What do mystery meat, unsolicited bulk email, and today’s popular educational reforms have in common? They are all potentially unhealthy, and full of waste products. In other words, they are spam.
Hormel Foods Corporation introduced the original mystery meat version of SPAM ® in 1937 and the shortage of meat during and immediately following World War II in England spurred sales of this canned precooked meat. A Monty Python television sketch in 1970 is credited with the adaptation of the term spam to electronic messages that are similar to what Wikipedia describes as the canned meat that is “low-grade fodder due to its commonality, monotonous taste and cheap price.”
As is the case with its meat counter part, educational spam is not nutritious. Just as Monty Python’s actors chanted “spam, spam, spam, wonderful spam,” today’s educational reformers repeat their slogans: data driven, rate teachers, create charter schools, and test, test, test, wonderful tests. Such reform mantras may satisfy politicians’ need to claim that they have easily obtainable quick fixes for people hungry for a better educational system. Unfortunately people witness large groups of students whose schooling leaves them unprepared for their role as contributing members of a democratic society, with individual talents that are not developed, and without the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to be successful economically. Seeing these shortcomings they, like those who turn to quick-served mystery meat, are too willing to accept the politicians’ false promises.
Electronic versions of spam result in lost productivity and fraud and, like their canned meat namesakes, they are cheap. So are popular educational reforms. Frequent testing of students is cheap because it costs less than actually improving the quality of instruction and adopting research-based practices that will help low and high performing students. Charter schools create places that satisfy parents who are unhappy with their children’s education thus allowing the students who remain behind to continue to be fed the same “low-grade fodder” parents erroneously believe they are escaping by moving their children to a charter school. Assigning numerical ratings to teachers based largely on poor measures of student progress is easier than developing evaluation systems that help teachers become more proficient.
One day, while studying “off-road” village schools in Alaska, a group I was with landed in a village around 3 in the afternoon not having eaten since 5:30 in the morning when we started the plane hopping from one location to another. We checked with the school’s small kitchen and asked if we could get a bite to eat. “ Sure,” the cook said, and slathered bread with thick layers of butter, sliced thick slabs of SPAM® and served us sandwiches that quickly vanquished our hunger. As I think about that day, it is ironic that at the same time no learning was going on in the school. The villagers had decided it was a nice day for a party and everyone had jumped on snowmobiles and sped off across a frozen lake to a neighboring village to have a blast. Temporarily mystery meat had filled us up, but the kids received no schooling. Maybe the analogy is a little stretched, but the absence of productive schooling that day reminds me of the empty promises of the edu-spammers. We would all benefit if we could develop programs that protect us from edu-spam not unlike we are able to load anti-spam software on our computers.