The Nation of Educalculation

I grew up playing school. My friends and I would sit in a room, draw on a chalkboard, take turns playing the teacher and students, and–get this–make, complete, and grade worksheets. (I feel like I should be admitting that at some sort of teacher anonymous meeting.)

Fast forward about two decades–I quit college to attend cosmetology school. I worked in several salons for several years, loving the art and science of beauty. But soon I realized there was an emptiness…an emptiness which echoed of my childhood playing-school days. So I transitioned from behind the salon chair to the front desk so I could finish my degree in English Education. And I became a teacher.

I am an educator educalculator.

To set the context, I’d like to share a few anecdotes which reflect national issues in public education:

  • It is common practice in many schools to create a TCAP-like (or other state-mandated test) environment for an entire day, sacrificing the natural rhythms of teaching and learning for the sake of fostering testing stamina.
  • Because of mandated “data entry” requirements, students can be required to write answers not once, but twice: once on the exam, once on an answer sheet. I believe practice in moderation is essential in setting students up for success on a rigorous exam, but when they have to do double the work…just for data entry…there is something amiss.
  • I spent hours delineating the standards of, creating, copying, planning, and grading a benchmark assessment, in the hope of receiving targeted data about standards in which students are struggling–thereby giving me feedback for future teaching. When trying to analyze the data, it was discovered that the standards were misaligned and misdocumented–muddying, at best, and voiding, at worst, all of the hours spent prepping, giving, and grading this assessment. It is challenging to prioritize data targets when those targets are often flawed, ambiguous, or ephemeral. 
  • In two separate incidents throughout my educational career, in two separate contexts, I have been a part of conversations which have called for an increase in the “productivity” of education; the language during these incidents has been to compare education to a successful business model…specifically Starbucks.

These few things hint at a greater Educalculation Apocalypse. But there are greater warning signs all around this nation; those in the trenches are writing incessantly about the deteriorating landscape of education into educalculation. Just for example, here or here or here.

To beat the proverbial dead horse, I’d like to return to the business model analysis–since so many like to equate education with business. If Starbucks were run like public school in America:

  • Once a week, all shops would be closed, so that employees could become accountants to check the profit margin; in other words, shutting off the opportunity for profit to analyze profit.
  • Despite what the customer wants, several days a week, at least once a shift, all baristas would make for all customers a nonfat decaf soy caramel macchiato at 140 to see how it affects the profit margin; of course, all customers would be required to participate. Each and every time. Too bad for those dairy-intolerant customers.
  • Those running the corporate framework would be professional auto mechanics with a lot of money and even more ideologies, with no coffee experience or education. But, hey, they’ve drunk coffee.
  • Baristas would try to serve the best drinks they can, with the best results for the customers, even those customers who are throwing their drinks all over the shop as well as other customers. After security walks in, and after he/she picks himself up after taking a spill on a spilled latte, he would ask for documentation that the customer is really being disruptive, habitually disruptive. Later the boss would pull the barista in for a conference about what more the barista can do to control the throwing arm of the customer. Never mind that customer’s mom throws vodka at home.
  • Customers would come to the shop with one retail need, but many demands. They would come in hungry, with no money to pay for that yummy scone. They would come in smelly, because their parents are fighting and kicked them out. They would come in ordering from an English menu in Japanese and Mandarin and French. Their currency would be pesos and bit coins and pounds. They would order the most sophisticated drink on the menu, but fail to hold the cup correctly, since they missed that lesson at preschool.
  • Baristas would serve while someone hovers, telling them to add vanilla (because it’s cheaper and thereby increases the profit) when that barista just knows that Jimmy John likes cinnamon syrup (he likes the way it makes his breath smell, and that it turn encourages his productivity).
  • Baristas would take home every night the emotional burdens of their customers, the dirty cups so they could analyze saliva trends, the crumbs left behind so they could arrange tasting conditions, and the receipts so they could detect trends in profit/loss margins. All before the next shift. All while being paid a daily salary that translates to less than a ticket to the local NFL game. But hey, they get summers off, those baristas. Never mind they spend the summer in Columbia, on their own dime, checking out the latest coffee bean consortia, preparing for the new business year.

Of course I took creative license in this metaphor. But the point remains: education is not a business. Business is choice. Our students are our customers by context. In fact, we have to keep “shop” open despite their choices.

I know it is bad form to complain without offering solutions. I also know this is not the fault of anyone in my school–or in any one school. This is not a question of who-done-it. The system holds the blame, and needs renewing change. This is also not a call to renounce data-driven instruction; rather, it is a hope that we can broaden the definition of data, and fit it rightfully in its place as one among many other essential aspects of quality instruction and learning.

What this is about is survival. I remain dedicated to teaching, to caring for students, in this educalculated world. How do I survive in this nation of educalculation?

In a recent meeting, I shared a professional goal along these lines:

I want to be an advocate for my students. I want to protect them from the avalanche tumbling down the political-educational mountainside known as <insert booming Morgan Freeman voice here> Data Peak.

To further the avalanche metaphor, it appears we have no way to stop the impending force. But I can create for my students a pocket of air, an emergency kit for when we are all suffocated together under the white weight of numbers. I can stand up for them against over-testing. I can treat them like people, not statistics. I can be a human in front of them, not a robot. I can honor their hearts, not just their minds. I can implement a joke, and not just an objective. I can make my classroom a haven, not just a laboratory.

Because in this avalanche, they are just as much my air pocket, my emergency kit.

I am more than an educalculator.

I am an educator.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stefani
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 16:18:43

    You. Are a genius.



  2. Trackback: when saying no is saying yes | lifeinthedport
  3. Trackback: students vs. statistics: why I stay a teacher | lifeinthedport
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  5. Trackback: when saying no is saying yes – Life in the Dport

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