Fast Food Education

Recently I broke down and got lunch at a fast food place. I know, I know. Ick. I won’t say which to protect their identity and to protect my pride. I was struck that when handed my meal in a bag, the cashier didn’t say, “enjoy your meal,” but instead said, “enjoy the rest of your day.” There was no pretense here. I wasn’t really going to enjoy the meal—so why pretend.

Most of us “break down” and eat fast food. We know it isn’t good for us. We know it isn’t really that good either. Yet we do it. When in a hurry, when traveling, when the pantry is bare, and a trip to the grocery store is not in the cards. We also do it because we know exactly what we are going to get. The standards are set and we know that the hamburger from McDonalds in Bemidji is going to taste just like the hamburger in Atlanta. That is the great strength of fast food. However, even if fast food was modified to be a healthy option, it still wouldn’t be the first choice for a meal for most people, because what is its strength is also its greatest weakness. It is standardized and predictable. There is no creativity involved.

In our efforts to increase the rigor and “teacher-proof” education we have adopted a litany of standards. What works in Bemidji schools must also work in Atlanta schools right? We have successfully standardized education. Education is now quite standardized in regards to the curriculum. In our attempts to teacher-proof the education system we have made education predictable and, well, quite frankly, boring.

When I started teaching, I had complete academic freedom. Probably too much. The teachers I am training today have very little academic freedom in regards to what they teach. Probably too little. Some will not even have any academic freedom in regards to how they teach and how they assess their students. If the paradigm for teaching is a matter of any person opening a book and assigning an assignment, giving a lecture, and then providing the mandated objective test, then yes this paradigm might work. This kind of people-proofing an industry, be it food, retail, engineering, or art only results in one thing—predictability and mediocrity. Then, why do we want this for our education system?

Imagine our greatest scientists, artists and thinkers in today’s education setting. Would they have a chance to shine, to explore their passions, to fail safely and learn from mistakes, to dream and to create, or would they be studying for AP exams and taking SAT prep courses? Would they have graduated burned out and sick of learning before entering their first years of college or graduate school? Would they have taken the safe route to get training for a good job and sacrificed dreaming up the theory of relativity, the transistor, or ipods?

Our efforts to standardize the curriculum have not closed the achievement gap, nor have they “teacher-proofed” the curriculum against mediocrity. In fact, I believe they have increased mediocrity, because the introduction of the standards have shut down the “art” of teaching. Roland Barth said that the job of the administrator is to provide a safe place for teachers to fail. If you do that, then the good ones will rise to the top as they try innovative and creative ways to teach, reach and inspire children. We will never “people-proof” an industry that relies so heavily on people and the relationships that are formed between students and teachers. If we want to “teacher-proof” the curriculum we need to provide better teachers, and then put those teachers in a place where they can innovate and create. Instead we are putting them behind the metaphorical fast-food counter, saying “enjoy the rest of your day.”

2 thoughts on “Fast Food Education

  1. Simon Tyler says:


    I enjoyed your post. The Fast Food metaphor is a good one. Fast food is, of course, cheap to produce as well being nasty. It is also cheaper to lecture to 40 students from a textbook than to cater to 20 with a teaching assistant in each room.

    Fast food also adversely affects the health of those most vulnerable, the poor, who don’t have the time or resources to shop at Just Food Coop or dine at Chapatis. This is of course is the constant regret I have here, that our healthy, individualized education diet is not provided to all children. So, we are an obese nation full, to paraphrase Alfie Kohn, of fat kids who don’t like to read (I think he was talking about pizza rewards for reading programs!).

    Thanks for posting.


    1. timothygoodwin says:

      Simon, it was at the Progressive Educators Network meeting in SF where we heard Roland Barth speak. Another speaker, I don’t recall who, said that the private schools had the luxury of being progressive, but it was unethical that only students of the well-off got to have this benefit, while students in inner city schools and other public schools were subjected to “basic skills” education because that was all they could handle in the eyes of many decision makers. It’s very troubling. We will teach the wealthy how to think creatively, and the poor we will teach basic skills only, furthering the gap in the name of closing the gap.

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