Sunday, May 22, 2011

Before We Let Them Go, We Better Understand Why We Treat Them as We Do

Richard Elmore concludes an essay, What Would Happen If We Let Them Go?,  by wondering:

“…what would happen if we simply opened the doors and let the students go; if we let them walk out of the dim light of the overhead projector into the sunlight; if we let them decide how, or whether, to engage this monolith? Would it be so terrible? Could it be worse than what they are currently experiencing? Would adults look at young people differently if they had to confront their children on the street, rather than locking them away in institutions? Would it force us to say more explicitly what a humane and healthy learning environment might look like? Should discussions of the future of school reform be less about the pet ideas of professional reformers and more about what we're doing to young people in the institution called school?"

American Bust Stop: Prisons (M.A.Reilly, 2010)
In the essay, Elmore recounts his visit to two high school English classes and chronicles the sleeping students he watches in the first classroom and the teacher who outlines in detail all of the decisions students will need to make to "organize a notebook into a portfolio" in the second classroom. He says that these examples are not the exceptions, but rather they are the expected.  In both classrooms, as well as in the school, adults' misuse of power is displayed.

Two ideas strike me as I read the essay:

  1. Alternatives to traditional high school are present already, such as: options that divorce seat time from earning graduation credits, the development of unschools, virtual schools, early college, blended learning, and home schooling.  The choice to open the door may not be our choice after all.
  2. Alternatives will not answer why we allow and sanction such disregard to happen.

What worries me is the probability that although the specific symptoms Elmore identifies may not be transferred to these new learning methods, the underlying power issues surely will be if we fail to understand why we keep reinventing reforms that maintain the primacy of adult power.

Having students follow an alternative path is not a solution to the issues of power and responsibility. Such action will not help us to understand why teachers, counselors,  administrators, security personnel, and support staff sanction the misuse of power to occur repeatedly.  We need to understand why indifference and over attention, just two examples in a list of power mishaps, happen. If we fail to understand and take action, we may well reinvent the same power relationships in new venues.

So how do we begin this rather straight forward redesign? We can start by honoring the work we are paid to do and being responsible for how all students are addressed, taught, disciplined, and empowered. We cannot act on Elmore's belief to understand what we're doing to young people in schools if we permit ourselves to be blind and deaf. We are complicit by our silence.


  1. Wow. Great post. I like to think I am constantly aware of the power in the room. It is so hard to stop yourself and let students take control. Personal power is something that I am ashamed of.

  2. How curious your last statement is and as such, it gets me thinking wondering about the idea of personal power and the practice of it and perhaps the distance between these. How beautiful to know shame about power, especially personal power. Thank you for your comments.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.