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What Would Happen if We Let Them Go?

By Richard Elmore

I recently spent the better part of a week in a west coast school district, working with its leadership team on their high school renewal initiative. We spent most of two days observing classrooms, talking in a structured way with teachers and administrators from the district about what they saw in the classrooms we visited, and talking generally about their plans for renewal of high schools. I spend a lot of time in classrooms like these, a lot of it in high schools. This was a particularly depressing visit, not because it was atypical, but because of how typical it is of what I routinely see in my visits. Consider the following two examples:

A "regular" (non-honors) English class. Thirty-six students are sitting in rows in a darkened classroom at 10:00 AM. The teacher is showing final minutes of a video on a 1950s classic high school text. As I scan the rows, I see four students asleep with earbuds in place. Six students in the middle facing the teacher are carrying on a conversation having nothing to do with the subject of the class over the top of the teacher's attempts to engage the class in a discussion. Four students sitting in the back are engaged in a valiant attempt to salvage the discussion by responding to the teacher's questions. The teacher calls on these four students repeatedly. The remainder of the class sits silently, staring into space, waiting for the bell to ring.

An "honors" English class. Thirty-one students are sitting in rows in a brightly-lit classroom, each with a fat three-ring notebook. By their dress, their ease of interaction, their casual demeanor of privilege, it is clear these are the "chosen" students. The topic of discussion for the class is how to organize the notebook into a portfolio--which papers and quizzes go into which tabs, where to put teacher comments, what to do with class notes, etc. It is clear that the students are having a good time doing this; it is also clear that they have written a total of about ten pages of prose between January and May; and it is clear that the main reason they are having a good time is that they are forestalling whatever the "work" is for that day. After 45 minutes of excruciatingly detailed, rule-oriented discussion of what goes where in the portfolio, the teacher suggests that the students spend the next 40 minutes silently reading a section of the text.

I wish these were exceptional examples. They are not. I wish that the teachers and administrators who were observing classrooms with me were as outraged by what we saw as I was. They were not. They saw nothing exceptional or unusual about these classrooms. Mostly what I see in my visits to middle and upper grades classrooms are examples of what of Michael Sedlack, et al. (1986), long-ago characterized as "the bargain"-- "you give me order and attendance, I'll give you passing grades and [minimal] homework." The only other public institution in our society that works this way, with this degree of focus and dedication, is the prison system. At the extreme--in Advanced Placement classrooms, for example--teachers stress volume, coverage, pace, and recall, but these classrooms are exceptional only in the velocity of work, not in its focus on accommodation and control. For most students, the pace of work is like a thick sludge, moving in no particular direction toward a destination defined by escape. U.S. secondary schools, it seems, are primarily custodial institutions, designed to hold adolescents out of the labor force and to socialize them to adult control. Nothing particularly original in this observation.

As I read the collected entries in the Futures of School Reform Blog, they seem bright, energetic, combative, and optimistic about the future of the enterprise of American public schooling. I wonder, as I read them, whether the writers are aware of what classrooms in American secondary schools actually look like--the dismal, glacial, adult-centered, congenially authoritarian, mindless soup in which our children spend the bulk of their days. I wonder whether people are aware of how robust the old "bargain" is in the face of so-called "high stakes accountability;" how little the monolithic beast of American secondary education has been affected by the bright, high-minded optimism of professional reformers; how little the exemplars that professional reformers use to justify their role in society have actually affected the lives of adolescents.

I wonder, finally, what would happen if we simply opened the doors and let the students go; if we let them walk out of the dim light of the overhead projector into the sunlight; if we let them decide how, or whether, to engage this monolith? Would it be so terrible? Could it be worse than what they are currently experiencing? Would adults look at young people differently if they had to confront their children on the street, rather than locking them away in institutions? Would it force us to say more explicitly what a humane and healthy learning environment might look like? Should discussions of the future of school reform be less about the pet ideas of professional reformers and more about what we're doing to young people in the institution called school?


Michael Sedlak, et al. (1986). Selling students short: Classroom bargains and academic reform in the American high school. New York: Teachers College Press.


Richard F. Elmore teaches graduate students preparing for leadership roles in teaching and administration in schools at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He spends one day each week in classrooms in greater Boston, and he is a novice watercolorist.

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