We have been talking a lot about education recently, both in public and on this podcast. It’s a pretty hot topic. I know I am probably more immersed in these conversations than many people because I work in higher education, but there is no denying the fact that schools are on a lot of people’s minds right now. We’re worried about schools opening because of the spread of COVID. We’re worried about schools NOT opening because of pressure on parents, the economy, and the damage that could do to our kids. We’re worried about both of these things because this is causing us to come together to question what is education and what is the best way to do it? We have realized that education is more than just the transference of knowledge – the education system is the backbone of our economy and in many ways, our society.
So a lot of attention is being paid to education, how it works, how it is done, and how it effects students, parents, and educators. Education is going through a very sudden revolution – we are having to figure out very quickly what education looks like in a virtual world. And it is turning out to be a painful experience Online education has been touted by educational reformers for years. But the limitations of that are becoming glaringly obvious. And educators who don’t know how to be online teachers are abusing the tools – we threw a bunch of people who weren’t trained for this into the ocean without much of a lifejacket.
Parents and students are making it clear they are unhappy. Online education was supposed to be a democratizing experience and open up entire new means of education. But in many ways, it has taken the worst parts of education and brought them to the fore.
First, I want to spend a little bit of time on the history of education in this country. The first American schools opened in the 17th century. According to Public Schools Review, less than a decade after the first official public school opened in Virginia, Massachusetts created a law requiring towns with populations of 50 or more to hire a schoolmaster to teach the children of the town basic academics. Towns that had 100 or more people were required to hire a Latin grammar schoolmaster who was equipped to prepare students for higher education.
Early schools focused more on virtue of family, religion, and community than they did reading and math. Schools were often the purview of religious organizations. But the first public school opened in 1653 in Boston. It is still open today. Public schools were not common in the South until after Reconstruction.
Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an avid proponent of public education. He believed it was important for a functional democracy (Thomas Jefferson made similar arguments during this time period). Rush’s ideas about education may SOUND harsh, but in reality, are they that far afield from practice? In his 1786 piece Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, Rush argued that “Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.” He also argued that, “In the education of youth, let the authority of our masters be as absolute as possible. The government of schools like the government of private families should be arbitrary, that it may not be severe. By this mode of education, we prepare our youth for the subordination of laws and thereby qualify them for becoming good citizens of the republic. I am satisfied that the most useful citizens have been formed from those youth who have never known or felt their own wills till they were one and twenty years of age.”
Common schools entered the scene in the 1800s. A common school was a public school in the United States during the 19th century. Common schools originated in New England as community funded instruments of education for all children of the neighborhood. These secondary schools furthered the Puritan conformity of the area by instilling religion into the curriculum for the purpose of re-enforcing good morals and obedience in the populace. Common schools typically taught “the three Rs” (reading, [w]riting, and [a]rithmetic), history, and geography. There was wide variation in regard to grading (from 0-100 grading to no grades at all), but end-of-the-year recitations were a common way that parents were informed about what their children learned. The common school intention would equip every child with moral instruction. The emphasis on morality remained a strong element of education. The common school era is viewed by many education scholars to have ended around 1900 (See Wikipedia for this and more information). In the early twentieth century, schools generally became more regional (as opposed to local). This led to the school system that is in place throughout most of America today. The common schools were basically a place where students memorized information and learned virtue and moral lessons. They were designed not to make good thinkers or leaders, but obedient citizens, and as industry progressed, good workers.
Common schools, as school in America always had, taught obedience and respect for authority and the law, and other virtues of citizenship. As we have noted in previous podcasts, by the 20th century some education reformers began to question that orthodoxy, but the design and philosophy for school had been at work for generations – school was a place to discourage non-conformity and police behavior. Even the pedagogy encouraged sameness – recitations and memorization encouraged everyone to have the same outcomes.
Okay. So now that we’ve discussed the history of American education, I want to discuss an idea that has been debated in many theoretical and philosophical circles for a number of years – the panopticon. The panopticon was proposed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. It was supposed to be the ideal set up for prisons and schools. The panopticon is a building and a system of control that would allow all prisoners of an institution to be observed by a single security guard, without the inmates being able to tell whether they are being watched. From the tower, a guard can see every cell and inmate, but the inmates can’t see into the tower. It’s basically a tower with a watchman in it who can see into a bunch of cells built around it (at many levels).
Bentham describes the structure this way: “The Building circular – an iron cage, glazed – a glass lantern about the size of Ranelagh – The Prisoners in their Cells, occupying the Circumference – The Officers, the Centre. By Blinds, and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed from the observation of the Prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of invisible omnipresence. – The whole circuit reviewable with little, or, if necessary, without any, change of place.”
So in this big tower the guards can see into the cells at any point. The prisoners know they could be seen at any moment, though they are not seen at all times. But they COULD be. Because they can’t see the guard the prisoners don’t know when they are being watched or not.
It says a great deal that this was ideal set up for schools AND prisons. Why would both of these institutions have the same ideal design? Because these are institutions designed for control and discipline. Our schools and our prisons are seemingly designed with the same purposes in mind.
Consider the growing phenomenon of Police in schools – it is the literal fusion of the penal system and the educational system. Studies show that schools with police have higher arrest and suspension rates. Black students are much more likely to be arrested in school. At least one study links school police presence to lower high school graduation rates. There are conflicting results in studies on whether police actually make schools safer. According to the Healthy Schools Campaign, school police officers reinforce the criminalization of young people of color, serving as a key component of the school-to-prison pipeline. Black and Latinx students are more likely to be disciplined, suspended, and arrested in school when police are present. Police assigned to school buildings often don’t receive the necessary specialized training on adolescent development, racial equity, restorative justice or strategies for de-escalation, leaving many unequipped to do their jobs without causing harm to students.
The school-to-prison pipeline is the phenomenon that students who are disciplines excessively as children, such as with suspensions, are basically being funneled into prisons as adults. And we know that Black students and students of color are disciplined in ways and at a rate that their White peers can’t even imagine.
Some of this began with the advent of things like zero tolerance policies, which every education expert will tell are a terrible idea. Zero tolerance policies are exactly what they sounds like – a school will decide they have zero tolerance for certain behaviors, and a blanket punishment, such as in-school-suspension, suspension, or even expulsion will be administered for every instance of that kind of infraction.
It doesn’t take much to see how these policies are ridiculous at best, and actually harmful. If a school has a zero-tolerance policy for fighting and once student attacks another and the second student has to defend herself, then both students are suspended for fighting. Because two students were in a fight. If a bully is attacking a student who cannot defend themselves and another student steps in to try and help, all three students will end up in suspension because all three students were in a fight. If two students are caught stealing and there is a zero-tolerance policy there is no thought given to the fact that one student may be well-off and is stealing just because they want somebody else’s things, and another student has no food at home and is stealing lunch money or food from other students in order to have calories to survive the day. They are both punished equally.
According to justicepolicy.org, Students who are suspended are more likely to repeat a grade or drop out than students who were not. A Texas study, considered the most thorough analysis of school discipline policies and their effects, looked at data from every seventh grader in the state in 2000, 2001, and 2002, then tracked their academic and disciplinary records for six years. They found that 31 percent of students who were suspended or expelled repeated a grade, compared with only 5 percent of students who weren’t. It’s hard to prove causation; it’s possible that students who misbehave would have ended up in academic trouble no matter how they were punished. But the Texas study found that students who had been suspended or expelled were twice as likely to drop out compared to students with similar characteristics at similar schools who had not been suspended. Students who are disciplined by schools are also more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. The Texas study found that, of students disciplined in middle or high school, 23 percent of them ended up in contact with a juvenile probation officer. That figure stands at 2 percent among those not disciplined. And students who have been suspended or expelled are three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile probation system the following year than one who wasn’t.
So things like zero-tolerance policies that punish students who were marginalized or victims to begin with just push those very same students close to failure.
As for police in schools, according to the ACLU, many law enforcement officers are often not qualified to work with children. Roughly 25 percent of school police surveyed by Education Week stated that they had no experience with youth before working in schools. Police are trained to focus on law and order, not student social and emotional well-being. This lack of training undermines effective behavior management. The tools of law enforcement — pepper spray, handcuffs, tasers, and guns — are ill-suited to the classroom. A 2018 report by the Advancement Project documented and mapped over 60 instances of police brutality in schools over the past eight years.
This is particularly controversial considering the funding issue – it takes money to put cops in schools, and many schools are often underfunded to begin with. Putting police in schools takes money away from other needed positions and resources that are often more beneficial. According to the ACLU:
- 7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors
- 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses
- 6 million students are in schools with police but no school psychologists
- 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers
- 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate among children ages 10 to 17 increased by 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. It is estimated that nearly 35 million children in the U.S. have experienced at least one event that could lead to childhood trauma. About 72 percent of children in the U.S. will have experienced at least one traumatic event such as witnessing violence, experiencing abuse, or experiencing the loss of a loved one before the age of 18.
Up to 80 percent of youth in need of mental health services do not receive services in their communities because existing services are inadequate. Of those who do receive assistance, 70 to 80 percent of youth receive mental health care in their schools. Students are 21 times more likely to visit school-based health centers for mental health than community mental health centers. This is especially true in low-income districts where other resources are scarce. Therefore, school-based mental health providers — such as school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists — are frequently the first to see children who are sick, stressed, traumatized, or hurt themselves or others.
Students with disabilities are disproportionately arrested and physically harmed by school police as well. Overall, students with disabilities were nearly three times more likely to be arrested than students without disabilities, and the risk is multiplied at schools with police (See the ACLU’s website for this and more information).
Higher education is not immune from this kind of behavioral policing, though it tends to show up in different ways. Most colleges don’t have cops stationed at the doorways, but by the time students get the college most of the quote “problem” students have been culled out. But college professors will still police their student’s behavior in ways that will are harmful and unnecessary.
Consider the draconian attendance policies that many professors and programs have adopted. In some classes students can’t miss a class unless they have a note from a doctor. Think about that for a minute – you would have to go to the doctor every time you were sick in order to miss class without penalty. In all honesty – do YOU go to the doctor every time you are sick? When you have a cold or your allergies are flaring up do you head to the doctor just so the doctor can say, “It’s a virus – it’ll pass in a week” or “take some anti-histamines.” No, none of us do. And students are likely to be in a position where they don’t have a regular doctor they see in town and are dependent on the school health center, which may or may not be able to see them immediately. And if insurance is an issue what are you supposed to tell those kids who can’t afford a doctor? What about non-traditional students who run into child-care issues? Are you going to punish them because their baby-sitter caught the flu? And, quite frankly, sometimes a 20-year-old needs a mental health day. I know we’re supposed to be preparing them for the proverbial “real world” and you can’t just check out every time you feel like it, but sometimes young adulthood is overwhelming. And you hear horror stories about professors who demand death certificates if a student has a death in the family. The supposed reason for rules like this is to hold students accountable – but they don’t. They are punitive and that’s it. They punish students for not behaving in ways we think they should. The truth is, if a student doesn’t want to do the work, forcing them to be in class an extra two or three days isn’t going to make that much difference. You can’t force your students to learn any more than you can make an adult do anything they don’t want to. These policies don’t help anyone. They simply give professors a way to police and punish students who they see as not behaving in an optimal way.
A similar example is policies that prohibit computers from the classroom. Studies show that students who take notes by hand tend to perform better in class. That is true. But some students prefer to take notes on their computers. And won’t take notes otherwise. You can post your PowerPoint or Prezi presentations and students can follow along with their computers and follow class better. Yes, it is very possible that some of them are shopping online. But those students weren’t going to be paying attention, anyway. Some students with disabilities require the use of computers. A no computer policy WITH THE EXCEPTION of somebody who works with the office of disabilities just works to point out who has a disability, and that is ableism pure and simple. Computers are a technology with a legitimate learning purpose. Prohibiting them is policing for the purpose of policing. As more and more of our classwork is being done with computers it is silly to prohibit those machines from the classroom.
Online education has shown us that education at all levels, for many people is not about imparting knowledge or teaching students critical thinking skills, but about policing. Unfortunately, we are seeing entirely too many examples of educators as authoritarians or cops.
Schools across the country have come out with sets of rules for remote learners that range from the odd to the ridiculous. For example, some schools are requiring students to be at a table and will not allow students to be on the couch or on their bed. Some students are not allowed to wear sleeveless shirts.
In some schools they are requiring shoes. These don’t make sense for a variety of reasons. For one, some students may not have a table they can set up on. It may be that their bed or a couch is the only place they have that they can reasonably sit at to work. Some students are having to go to restaurants or parking lots for wi-fi. How are they supposed to have a table there? And to be honest, what is the point of telling a student they can’t be in their most comfortable spot other than just to exercise authority? The excuse is usually that they want to avoid distractions, but where on earth is it written that there will be fewer distractions at a table than there will be on the couch? That’s just nonsense. It’s telling students what to do for no other reason than you want to enforce rigidity and conformity.
Sleeveless shirts and shoes are supposedly part of the dress code – but students are literally in their own home. Schools are now telling students how to dress in their own home. And the shoes bit is particularly ridiculous because NO ONE WILL SEE THEIR FEET. It is a rule for the sake of having a rule.
These rules serve no purpose other than to remind students they are under the authority of their teachers and administrators. It should make us ask, “what is an education supposed to be? A learning experience or an exercise in submission?”
Higher education is not immune to this kind of policing, either. Consider the program Proctorio, which is used to watch your students while they take an online test, and programs like it.
First, it requires you sit in a quiet place. If you have to go to a coffee shop or somewhere like that for reliable Wi-Fi you are already in trouble. If you don’t have access Wi-Fi in your own home, you have to fine a quiet place where the internet is consistent and affordable. You will be dinged for cheating if you don’t.
Before taking test have to show photo ID. So there’s a privacy violation. There could be information on your ID that you do not want shared. You have to show your work area to show it is free of things you could use to cheat and that you are alone. Once again if you have to go somewhere else for the internet this is basically impossible. Even if you go the library for a quiet spot there will likely be other people there. If you DO have Wi-Fi you have to get your family and or your roommate vacate the premises for as long as you are taking your test. So you are putting a burden on those you live with, who may need access to your home and what is in it. This also is especially problematic for those who may come from a lower SES background and a) share their home with a number of people because of multiple generations in a house or b) do not wish to show the conditions of their living space with outsiders.
You have to take test with microphone and camera on – sounds are flagged. If you are taking your test in a house with other people, or in a noisy neighborhood, or in a place with many people you will automatically be flagged as a cheater.
Proctorio notes every time you look away from the camera. This is, first off, incredibly invasive. If you just look away to think for a minute you are flagged as a potential cheater. This is also ableist toward people with conditions like ADHD who are likely to look away more often than others. If you are prone to leaning back to look up and think – congratulations, you’re a cheater.
This puts a huge burden on teachers. It is up to them to check every flag for cheating and decide whether it is legitimate or not. This could be dozens to hundreds of notifications per student, per exam. And, quite frankly, it’s bad pedagogy. It is ableist, classist, and any number of other exclusive practices, and doesn’t serve to teach good study habits in any way. The goal is to stop students from cheating but all it does is create anxiety for the students and work for the teacher. It is a pointless program. It is policing for the sake of policing. It feeds into the fear that somebody somewhere MIGHT be getting away with SOMETHING so we should punish as many people as possible.
Education in the virtual world is no longer the panopticon. The surveillance is real and constant. You KNOW you are being watched at all times. The it’s not just a threat of discipline now – it’s a promise This breeds anxiety. It creates distrust. And it serves no pedagogical purpose. It doesn’t teach anything valuable other than to fear those in authority. This is not what makes education valuable.
Education can create thinkers, leaders, artists, and problem-solvers. But this brand of education doesn’t serve that purpose – this brand of education only serves to make people distrusting and paranoid, or submissive and conformist. We have so many tools available to us to create educational opportunities that are creative, inspiring, and inclusive. We’re on the cusp of an educational revolution. We have the opportunity to leave behind the old trappings of these harmful approaches to education and create new pedagogies that encourage our students to be productive, happy, innovative citizens.
There has been a lot of doom and gloom in this podcast but the whole point is that if we can recognize that this is a bad situation, we have the chance to make it better. If we respect our fellow-teachers, and just as importantly, respect our students, we can create an educational system that doesn’t breed fear and contempt, but fosters community and creativity. We can collaborate with each other. We can ask intelligent questions of each other and challenge each other to think creatively. But we can’t do those things as long as we are behaving like cops and not educators.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.
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