Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Another Brick in the Wall

            Reformers of a liberal bent sometimes refer to the “school-to-prison pipeline”; the idea that students are prepared for institutionalization during their education.  As Pink Floyd explained in their critique of the school system, more education doesn’t always lead to better life outcomes.  So is it true?

I see your point, Pink Floyd, but when I leave them alone they draw phalluses on the walls.

            On first look, my school does share some characteristics with a prison, especially compared to the high school I attended.  My high school (as in, the one where I was a student) had an open campus; nearly all of junior and senior year consisted of electives that sounded like college classes (e.g. “Virginia Woolf,” “Russian History”); the dress code didn’t explicitly mandate the wearing of shoes and pants; and I can’t remember a teacher ever using a consequence besides asking a chatty student to move seats, or, on the other end of the spectrum, expulsion (detention was never used). 
            My current school is almost the polar opposite.  Students are not allowed to come and go as they please, detention is meted out daily, a uniform is required, and students graduate without having chosen a single class for themselves (which makes the use of the word “electives” a bit puzzling).
            Worst is that the students make a strong case against being granted further freedom.  If you fail to confiscate a student’s Sharpie pen, he will most likely use it to write on your walls while your back is turned (or, once, right as I was looking at him.  I suspended the student, not out of spite exactly, more because come on, really?).  Once I decided to give my advisory students some free time by taking them to the basketball court and giving them sports equipment to play with; I turned my back on a group of them for five minutes and they kicked a hole through the side of a metal shed.  And every day, the students complain about being bored during the 30 minutes they have to relax during lunch – the longest unstructured block of time they have for the entire day.
            Teachers at my school complain about having to serve as stand-ins for parents (and given that many of them really are parents, this doesn’t sound like a glowing endorsement of reproduction).  Implicit in the daily lunchroom kvetching is this idea: structure at school makes up for a lack at home.  It’s not an indictment of poor students and poor families, but (and my own experience makes this idea tempting) rich kids can be let off campus without breaking windows and can be trusted to be released from the classroom early and not write their names on the furniture.
            You don’t need a book about tiger mothering to realize that most wealthy students receive more structure at home than poor students.  While I think that my own upbringing struck an appropriate balance between work and play, this seems to be a rarity in an age when “getting into a good college” has turned into “getting into a good kindergarten.”
Recently I spoke with a preschool teacher who caters primarily to the munchkins of the very wealthy.  I realized, in speaking to her, that contrary to my own experience, most wealthy youngsters seem to receive structure aplenty, but, in a different way than my students, very little experience of freedom.  The parents of underprivileged kids, contrary to popular myth, do believe in the importance of education; they just aren’t always sure of how exactly to get their kids into top colleges.  Most wealthy parents, it turns out, know this all too well; my friend in the Stanford admissions office informed me that she had to take a call from a mother who wanted to know what instrument her six-year-old son should learn in order to maximize his chance of being accepted – and this level of absurdity in parent questions is more the rule than the exception.
My students endure a strictly regimented day, only to be released at 4 PM to get into trouble in the streets.  Their more privileged counterparts may attend schools that respect their autonomy (may being the operative word), but then they attend an endless cavalcade of swim lessons, piano recitals, and other activities guaranteed to ensure their admission at a good kindergarten so they can get into a good grade school etc. etc. until they get into a good college and… then what?
High-performing schools for underprivileged kids are notoriously bad at keeping those kids in college.  Wealthy kids who attend the best private schools are struggling with mental illness at an alarming rate (and in my non-professional opinion, one not completely explained by better diagnosis) because, as it turns out, life isn’t a video game in which acceptance to an elite college is the final boss (as it were).*

An elite college.

Kids need structure; they crave it, and they respond well to it.  Kids also need experience confronting freedom and ambiguity, because these latter are what grown-up life is about, and confidence in the face of these great unknowns is something we should foster if we are serious about moving toward an economy of entrepreneurs and inventors.
My parents were not of the helicopter persuasion, and my schooling prepared me for autonomy and choice; still, I find the task of charting my course to be somewhat dizzying.  I can only imagine how much harder it must be for my own students -- and for all students.

*Forgive the rhetorical flourish.  In my still-non-professional opinion, this is just one of many factors contributing to mental illness.  Still, I can't help but believe that our educational system’s single-minded focus on college-going, and the poodle-like hoop-jumping that accompanies this, creates students that are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of peri- and post-college life.  My decision to do TFA, for example, was jarring partly because it was the first major decision I made that wasn’t ordained since my birth (i.e., the first decision that was typical rather than categorical.  “Which college should I go to?” is a very different question than “Of the many possible things I could do with my life now, which is the one most consistent with my goals?”).

1 comment:

  1. wow df-dubs, doing rambly footnotes now are we?

    p.s. I love this one