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Grading the Gardens

It’s good to see that The Atlantic, once the literary home of Mark Twain, is publishing satire again. Caitlin Flanagan’s piece on the dangers of school gardens, “Cultivating Failure” (January/February Atlantic), is a brilliant parody of the angry illogic broadcast on Fox News. The idea that Alice Waters is responsible for poor reading scores in California (not the right-wing, anti-tax movement that has decimated the state’s educational system) perfectly captures the sort of thinking that has made Glenn Beck a best-selling author. I also enjoyed her suggestion that nutritional education for Hispanic children is racist (when perhaps half of those kids are expected to develop diabetes). Ms. Flanagan’s articles have always been provocative—but as this one demonstrates, she has learned how to be very funny.

Eric Schlosser
New York, N.Y.

Caitlin Flanagan asks, “What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs … improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests?” We have plenty of evidence. Here at UC Davis, the Center for Nutrition in Schools has documented that healthier children are the outcomes of good gardens. The California School Garden Network’s Web site lays out volumes of research supporting garden-based learning as a contributor to better academic achievement, improved behavior and attitudes, and enhanced nutritional knowledge. Ms. Flanagan’s lack of appreciation for the power of hands-on learning shows how little she understands about how children learn. I was offended by her ridicule of me and the gardens’ many supporters. Teachers are using the gritty earth of classroom gardens to teach English, language arts, math, history, and science. The gardens are living laboratories, and to students, they look a lot more real than a plastic chair, because they are.

Delaine Eastin
Former California Superintendent of Public Instruction
Davis, Calif.

Many subjects can be illustrated through a garden—biology and chemistry through study of soil and plants, as well as business through inventory, transportation, and sales of the produce. In my work at a special-ed school, I see kids who are jaded and unreachable through traditional classroom means come alive when digging in soil and watching seeds grow. It’s unfortunate that Ms. Flanagan doesn’t understand this joy. May her intellectual snobbery be sent to the compost bin.

Mary White
Los Angeles, Calif.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

Eric Schlosser should get out a yellow highlighter and mark the passages of my essay that lead him to believe that I hold Alice Waters responsible for anyone’s reading scores, or that I think the school-gardens program is racist. As to his assertion that the “right-wing, anti-tax movement” is to blame for the California achievement gap, he’s just wrong. Of the 15 highest-achieving, high-poverty schools in the state, 12 are charters, which receive far less funding per pupil than do traditional public schools. Why are so many African American and Hispanic students faring poorly academically? Because there are enough people who believe that minority kids’ abilities are so low, and their futures so dim, that the best we can do for them is provide an organic lunch and wish them well. Shameful.

There is not one word, not one syllable, of research, either at the California School Garden Network or at the state’s Department of Education, to suggest that a garden-based curriculum helps students master the state standards, graduate from high school, or become college-ready. It was this complete lack of research, combined with the widespread adoption of the garden curriculum, that prompted me to write the essay. I would urge all readers whose children are enrolled in one of these programs to visit the CSGN and decide on their own if the curriculum will help their students to become college-ready.

Mary White speaks to the essentially vocational nature of garden classes. This may be appropriate in the special-education context, but not in the instruction of kids whose goal is a rigorous academic curriculum that will bring them to college.

Muddling Through

James Fallows rightly criticizes the “structural resistance to change” built into our overly checked-and-balanced governing system (“How America Can Rise Again,” January/February Atlantic). We never recommend that developing democracies adopt a Senate like ours. But after 12 years in the U.S. Congress, I believe the larger problem is widespread hostility to government itself. Our traditional, appropriate American skepticism about government has morphed into something deeper and more dangerous. Congress cannot make long-term strategic decisions on education, health-care, economic, tax, and budget policies without a broader consensus about what government is for.

The “muddling through” that Fallows suggests cannot work effectively if one party is determined to weaken the reach of government and the other is unable by itself to revive public confidence that government action can improve the well-being of the people. Fierce opposition to government itself, not just the structure left us by the Founders, is crippling our ability to fund a level of public investment that will maximize the capacity of the private sector to flourish. Our future prospects still depend on a struggle over political ideas.

Tom Allen
Portland, Maine

James Fallows’s conclusion that our government “looks like a joke” because the 50 states, rather than their citizens, have equal representation in the Senate, is unsupported. Indeed, the notion that our government would not look like a joke if Senate representation were proportional to population is incompatible with his observation that California’s system, one that allows ballot measures to be enacted by voter referenda (what could be a more elevated expression of one-person, one-vote, democratic governance?), has produced a dysfunctional situation where benefits have been mandated without the tax burden to sustain them; that result seems like our national “joke” to me.

Timothy Bates
Wolfeboro, N.H.

James Fallows replies:

In my lifetime, I have seen the legitimacy of public action change in what seems like a basic way. As Tom Allen points out, the change has been from cross-party skepticism to outright hostility by Republicans, and nervous defense by Democrats. What has remained constant is the convenience of a military excuse for any “nation building” effort, from the interstate-highway system onward. What has changed is the difficulty of advancing any other rationale. After World War II, my home state of California could launch ambitious programs to build universities, research centers, parks, etc., because this made life better for so many people—and because this represented an American ideal in particularly bright form. Now, despite its huge population and vital tech and entertainment industries, California symbolizes a different kind of future.

Timothy Bates may have misunderstood me. I argued that the careful balancing that went into the Constitution—the interests of bigger states against smaller, free states against slave states, farmers against traders—made sense for its time. But many realities have changed, and our governing structures have not, or not enough. Centuries’ worth of population shift, combined with the recent practice of subjecting all major Senate actions to the filibuster, has skewed the balance beyond recognition. California’s paralysis of self-government shows this situation in its extreme. This is what we would correctly call a “failed state” in other parts of the world. As an American optimist, I hope this is a diagnosis, subject to treatment, not a verdict.

Keeping Great Teachers

As a fifth-year high-school teacher, I found Amanda Ripley’s “What Makes a Great Teacher” (January/February Atlantic) inspiring, and frustrating. I agree that a “history of perseverance” is essential for a good teacher. To juggle 100 students, parents, administrative paperwork, and the never-ending barrage of standardized tests takes twice as many hours as I am paid for, and perseverance is only one of many skills needed to do the job well. I was dismayed, however, that Ripley only touched upon the fact that the dedication needed to be an excellent teacher is extraordinarily difficult to maintain. Half of all new teachers quit within five years. The Obama administration should focus on recruiting the best teachers, but it should also dedicate itself to keeping good teachers teaching. Even Mr. Taylor, whom Ripley praises as an exceptional educator, wants to leave after only three years in the classroom. He insists it is to pass on his skills to others, but I know that it must also be because the commitment it takes to teach all students—not just those in lower-income schools—is exhausting.

Courtnay Malcolm
Cambridge, Mass.

Amanda Ripley replies:

I agree that we should dedicate ourselves to “keeping good teachers teaching.” But until we identify good teachers and track what they are doing, we cannot reasonably hope to support them. Teach for America has its limitations, but it is unusually dedicated to figuring out what its most effective teachers are doing—and changing its selection and training processes accordingly. Surely all teachers could benefit if schools designed policies for hiring, training, and pay based on what actually leads to learning. Until then, even exceptional teachers will work unnecessarily long days to get results.

Editors’ Note
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Battle of the Big Box” (January/February Atlantic), the medals earned by the United States Colored Troops were Medals of Honor.

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