We’ve lived so long under the spell of hierarchy—from god-kings to feudal lords to party bosses—that only recently have we awakened to see not only that “regular” citizens have the capacity for self-governance, but that without their engagement our huge global crises cannot be addressed. The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high.
—Frances Moore Lappé, excerpt from Time for Progressives to Grow Up

Monday, February 12, 2018

Rebel Without a Clue: Autonomy and Authority in the American Public School

Click here to access article by Susan Cain and Mark Mason from Dissident Post. (This is a guest post by Caren Black, an engaged activist, whose career spans three decades as a teacher and administrator in private and public schools as well as business, Caren Black has taught eight grade levels and served as assistant principal and principal for middle schools in the public school system.)

Muda by Design

The Japanese term, "muda", which means waste, breakdown, failure, planned obsolescence, all familiar components of capitalism’s sales structure, extend to the much misunderstood American public school system. Here is an excerpt from my book Get Over It!  Education Reform Is Dead. Now What? that describes my view regarding this concept:

 A concept introduced by Toyota Production System creator, Taiichi Ohno, and defined as “any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value” muda is, quite simply, waste….

In education, of course, waste takes human form:  students we cannot or do not serve, people who get excluded from societal roles because they are too slow, too kinesthetic, too bright, too poor, too abused or too non-white to pass easily along our lock-stepped graded conveyor belt. As in any assembly line, we still reject those who don’t come out in standardized form.  When our system was designed, dropouts could still make their way in the world quite successfully.  Today, that is no longer true. The human cost of the rejection from our educational assembly line is high. Where do we think kids go when the system rejects them?  How does our rejecting kids pollute our communities?

“I want that kid out of my class!” Out of the school, off the planet, far away. “He’s disruptive! He’s defiant! He’s behind! He doesn’t do any work! I can’t teach with him in here! The class is fine when he’s gone!” It’s all true and it’s definitely a problem.  He is a problem.  For him, life is a problem.  He needs an attitude adjustment.  He’s got some learning difficulties.  His mother was (pick a couple):

  1. drinking
  2. snorting
  3. not eating
  4. without medical care
  5. being beaten
  6. uneducated when she was carrying him fifteen years ago.
He’s either hyper or asleep (meaning he does ecstasy weekly at raves). He’s in a crew or being jumped into a gang. Maybe he’s already in a gang.  He reads English at a third grade level and doesn’t know his multiplication tables.  We want him out of the classroom. (Yes, but to where?) He can’t sit quietly at a desk for 45 minutes and take notes on what we tell him were the causes of the Civil War without bothering other students or interrupting us.

We’re covering curriculum.  Of course he’s disruptive! Of course he’s defiant!  But do we really want him on the streets with nothing to do all day except hang around outside our houses?  Are we really ready to consign him to jail at 14?  That’s where he’s headed.  Does it seem so farfetched to create alternative educational systems designs that might better address the needs of non-standardized students like him?  Still not convinced?  Let’s give him a face….
My colleague Wes Beach described its effect on students from a different capitalist class in his book Forging Paths:  Beyond Traditional Schooling:
Compulsory education is based on compulsion. Compulsion requires power over students and control of them. Power and control often become the chief concerns.

School officials were…incapable of understanding, or unwilling to acknowledge that they understood, the fact that there are many perfectly legitimate and real reasons why some kids hate school.

Many students find no challenging material to study; they are capable of working at a much higher level than the curriculum allows. Their interests are not addressed; the academic curriculum in traditional high schools has little to offer someone who wants to be, or already is, a photographer, dancer, auto mechanic, or makeup artist. They do not like the social environment; they want to talk about topics beyond the latest clothing fad or the next party, football game, or sexual encounter. They find their teachers disinterested and sometimes incompetent. They find the environment oppressive and limiting, determining not only what they study but also when they can go to the bathroom or chew gum. They hate being controlled at every turn. They don’t like being on leashes held by administrators, counselors, and teachers. They resent it when their talents and goals are not respected. While this kind of rigid structure may work well for some students, this determination should still be made by the student with his or her parents.
Complaining about the public school system is a popular pastime while “reforming” it is a pundit’s playground, but few writers have actually taught in one or served in administration and fewer still have tried to effect change from within the system -- as both educator Wes Beach and I have, in addition to establishing independent schools of our own and working with two different groups of students, from two different classes of society, who did not “fit in”. This article captured the attention of us both, renewing our online discussions after many years’ lapse.

Susan Cain and Mark Mason, authors of this article, demonstrate their homework prowess by accurately assessing the creation of public education as a tool for instilling “a common political creed…in all citizens” (Spring, p.8) and its use as a bulwark for capitalism by creating the illusion of “equal opportunities” through schooling. 

While my first book was a guide for teachers working toward education reform, my second was an exposé on why reform couldn’t work. Had I written a third, it would have focused on why the power structure would not allow reform anyway because, contrary to popular misunderstanding, our school system is most definitely not broken:  It is doing exactly what it’s intended to do.

“Rebel Without a Clue” gets an “A” for research, writing and analysis.