Friday, November 27, 2009

School to Prison Pipeline

Cross-posted on the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog

In the excerpt below, ACLU staff attorney Rose Spidell discusses "The School to Prison Pipeline." This term describes a disturbing national trend in which school policies and practices are increasingly pushing students out of the public school and into the juvenile justice system. It refers to the current trend of criminalizing our students rather than educating them and the disproportionate effect it has on different student populations, especially, students of color. Spidell also describes some case studies out of Washington state. The excerpt is taken from the 2009 Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum held at Western Washington University on April 29th. The forum is an annual event sponsored by the Journal of Educational Controversy. Readers can view the entire forum on our journal's website.

View the full video of the forum here:

To learn more about "The School to Prison Pipeline," visit the ACLU's website here:

Monday, November 23, 2009

"The boa constrictor, in its filthy slime...": G.F. Thayer's Lecture on Classroom Courtesy

From time to time, in my rummagings through the historical detritus of 19th century education, I come across something interesting. A few months ago, while sorting through some material on school hygiene, I found an extraordinary lecture entitled "On Courtesy."

"On Courtesy" is an address was given by G.F. Thayer in August of 1840, at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Instruction. In the lecture, Thayer bemoaned the lack of courtesy that plagued the schools of the day, and offered a list of requisitions and prohibitions that would help to remedy the problem. Some of Thayer's "requisitions" were quite bracing--consider the following comment on order in the classroom:
The first of the four [requisitions] relates to the scholars' taking their
places, on entering the school-room. This is a right step,
and the only safe one. If they wander about, they will
probably fall into temptation, and be led to do something
they ought not to do.
I have seen children, on a person's going into a schoolroom,
quit their seats, gather about the visitor, and stand,
with mouth ajar, drinking in, with the most intense interest,
every word said to or by the stranger, as if the communications
related to the falling of the sky, or some other
equally wonderful phenomenon. What in deportment
can strike a delicate mind with more surprise and disgust
than this ? In some schools, Lancaster's tablets, containing
the suggestion, "A PLACE FOR EVERY THING,
occupy a conspicuous situation. It should not be disregarded.
There are a number of other interesting requisitions (keeping the children mud-free, bowing) that Thayer discussed at great length. However, for Thayer, the requisitions are a mere opening act; the real rhetorical flights are saved for the prohibitions. Consider, for example, Thayer's energetic remarks on the problem of graffiti:
Next, marking, cutting, scratching, chalking, on the
school- house, fence, walls, &ic., are forbidden, as connected
with much that is low, corrupting, and injurious to the
property and rights of others. They are the beginnings
in that course of debasing follies and vices, for which the
idle, the ignorant, and profane, are most remarkable ; the
first steps in that course of degradation and impurity, by
which the community is disgraced, and the streams of
social intercourse polluted. You mark the track of its
subjects as you would the trail of a savage marauding
party, by its foul deeds and revolting exploits ; as you
would the path of the boa constrictor, in its filthy slime,
which tells that man's deadly enemy is abroad. And we
are called on, by every consideration of duty, to ourselves,
to our offspring, and to our race, to arm against this tremendous
evil, this spiritual bohon upas, which threatens
so wide-spread a moral death.
Other prohibitions not to be missed include spitting on the floor, the extremely dangerous game of paw-paw, and whittling.

Given the vigor of the pronouncements about the boa constrictor, one might be tempted to conclude that Thayer was an isolated crank. In fact, the opposite is true. Thayer was a popular schoolmaster who founded Chauncy Hall, a Boston private school that is still in existence. He was also, along with Horace Mann, a Vice-President of the American Institute of Instruction. As it happened, Mann, who was present for Thayer's inaugural reading of "On Courtesy", enjoyed the lecture so much that he reprinted it in his journal and had a copy sent to every school in Massachusetts.

In past posts, I've described some of the stark differences between current thinking about education and the ideas that prevailed in the 19th century. Thayer's lecture certainly bears this conclusion out. However, not everyone accepts that these differences exist. Recently, Robert Slavin, while making an argument about education's lack of progress in Educational Researcher, offered up the following assessment: “…if Rip Van Winkle had been a physician, a farmer, or an engineer, he would be unemployable if he awoke today. If he had been a good elementary school teacher in the 19th century, he would probably be a good elementary school teacher today.” Clearly, however, if Mr. Van Winkle had been teaching in Mr. Thayer's school, he might have had some difficulties adjusting to contemporary classroom life.

I highly recommend that you download the full version of "On Courtesy" and read it. Otherwise, you will never find out about Thayer's fascinating comments on bowing, the importance of respecting one's elders, and the dreadful dangers attendant upon "meddling with one's desk."

I just want the opportunity to have a choice

The New York Times reports that increasing numbers of New York City parents are forking over their dollars to companies that prep 3 and 4 year-olds for the city’s gifted and talented assessment test. I read this with considerable dismay but little surprise. Parents waste money on silly ideas, and perhaps in a few years I’ll be laughing at this as hard as I did at the Baby Einstein refund news. What really caught my attention was not the fact that parents are doing this, but the way parents talked about it.

One mother, Melisa Kehlmann, is quoted as saying “I just want the opportunity to have choice”. Her language struck me as perfectly capturing the problem.

The premise of “choice” is that it provides opportunities to parents and children that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Parents with money have always had ample choices and ample opportunities, and school choice is supposed to make comparable opportunities available to families who cannot afford to pay for them. Choice, in short, is supposed to create opportunities. “The opportunity to have a choice”, however, correctly structures the situation: Having a choice presupposes opportunity. The fact that parents are paying to have their children tutored for the gifted and talented assessment is yet one more piece of evidence that school choice only gives some people – those who already have some purchase on opportunity – a choice.

This is deeply problematic in a liberal democracy based on the idea that all people are rational choosers, with an equal right to determine the course of their own lives. Choice is supposed to be a right, and Ms. Kehlmann’s rhetoric captures this too. Her opening words “I just want . . .” imply that this is a plea for minimal basic rights. It is a phrase that one often reads in accounts of people struck by misfortune, famine or natural disaster, for instance, and usually a request for the bare necessities. One usually hears it in sentences like “I just want food for my baby”, or “I just want a roof over my head”. Nothing fancy, not organic baby food or an entire house, just sustenance and shelter. “I just want the opportunity to have a choice” is comic, given the context. “I just want” to pay to give my child a better chance to get into program that is supposed to be merit based strikes me as a plea along the lines of “I just want a Manhattan townhouse and a place in the Hamptons”. And yet, the rhetoric is accurate, inasmuch as choice is, after all, supposed to be a basic right.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What else falls with the Berlin Wall

In November 1987, my AP European History teacher assigned us a famously daunting assignment. She sketched an imaginary line from the Elbe river, down around the Czechoslovak border, and down the Danube to the Adriatic Sea and asked us to figure out what that divide meant.

This is, or was, the divide between Eastern and Western Europe, and we students were being asked to look into the history of that divide, figure out why it had come to be, and why it had achieved what appeared to be permanence, or at least long-term relevance. I cannot remember exactly what I wrote 22 years ago, but I suspect many of our papers included some version of the line that “this is how things have been for a long time and probably how they are going to stay forever”. We were, of course, dead wrong. Two years later, twenty years ago this week, the wall was down, the divide was breached. Five years later, I was in Poland running a civic education program. When I visited friends in Poland and Slovakia this spring, I sailed across borders that even in 1999 required passports and scrutiny but now look antiquated and shabby. (I suppose they probably looked shabby then too, but the presence of border control gave them potency they no longer have.) My Polish friends are traveling the world and moving back and forth across the Elbe and Danube to attend school, visit family, explore job opportunities.

This week, 22 years after writing an essay on the history of a stark divide, I found myself on the other side of the table, grading midterm essays that asked students to explain how teachers, schools, and other institutions in the United States make race matter. My students had seen videos on the history of race in the United States and read contemporary studies that explore race in school, and the midterm asked them to explain the workings of a divide that often seems to have foundations so deep, support from interests so powerful, and psychological ramifications running so far in our souls that it is likely a permanent feature of our world. Over and over, my students told me that race has always been an issue in the United States and that therefore it always will be.

I expect that two years from now, there will still be racial privilege in the United States, but in 1987 I expected the Berlin wall would still be standing. That it was gone two years later speaks to the refusal of large numbers of people to accept such fatalism. Of course it takes more than willpower. In June 1989, Tiananmen Square showed us that. But a fatalistic acceptance of the way things are is not the only alternative. If the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of empire in Eastern Europe teach us anything, it ought to be that refusal to accept present realities as indicating the limits of possibility can sometimes work wonders.