Feature Article

Why I Kept Firing Teachers in No Pineapple Left Behind

No Child Left Different.

I was starting my second semester of first grade when the No Child Left Behind Act went into effect. Passed in 2002, the act required states to develop standardized tests for its schools. To receive federal funding, a school had to administer the assessment to its students--and students must perform at or above certain levels for schools to avoid corrective action from state governments. In effect, school funding became based on student performance on those exams.

All I know of the American education system comes from a post-NCLB world, which means I have grown up with state-wide benchmarks and standardized tests. Each year, when Colorado's exams rolled around, teaching came to a screeching halt. Instead of lessons, our school days were filled with exams of wildly varying levels of quality and relevance.

I was lucky to live in an area with very good public schools, but my elementary school still struggled to conform to NCLB. Teachers were moved around and let go, and high-achieving students often had to find out-of-school ways to continue learning. I also had to deal with some pretty odd experiments in grading, including an incomprehensible four-point scale which granted the same grade to every test score between 75 percent and 95 percent. Written at the top of every one of my tests was: "3--Satisfactory."

That's why I've been interested in No Pineapple Left Behind. The game has about as much subtlety as a cruise missile, but it poses a scathing critique of the education system built in the wake of NCLB. It puts you in control of a school as it desperately tries to secure funding. You have to hire the teachers, determine how much energy they put into their classes, and monitor students to make sure they're learning. The better your students perform, the more money your school will be given.

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As students concentrate more and do better, you're presented with a haunting tradeoff: the higher their grades, the lower their humanity. Over time, as they perform better, they'll lose humanity and, eventually, they'll turn into pineapples.

Pineapples are simple and single-minded, which means they are advantageous. Children, on the other hand, are complex; they are constantly preoccupied with thoughts and emotions. As I played the game, I found myself wishing more and more that my student body would turn completely into pineapples. In other words, I wanted them all to reach total uniformity--the mark that they were all satisfactory, and my school was making money.

The only way you can get students to earn better grades is by providing them with competent teachers. No Pineapple Left Behind gamifies teaching to the point of absurdity. Teachers are equipped with different "spells" which cost certain amounts of "energy." A spell that takes up more energy will increase grades faster, but at the risk of exhausting the teacher. Each spell has a certain probability of succeeding, which pushes grades up and humanity down. As a teacher's energy decreases, his or her chances of succeeding with a spell also decrease. Each day, a little bit of energy recharges.

No Pineapple Left Behind looks a bit like Prison Architect.
No Pineapple Left Behind looks a bit like Prison Architect.

At first, the obtuse presentation and extreme gamification of this system nearly dissuaded me from playing the game. But as I completed each day at the school, the system started influencing the way I made decisions. I'd force the teachers to cast the most energy-intensive spells possible to try and save struggling classes. This would, in turn, cause the instructors to burn out. They'd begin to fail during each class period, and the grades would plummet. I'd start to lose money.

It's something I've seen several times before in real life: good teachers, assigned to under-performing classes, are pressured with the responsibility to get them up to a satisfactory level. They reach their breaking point and become exhausted. Thankfully, I've never seen a teacher laid off for failing to achieve this in real life--but my in-game teachers weren't so lucky. If they started to get low on energy and their classes started failing, I'd fire them without a second thought before they could start costing me too much money.

In the space of a couple hours, No Pineapple Left Behind had turned me into a callous, calculating principal, forced to sacrifice both child and teacher well-being to save the school's funding. The pressure of keeping my school afloat pushed me on toward pineapple uniformity.

Try to get only pineapples in your classroom.
Try to get only pineapples in your classroom.

No Pineapple Left Behind is far from perfect--but it's also far from completion. It just began a free open alpha test this week, and it includes only two of nine planned levels. As I played, I found its menus to be cluttered and confusing, and I had a lot of trouble tracking individual students. Additionally, it's still very early in development, so there are a lot of glitches and bugs. During my time with it, I sometimes questioned whether or not this game will have lasting appeal.

Developer Subaltern is planning to add a whole bunch of different mechanics before its full release. Classroom materials will eventually help dehumanize and educate your student body; cops will patrol the school and keep your kids in line; student-specific quests will force you to make tough decisions about how to carry out education policy. But those features are still a long way off.

It's a rough experience, and yet, I couldn't help but be fascinated by the game. Subaltern only has one full-time employee, Seth Alter, who once worked as a private tutor and had a stint as a teacher which ended after only six months. His cynicism toward the American school system is evident in the game, and that's what makes it so interesting. No Pineapple Left Behind practically exudes Alter's disenchantment with the system, and I saw in the game the same sort of irritation that I had felt at points during my time in public school. The game hits close to home, its critique so similar to conversations I had with my family and friends while growing up. If the game can keep improving and expanding as Alter promises, then it has potential to be a dark, witty, and entertaining look at American schools.

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newhaus1994

Alex Newhouse

I'm a news guy, a student of international relations, and I've put way too many hours into Steep.
No Pineapple Left Behind

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Avatar image for naryanrobinson
naryanrobinson

We've known this system to be broken from the very start.

Most teachers will openly say it's not really about teaching at all, it's about segregating. You wouldn't call separating the wheat from the chaff "teaching", and this is no different. I'm a teacher myself and I try to make it about the content, the knowledge, but the consequences are so deeply engrained in them, you simply can't make them forget. You can see it in their eyes that only half their brain is focusing on the content, and the other half is held hostage by what will happen to them if they can't remember it on exam day.

Pressure and consequences are the enemy of learning, especially in young children. This isn't theory. This is absolutely solid and reproducible science. I know it sounds cheesy, but you have to make them believe they're smart before you can teach them. If you're only interested in finding out who's the best of the best, the rest feel stupid and become unteachable, with varying degrees of severity. That same pressure is only intensified later on when university costs what it costs now in the UK. Many kids have to get it right first time or their family will go broke.

The rest of the world is leaving this awful, dehumanising system behind, but the UK and US are holding onto it because they're not done squeezing the money out of it just yet.

Avatar image for Sto_Ln
Sto_Ln

Come to think about it, how do you educate well over 80 million students? We can't be like Denmark who only has 3 million, once you do the math, there is not enough money or time to go around. Parents don't take the time of day to help their kids and figure the schools with deal with them. Some parents find school as a daycare service and not a center for learning to better their situation, I mean, it didn't work for the parents so why should it for their child?

The amount of information children need to know by high school is 3 grades higher than what kids needed to know 10 years ago. We are forcing children to grow up faster well, at least the girls. Guys, it seems, can stay young and stupid until about 28-30.

I've been in the education business for years, I've seen it over and over. Administrations trying to change behavior but it never fully works or it doesn't last long enough for it to start working. One of the most traumatizing experiences I've had with a student started by, "Why didn't you finish your homework?" "Because mamma had a man down stairs and told me not to leave my room while she was conducting business." Where do I start, should I report to the police and have the kid torn away from the only person who loves him or even worse, remove him from me who can try to help as best as possible? Or report the repulsive behavior the mother was doing?

This is reality, these kids are our future whether we like it or not. Standardized test are fine, I just don't think teachers or school systems should be graded on them.

Avatar image for Aletunda
Aletunda

Great article Alex, hope you keep writing interesting pieces on lesser known games in the industry.

Avatar image for justbefahad
JustBeFahad

That was interesting.

Avatar image for Gravity_Slave
Gravity_Slave

"I was starting my second semester of first grade when...."

Wow, i feel dated. I have sneakers older than you. Seems Gamespot not only does out-of-place pieces on TV, politics and movies but they also hire children to do the hack journalism. Fantastic. Anywho...

Some games are just getting so stupid. Goat simulator, Minecraft, games about being toast. It's not even shocking or funny any more.

Avatar image for rosinmonkekyx17
rosinmonkekyx17

@Gravity_Slave: If you don't like it then why are you here?

Avatar image for hystavito
hystavito

So that's what this game is about :). Pretty unusual idea for a game.

Avatar image for Defender1978
Defender1978

NCLB did not start in 2002. It dates back to LBJ during his "war on poverty."

Avatar image for guardianofhonor
GuardianofHonor

@Defender1978:

No reason to ruin their fun by pointing out it's actually liberals who ruined education in the US by standardizing test and lowering the bar to make it "equal." Let them keep blaming Bush and rich people like they do for all their failures and scratching their heads at how the backwards Christians at Catholic school get far better results with even less funding

Avatar image for Defender1978
Defender1978

@guardianofhonor: Yep

Avatar image for juanzapato
juanzapato

CSAP? More like YEEESAP.

Avatar image for JulianMatheson
JulianMatheson

Pineapples, reminds me of the Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segment about standardized tests. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6lyURyVz7k

Avatar image for deuterium
Deuterium

@JulianMatheson: That was all I could think of!

Avatar image for guardianofhonor
GuardianofHonor

Political propaganda game...how fun. Problem is not so much American schools as American students something not so easy to legislate. Kid is undisciplined or does not want to learn does not matter if you put him in the best school in the world but liberals would like it if everyone was equally uneducated. Gets them more votes.

Avatar image for Gravity_Slave
Gravity_Slave

@guardianofhonor:

The problem isn't American schools, it's the ghetto inner city students that don't care and droves of illegal children who take up space and resources on an already tight budgeted school system to accomadate them. You can thank the current administrations "come on in! Shits free because we're fucking the Middle class over!"

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CreepyBurrito

@Gravity_Slave: Some people say things so absurd sometimes that you cant help but laugh at em. I just got a good one from you, so I will say thanks. I will also say that I would hope you to not be serious, else you'd be one of those types of close mined people that just really really need to go away so real progress can be made on all levels of society. In otherwords...I hope you are troll

Avatar image for guardianofhonor
GuardianofHonor

@Gravity_Slave:

Considering the situation of most major US cities there is little wonder they dont care it's for the same reason they get abortions or turn to drugs because they have no hope for the future, at least in third world countries although materially worse off people have a general optimism that things are improving but in the inner-cities of the US it's an especially dangerous kind of poverty, the kind with no light at the end of the tunnel. Not sure if that is a reflection of reality or a spiritual failing but it is certainly something easy to see. Just a thought but maybe post-modern society has seriously underestimated the importance religion really plays in not only people's lives but the well-being of a society.

Our cities are all being looted dry by transnational corporations and self-serving politicians and really it's just a bad day on the stock market away from spreading to the rest of the country as well.

Avatar image for fig56
fig56

@guardianofhonor: Are you American? If you are then you must have went to a private school because it's not the students and it's not the teachers. It's how the American government treats these schools that the problem. They treat these schools like businesses instead of what they actually are supposed to be. sad but true. Yes there will always be that kid who just doesn't want to be there but not all kids are like that. Most kids want to be good students and want to learn. I never blame the students, I blame the parents.

Avatar image for guardianofhonor
GuardianofHonor

@fig56:

Except statistics indicate show increased school funding does not directly effect student performance. American schools on average actually spend far more on public education than most countries even countries reknown for high performing students like Japan or Germany.

"Most kids want to be good students and want to learn"

You clearly have not been to many American schools.

Avatar image for fig56
fig56

@guardianofhonor: Statistics? Your kidding me right? Do you know where those "statistics" come from? if you do, then you would know that its the way the American government justifies the pennies they throw into the system. They are more worried about what food kids eat than what they are learning. Those countries you mentioned are kicking our ass academically because the government actually cares about education. By the way I am American so yes I have been in plenty of schools here. I didn't spend $150,000 on my education for nothing. Just because you dropped out of high school doesn't mean that every student wants to fail. Again it's up to the parents.

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funkinslick

@guardianofhonor: You just pointed out the problem with our education system. Statistics. Metrics. It's all about hitting numbers and has completely moved away from it's original purpose of actually teaching children something more than how to take a test. The problem is in many cases it's hard to discern how much kids have actually learned. It's takes effort and there doesn't seem to be an obvious black-and-white discernment. Take for example the grading centers that take care of the grading for the NCLB essay tests. Content doesn't matter more than how well the child regurgitated the proper form the testing company was looking for. And these tests are being graded by real people, some who are retired teachers who lament this course that education has taken as well. But actual education is hard to measure, but that doesn't stop idiot principles and boards of educations from trying to boil things down to statistics and metrics because they don't understand anything else.

Avatar image for guardianofhonor
GuardianofHonor

@funkinslick:

If you mean to say the "one size fits all" plans like common core is a very flawed system I would agree that is not even from NCLB though that is legislation such as the CCSSI building on the Clinton legacy of standardizing education, another misguided attempt by liberals to make education more "equal" and "fair" and although it's clearly a failure they can only argue throwing more money at the problem will somehow fix it.

Sorry but this game like the article is nothing but liberal Democrat propaganda.

Avatar image for soultpp
soultpp

@guardianofhonor: My only opinion is this. It is NOT about "Democrat" or "Republican," it is about the students. Too often I see everyone blaming whichever political party they disagree with and not actually offering anything concrete to help. There is way too much vitriol in the US political system. Again though, this is my opinion and you may choose to ignore it if you wish.

Avatar image for guardianofhonor
GuardianofHonor

@soultpp:

I know, it's never about about "Democrat" or "Republican" when you suddenly find yourself on the wrong side of an issue but it kind of is because those are the guys legislating these things.

But I suppose you are right that it is not entirely political like I said it's also a problem with American society, I think the teachers get blamed too much they are just working with what they are givin the students are not just victims of an unfair system.

The best thing maybe only thing to do is allow schools to seperate the chaff from the wheat so the bad students dont drag the good ones down, maybe with funding for private schools or a more segregated public school system. I dont think there is anything the government can do about the decline in personal morality they cant force parents to raise better kids.

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soultpp

@guardianofhonor: Oh I'm not in the wrong side of the argument here. I'm on neither side to be honest, I was not educated in the US system and did not even make it all the way through the system I was actually in. I AM going to college finally now at 35 but that's not the issue. My point was simply that all I ever hear these days is 'Republican' and 'Democrat'... Is the US actually two countries? That sure what that sounds like, because even those who are not actually politicians seem to always identify that way.

Edit: Missed your edits before I replied. I agree that the teachers often get blamed over much. I'd go so far to say that they are also victims of the system in a way. I can't talk to in depth about specifics and won't try though because, as I said, I do not have first hand information about the US system.

I don't know if a segregation method is the answer either though. Actually I might lean towards extra effort for those who seem to struggle. With the way the world is now, I honestly think the entire education system (US and the one I was in both) needs to basically be rebuilt from the ground up.

The only thing I really know for sure, is that politics and politicians should stay out of it. They do more harm than good these days.

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Camou504

2nd semester of 1st grade?

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newhaus1994

@camou504: yep. I'm young.

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Camou504

@newhaus1994: lol no its not your age I just didnt know that there were elementary schools with semesters but anyway great article!

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DeusGladiorum

This looks super interesting. Not a bad article