Ben Tobin: Another educational song and dance

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Published: 04-17-2024 5:24 PM

As a kid growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s in western Massachusetts, watching Malcolm in the Middle — the saga of a fourth-wall busting child prodigy and his family — was a staple of post-school hours. Jumping forward to present times, and my unintended foray into education and subsequent work as a special education teacher and a disability rights activist, it didn’t feel all that dissimilar from some of the scenarios FankieMuniz’sMalcom must contend with on the show.

Having reported the state at the federal level to the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) for failure of compliance with the IDEA law, resulting in a months-long probe and a shuffling of policy changes, it’s been brought home how much work there is still to do. One episode in particular has a plotline wherein Malcolm gains employment at his mother’s convenience store and is required to bring empty cardboard boxes down the freight elevator to the appropriately named box-flattening area, and then bring the flattened boxes back up to go into a dumpster just a few feet away from where the process starts. The man providing the instructions only pauses when Malcolm suggests they simply stomp on the boxes and carry them over to the dumpster and accomplish the same job in 20 min versus a number of hours. The man simply restates the original instructions to do things in an overwrought way. I cannot think of a better metaphor for our broken, entrenched education system.

I’m seeing the proposals and committees forming for solutions and it feels like yet another trip down to the box flattening area. The main thrust of addressing the issues is still primarily money-focused. As opposed to looking at the underlying issues, recognizing them, and admitting to the problems — underlying and rampant issues such as poor literacy instruction and bullying. This song and dance feels like yet another attempt by the educational leadership to obfuscate and distract and make it about getting money poured in without an accountability or serious drive toward systematic change.

Ben Tobin


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