Dr Mark Naison
If I was going to figure out a plan to get working class youth to disengage from school, here would be my major components. First, I would make students sit at their desks all day and force them to constantly memorize materials to prepare for tests. Second, I would take away recess and eliminate gym. Third, I would cut out arts projects and hands on science experiments. Fourth, I would limit the number of school trips. Fifth, I would take away extracurricular activities like bands, and dance teams and talent shows and reduce the number of athletic teams, so that student’s energies could be exclusively concentrated on strictly academic tasks.
But wait a minute, isn’t that exactly what the dominant Education Reform movement in the United States is doing, from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on down. Aren’t policy makers forcing schools to add more and more standardized tests and threatening teachers and principals with mass firings if their scores on those tests don’t go up, with the results that anything that isn’t test driven is eliminated from the school culture?
Yes that’s what’s going on in education, all across the country. Starting with No Child Left Behind and continuing through Race to the Top, we are hell bent on making students from working class and poor families economically competitive with their wealthier peers by increasing their test scores and improving their graduation rates. And the way to do that, we believe, is to make them devote more and more of their time to acquiring basic literacy and then translating those skills into passing standardized tests in every subject.
But in formulating this strategy, which from the outside appears to be sensible and rational, we erase the world view of the very students in whose interests claim to be acting. We treat working class students as passive recipients of a service, who will do whatever we tell them to, rather than critical thinkers, and impassioned, sometimes impulsive historical actors, who respond to school policies based on their culture, values and their sense of how those policies effect their short term and long term interests.
As someone who grew up in a tough working class neighborhood, and has worked in similar neighborhoods as a coach, community organizer and teacher, I can assure you that young people in these communities are anything but passive when it comes to how they respond to externally imposed authority. Although some children in those communities accept authority unquestioningly, many more make it a matter of pride to challenge and test adults outside their families who claim power of them and get respect from their peers for doing so. No teacher, or coach, or social worker assigned to teach “in the hood” gets a free pass from that testing, which sometimes reaches the proportions of hazing. Whatever respect you get has to be earned.
And what goes for teachers or community workers goes for schools. Most people in poor and working class neighborhoods do not see schools as working in their or their children’s interests. Their own experiences with schools have often not been that positive and their attitudes of skepticism and even hostility readily transfer to their children. Overcoming that ingrained skepticism not only requires efforts by individual teachers, it requires efforts by the entire school to make students feel that it is a place where they are respected, where their voice can be heard and their culture validated, and where they can actually have some fun. The best inner city schools I know not only make sure they maintain a welcoming atmosphere, but try to create a festive one, with music and the arts being part of every public meeting, with sports events being highlighted, and where student, parent and community input is incorporated into every dimension of the school culture.
Now enter the Era of Test Mania, with administrators and teachers panicked they will lose their jobs if they do not produce continuous results on one high stakes test after another. Forget the school being a place where student and community creativity can be validated. Every bit of time, and energy and emotion must be devoted to test prep. Students have to sit still and listen, and memorize and regurgitate large bodies of information. Time for self expression disappears. Time for physical activity is erased. The school becomes a place filled stress and fear.
Some students will conform, and may even pass all the tests that they are given, but just as many- a good portion of them boys- will rebel, either by disrupting classes, challenging the teacher vandalizing the school or not going to school altogether. There is no way that working class kids like I was or a lot of the kids that I coached and taught over the years, are going to sit in school and obediently memorize material if you don’t give them some physical outlets, some chance to move and express themselves, and some opportunity to speak out on issues important to them. When you are brought up to “take no …. From anyone” and stand up for yourself, you are not about to allow teachers and school administrators to humiliate you, intimidate you, and silence your rebellious spirit. In neighborhoods where respect of peers is the key to survival, where the underground economy beckons, and where many people, in the words of Big Pun “would rather sell reefer than do Pizza delivery,” schools which try to discipline students, rather than engage them, will find they are in for trouble
The vision of School Reform currently dominant in our country, where teachers and principals browbeat and harass students to pass tests in order to keep themselves from being fired, is going to blow up in our face.
And though teacher protest will be an important component of the resistance, it will be student disengagement and violence which will ultimately put this phase of Reform to rest
June 28, 2011