May 3, 2012

Misunderstanding the "war" on schools

This is, admittedly, a complete re-write of a blog I posted yesterday. I saw an issue and attacked it head on, but I now realize that I framed my views and arguments incorrectly. This is an attempt to  fix that.

Apparently there's a new documentary out that is meant to shed light on some of the darker insides of public education. It is tited, The War on Schools. It is meant to bring to light that students are being over punished for minor offenses, kindergartners being suspended for playing together, etc.
Though I can see the points they are trying to make - any system has its abuses and misuses of power - I think that they are actually missing the point.

The real problem is that students FEEL like they are in prison.

This is not to suggest that schools are like prisons - that could never happen. Too many legal and social supports are in place to prevent such an atrocity.

However, something that I have come to learn over time is that what I teach my students is not nearly as important as how they feel about their education. School may not be like prison, but if students FEEL like prisoners, that is a problem.

In order to keep this brief and let people think on the issue for themselves, I'm going to cut to the chase.

School needs to be more, not completely, but more about freedom and choice. Students need to be able to choose more of what they learn and what they are going to learn. They also need more freedom to choose how to express and demonstrate that learning.

In addition, they need to be treated as they are more responsible. Don't turn things like water and trips to the bathroom into commodities. These should be basic human rights. If students abuse them, make sure they understand the abuse and how it is going to affect them as they move forward. In other words, educate them. Students, especially younger ones, lack the foresight to see how skipping the 5-10 minutes that I speak directly to my classes could affect their performance in class. So, I need to take the time to at least try to make them understand.

When we treat students like people, when we treat them like they matter, and like they are not problems - they will begin to love what they learn. When they feel good about learning, learning becomes real and not compulsory.


Lisa Nielsen said...

A couple points of clarification are 1) The movie is "The War on Kids" not "The War on Schools" also it is not new. It is a few years old.

To the point of your post, there are many people that feel that schools do more than feel like prisons, but they actually are prisons because of so many similarities.
For example
-Compulsory attendance. Citizens don't attend school by choice, they are forced to be there and can be arrested if they try to escape.
-The teachers, like guards, follow orders even if it means harming their charges (i.e. testing a student regardless of parental or child's wishes)
-Controlled by time and bells of someone else's choosing.
-Must engage in activities and be tested in ways that someone else forces upon them.
-In most cases unable to use the technology they own and cut off from communication to the outside world via mediums such as social media, instant messaging, phones.
-Discouraged or banned from communicating with staff off premises.

To learn more, please check out Dr. Peter Gray's explanation of why schools are prisons at

Tom Panarese said...

Maybe it's because I teach high school and therefore don't really care much about the minutiae (sp?) of bathrooms and class rules, but I think that a constant focus on rules and procedures gets in the way of my students' engagement.

In fact, I'm trying to think of a rule in my own classroom beyond "Be on time" that I actually enforce. I loved your paragraph and a half about students having their own choices and also having a sense of responsibility for their own behavior (i.e., abusing their rights) because I think that when they see you're not going to come at them like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, things get more relaxed.

I mean, I guess if you're trying to prove a point or get people to follow your POV, you could draw enough of a corollary between schools and a prison to "make it seem that way" (y'know, the old trick of punditry--use facts but manipulate the audience through your presentation), but it really is not a prison.

I think if we can the drama for once, we might get to actually have a discussion.

Sure, there is a curriculum that is often standardized and yes there are state-mandated tests (I'm a product of the NYS Regents Exams myself), but I've found through my own schooling and my own teaching that for the individual teacher and student there can be a lot of freedom to do what you'd like and still "cover" what you have to.

Jeff Russell said...

I agree with both Tom and Lisa.

School is not prison, but there CAN be similarities.

The one thing that I was trying to avoid in my comments was a gross overgeneralization. There are and can be more teachers who do not treat their classrooms and their students this way.

Education always seems to be looking for huge, sweeping, top down reforms, but what we really need are individual teachers to be dedicated and even just brave enough to do what's right for students.

On the topic of compulsory education: we need an educated population, and to an extent that should be compulsory. But, just like how we have 38 varieties of pasta sauce, students need to be able to have choice in the type and even extent of education they receive.