Friday, December 16, 2016

Accelerated Christian Education: Back to Basics (or the Fifth Grade)

As part of the human condition, most of us have memories and experiences that we hold close to ourselves and seldom share. Over the decades of life, we see a lot of things, do so much... we selectively choose those things that we share with others, and most of what we do not share is mundane. There are, of course, exceptions. We don't share bad dating stories on a typical first date, for example, even if we've had some awful ones. While in a staff meeting, we don't usually bring up a relative's heart attack that happened five years ago.

This blog post has been in planning for about a year now. It's hard to talk about something that's equal parts traumatic and absurd, especially when it's not about an event, but a long-term experience. Today, I'm going to talk about Accelerated Christian Education and why you should care about the fact that this program exists.

Before we deep dive into Accelerated Christian Education, I want to make sure this is perfectly clear to the reader: this is not an easy topic for many people who went through this system. We share a collective anxiety around many core topics such as how to be healthily assertive. It's not an easy thing to talk about. It's very hard to be objective. Because the impact of the curriculum, and the institutions who use it, is ingrained deep into the core of those who go through the program, do not read this expecting one hundred percent objectivity. This is not a thesis. This is an anecdote. I will provide factual information along the way; opinion should be obvious.

What is Accelerated Christian Education?
I want you to imagine an office environment that sounds like a dreadful place to work. This will look different depending on who you are at your core. For an extrovert, a silent office with isolated cubicles may sound like your worst nightmare--or, perhaps, it could be exactly what you need to focus and use your energy. Since I'm the self-proclaimed "world's worst extrovert," I'm going to linger on that vision for a moment.

Picture an office with cubicles all along the wall. There is silence here; you could hear a pin drop. All of your coworkers face the wall and work through packets of papers. You may hear the flip of a page. Every forty-five minutes or so, the supervisor tells the staff to switch what they are working on, so they change their topic of work... say, from bookkeeping over to reviewing marketing materials.

After another forty-five minutes, the supervisor calls out again, and the marketing materials are put away, and as each employee pulls out minutes to review from some far-off meeting, the supervisor checks individually on each employee, handing out infractions to those who did not complete enough work for the day.

Now imagine that the materials are all outdated, remaining the same for at least thirty years; there is little color, there are no technological tools to help automate the drudgery of, for example, arithmetic, and nobody moves. Any employee who does not know how to do their work must refer to the work itself and follow examples; innovation is not allowed in this corporation.

You may not speak to anyone else for any reason, except your supervisor, and only with their permission.

Get ready, here we go!
The answer to #6 is not "by reading this blog," nor is it necessarily "with narcotics."
This is the tip of the iceberg for the student experience in Accelerated Christian Education (ACE). The ACE curriculum is packaged and sold as a self-contained, do-it-yourself kit to learning core academic subjects, all of which are dressed in Christian flavor. For the first eight years:

  • Mathematics consists of workbooks that require drilling in the concepts of arithmetic (and the memorization of Bible verses);
  • English consists of workbooks that require drilling in and the memorization of the concepts of grammar, punctuation, diagramming, the structure of the written language, and fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice recall (and the memorization of Bible verses);
  • History and science are packets of outdated, often incorrect and often racist trivia about the given topics in the subject, then fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice (and the memorization of Bible verses);
  • Word Building is a subject devoted entirely to both spelling and memorizing the origin and meaning of the various roots/prefixes/suffixes found in English (and the memorization of Bible verses).
All are taught through the lens of young earth creationism and biblical literalism.

Science, kids! Now you know all about the skeleton.
And, well, other than all the mandatory chapel sessions and memorization of chapters of the Bible at a time on top of the other memorization, this is the entire curriculum.

You may be wondering, wait... Where are the teachers? There are no teachers.

Because who needs TEACHERS when for a credit of Physics coursework, all you have to do is take multiple choice drills about what the Boys Club accomplished long before you born?
Students in an ACE school complete these workbooks, called PACEs (or Packets of Accelerated Christian Education), five pages per subject at a time, in a classroom with no teachers. All while facing the wall.

Of course, like any pedagogical methodology, this comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, students who are academically adept, happy to work independently, pick up concepts easily just through reading, and are self-motivated through the personal challenge of completing study goals, this can sound like a terrific environment.

On the other hand, if you're the sort of person who needs to know "why," does not do well with the memorization and recall of trivia, looks for other ways to arrive at a goal, would rather do practical, hands-on exercises than read and recite, or prefer the dialogue between student, other students, and the instructor, well, this probably sounds like your worst nightmare.

Not to mention all the LGBTQ+ children who go to these schools and have to read this vile, atrocious rhetoric.
(Yes, I'm queer and had to sit through this and regurgitate it on an exam.)
The Wonderful World of Ace Virtueson and Friends (and Fiends!)
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the ACE curriculum is its highly problematic narrative. Throughout the 144 PACEs per subject, over four subjects (108 for Word Building) for 12 years of learning, a story--or parable, if you will--of the residents of a fictional Pleasantville is told through both narrative and illustrated form. You'd be hard-pressed to find a former ACE student who doesn't remember Ace and his friends.

The story of Ace Virtueson, Becky Godswill, Christi Lovejoy, Sinner Ronny Satanspawn O'Sin--okay, I'm making up a few of the last names because I just can't remember them--is one long lesson in the virtues of how ACE defines good character.

"It is easy to obey those who rule over me!" Golly gee! (Source)
From the first pages of the first PACEs, obedience, submission, and the patriarchy are illustrated and detailed as the only right lifestyle for children and adult women. There's a disturbing fixation on little girls' bodies in the comic strips; for some reason, the length of young Becky's skirt comes up again and again. You'll never see a woman at work in these slice-of-life comics unless she's in the kitchen. This topic has been covered extensively, so I'll leave it to you to check out these links and discover more on the issue. The patriarchy is no laughing matter, but ACE has managed to give us even bigger fish to fry.

Thanks to Patheos for this gem of patriarchy. "You make my decisions so easy with your loving, submissive spirit."
This is vile. This is also what happens when your school lacks an art program.
In Ace's perfect world, he and his pals Racer and Pudge (yes, that's his name, and yes, he's the only fat character) talk about God, sheep, God, men's work, God, men's manly roles, God, and just how dreadful Sinner Ronny is for not accepting Jesus and, presumably, doing nothing but sin. Becky and her girlfriends cook, clean, talk about God, cook, clean, comment about the length of each other's skirts and... talk about God some more. There is very little characterization applied to the boy characters and pretty much none given to the girls.
WE GET THE POINT, ACE PACE. KNEES ARE EVIL. Also, apparently, this child's name is Christi.
(Again, nearly all these comic strips are courtesy of the Patheos blog, google image search, and the tireless efforts of Jonny Scaramanga. Thanks!!)
While communities where every person is of the same race certainly exist, Ace and his pals are the main characters of the PACE story and also all happen to be white. The Asian students and the Black students get their own segregated schools in other towns; they're largely absent from the overall PACE story, but occasionally got to tell a quick Aesop through one of the strips while never being fully in the spotlight.

Submission and segregation all in one! Take two drinks!
This also comes from Patheos. Acknowledgment at bottom of article.
Science texts, especially in the middle school years, have several pages of "dialogue" between Ace, Racer (at times), and Ace's father as they describe the facts--sometimes true, sometimes off the mark--of concepts in science, typically applying them back to biblical mythology. It's always male characters and always the white ones. It's hard to not assume racist intent from a curriculum that states that Black South Africans should be bloody thankful for Apartheid...

In case you had ANY doubts of the political allegiance of these workbooks... 
Segregation, sexism, patriarchy, and harmful stereotyping of non-fundamentalists aside, perhaps the most awkward thing about these comics is that children in ACE schools sit and read conversations between a student and teacher, or see them illustrated, from the confines of a cubicle. These conversations are woven throughout the text of the PACE as well, so an English lesson on identifying direct objects may summarize the story of Ace and his sheep, for example.

Or maybe they'll just ask you to disprove evolution by saying that dinosaurs are still alive and the Loch Ness Monster is real. Who knows. (I actually did this PACE... I remember this vividly.) Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Patheos
Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone
Of course, students aren't completely without adult supervision as they scrawl through workbooks in their cubicles. As stated before, there are no teachers in the schools, but there are supervisors. The supervisors answer student requests for help understanding a concept in the PACEs and ask permission to use lavatories or to correct their own work. This is done through the silent communication of placing a small flag atop the cubicle.

"Help, Supervisor! What's the answer to #2?"
"The answer is 'yes.' Now report to my office for a spanking and you may not leave until you memorize all Psalms."
"But I don't know what a compound verb is--"
Supervisors are adults who ensure order is kept in the workroom while the students work. To become a supervisor, an adult needs a high school credential and to pass a week-long training, done through PACEs of course, which results in a certification to supervise. Many supervisors are also alumni of ACE schools and typically attend the church which is adjacent to the workroom. Supervisors are trained in understanding the policies and procedures of the implementation of the ACE curriculum; however, they are not trained as teachers. This becomes problematic when a student is learning coursework that a supervisor does not understand (particularly in middle school and beyond, and especially in courses like algebra, biology, chemistry and physics). This reaches well beyond levels of problematic and to tragic levels when a student with special needs does not excel through the self-taught curriculum. (Yes, students with special needs are accepted into these schools, at times with horrifying results, and staff are not required to have any post-secondary education that qualifies them to instruct students with special needs.)

Supervisors are allowed to hand out infractions, although incentives are rare. Since students correct their own work at "scoring stations," there are no real merit incentives for high performance outside of the final test taken on each PACE (which usually requires regurgitating the memorized facts found in the PACE, especially those in the "self test" at the end of each workbook). Students who move quickly through the program may be given "Level E" status and allowed to score their own work or use the bathroom without express permission from a supervisor, but this is the extent of incentive built into the curriculum.

In case I lost you, here's a lesson on tactfully shaming a third grader because knees are evil.
Infractions include demerits, lost recess time, additional memorization, writing lines, and worse. Some students are isolated--even in storage rooms--for behaviors deemed inappropriate for the ACE environment. Some students are even beaten by school leadership for their behavior; ACE provides training manuals for how to administer corporal punishment to a student. Students with special needs or, if anecdotal evidence is sufficient to support this claim, students to whom supervisors are prejudiced against receive these beatings frequently. Because students are punished for not completing sufficient work, those students who are unable to grasp concepts of their coursework are punished, at times physically, for failure to complete the work--in an environment devoid of qualified teachers or even a single adult who understands the material and can assist them with comprehension.

Enrolling a Child into the ACE Curriculum
When I enrolled in an ACE school, I was required to take a diagnostic exam despite performing satisfactorily at my grade level in all subjects with a particular aptitude for art, mathematics and writing. (I'd guess I had about 3.8 GPA at that time.) I don't remember much from my own testing process, but I was placed in ninth grade English, history, biology and Word Building (at this year, Etymology, which could have been interesting if it wasn't "memorize the roots, prefixes, and suffixes of a bunch of English words"). I was also placed into a Typing elective which was as exciting as watching grass grow. However, I was deemed deficient in mathematics and placed into seventh grade math. It turns out I did not do well in the questions for the super long multiplication PACE or the PACEs that taught business mathematics, which I had not yet seen. Rather than do just those PACEs, I had to start from seventh grade and work my way through eighth and all the way through Algebra I in just one year in order to catch up. I don't think I had any eighth grade "gap PACEs," but I had to repeat the year anyway.

And the mathematics PACEs had stupid covers like this... Who else remembers the joy of failing a mathematics PACE and having to erase the whole thing to do over?
Because the anecdote of my experience is not sufficient, I chose to create an account on ACE's website and enroll two fictional students in order to take the examinations again. On a rainy Saturday, I enrolled two fictional children into the ACE program, and I took their diagnostic tests.

ACE language always assumes male. There is rarely "he or she" and almost never a singular "they."
Well, this test is all multiple choice with some fill-in-the-blank in the mathematics component. Most of the questions are fairly basic, such as "what word is spelled incorrectly," "identify the noun," "what is 7 3/4 + 5 3/8," etc. However, even the diagnostic exam is firmly rooted in the PACE lore.

Also, the final two questions require some ACE logic to be applied. Both of these questions can be classified as exclamatory.
While taking this test, I found myself thinking things like, um, what the heck does Wags mean? What's Baba? Is Pudge being used as a name here? Fifteen years removed from the PACE curriculum, I had no idea what was going on. Some of the English questions were ambiguous, asking for punctuation marks where any would suffice; I assumed, based on the structure of the problem, that I was meant to use one of each, and I had to use process of elimination and logic in order to assume the order that they were meant to be given.

More of our poor pal Pudge
Who even talks or writes like this?
I didn't remember what all the elements of a formal letter and envelope are called, but otherwise passed nearly all of the English items. However, a short streak of incorrect answers in those topics was sufficient to place me squarely in the fifth grade.

Here is some basic, strangely-phrased Science(?) interwoven into the English assessment.
Me, throwing this examination into the air and weeping for the thousands (millions?) of children who had to sit through this exam.
My resume includes executive editor of a literary zine, copy editor of a newspaper and teaching junior and senior-level English at a state college.

I was placed into fifth grade English coursework.

The caveat of this placement is that once I completed the fifth grade remediation, I would then have to complete the entirety of grades six through eight regardless of having passed those modules. I failed a three-PACE streak; thus, my English skills are, apparently, on par with a 10-year-old's.
This confirmed my suspicion that the ACE assessment is a deficient diagnostic tool. Further, in a typical assessment of mathematics and/or English skill level, a student may receive partial credit (or none at all) for items missed while receiving a score on overall performance in order to produce an appropriate result. This assessment demands one correct answer to vague questions which are contingent on cultural exposure to the fairy tale lore of an insular world. The reality that this multiple choice test is used to assess academic aptitude speaks to how ACE schools are not student-centered. Worse, the instrument only speaks to one method of testing; this places so many types of learners at a disadvantage.

Also, the only obvious answer here is the interrogative question.
The English assessment did not contain a writing component. (In fact, the curriculum rarely requires essay writing, never mind a book report; these sparse opportunities to demonstrate command of the English language are scored by the scarcely credentialed supervisors.) Apparently, according to ACE, the mastery of a language does not require the student constructing a meaningful demonstration of its use but rather memorization of the idiosyncratic construction of English statements as related to an unspoken moral code.

Here's some more really awkward subject/verb placement. You are invited to weep with me.
The cynic in me giggled at these items.
Conclusion and Acknowledgment
I hope this blog post was helpful for you. Please understand that these criticisms only extend to the curriculum itself and how it is implemented. There are countless stories of atrocities committed in these schools, and I may update this page later with a comprehensive list of the dozens of formal complaints of physical and sexual child abuse perpetrated at ACE schools. Further, the damage of this type of programming takes decades to heal from. Please be compassionate with those who strive to be whole people but must contend with the stress of being taught this subject matter in place of any useful education.

The most important thing you should take away from this--and I wouldn't normally spell out something like this--is that this is what some children read, exclusively, day in and day out. They memorize racist, sexist, everything-phobic vitriol and spew it verbatim for a worthless high school diploma that many universities will not accept. This curriculum churns out uninformed citizens who are woefully unprepared to live and thrive in a democratic society.

This blog post would not have been possible if it were not for the tireless efforts of those individuals who have committed to exposing this toxic environment and curriculum for all that it is. I must especially acknowledge the Leaving Fundamentalism blog and Jonny Scaramanga, without whom most of the behind-the-scenes information may never have been compiled to the thorough extent that enables people like me to pull together a blog post like this in a day. Cheers mate!