Too Much Discipline?
In Why Do Some Schools Feel Like Prison? (Education Week, January 28, 2015), Samina Hadi-Tabassum, an associate professor of education at Dominican University, River Forest, IL, comments that in her 20 years of working of mentoring new teachers in Chicago, she now notices a “cultural shift” among schools that are predominantly African-American. She is distressed by the shift, particularly within the turnaround schools that have been taken over under the reform movement backed by Mayor Emanuel.
Hadi-Tabassum makes particular note of the “eerie silence” in the schools, with lines of children in uniform poses with “fingers pressed against their lips” and eyes front, which, in her mind, “mimic prison lines, and the teachers’ efforts seem focused on ensuring that students do not talk to each other and do not walk outside the line.”
She observes that throughout the school day, obedience is an “immense” focus of the time and energy in these schools. As she visits the schools where her first-year teachers are working, she finds that her interactions with first graders in the cafeteria draws a reproach from a teacher there, who reminds the table there is no talking during lunch.
She reports that one of her first-year teachers was admonished by her principal for having students come to the board to engage in a literacy activity. The principal told her that 1st graders make too much noise at the board and the activity was not appropriate.
Comparing this to the atmosphere of vocal and enthusiastic, playful students in the majority white school where her own children were enrolled, Hadi-Tabassum mentions that even her teacher students recognize that in a majority white school, such behaviorally rigid conditions would not be found. She questions why there are such marked differences in what is viewed acceptable between the two schools.
Concerns About Discipline in Reform Education Models Is Not New
She is not the first to question the rigidity of some of the reform formats that appear to be so common within high minority schools. Critics of such rigid disciplinary formats have gone so far to suggest that the rigidity is a not-too-subtle way to prepare children for the mundane and repetitious formats that are increasingly transforming the working lives of many Americans. Why permit spontaneity when your future will be pulling stock in an Amazon warehouse or putting goods made in China onto shelves in Walmart? Obedience to authority, according to those hedge fund billionaires who see workers as cogs in their profit machine, prepares today’s minority children for this corporate future, and the most cynical critics of schools that engage and promote these rigid models suggest this might be intentional. I know that I could not, as a teacher, thrive or survive in such a rigid environment. I think it is detrimental to child development.
In a somewhat similar vein, some have begun to question the way “grit” is being applied in education, suggesting that it is “a racist construct and has harmed low-income students by crowding out a focus on providing children with the supports they deserve and the more flexible educational approach enjoyed by many of their more affluent counterparts.” (Education Week blog, 1/24/15). Others defend the concept and suggest that the way the research on grit is being interpreted and then implemented in many schools is a misapplication of the research.
Charter School Discipline Exposed?
Jeff Bryant, writing first in Salon.com, wrote a strong review of charters schools highlighting their discipline practices. He links to much investigative work of others, including this observation about KIPP schools, where blogger Mike Klonsky “noted the nationwide chain’s practice of using a behavioral technique, called “Slant,” that “instructs students to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker with their eyes.” It’s “military style behavior,” renowned educator Debra Meier remarked on her blog at Education Week.”
Is such strong-arm education what we need in America? I think not. Yes, discipline has it’s place, but schools should reflect the developmental interests of all facets of childhood, not simply obedience to authority for it’s own sake.