I have a more difficult time thinking of applying this as I teach HS…however, I’m curious how teachers address students with severe ADHD, are defiant, truant, or have special needs? I had 30 students in every class, at least 6 or 7 had IEPs in each class.

    However, I also have a daughter who is 12. I would be disgusted if this kind of “trained seal” approach was used in her class. Granted, I know this is one short video clip and cannot encompass the entire classroom management system but it just smacks of phoniness. Either the kids are performing for the camera or they are more focused on pleasing the teacher than actually learning. That is NOT intrinsic motivation.

    I’m curious to know how they handle students who are truant, defiant, in gangs, no respect for education or adults, mainstreamed but learning disabled, etc. I actually laughed out loud when I thought of some of the kids in my class doing the snapping and clapping.

      1. Which, of course, means that the non-excellent public schools get those students.

  5. Dienne–this is the interesting thing about the world that most adults hopefully have learned: not everyone agrees with you or shares your tastes. You may be horrified at the practices of some charter schools, but rest assured that some people would be equally horrified by whatever sort of pedagogy you prefer. C’est la vie.

    This is why robust school choice is a good thing. It lets those parents find the school environment they prefer while you send your kids to the school you prefer, without either of you having to put up with pedagogy that you find horrifying.

    1. But is it robust school choice when all of these schools hold to the same view that poor minority students require the educational equivalent of the broken windows policing model? If you ask parents what kind of choice they’d like, they’re remarkably consistent: they want safe, quality neighborhood schools. But alas, that choice isn’t on offer. Instead, they get the choice of which city-wide no excuses charter to apply to when their neighborhood schools close. In a few weeks, Boston’s largest elementary school will reopen as a no excuses charter with a “robust” disciplinary code. Parents were given no choice in the conversion but if the track record of the EMO that will run the school is any indicator, a great many of them will exercise their choice to leave in the coming months.

      1. So it sounds like you want even more school choice than currently exists. I agree. There should be the sort of schools you say, plus “no-excuses” charters, plus “progressive” charters, plus whatever else people find attractive.

    2. It’s denigrating to all the people who experience real child abuse (let alone Holocaust victims!) for you to talk that way about having a strict classroom. Get a grip.

      1. You are out of touch WT and an apologist for the military test prep charter sweatshops. All they are learning is compliance. Maybe you don’t know any better either.

      2. Oh please. You sound just like those who claim that supporting gay rights as civil rights is denigrating to the “real” Civil Rights Movement. Just like civil rights come in all shapes a flavors, so too does child abuse. In fact, studies have shown that mental and verbal abuse (of which rigid control is a subset) are even more damaging than physical abuse.

        1. CT Teacher insulted me. I’d rather be lynched than experience such verbal insults! (Not really, but that’s the equivalent of your hysterical comparison to the Holocaust.)

          What you see as “abuse” is just your personal and eccentric opinion. Other people feel differently. Taking the military as an example, I wouldn’t want to be in the military, but other people actually do want to and even thrive in that environment. Who am I, and who are you, to say that other people have no right to choose an environment that they like but that you don’t like? How self-centered.

          1. Guess you didn’t quite get how that comparison worked, did you? I guess that’s the result of taking too many bubble tests and not reading enough worthwhile literature. No wonder you support this form of “education”.

          2. There wasn’t anything of substance in your ludicrous and hysterical comparison to Dachau.

            CT: Stop lynching me! You are worse than Hitler!

    3. BTW, you never did answer my question – what is so appealing about having your child treated like a trained seal?

  6. Here’s to you, Ed!
    I’m not so efficient so I had to stand up to get my wine, but I need the exercise.
    I wonder, do they shoot videos about suspending the non-clappers?

  7. Sounds like Canter’s behavior was inappropriate and disruptive and your assertive response put an end to it! So I’m going to go ahead and award you an extra DREAM point, and throw in one more because you kept your hands to yourself–or at least on your keyboard. Thanks for sharing. I’d never read anything about this particular approach and am now an expert 🙂

  8. “trained seals”….love it! I teach in the Chicago public school system (12 years), and the charter school expansion and closure of schools are sickening. Whats worse, is that, even in the public schools, with the “do it or lose it” evaluations……we have to watch dozens of these videos and “learn from them”, then expected to teach in the same manner during evaluations…..if not, low eval, and low eval equals no job
    thank you edushyster……always provide good reads 😉

  9. Please say it ain’t so, Ed!

    Is Relay a “real” graduate school – or an extension of TFA reforminess?

    1. Good explanation of Relay here: Btw: we also have one of these special grad schools just to mint charter teachers in Massachusetts. I wrote about it here.

  10. Would you please describe the school that you helped create and/or have worked in that you think others can learn from? You regularly criticize what others are doing.

    I’m interested in what you have done that you think others can learn from, especially if you have worked with significant numbers of youngsters from low income families and families of color.

    We’ve tried to describe a variety of such schools, both district and charter, and helped to create some. I’ve found it valuable to learn from others. Thank for considering this request.

    1. Joe,
      ” families of color ” sounds so condescending, like its a disease, a condition. ” of color.” think about it. it is sad that people cannot just be equal. oh, wait that is what its all about right? ” some pigs are more equal than other pigs. ” or maybe, ” some pigs are more excellent than other pigs. ” but a pig with a winebox is the most excellent of all.

    2. Greetings sir – thanks as always for your attentiveness to my blog! I respect that you have a choice of blogs to read and am pleased and flattered that you’ve chosen mine as your choice. Now to your main point: my relentless criticism of what others are doing. My aim is not to shoot down every fresh and innovative idea that comes along but rather to shoot down the same bad ideas that are coming along with increasing speed thanks to the enormous amount of money and political influence behind them. I am utterly appalled that with no debate whatsoever we now “agree” that poor minority students require a different kind of education than their whiter, wealthier peers. I’m frankly angry about the fact that at the very core of today’s education reform narrative is the assumption that 1/4 or even 1/3 of the kids in our urban schools are expendable. As for examples that others can learn from, I’m happy to give a few shout outs. I’m privileged to get to work with the Bread Loaf program in Lawrence, MA, one of the most amazing writing/mentoring/professional development programs around. Students in the program don’t just learn to express themselves but they become leaders. Another shout out goes to a program called KnowAtom which is using hands-on, inquiry-based science to grow the next generation of scientists and engineers. The program is so effective that students in diverse, high-needs, high poverty Lynn, MA are outperforming their suburban peers. My fave programs have a few things in common. One: they serve ALL kids, regardless of how much they need or how troubled they are or whether or not they speak English yet. And two: they run on fumes. With all of the “innovation” that’s coming down the pike, there really isn’t money these days for programs in traditional urban schools and districts, no matter how successful they are. I hope that answers your question…

  11. Yeah, I’m not surprised re Spurlock. “Super Size Me” was 90+ minutes of fat shaming and diet industry propaganda.

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