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April 04, 2017

Opinion: A SimCity view of education won't fix Philly schools

Opinion Education
04042017_SimCity_AW Photo courtesy/Adam Whitlatch

Most folks view education from the same helicopter vantage point that you get in SimCity. But from an aerial view you can't see anyone’s face or real struggle.

Sometimes I get sucked into cellphone games. I want to say something self-preservatory here like, “I just need something mindless to do after a long day of work.” But that would be a lie. The truth is that the people who make these game apps are masterminds, and I am a weak-minded sucker. Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Words with Friends, Draw Something, Tiny Wings and Flick Golf have all siphoned hours out of my life. Hours I should have spent calling my Mom or writing a letter to Starburst asking them to please stop making the yellow ones. That Jewel song “Foolish Games” may have been prophetic is all I’m saying. Please think of it the next time you are flicking a bird into a pile of green pigs.

The curse of being in education is knowing how full of potential our young folks are even in adverse circumstances, yet simultaneously watching adult policymakers ignore them in the same way I ignore a red icon in a cellphone game.

My most recent obsession is SimCity. The game is macro; it’s big picture. I’m so addicted, I’m actually playing the game right now, as a reward for each paragraph of this blog I finish. That's not a lie; the photo for this blogpost is the result of about 10 hours of pure time waste. If you’re a '90s kid I probably don’t have to explain SimCity to you. In short, the objective of the game is to build a city from nothing. You make all the choices--where to put the roads, how to address sewage outflow, and whether or not your city will recycle. The game’s designers did well; you feel like a very real leader of a very real digital city. The decisions you make have a direct impact on the morale of your digital population, and you get immediate feedback on their happiness level.

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The game tells you to “keep your citizens happy by listening to their needs and providing services” and their needs are easily visible. Anytime a service is needed, the icon for that service shows in red. For example, if your town needs new roads, the road icon becomes red and you spend money to have the roads redone. Instantly, your town’s happiness percentage increases. It’s entirely artificial, but somehow you feel great…for about 30 seconds, until a guilty awareness of your own simple-mindedness sets in in a very real way.

SimCity isn’t the first time I’ve obsessed on the big picture.

Adam Whitlatch

When I was in grad school for counseling, I had a hard time in many of my classes. I had major concerns about the accessibility of psychotherapy to those living in impoverished, under-resourced communities. My mind constantly wandered on how counseling could work better on a larger scale. It annoyed my classmates and worried my professors, but I wanted to be a counselor for the folks who needed it most, rather than the townspeople in that show Big Little Lies. I questioned the infrastructure of how we provide counseling so much that a professor once staged an intervention for me in his office to make sure I wanted to be in the program.

As an educator, my mind continues to wonder on the macro-level quite often. I look at what the research tells us about making our schools better and get impatient about why we can’t make better choices for our young people sooner. Methods exist that would unequivocally improve our schools overnight: later school start times , bettering teacher welfare , forced integration , improved school lunch programs , up-to-date facilities, etc. The effectiveness of these methods isn’t even debated. If we were playing SimCity, these icons would show in red. Yet, everyday we ignore them and in the process ignore the needs of our young folks.

On a good day, when I indulge myself in this kind of thinking, it makes me put my head down and work harder at doing what I can in my corner of the world. On a bad day, it makes me feel like regardless of what I do, public education is doomed to fail. I get depressed in a way that sometimes feels overwhelming.

Once, while I was playing SimCity, I accidentally got rid of all of my sewage treatment plants. My city’s happiness level dropped instantly from a green open-mouthed smiley face (94 percent happiness) to an orange angry/sad face (55 percent happiness). I got so angry, I almost threw my phone on the ground out of necessity to hear glass break. Although it was a mistake, I made a choice which deprived my city of a major need. Without adequate infrastructure to channel sewage outflow, things became a mess. From a distance, I saw green sludge shooting out of the base of each building. It was a problem that was going to take money and time to fix. The people living in my city were just going to have to deal with it for a while.

Most folks view education from the same helicopter vantage-point that I view SimCity. I can get close enough to see that people are unhappy; I can see the green sludge and that cars are not following traffic laws. But from an aerial view I can't see anyone’s face or real struggle. Arms-length intimacy allows me to hear about my population’s discontent yet not feel incriminated for not finding a more immediate solution.

I want the best for the 700+ students under the roof of my school, but in a broader sense I want that for all students. We hear about our kids and the schools that serve them in the news or performance profiles, but most people never get close enough to see their faces. We see their icons showing in red. We know about the green sludge but don’t personally feel the direct effects of budget cuts, teacher burnout, out-of-date technology, and crumbling school buildings.

The curse of being in education is knowing how full of potential our young folks are even in adverse circumstances, yet simultaneously watching adult policymakers ignore them in the same way I ignore a red icon in a cell phone game.

I’ll always wonder about big-picture issues. It’s a habit that has affected me for a while; and I’m 33 now, so it might be in my DNA. I hope we come up with better responses to blatant red icons in education. It probably starts with taking a closer look.

Either way, I’m doomed to continue playing mindless cellphone games.

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Adam Whitlatch, a resident of Philadelphia, is a school counselor at Northwood Academy Charter School in the Frankford section of the city. He blogs on education at The Great Handshake, where this post first appeared.