Wednesday, September 18, 2013


A colleague and I were getting lunch in a middle school recently. It happens. The options were soupy shepherd's pie or a cheeseburger, both with sides. Sliced fruit dripping in syrup, iceberg lettuce leaves, and a broccoli salad with raisins swimming in a creamy dressing (actually pretty tasty). The cheeseburger itself, generously smothered in cheese, sat on an oversized bun. At the end of the line was a box of condiments: mustard and mayonnaise. Maybe the students used up all the ketchup. So I asked the lunch guy (yes, guy, not lady!) what I thought was a reasonable question:

"Can I get some ketchup?"
"Oh. You're out of ketchup?"
"No. I can't give you any. It would put you over the calorie count."
"According to the rules we have to follow, the ketchup would put the meal over the calorie count. Sorry."

He said it with a smile... actually it was a sheepish it-doesn't-make-sense-to-me-either grin.

I resisted: If I put back one grape in the syrupy fruit salad... If I gut the bun... Scrape off half the cheese... If I pick out the raisins... can I get some ketchup? because he was just following the rules. Seriously?

It's a metaphor, right? I don't know how it got this way in schools. I don't know if the U.S. Department of Education makes these decisions or the state Department of Education or the district Department of School Lunches (or Curriculum or Assessment or Professional Development).

There are far too many reasonable decisions that have been taken out of the hands of the people who are actually in schools - students and teachers and principals - and made by policy-makers at various levels above them. It frequently amounts to a limited set of options that make very little sense.

I can forgo the ketchup, and probably should keep a better eye on my calorie count. What I cannot forgo is the professional judgement of those who work most closely with students, in favor of some data-driven policy set by someone who hasn't set foot in a school cafeteria in years.

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