The requirement that schools meet state standards, or else, is in conflict with the notion of student autonomy. How this plays out in classrooms is all too familiar to teachers.
A child may want to do research on turtles, but mastery of turtles is not a state objective. While pursuing his keen interest in turtles might increase the child’s reading and math skills, given the stakes, a teacher could be forgiven for insisting that this child adhere to the required curriculum.
Another child may be willing to study as prescribed, but wants to do so with her friends. The teacher knows that if she grants permission there will be chatter, some possibly irrelevant to the task. Although, over time, the group activity might be more productive than solitary work, time is what the teacher does not have with the tests looming in the near horizon. So she assumes full control over the curriculum, and over every aspect of the child’s behavior.
It could hardly be otherwise. Even among the celebrated charter schools—Achievement First, Amistad Academy, Knowledge Is Power Program, Mastery Charter, Uncommon Schools—a rigorous curriculum along with strict behavioral regulations is the norm. The cost of achievement is submission by all.
Given the existing constraints of imposed instruction and the demand for orderly, acquiescent behavior, what can be done to modulate the rigid authoritarianism? This is not the historical moment to anticipate a resurgence of Dewey progressivism with its focus on harnessing student interests to an ever-evolving co-constructed curriculum. But our increasingly rule-bound, objectives-controlled schools do present an opportunity for including students in the authority structure.
Here, briefly, is my vision of what that participation would mean, and why it would be a good thing.
When considering how authority could be distributed in a school, my motto is, anything a student can do, a teacher shouldn’t. Accepting that criterion as a filter, the first step would be to survey all the controls exercised by adults in a school day and determine which might gradually be shifted to students, in part or in their entirety.
In the early elementary grades, for example, children could be assigned some prescribed tasks previously performed by teachers and other adults. They would serve, that is, as adult proxies. For instance, students could be given responsibility for supervising classmates lining up and walking down the halls; they could take attendance, pass out and collect papers, snacks, and notes. More ambitiously, they might collect topics for class meetings, run errands, help in the office, library, and lunchroom, pick up trash, answer phones, and greet visitors.
Distributing authority would reverse the extreme passivity and minimal engagement that characterize many students and are encouraged by schools' rigid routines.
Older students could serve as crossing guards, supervise hallway behavior, lead class meetings, conduct school building tours, decorate class walls and select work for display, check homework, monitor small-group work, assist classmates in completing assignments, and tutor younger ones.
Despite the regimented lives of students, proxy jobs could gradually, with adult assistance, broaden to include student initiatives. Tasks initially performed at an adult’s behest could become tasks co-constructed with students. For example, after taking attendance, a child might call up the absent student, inquire about his or her condition, and e-mail homework assignments. Beyond welcoming school visitors according to a memorized protocol, students might describe and display their own work or that of classmates, explain the structure of the school, even escort and introduce guests to other classrooms. In a school I once visited, students knew the academic backgrounds and subject-matter expertise of every teacher and, as part of a tour, shared that information with visitors.
Rather than just leading a class meeting or putting ideas into a suggestion box, students could collaborate with teachers in constructing the agendas. Rather than just serving and cleaning up in the lunchroom, they could act as monitors.
As they gained experience, students might advise on how hallway safety could be secured, corridors be made more attractive, lunch be made more appealing, and assemblies improved. They might, with supervision, organize mural paintings, extracurricular activities, and talent shows for parent nights. Still further expansion of their authority could include joining with adults to determine school rules and the consequences of infractions, becoming involved in an active student council, offering ideas for greater community participation.
There is nothing radical about pumping up student participation, and no end to suitable activities. What I suggest is that, rather than conceptualizing student “jobs” as a matter of informal teacher discretion, we reconstrue the distribution of authority to students to make it a central and visible objective of schools, particularly those that are permeated with rules and controls. In such a student-involved world, teachers would be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to increase student responsibilities, so long as those responsibilities did not infringe on school purposes.
Educational leaders sometimes argue, perhaps rightly, that a high degree of authoritarianism is justified in low-achieving schools, and that any loosening of controls will result in compromised learning and unacceptable disruption. Even accepting that position, there is still much to be gained if students can be brought into the governance structure, given a position in the hierarchy.
I am thus not recommending a democratic school, where students have wide berth for decisionmaking on foundational matters. Instead, I suggest that teachers, operating within the existing framework, invite students to help in administering the academic and behavioral objectives that already exist. Adults should genuinely solicit student views and share problems that have not been adequately resolved, but they should not turn the classroom into a polis.
As with all co-opting maneuvers, there are risks of suppressing as well as extending student independence. While these risks require vigilant monitoring, they do not offset the considerable benefits.
First, distributing authority would reverse the extreme passivity and minimal engagement that characterize many students and are encouraged by schools’ rigid routines. Much of the day, adults instruct children to sit still and do as they are told. This includes what to work on and the procedures to follow. They are censured for speaking too loudly, out of turn, or inappropriately; for walking too fast, not in line, or too boisterously; for expressing anger, glee, and other emotions. To the extent that students are given amplified roles—first in carrying out what teachers deem necessary, then by initiating practices supportive of school goals—the sense of being an object, being done to, is lessened.
Second, student participation could gradually transmute into genuine student leadership as their voices came to be counted, then relied upon by peers and adults. While roles might, in some instances, be rotated, so that all would have exposure to such experiences, on suitable occasions students could be elected. For more-complex tasks, they would receive training and become “certified,” the position being honored with special insignias or other forms of recognition.
Third, systematically bringing students into the authority structures of a school would encourage belongingness and loyalty, the commitment that is so hard to capture. If the line between teachers and students—them and us—fades a bit, school is more likely to be perceived as mine rather than theirs.
Increasing students’ authority in schools is likely to reduce problems that currently create the demand for so much adult authority. As students do more of the controlling, the necessity to control them will be lessened.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Anything a Child Can Do, a Teacher Shouldn’t