Caitlin Flanagan Digs Into School-Based Garden Programs

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Caitlin Flanagan's venomous attack on school garden programs -- and Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard Program in particular -- in the Atlantic piece Cultivating Failure has been a hot-button topic of discussion all week. However, this cleverly written but poorly researched piece does little to advance the discussion on the value of such programs -- and does much to polarize individuals along political lines in addressing the value of experiential learning opportunities.

Garden-based education is an example of using an out-of-classroom activity -- in this case, the growing of fruits and vegetables -- as a springboard for in-the-classroom activities. Flanagan asserts that any program which takes away from time spent doing drills, worksheets and reading Arthur Miller in the sixth grade are hurting a child's chances of passing today's No-Child-Left-Behind array of standardized tests. As these tests appear to be the be-all and end-all of education for Flanagan, anything which might pull focus in a different direction should be abolished:

Our kids are working in these gardens with the promise of a better chance at getting an education and a high-school diploma, but without one bit of proof that their hard work will result in either. We should remember, by the way, that the California high-school exit exam, which so many are failing, is hardly onerous: it requires a mastery of eighth-grade math (students need to score a mere 55 percent on that portion of the test) and 10th-grade English language and composition (on which they need to score 60 percent or higher). And so I would say this to our state’s new child farm laborers: ¡Huelga! Strike!

While Flanagan was unable to find any supporting evidence for improved test scores, the California Department of Education -- in its School Garden Program Overview paper -- reported:

Five major studies have documented the educational efficacy of using the environment as an integrated context for learning. These studies have examined the implementation of environment-based education at 66 schools, including California schools.9-13

In 1999, the California Department of Education (CDE) commissioned a second study of the educational efficacy of environment-based education. The study examined eight pairs of environment-based education treatment and control schools/programs in California. Data from this California study combined with data from the prior study found that over 77 percent of students in environment-based education programs scored higher than their peers across all standardized tests and had higher grade point averages.

The literature not only supports the role of environment-based education in academic achievement, but also finds that nutrition education and nutrition programs that are linked to school gardens improve academic achievement (emphasis my own). One of the strongest justifications for nutrition education, nutrition programs, and nutrition services in schools is the effect on students' cognitive performance and their educational achievement.14

Atlantic published a response to Flanagan's piece by Corby Kummer: School Gardeners Strike Back. Kummer -- unlike Flanagan -- took time to visit the King school, speaking to the director of the Berkeley Edible Schoolyard:

As we spoke, Guerrero was passing by the kitchen-classroom, and described the scene: "Kids are grinding grain on a bike, learning about how much land it takes to grow grain, and measuring how much grain they have before and after they grind it. It's a math lesson."

Still, as Flanagan pointed out the California school system -- and I'm sure school systems throughout the United States -- is broken and failing. State budget cuts under Governor Schwarzenegger are decimating board budgets; minority students are failing to learn -- and therefore failing to pass the standardized tests required to graduate at an alarming rate. KJ Dell'Antonia, responding to Flanagan's piece on XX Factor, begs Don't Use a "Living Classroom" to Replace a Real One. She argues that the math and science learned in working a garden may be great enrichment activities -- but should not be used as a replacement for more traditional book learning:

Personally, my oldest child sat through two years of similarly themed lesson plans and emerged knowing plenty about butterflies (life cycles) and woodpeckers (meadow learning). But he didn't know how to read and he couldn't add or subtract. Like Flanagan, I began to see every minute of his school day -- and there were a lot of them -- spent on a social agenda and not on actual learning as a terrible misuse of instructional time.

I would agree that there is a lot of applied math in the scene Guerrerro described at King: analyzing energy output, crop productivity, volume. However, these applications of knowledge do need a underlying educational basis. Until I learn the geometry necessary to calculate volume, I'm not going to be successful in attempts to measure it. Garden time must be tied hand-in-hand to classroom time.

My problem with what Flanagan and Dell'Antonia argue -- more time doing worksheets and drills, or taking quizzes and tests -- is that it fails to take into account the many different ways that students learn information. While worksheets and drills are the easiest methods for a teacher to employ to teach, they are not necessarily the best methods to use for a student to learn. There are a number of distinct learning styles -- although most of us employ several of these at a time -- and the worksheet, memorize, drill techniques work with only a few. Being able to employ a wider variety of learning experience, including learning multiplication through planning and laying out a garden bed, offers students a great opportunity to be able to learn.

This idea was supported in Ed Bruske's reaction to the Atlantic piece. A Slow Food proponent living in Washington D.C., Bruske wrote on his experience with building a school garden in his daughter's school:

According to Flanagan, this should have been the end of learning at my daughter’s school: Core classes would crumble under the weight of a new garden-crazed curriculum; kids would become slaves to an anti-diabetes diet of non-stop vegetables; immigrant children would be forced to relive their parents' experiences as field hands.

The truth is, gardens -- including school gardens -- pretty much grow themselves. Other than watering and occasional weeding, there’s not much to do once the seeds are planted. For the couple of years that I worked with the kids in our after-school gardening program, the biggest challenge was coming up with new activities. For classes during the school day, the garden was simply an occasional teaching tool.

Over at Civil Eats, Chef Kurt Michael Friese responds to Flanagan on school gardens:

The belief that we will create better citizens by teaching to the test (an idea she advocates for repeatedly and vociferously) is one that will lead to a generation of closed-minded automatons incapable of learning, thinking, or fending for themselves. We are far better off with a generation of Citizens who understand that sustenance comes not from factories or laboratories but from the soil and from hard working hands, both of which deserve the respect garnered from experience. We need Citizens who are healthier than the generation before them; throughout most of human history the rich were fat and the poor were skinny, yet today in America it is quite the opposite. Fixing that requires direct experience and interaction with our food, something no schoolroom lecture can provide.

In this dust storm over dirt in the classroom, I choose to stand on the middle ground: I believe that garden projects can reinforce subjects introduced through book and lecture. I believe that a garden can inspire a child to do more in math and science, where scholarships and jobs are available in these students' future. I know that children are more interested in food they have a hand in growing, and will therefore eat more healthy food if it's available. I know that experiential learning works.

At the same time, basics must be mastered and that mastery must be demonstrated. At the moment, that mastery is shown by passing tests. We as a society need to be able to trust that those who emerge from our schools do so with the ability to read, to write, to do simple calculations. We hope they emerge with some ability to understand to make good decisions. The high school exit exam has become education's promise that those who students who are awarded at the minimum a high school diploma are capable of these basic educational abilities.

And I'm just not sure that they can be found growing under a cabbage leaf in a school garden.

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