Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Why Do Some Schools Feel Like Prisons?

By Samina Hadi-Tabassum — January 27, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Watching the protests and listening to the chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot” following last summer’s fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., fueled an argument that I have been making for some time with my graduate students and colleagues.

For almost two decades, I have been coaching and mentoring first-year teachers in Chicago’s public schools; however, in the last few years, I have noticed a cultural shift in those schools with predominantly African-American enrollments. Some are turnaround schools that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office has taken over because of low student test scores, as well as other complex challenges, including weak leadership and ineffective instruction.

BRIC ARCHIVE

When you enter these turnaround schools, there is often an eerie silence. You never hear children’s voices in the hallways. Rather, you see lines of African-American children crossing the school with their hands behind their backs or their fingers pressed against their lips to indicate silence, and their eyes always facing front.

The monochromatic lines of uniformed children mimic prison lines, and the teachers’ efforts seem focused on ensuring that students do not talk to each other and do not walk outside the line.

All day long, an immense amount of time and energy is spent making sure young African-American students are taught to obey.

In one K-12 school, when one of my graduate students had to go to the restroom, I walked her students to the cafeteria. Even in the cafeteria, children were not allowed to talk to each other.

I made the foolish mistake of having a conversation with a table of 1st grade girls when another teacher came over to me and yelled out, “You do not talk during lunch.” At first, I thought the teacher was being sarcastic, but it was disheartening to realize after a few minutes that this young teacher, who was white, had been indoctrinated by her school to think that African-American and Latino children should not be allowed to talk at lunch. When the students were given time to actually act like children on the playground, they were often admonished for “acting like animals” when they returned to their classrooms.

Of course, my first-year teachers do not buy into this ideology of repression. But when I asked them whether their schools would have the same rules if the children were white, the young teachers responded with a unanimous no, coupled with the fear of losing their jobs if they, too, did not obey.

When I asked them whether their schools would have the same rules if the children were white, the young teachers responded with a unanimous no."

Caught between educational theory that advocates for the whole child and a school culture that resembles a prison’s, my first-year teachers have to make strategic decisions daily about what is best for their students and what rules they may need to subvert while avoiding the administration’s gaze.

On this front, one of my graduate students, whom I’ll call Angela, stayed after my class one day, quite upset.

I had taught my first-year teachers a literacy technique in which students come to the board and circle letters and sounds they recognize in a message written by the teacher. Then the students are told to put a square around a word they recognize and a triangle around a piece of punctuation, and to underline sight words from their classroom’s “word wall.” The interactive nature of the technique is what leads to its success.

However, when Angela was implementing this technique one day, a school administrator walked in and informally observed her teaching.

When Angela was finished, the administrator pulled her aside and told her she liked how the students identified the different parts of language, but that they were not allowed to come to the board to do so. Why? Because 1st graders make too much noise while at the board. Angela knew the suggestion was counterintuitive, and she knew that the noise her students made was from the joy of learning—a sound missing in turnaround schools. She came to me torn about what to do next.

Many days, after supervising my first-year teachers, I drive less than five miles to pick up my own children from their schools in Oak Park, Ill.—a middle-class suburb known for its diversity.

In the hallways of my daughter’s elementary school, there is the cacophony of children laughing, running down the hallways, and slamming lockers.

On the floors, winter wear is strewn all over the place along with forgotten worksheets. In the cafeteria, the noise of children eating and talking can at times become overwhelming; so, too, the sight of discarded food on the floor.

Do we find this chaotic behavior tolerable and less threatening because the school is majority white? If these were mostly African-American and Latino children, would many administrators in the Chicago public schools and elsewhere not have tolerated it and perhaps even found it threatening?

Finally, when will turnaround schools take school culture into consideration and produce a school that enriches the whole minority child?

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Education Week as Too Much Discipline Hurts Majority-Minority Schools

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Working Smarter, Not Harder with Data
There is a new paradigm shift in K-12 education. Technology and data have leapt forward, advancing in ways that allow educators to better support students while also maximizing their most precious resource – time. The
Content provided by PowerSchool
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Deepen the Reach and Impact of Your Leadership
This webinar offers new and veteran leaders a unique opportunity to listen and interact with four of the most influential educational thinkers in North America. With their expert insights, you will learn the key elements
Content provided by Solution Tree
Science K-12 Essentials Forum Teaching Science Today: Challenges and Solutions
Join this event which will tackle handling controversy in the classroom, and making science education relevant for all students.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Students Embrace a Wide Range of Gender Identities. Most School Data Systems Don't
Districts like Philadelphia aren't waiting for the federal government to make their student information systems more inclusive.
9 min read
Illustration showing 4 individuals next to their pronouns (he/him, they/them, and she/her)
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Equity & Diversity Teachers Are Divided on Teaching LGBTQ Topics
Educators say a dearth of curriculum, lack of training, and fear of getting it wrong can cause hesitation to teach about LGBTQ topics.
7 min read
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP
Equity & Diversity 'You're Not Going To Teach About Race. You're Going To Go Ahead and Keep Your Job.'
Educators in Oklahoma say a new law restricting classroom conversations about race and racism is causing widespread confusion and fear.
6 min read
Regan Killackey, AP English Language & AP Research teacher at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Okla., in his classroom on Nov. 15, 2021
Regan Killackey, AP English Language & AP Research teacher at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Okla., in his classroom.
Brett Deering for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Opinion The Hidden Toll of Vaccine Mandates on Students of Color: What to Know
If we don’t take care, vaccine mandates could threaten a return to Jim Crow era schooling.
Tyrone C. Howard
4 min read
Illustration of broken umbrella only stopping some of the rain
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty