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Student Prepares for Hunger Strike for Democracy in Education

On Friday I asked the question "Who gets to decide what is taught in our schools?" and suggested that teachers and students ought to have the biggest role in these decisions. Today I am sharing the thoughts of a passionate young person who is determined that students be given a larger role, and that schools be run more democratically.

Guest post by Neil Muscat.

From a young age, my passion was reading. While other kids became interested in sports, my idea of a fun day was to browse the 125th street New York Public Library. Although since those days, I have become a digital addict and read books less frequently than I would like, my interests remain mostly intellectual. The one constant in my passions throughout my life has been an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, for LEARNING- whether it be through books, museums, or absent-minded surfing through Wikipedia.neil.jpg

You would think somebody as nerdy as I would enjoy school. But as time wore on, I found it increasingly unpleasant. This was in the early 2000s, when No Child Left Behind had just been implemented and standardized testing was the Next Big Thing. I attended a free-wheeling and diverse elementary school which tried to make learning fun. Its philosophy was completely at odds with the wave of standardized tests about to overtake New York City. I remember fear and panic sweeping through the classroom. It seemed wrong that some distant official whom none of us actually knew could so affect our lives. I inherited a particular dislike for Joel Klein, who I understood was a major proponent of the new testing regime. Ironically, I've always received high test scores; and I'm the not-so proud recipient of several testing awards. But there was one conviction I have held from my first standardized test in (I think) second grade to my AP exams this past spring. These tests were not about learning. They were simply the way some distant adults could control our classrooms and therefore our lives, or, in the case of the College Board and the associated test-prep industry, make a heavy profit.

In 2004, I left New York City to live in the semi-rural town of Hershey, PA, located in Derry Township School District. In contrast to my old school, a place like Sesame Street minus the Muppets, Derry Township schools tended to be far more conformist and rigid.  Derry Township is a district that proudly displays its blue ribbon designation on the district website. With the majority of students hailing from a middle-class or affluent background, the Derry Township administration was confident in their test scores and reputation.  Above all, it was a school district that believed in order.

As a person who is very individualistic, I naturally clashed with this philosophy.  I wanted to pursue learning in my own way, and not follow any rubric or requirement. Admittedly, I was a bit lazy, but the workload usually didn't bother me. What bothered me was the way they taught. The focus didn't seem to be on creating thoughtful, well-rounded individuals, but machines that could perform a task. There wasn't much respect for the individuality of a student, unless that individuality looked good on a resume. Even though Hershey wasn't particularly affected by No Child Left Behind, it seemed to share its unhuman, unfeeling ideology. It was a school that focused on performance, and not learning.

This was a culture that, particularly in middle school and high school, was heavily focused on grades. All that students, parents, and teachers ever seemed concerned about was report cards and performance. Although I tried not to care about my grades, I too got swept up in the culture due to the pressure from my peers. But this peer pressure was really just a reflection of the attitude of the people who ruled us.

What was so infuriating about the grading system was how meaningless and pointless the measurements were. These grade measured not what you learned, but were designed so that you did things a certain way. It was all about following directions, about submitting to the order the administration wanted to impose. It meant being able to follow a rubric, and making sure you fulfilled requirements a) b) and c). It meant memorizing an entire unit for a test and forgetting it the next day. It meant that corruption and cheating were rampant, and that students abandoned their integrity in order to maintain societal norms. Whatever it meant, it certainly didn't mean learning.

Senior officials would occasionally lament this culture, while doing little to stop it. Their response was to hold a few meetings and publicly declare how concerned they were. Most bizarrely, they instituted homework-free weekends once a semester, which resulted in all due dates shifting from Monday to Tuesday. The people running things just didn't seem to be in touch with the day to day lives of students. So much of what they did seemed irrational and inane to us.

The worst part was that we couldn't do anything about it. We were made to come to school and we would find that our decisions had been made for us. Student government was ineffective and powerless. The school district was run in an autocratic manner, and students were considered subjects to be ruled, not equal participants in learning. Upon request, the administration would occasionally make a few cosmetic changes, but they didn't respond to the reality of our lives. In short, our school was undemocratic and illiberal. The tragedy is that this culture is not just limited to Hershey. It affects millions of students nationwide. And unless this culture is changed, it will inflict misery on many generations to come.

This system contrasted sharply with my strongly held beliefs about democracy and liberty. I believed in a system that listened to the needs of its people, not a system that callously dismissed them as immature brats. I believed in a system that cared about the development of their student's personalities and intellect, not about how they looked as a statistic. I believed in a system that granted students the liberty to control their education and lives.

For years, I tried to find a way to implement the changes I thought were necessary. Unfortunately, living under a school administration with authoritarian tendencies, I found there was no way to get the powers that be to listen to me. Petitions were just ignored. Student Council was a powerless pawn. The only elected institution with power, the Derry Township School Board, was elected by taxpayers who didn't attend the schools, not by students. It frustrated me to no end. The rights to democracy and liberty were supposed to be guaranteed to us as citizens. Where was the American Dream we had been promised?

The onset of the Arab Spring showed that youth could in fact bring about rapid change. Young people in Tunisia and Egypt, seemingly from nowhere, organized through social media to achieve political power. Newly inspired, I sought to organize students to join me in civil disobedience. I decided the best way to change the culture was to boycott standardized tests. I talked to as many students as possible. I convinced them to join me, and to convince their friends at other schools to do the same. The state-mandated PSSAS were the representation of everything that was wrong with the educational system. If we could get enough students to participate, we could make the authorities listen to us, to change the system. Maybe we could strike a major blow against the destructive influence of No Child Left Behind.

In the end, this effort failed. While most of the students I talked to were sympathetic with my goals, few of them were willing to take the risk. They were afraid of nasty and brutal retaliation. They feared that boycotting the tests would result in failing high school and ruining their lives. This was also during my junior year of high school, and many students felt they had no stake in a system they would soon leave. If we had been able to convince a great number of students to participate, I believe we would have been successful. But the challenges of secretly organizing an operation on such a massive scale were too great. Recognizing the futility of my task, I decided to wait for a more opportune moment.

When I graduated high school, I realized that I had failed to change the system. My fellow students, my people, would have to endure what I endured. When I went off to college, I resolved to take action-somehow. I thought of abandoning my crusade, of moving on with my life. But my conscience dictated I could not ignore the misery and inanity suffered by our nation's children.

Thus, on December 9th, 2013, I returned home to attend the meeting of the Derry Township School Board. I announced that on the 19th, I would begin a hunger strike. I will not eat until a majority of school board members agree to implement my four demands. These demands are:

1. The official abolition of the so-called Executive Council

The Executive Council is a secret committee that, according to the recently released Staudenmaier Report, made the major decisions behind the scenes, in possible violation of the Sunshine Law. This undemocratic Council was totally unaccountable to both taxpayers and students. With the election of new school board members and a new board president, this demand is likely to be implemented.

2. The Keystone Exams must not be taken by Derry Township students, and they must be removed as a graduation requirement.

The Keystone exams are the Pennsylvania state-mandated tests that recently replaced the PSSAs. They have provoked discontent and anger among both local educators and students. Although, since it is state-mandated, the School Board is unlikely to implement this demand, I believe that it is important to take a stand against the tyranny of No Child Left Behind.

3. The formation of a Student Board, to replace or supplement the inadequate stooge legislature of Student Council, with the power to review and approve policy. This Board shall be democratically elected by the students of Hershey High School.

Although I don't think students should be given total control over their schools, it is their natural, God-given right to have real democratic institutions that can change their lives. Top bureaucrats and officials in education often talk about accountability. Shouldn't they be held accountable to the students, the people they are supposed to serve?

4. The appointment of a committee, consisting equally of students and teachers, to review alternative methods of grading, and to restructure how Derry Township evaluates its students.

Since the School Board already has several citizen committees, I believe they will implement this demand. However, it's important that this committee find a way to change the grade and test based culture that permeates Hershey, and that the School Board seriously consider their conclusions.

I wish there was another, less drastic measure than a hunger strike to realize my goals. But unfortunately, the system is so entrenched and resistant to change that there is no other way. My hunger strike will force the School Board to come to terms with at least some of my demands. I am seeking to follow the path of Satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, to bring about a better educational system. This is the most effective possible advocacy. If you want to change the world, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything.

Update: Today, December 21, I received the following from Neil Muscat:

Today, I met with the district superintendent, Mr. Joseph McFarland. We have resolved to continue constructive dialogue, and work with the building administrations to implement some of my ideas, specifically the student board and the grading/evaluation committee. Steps are also being taken to end the excesses of the Executive Council and secrecy on the School Board. Although not all the proposed changes are going to be implemented, specifically the end of the keystones, I have decided it is not worth the risks to my health to continue this fast, considering the administration has committed to continue dialogue. However, I WILL continue my advocacy, and continue to lobby the administration to ensure our concerns are addressed. I am planning to move my activism onto the state level. 

What's important, though, is that I don't do this alone. If we are to create a better world, students MUST become more involved, and MUST organize to build more democratic institutions and end the destructive influence of No Child Left Behind and standardized testing. Therefore, I implore students in Pennsylvania and other states to become active in the debate over educational policy. The future of our educational system depends on students having their voices heard.

You can support Neil Muscat's demands for greater democracy in education by signing the petition at this link.

What do you think? Should officials look for way to expand the ability of students to participate in decision-making within their schools?

Image of Neil Muscat and his younger brother, used with permission.

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