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Who's Failing Whom?


Dear Debbie,

I must say that I do not see mandatory schooling as incarceration, and I suspect that you really don’t see it that way either. We surely know of many nations in the world where the availability of schooling is very limited, and there is no surer guarantee of inequality and social stagnation than not gaining access to education. I sometimes have libertarian sympathies, but I have never felt that compulsory schooling was akin to prison for children.

Not long ago I was invited by a Pakistani government agency to do a paper about “standards” in that nation. I spent quite a lot of time reading about educational opportunity in that country and was struck by one stark fact: Very few students get much schooling beyond primary school. About a third of the nation’s children were not enrolled in primary school, only 40 percent made it to high school, and only 3 percent enrolled in higher education. Overall, barely 10 percent of young people managed to make it through high school. It seems friviolous to think about "standards" when so many children don't even have a basic education.

I daresay that no one would have the chutzpah to say that Pakistani children are “free” because so many of them are not in school. I think we are very spoiled about schooling. We take it for granted. People make money saying foolish things along the lines of school=jail. Given the importance of literacy and education for everyone’s future roles as citizens and as members of society, it is irresponsible to disparage the necessity of compulsory schooling (for individuals and for society) and the availability of equal educational opportunity (also for individuals and for society).

Like you, I am shocked that New York City’s Department of Education is set to endorse a policy of retaining students in eighth grade. I have seen estimates that as many as 18,000 students may be held back. Like Pedro Noguera, I have wondered how it is possible that so many students have reached eighth grade unable to pass state tests in reading and math when the city previously “ended social promotion” in 3rd grade, 5th grade, and 7th grade. As we both know, the research on this issue is unequivocal: Get-tough policies of this kind invariably produce higher dropout rates among the kids held back.

I am aware of research by Robert Hauser of the University of Wisconsin, as well as Melissa Roderick and others from the Chicago Consortium on School Research, all pointing in the same direction, against retention policies. My understanding is that the New York City Department of Education will defend their decision by referring to a study of the Florida retention policy, written by Jay Greene and Marcus Winters. Greene and Winters are best known for their writings that support merit pay and vouchers in education.

Under the current system of mayoral autocracy in New York City, no one has the power to stop this latest change in policy. There is no board of education, only a powerless advisory board. Four years ago, when three members of that board planned to vote against the new retention policy for third-graders, asking for more time and study, the three were fired on the day of the vote and replaced. See an account of this controversy on the current issue of the New York City Public School Parents blog, in an item titled “On the fourth anniversary of the Monday night massacre; what have they learned?,” by Leonie Haimson.

So, the question is, are we punishing kids by compelling them to go to school, or punishing them by humiliating them when they didn’t learn what they were supposed to? I don’t think that compulsory schooling is a punishment. I do worry about the harm that is done when we pack kids into overcrowded classes, force-feed them deadly textbooks, inflict failed methods of teaching on them, test them with dumbed-down tests, and then fail them. Most of the time, it seems to me, it is we who have failed them.



"People make money saying foolish things along the lines of school=jail."


We retained my son in first grade. We had to fight the school but it was obvious that he needed it for both academic and social reasons. He knows he has been held back as I told him. I also use it - just a little - to tell him why it is important to catch up after school and during breaks. He is already 2 years behind in math and reading and about 1 year behind in writing. He seems OK with it - even admitting to friends he was held back.

I agree retention is a one shot deal - you better do something effective to make it worthwhile. We used it to stop the bleeding of further slippage behind peers but followed up with doubling math for a year. Since then he has slipped due to the school not teaching effective curriculum for a whole 50 minutes 5 times a week - he gets 30 minutes 4 times a week.

What can I do - hire an attorney? You can't fight the system just do your best for your own child at home.


The fact that our country is willing to educate our children gratis through high school is a wonderful gift.

But why do we call it “compulsory”? Why do we talk as if children need to be forced to go to school and sit in a classroom (as if it were jail)? And yet, we do not ask that they learn anything in particular?

Our schools are set up to ensure that our children fulfill their seat time and not to ensure that they experience quality learning. And so, our children are too oftentimes subjected to your very accurate description of schooling today:

“overcrowded classes, force-feed them deadly textbooks, inflict failed methods of teaching on them, test them with dumbed-down tests, and then fail them.”

Wouldn’t that feel somewhat like jail to you?

Erin Johnson

I agree that compulsory schooling is both beneficial and necessary (or at least that I haven't heard any better ideas), but I think you overstate the case against school as incarceration.

Of course there are people who go overboard, but that doesn't invalidate the entire argument. Whenever anybody is told to be a certain place at a certain time and conduct a certain activity, there will always be at least a hint of authoritarianism.

I can remember how gleefully I anticipated the last day of school when I was younger. Ever heard the song "Think" by Aretha Franklin? That's what was going through my head on the last day before summer break. Certainly a bit melodramatic, but I was 12 -- what did I know?

Obviously, in retrospect, I'm glad that I went to school; but that doesn't change the fact that I felt imprisoned at the time. Nor does it change the fact that many students today resent school and would rather be somewhere else. I don't think many students sit in class thinking about how lucky they are b/c a lot of kids in Pakistan don't even get a chance to go to school (I tried that argument when I was teaching -- it didn't fly).

Perhaps even more pertinent than students' perceptions is the way that school is treated by adults. Learning and school are routinely treated as punishments rather than rewards. Witness, for example, punishing students by keeping them in a classroom to do work rather than going to gym or out for recess. Or witness retention: the punishment is attending school over the summer and maybe even another year. Kids have every reason to interpret these and other policies as saying that school=punishment.

Now, I agree with you that the debate over whether school feels like incarceration is somewhat meaningless -- I still haven't heard an argument for making school non-compulsory with which I can agree -- and that what goes on in school is more important anyway.

Rather than arguing over whether school should be compulsory, we should be looking for ways to find a balance between making kids feel less like they're incarcerated while also promoting the best pedagogy and assisting the most students.

"...it is irresponsible to disparage the necessity of compulsory schooling"

and yet you also state that the compulsion currently results in

"... pack[ing] kids into overcrowded classes, force-feed[ing] them deadly textbooks, inflict[ing] failed methods of teaching on them, test[ing] them with dumbed-down tests, and then fail[ing] them. Most of the time, it seems to me, it is we who have failed them."

On the one hand you say it is irresponsible to disparage the compulsion and on the other you are saying that what they are subjected to (by the compulsion you apparently hold sacred) is a reprehensible failure.

In my mind putting those two together makes it sound like a moral contradiction. It sounds as though a high and mighty authority of wealth and privilege has decreed that the poor under-privileged of our nation shall be compelled to become better than the even poorer wretches of those other nasty places for their own good.

I suspect that I am operating from a fundamentally different moral assumption since the above image is entirely negative in my mind.

You see, when I think of what an education system is supposed to accomplish for a society, and for the individuals who join together to make up that society, I think of how the system is supposed to empower the citizens to lead lives that are fulfilling because empowered citizens living fulfilling lives provide the maximum productive contributions to society. The society has three basic elements that interact; the power structures by which we govern our own and other people's behavior for the common good, the exchange processes by which we trade our financial, material, informational, and attentional resources to meet our needs, and the patterns of consciousness that result from being embedded in the power structures and exchange processes.

In effect, compulsory schooling as you have described it subjects children to the arbitrary dictates of faraway authorities who supposedly know better what is in their best interest than they, or their families, do. This occurs during the formative years of our children’s lives when they are developing their most basic concepts of what social situations are normal and which social skills are necessary. The mainstream classroom power structures are dictatorial and the exchange processes are relatively arbitrary and, in the long, run meaningless for most people. The resulting patterns of consciousness include many apathetic and disinterested citizens with some exceptions.

The government is obviously one of the most important parts of the power structure of our society. When government schools create such disempowering situations for large numbers of people and then assert their authority to compel attendance then the result gives the impression that the wielding of power has become disconnected from the true purpose for which that power was bestowed. To say that the schools fail to educate but that students must be forced to attend them, in spite of that fact, is to say that government must be obeyed even when it is corrupt and incapable of serving the needs of both society and individuals. When an element of the power structure becomes corrupt and destructive of the needs of society then it loses it's authority. It may still exist and naturally will resist it' demise, but either it has to be transformed or replaced.

Compulsory schooling laws that result in such inadequate situations is why both home schooling and charter schools have grown so much. Both of these developments are evidence of the loss of authority of mainstream government schools and the efforts of many to effect transformation and/or replacement.

Perhaps you have a different way of understanding how the power structures and exchange processes of compulsory classroom schooling interacts to create the patterns of consciousness that are lamented throughout the land?

I agree that "we ... have failed them" as you put it. But I believe that questioning "the necessity of compulsory schooling" is a very important part of getting ourselves back on solid moral ground. I do not reject the idea of compulsory education entirely, but I have come to seriously question the idea of compulsory schooling for children.

I would be very interested to know on what grounds you would defend the moral contradiction of teaching children through dictatorial schooling laws and methods to live in a democratic society.


Don Berg

The word "compulsory" appears to carry a nuance of freedom, from what I can see. One says "compulsory service," but rarely "compulsory servitude" ("involuntary servitude" is much more common). "Forced labor" is not exactly the same as "compulsory labor," or we would not see the phrase "forced or compulsory labor" in legal texts.

The OED defines "compulsory" as "Depending on or produced by compulsion; compelled, forced, enforced, obligatory. In special collocations, as compulsory education, games." "Forced" is therefore one of the meanings; but in practice "compulsory" seems to denote something required of an otherwise free person.

Compulsory education, therefore, in its intended meaning, has nothing to do with jail. Schools are often likened to jails, not because of requirements, but rather because of lack thereof. The students are required to take tests and complete portfolios; certainly these take time, but what learning do they represent? Students write harmless persuasive essays about school uniforms but have no idea what the Declaration of Independence says, or how it persuades.

Why not teach the Declaration of Independence in class, and then ask the students to write about it? I have tried that, but only the more advanced (and motivated) students in any class complete that sort of assignment. The others try to copy something from the Internet, or just don't do it. This raises the problem of heterogeneous classrooms.

I see eighth graders suffering not because they're in school, but because they're in classes where levels of knowledge and ability vary so widely that no one receives adequate challenge. Teachers are told to "differentiate," but that is difficult when one student is writing a sophisticated persuasive essay on capital punishment and another cannot spell "crime." We do students no favor by holding them back for more of this. We need to structure the classes and the curriculum so that students are actually learning what they need to learn, and so that the teachers can teach the subject matter. What subject matter? Who decides what they should learn? How dare we impose something specific on them? Oh, but in giving them something specific, we also give them something to resist, if they choose to do so. Without concrete knowledge, students have no way of thinking on their own.

Why are we, as a country, so willing to force children into a seat for 6 hours a day and yet so unwilling to make a decision about what they need to learn?

Erin Johnson

Dang, that's a good quote Erin. Can I use it on my website (http://kathyandcalvin.com)?

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