Accountability Opinion

First, Do No Harm

By Deborah Meier — March 20, 2008 4 min read

Dear Diane,

Sometimes an outrageous sentence does get attention. But there is, I contend, merit to thinking about the ways in which schools are a form of “incarceration.” Nonattendance is crime called truancy. Kids are indeed “locked up” or “in” for 5-6 hours for 180 or more days a year, whether they or their families like it or not.

Is it a good idea? Yes! A closer reading than some readers engaged in would have noted that I was crystal clear on one point: I approve of compulsory schooling. At least in the world we live in. I recognize that it was a progressive step forward to have made schooling a requirement for 10-12 years. (And one that doesn’t yet exist for most children in this world. Even in industrialized China there are still tuition fees for public education.)

But, but. We’ve done so at a price.

From the very first day that I spent in a Chicago public school as a substitute teacher I recognized the special taste of fear—on the part of both many of the students and most of the adult staff. Including me. It was a fear not so different than prison employees probably feel, and which gets more and more blatant as youngsters get older. “They” outnumber “us”. Ergo the first priority: “control.” If we “let up” chaos will prevail. The atmosphere was noticeably more fearful in schools with students of color, a bit less so for poor white kids, and least of all in public schools with white middle class students.

Am I exaggerating? Not by a lot.

In a variety of ways all the usual freedoms that people in our society enjoy are removed. One needs permission to go to the toilet. One needs to walk, often silently, in line. One must sit still at all costs. One is not supposed to speak unless called upon. One cannot freely associate with ones chosen friends. And for many years—and it applies still in some places—the penalties for not obeying are pretty severe—including corporal punishment and solitary confinement of a sort. Even one’s own parents often have limited access to their children while in school, and few rights to overrule the school’s decisions or influence policy. (One NYC PTA just discovered that their longstanding tradition of sponsoring a monthly Pizza lunch was breaking a nonnegotiable citywide rule!, New York Post, March 16.)

The irony is that expulsion, of course, is the ultimate punishment.

I am arguing for a recognition that whenever one removes such freedoms one has a stronger obligation to “do no harm.” Without recognizing the “peculiarity” of the institution of schooling one misses something critical. Ruling over an involuntary “workforce”—in school or out—is not ideal. The side effects are important to recognize. Unlike school people, military men acknowledge the special qualities of a draft army versus a volunteer one. We civilians forget this too often when it comes to schooling.

We’re preparing kids to be grown-ups-- members of a democratic community, and a voluntary workforce—under circumstances that are neither democratic nor voluntary. It creates contradictions. I occasionally said to kids, “What are you doing here if you don’t want to learn?” It seemed like such a natural point to make. Imagine my surprise however when one young man took me at my word. His mother called me. He claimed I told him he might as well go home. She knew he was lying, but…. I told her he wasn’t lying. I simply hadn’t intended him to take me seriously (although no doubt I sounded dead serious). We both had a laugh over it. She sent him back.

It’s perhaps why I favor erring on the side of graduating kids we aren’t sure meet our standards rather than not graduating them if we aren’t sure whether they meet our standards. The opposite policy is the one we actually employ. After at least 12 years of involuntary schooling we better be very sure before we deprive them of an entry ticket into the workforce—and even then at not very decent paying jobs. That means looking each kid in the eye and defending our decisions as in his or her best interests.

We should be sure we use their precious time, energy, and natural enthusiasm for learning from start to finish. We should be sure that the school day is, at least, an interesting and vital experience. We should demand that we put at the command of the school every condition and resource necessary, to give all kids what the wealthiest and wisest parents provide for their own. (Even if we can’t prove it raises test scores.)

It also means taking seriously our claim that democracy is the first and best means, not the last resort. Yes, Diane, as you’ve noted in your last letter, there’s precious little “public” about how we operate some of our large urban, predominantly low-income school systems. The Pizza story is just the silliest, but hardly the worst, of what schools confront daily, The very least we owe youngsters are schools that believe in the very system of governance that they are intended to serve.

Democracy was invented as a means for holding our rulers accountable—except when it comes to schools?


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.