Education Opinion

Tuna Helper Teaching

By Susan Graham — October 29, 2008 3 min read
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It’s a Hamburger Helper World we’re living in these days. Times are hard and budgets are tight. People are eating out less and clipping coupons more. The weekly newspaper’s Food supplement is featuring “stretching your food dollar” rather than “expanding your epicurean sensibilities.” While eating is a necessity, where we eat and what we eat is discretionary, so when a dollar needs squeezing, the food budget is one of the first categories to take a hit.

Unfortunately, a lot of policymakers put education spending in the same category as food budgets. They know that public education is a necessity, but they also view education as an excellent place to go searching for some fat to trim. Unfortunately, in many schools, the fat was all gone long ago, so to trim anymore will require cutting into the meat. The biggest cost of education is personnel, and in virtually all school systems, the cost of teachers is directly related to their levels of experience.

In these tough economic times, I fear we may have some stakeholders who are going to be pushing harder than ever to stretch the budget by laying off or buying out the chefs and filling in with some Tuna Helper Teaching.

“What’s so wrong with stretching the hamburger or tuna or teaching for that matter?” some might ask. Well, let’s take a closer look at the product. Although I don’t serve or eat Tuna Helper myself, I keep a box of Creamy Broccoli Tuna Helper in my pantry at school. Analyzing food labels is part of my FACS curriculum and Tuna Helper is an interesting example.

Did you realize that in addition to no tuna, there is no cream, and while there is some broccoli, that seasoning pouch contains more salt than vegetable? So why do people buy these sort of “convenience” foods? They require little thought, skill or imagination to prepare. They produce a consistent product that is filling even though it may have very limited nutrition value. To the indiscriminate palate that has never experienced skillfully prepared fresh food, packaged food may not be exciting, but synthetically produced flavor is acceptable even if sugar and salt tend to be pervasive.

If you ask most shoppers, they would cite lower cost as their primary reason for buying a packaged convenience food. In reality, Tuna Helper offers a limited amount of real food value at comparatively high price. It would be a lot cheaper, a lot more nutritious, and not much more trouble to start from scratch.

If the promise of a cheap nutritious family dinner in a box is a marketing success, then how much more tempting is the idea of Tuna Helper Teaching? You know, just throw in some kids and a hint of teacher, add the special curriculum packet, simmer over high accountability and serve. It’s fast, easy, convenient, and consistent. It may not be inspiring, but isn’t it harmless and certainly better than nothing? After all, it keeps the kids busy and can be delivered by a teacher without a lot of experience, creativity, or planning time.

Here’s the problem: A Hamburger Helper dinner every now and then might not do any major harm. On the other hand, a regular diet of the stuff is to be avoided. It provides too many calories with insufficient nutrients and contains high quantities of fat and salt that may damage the body while dulling the palate to authentic flavors. Cooking and eating become mindless, meaningless chores rather than nourishment to body and soul.

Tuna Helper Teaching runs the same risks. Packaged curricula do not adjust to the needs or tastes of the learner. They do not challenge the skills or excite the imagination of the instructor. Consistent multiple choice responses become more desirable than authentic learning experiences. The design focus is convenience rather than excellence. The outcome is that it fills the day without enriching the mind.

Some policymakers are quick to point out that times are hard, stakes are high, money is scarce, and there are just no other solutions but to opt for the standard ingredients and the package directions. “Tuna Helper Teaching,” they’ll tell you, “may not be exciting, but it’s adequate, it reduces the risks that creative teaching carries, and is the best we can do with the resources we have for public education.”

The predictions of the long term damage and cost of childhood obesity are grim enough. But the impact of obesity on the next generation pales at the potential problems we are creating by stuffing our children with an education that limits their learning to what some manufacturer (i.e., education publisher) can fit in a cardboard box.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.