Schools: Trying to Balance Coercion, Inspiration and Facilitation

Derry, another member of our Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) forum, has worked in the state (public) school system in the UK for 21 years. He joined into our current discussion about the compulsory nature of our public school systems and whether we have reached a point in our social evolution that we don’t have to compel kids to go to school. He considers himself a progressive educator who has spent his years in the system working to make state schools more democratic (less authoritarian). Trying to imagine what is possible within the current educational context (of compulsory attendance), he felt the best possibility for kids from families who can not afford private (including democratic private) was…

Attendance at a compulsory state school staffed by a significant number of adults who are able to inspire each other to work within the compulsion to create democratic-ish sub spaces and times.

Though he said that finding such a school in the UK was not very likely, he felt neither of the other alternatives available to these kids were very good…

1. Attendance at an authoritarian test-ridden non-respecting compulsory school

2. Refusal to attend such a school by ‘voting with their feet’ and just not going (assuming they can successfully avoid school attendance and police officers)

Though most progressives in the United States don’t necessarily imagine schools with “democratic-ish sub spaces and times”, I think they do long to have our country’s public schools engage and inspire kids to take ownership of their own education and strive to master a broad range of academic skills as a basis for successful college attendance and high paying careers to follow. The difficult trick seems to be trying to foster this learning inspiration and facilitation and at the same time play a custodial role within a context of compulsory attendance and mandated standardized curriculum.

This seems to me to involve a juggling and balancing act to ensure all of the following goals are being accomplished at the same time…

1. Kids come to school and stay until the end of the school day (whether they want to or not) and continue to do so for the 12 or 13 required years

2. The school environment maintains basic human rights and is safe from bullying, other abusive behavior or any other sort of violence (between staff and student or student and student)

3. Kids learn the standard state-mandated curricula and demonstrate that learning (whether they want to or not)

4. All intrinsic human learning styles and all but the most severe physical or mental disabilities are accommodated

5. Kids are inspired to be engaged in and take responsibility for their own education

6. Kids graduate ready to move on to successful enrollment and attendance in some form of higher education, as well as ready to be adult citizens

All six of these goals are very challenging in and of themselves, let alone trying to do all of them at the same time.

Enforcing item 1 generally involves an array of coercion including some sort of truancy and tardiness policing and punishments, hall monitoring, etc. Addressing item 2 brings in the need for additional monitoring (now including possibly kids’ Internet communication with each other) and various anti-bullying and other training programs.

Enforcing item 3 requires the development of compelling curricula that will soft-pedal the fact that you are learning what you must learn rather than perhaps what you want to learn. Teachers require special training to perform their custodial along with their educational function and learn somehow to administer that “spoonful of sugar” that “helps the medicine go down”. Make those kids learn algebra and geometry whether they want to or not (or somehow make them want to). And given a tight time frame for what must be learned when, various remedial programs to bring learners outside that time frame back into alignment with the mandated schedule.

Accommodating item 4 brings in additional complexity to the curricula including the need for additional special programs and special training for teachers. To address disabilities often involves paying for various additional staff (aids) in the classroom.

So given all the machinations of top-down bureaucratic control to accomplish items 1 through 4, item 5 (the engagement of the student in their own education) can easily get lost in the shuffle. And in that top-down control model it is generally the responsibility of the teacher (adult custodian) to foster that engagement by their charges through the wizardry of highly developed curricula and their advanced teaching skills. Amidst all the mandates and other bureaucratic elements, the teachers need to create an enriched learning environment that inspires the kids to learn what the state puts on their plates.

All this to also accomplish item 6, preparing that kid to graduate and move on to adulthood, and be ready for the next educational level.

Achieving all six of these goals is highly challenging under ideal conditions and increasingly involves more and more robust spending on highly qualified teachers, state of the art curricula, remedial and other programs, and fully provisioned and maintained educational facilities. Given that the budget for schools is finite (and increasingly so in recent years), I am thinking that achieving all of these goals is nearly impossible for many is not most schools.

So if a school is going to consider backing off on one of these six goals based on the realities of limited budget, which of the six is likely to be the first to go? Not items 1 and 2 which represent the custodial function and failure would expose the school district to lawsuits or worse. Failing on the basic academic function (items 3 and 6) subjects the school to probation, reorganization and/or restaffing.

It seems to me that its items 4 and 5 that are the most likely to fall by the wayside due to limited resources. Various learning styles are not accommodated in favor of the traditional repetition and drill and “teaching to the test”. And student engagement is sacrificed in favor of making the mandated train run on time and produce the required threshold of test scores.

So without some fundamental rethinking of public schooling, beyond the endless “reform” agenda, what seems to be in the cards was what Derry called out as…

Attendance at an authoritarian test-ridden non-respecting compulsory school

It’s the 1984 or Brave New World scenario.

Without going into detail on a potential solution in this piece, let me suffice to say that I think the fundamental problem is that we are trying to build a public school system from the top down, starting with a one-size-fits-all set of schools trying to meet an array of state mandates and then hoping somehow in garner student engagement by the extreme skills of the teachers. It is not fiscally possible. We need to be thinking instead of a bottom up model starting with a group of engaged students, parents and teachers whose educational needs are facilitated (rather than directed) by the state.

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