Lunch Ladies at the Killing Fields

Our local public radio station did a piece this morning about a public school in Chicago that, because of the students’ failure to achieve standardized testing goals, is being subjected to a process known as “turnaround.” Turnaround involves firing all of the school staff, allowing them to reapply for their jobs (with the understanding that re-hiring is going to be very rare), and starting from scratch for the next school year.

This all sounded at least arguably promising to me at first. Okay, can the principal. Can the teachers, and everybody in between. They have, apparently, failed at their job. Time to try somebody new.

But this procedure is being applied, not only to the professional educators whose job it is to help the students meet their testing goals, but also to security officers, custodians, and lunch ladies.

Asked why this draconian procedure is being applied to people who have no official responsibility for student test results, a Chicago Public Schools bureaucrat responded that it was necessary to change the entire ”culture” of a failing school, from top to bottom, in order to get better results. Too many people left over from the previous culture meant the school would end up right back where it started.

What, I wondered, do janitors and lunch ladies have to do with a school’s “culture”, much less with test results? I spent much of today trying to figure out what this reminded me of. It kept nibbling at the edges of my mind like a mosquito. On my way home from the office, it hit me. That’s how utopians think. B.F. Skinner, in Walden Two, says someplace (or one of his characters does, anyway) that the flaw at the base of his colony is that its founders were not raised in Walden Two.

A lot of the early socialists and communists said the same sort of thing. Some of them even acknowledged that, for that reason, they would not be able to create the “New Socialist Man” [sic] in a single generation, but would have to keep working toward him [sic] by a long series of approximations. Pol Pot and his buddies found a faster way—wipe out as many as possible of those who had been raised in traditional Cambodian culture or any of its westernized and industrialized variants. You can read and write? You wear glasses? You wear shoes? Off to the killing fields with you.

Or, more logically, we don’t really know what makes a culture of exploitation, or a culture that causes children to fail in school. So the only shot we have at changing it is to change ALL of it. So far, amazingly, nobody is talking about burning down the school buildings. Probably that’s because firing lunch ladies and replacing them (probably with, as the radio piece pointed out, lunch ladies who had been fired from other failing schools) is cheaper than demolishing buildings and reconstructing them. Arguably, buildings have a lot more to do with the “culture” that happens in them than lunch ladies. But, clearly, these guys have not thought this through.


One Response to “Lunch Ladies at the Killing Fields”

  1. Fulana Says:

    Actually, in LA they have long prioritized spending on gorgeous new school buildings rather than curriculum development or family support. 😦

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