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Assessment Opinion

The Moral Burdens of Mandatory Schooling

By Deborah Meier — March 13, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Diane,

By the time you read this we’ll have spent an hour at the Channel 13 event (mostly agreeing) about the risks involved in treating schooling like “a business"; and I’ll have spent a few days at a board meeting of the Coalition of Essential Schools; visited my son, Nick, who teaches at California State University at Monterey Bay; looked at schools in Oakland and San Jose; and had the pleasure of being accompanied by my granddaughter, Sarah. I’m hoping I’ll find a few great early-childhood classrooms—however unlikely. And that I’ll come back with some stories of hope that I can pass on to others.

I’m particularly struck these days with the negative impact of a policy that I support: universal mandatory school from ages 6-16 (or longer). I see, at least in a society as unequal as ours, no alternative to it. But it places an enormous moral burden on schooling. “Do no harm” becomes more critical under circumstances in which the population we serve are literally incarcerated. Only the draft army, perhaps, takes away our freedoms in quite this way. To skip school is akin to being AWOL; it is to commit a crime.

Teacher, writer, and libertarian John Gatto would abolish the obligation; I think he is dead wrong. But he has a point, and one we do not take seriously enough.

Pedro Noguerra asked a simple question last week at a hearing we attended on Mayor Bloomberg’s new plan to hold over 8th graders until they pass a high school entrance exam. Is there any research evidence that this kind of policy works? And, in particular, has New York City done follow-up studies of its mandatory hold-over policy in Grades 4 and 6? (He was also curious about where they planned to house all the hold-overs given the overcrowded schools in NYC.)

The answer is not only “no”—as Noguerra knew. But worse there is a staggering amount of evidence that it does young people injury. As Noguerra noted, if it did work, how could there be so many 8th graders who still don’t pass this test—since many were held-over in 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and/or 7th grade? A large-scale study in Chicago notes that 73 percent of those who dropped out were over age when they entered high school. (And probably quite a few never even enter high school.) Why would NYC be different?

A study I read many years ago, whose source I can’t cite, claimed that next to losing one’s own parent, being held over is what young people fear most. I believe it. My kindergarten students, when asked why they needed to learn how to read, almost to a child said, “so you won’t get held over.”

When did being tough and upholding “standards” justify the harm we do? Years ago a friend (and principal) asked an audience to help her resolve a dilemma. She said (more or less), “I have a 20-year-old student with a wife and child who has a good job waiting for him next fall. If he graduates. But despite our best efforts he keeps failing the math exam, and not just because it’s a bad test. Shall I ‘cheat’ on his behalf or hold firm to our standards?”

We’ve created this absurd dilemma; it’s up to us to spend more time trying to resolve it before we do more harm. It’s corrupting to our work, as teachers and citizens, to be deliberately punishing kids who have committed no crime. Not to mention the enormous loss to society itself when we let such youngsters drift away unacknowledged and uncelebrated.

I‘ll return next week with, hopefully, some more thoughts on this—based, in part, Diane, and readers, on your thoughts.


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