It's (Not) a Race to the Top

What the Slow Food movement can teach the United States about education reform

Phil Roeder/Flickr

In 1986, an Italian activist organized a rally to oppose the opening of a McDonald’s at the foot of Rome’s Spanish Steps. Protesters snacked on bowls of penne to show support for local culinary traditions and resistance to industrial food production. A McDonalds location did end up opening there, but the demonstration wasn’t futile: It helped launch the Slow Food movement, which now has spread to cities across the globe.

Slow Food often evokes the imagery of European luxury: lingering multicourse meals in quaint Tuscan towns, regionally specific dishes cooked by a charming third-generation chef, everything washed down with a delicious local wine. But the movement is not just an elite exercise in gastronomic hedonism; it’s also about promoting urban gardens, home-cooked meals, and farmers’ markets so that people of all economic means can enjoy Slow Food.

Slow Food suggests some intriguing ideas for reforming American education. Like food production, American education faces a matrix of connected problems. Teachers and pundits regularly complain about rampant standardized testing, excessive homework loads, the reflexive pursuit of prestige by students and parents, and declining performance on international tests.

Education reformers need a movement that treats these various problems as different symptoms of a single underlying pathology, and Slow Food is an instructive example. So what would a Slow School movement mean?

Slow Food represents a cluster of beliefs about what and how we should eat. These include supporting local and organic food, growing our own ingredients, savoring meals in communal settings, opposing the spread of industrial slaughterhouses and pesticide-drenched crops, and rejecting gratuitous chemical additives. But the movement doesn’t boil down to a single policy goal or life practice. Many interrelated problems plague our current system of growing and consuming food, and the movement takes a holistic approach to solving them.

It’s hyperbolic—and sort of creepy—to say that students are directly analogous to animals packed into crowded feedlots and pumped with hormones before their slaughter. But the analogy works on some levels: Just as factories aim to maximize profit, schools seek to boost test scores. In both cases, shortcuts are irresistible. Animals are injected with growth hormones, and students are taught quick tricks to answer test questions they don't fully understand.

In her recent book, Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green describes precisely this phenomenon. She writes about teachers who feel that pressure to produce high scores on state math tests undermines effective instruction. Cows fed corn instead of grass may grow more quickly, but their health suffers. Students taught quick mnemonic tricks may answer a multiple-choice question correctly, but that doesn’t mean they understand the math. Many companies track the cost of transforming raw materials into finished products (like corn to beef), and many school districts use a system borrowed from industrial economists to assess the cost of increasing student test scores. These industrial methods helped to create a perverse system defined by a single objective: to raise test scores.

But how teachers raise scores matters—not all methods of solving a problem are equally valid. Students allowed to struggle slowly with difficult problems ultimately do better on harder tests. In her book, Green describes Japan’s approach to education, which involves having elementary students spend entire class periods working slowly through a single problem rather than cranking through dozens of repetitions without understanding any profoundly. Slow School would emphasize process over results. Food raised in humane and ecologically responsible ways tends to taste better, but this isn’t the only reason to follow these practices. There’s something intrinsically valuable about increasing the quality of life for animals and protecting the environment. Students given the chance to slow down tend to perform better, but their experience also matters. And cramming specious shortcuts to prepare for tests that determine the salaries of teachers is not enjoyable.

We need to let students experience the pleasure and wonder of learning. Teachers can’t afford to ignore test results any more than farmers can profits, but it’s worth rewarding them for the process—not just the results. This means prying open classrooms and evaluating teachers throughout the process of instruction. Are they helping students enjoy the process of learning? Are they sufficiently focused on deeper comprehension? Are they discouraging the petty pursuit of prestige?

Letting cows wander around and munch on grass might be less efficient than injecting them with growth hormones and feeding them corn, but it’s part of a humane and ecologically sustainable system. The increased pleasure experienced by kids who are allowed to get distracted, take breaks, pursue digressions, and learn at natural rates is also worth a decrease in efficiency.

Slow School would move away from standardized tests and one-size-fits-all curricula. Slowing down allows teachers to modify content in a way that makes students more engaged and happier. And just as it's more sustainable to buy food grown close to home, it's also worthwhile to support neighborhood schools. Putting time and money into local school systems ultimately improves their quality and creates a positive feedback loop.

A Slow School movement would embrace many of the excellent ideas that school reformers have been proposing for decades: de-emphasizing standardized tests, focusing on student happiness, individualizing instruction, and halting the flight of students from their own neighborhood schools. But considering all of these changes as remedies for a single broader problem helps remind us that no single solution will be entirely effective. Slow Food is compelling because it provides a cluster of answers to a series of flaws. Slow School could do the same thing.