From sea to shining-sea the school day unfolds in a remarkably similar manner for the vast majority of American students. In public and private schools; charter, voucher, and magnet schools; urban, suburban, and rural schools; in schools both large and small; schools in wealthy districts and impoverished districts; the basic nature of the educational experience is essentially identical for nearly all students. Elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are in session from early morning through mid-afternoon, Monday through Friday, from late August or early September through late May or early June. The school year is divided into equal segments (semesters, quarters, trimesters, etc.). The school day is divided into class periods that are typically of equal lengths for all subjects. Students are graded in all subjects on the same scale (most commonly A, B, C, D, F).
The typical classroom consists of rows of student desks or tables with chairs facing a chalkboard or marker board. Each class has approximately the same number of students. The governance structure within schools is based on a top-down, bureaucratic model, with administrators outside of the classroom attempting, with varying degrees of success, to control what goes on within the classroom. For the first few years of school, students spend most of their time with a single teacher, and some time each week with art, music, and/or gym teachers who make regularly scheduled visits to each school. At the middle school/junior high and high school level students move from room to room, like products moving along an assembly line. Each teacher “attaches” his or her part of the overall curriculum. The concepts of inter-changeable parts, division of labor, and the assembly line that have been so effective at increasing productivity in industry have been applied to our educational system with considerably less success.
Laws within each state set the lower and upper age limits within which children are allowed to attend public schools free of charge. Babies and toddlers are excluded from public education, despite the fact that research (and observation) indicates that they are capable of learning a great deal more than many of them do during the period between birth and five years of age. For example, foreign languages are learned much more easily at that stage in life. Research also indicates that children from low-income families enter school with a much smaller vocabulary than children from more affluent households. The Head Start program is a step in the right direction with regard to this problem, but a more comprehensive system is needed.
Adult illiteracy is another serious problem that is not being effectively addressed. There is a patchwork system of programs and classes in place that address adult illiteracy, but here again a more comprehensive system would be beneficial. Adult classes are offered evenings at some high schools, but they tend to focus on job skills or hobbies and crafts. Adults should have access to the same sort of liberal arts curriculum offered to teen-age students (government, science, economics, literature, etc.). We waste millions of dollars trying to force-feed teen- age “students” who have no real interest in learning, while ignoring opportunities to encourage and enhance “life-long learning” by offering a full range of classes to adults who may have squandered the chance to get an education when they were younger.
State laws also divide the schools within each state into districts. The boundaries of each school district place strict limits on the schools a student may attend. The one glaring exception to the uniformity of the school experience described above, is dissimilarities in the character of schools based on the socioeconomic status of the student body. There are clear and observable differences between schools that serve students from low-income families and schools that serve students from more affluent families. Although nearly all schools have room for improvement with regard to creating a climate conducive to learning, schools that serve primarily poor students tend to have more problems in this regard. Most of the school choice plans implemented thus far operate only within school districts, leaving the vast majority of students from poor families trapped and isolated in inner city schools.
We emphasize “local control” of schools in a way that implies that communities have a great deal of latitude in structuring the way children are educated. Local school boards, however, not only operate within constraints imposed by state laws and the admission requirements of colleges and universities but demonstrate very little interest in exploring meaningful alternatives even within these constraints. This has led to the remarkable degree of uniformity noted above.
Within our present system of public education, students (and their parents) are given little or no choice regarding key elements of the educational process: What will be studied (including both what classes to take, and what to study within a given course)? Who will teach them? What methods will be employed? The pace of instruction. And when to attend? (At what age? Full-time or part- time? Days, evenings, or weekends?) Freedom of choice with regard to the most basic question of all, whether or not to attend school, is proscribed by the fact that education is compulsory for children between certain ages. (Typically, between five and sixteen years of age.) This “one size fits all” approach to education is not doing an adequate job of educating many students. Furthermore, it is not necessary. It is possible to educate students without a seamless web of rules and requirements.
As a nation we are justifiably proud of our strong tradition of individual freedom. The Declaration of Independence states that we are all born with the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and that the primary purpose of government is to protect those rights. For over 200 years our Constitution has given form and structure to our belief that the powers of government should be limited and that those powers not specifically granted to the government should be reserved to the people. Our public education system stands in stark contrast to these professed commitments to the ideals of limited government and individual liberty. With regard to education, we seem to find it difficult to believe that freedom and democracy work.
Many of our schools are “institutions” in the worst sense of the term. They are administered in a bureaucratic, authoritarian manner. A lengthy list of rules and regulations create a prison-like environment, designed to control the “enrollees.” Students are issued numbers and identification cards or badges. Dress codes are enforced, and school uniforms are being issued at more and more schools. (Why not kill two birds with one stone and issue students orange jump-suits with their student number above the left pocket?) In response to real or imagined crises, new restrictions are added constantly.
Students typically follow a highly regimented schedule and have very little time during the school day to socialize or relax. They move from class to class with just enough time to get from one room to another and they are penalized if they arrive late for a class. Within the time allocated for each class, teachers are encouraged to maximize “time-on-task.” Every lesson must be designed to fit the time constraints of a standard class period. Every subject is to be mastered in exactly the same number of class periods.
In many schools this regimentation extends into other aspects of school life. Students must ask permission to go to the restroom, or to any room other than the one to which they are assigned during a given time period. They need a written pass to be in the hall, except during “passing periods.” In the wake of Columbine and other school shootings, security has been tightened still further. Students may be required to pass through metal detectors as they enter the building. Their bags and lockers are subject to search at any time. Surveillance cameras monitor movement in and around the building.
While it may be a minimum-security prison in most cases, the coercive and authoritarian nature of our present system of public education creates conflict between students, who typically desire more freedom and independence as they mature, and authority figures within our schools who attempt to control nearly every aspect of students’ lives while they are at school. The staffs at most schools include at least a few “little Hitlers” who seem to delight in strictly enforcing a lengthy list of rules and regulations. In cases where there are serious conflicts between students and teachers (or administrators), the usual assumption is that the teacher (or administrator) is right and the student is wrong. Unpleasant encounters with dictatorial teachers and administrators can have a profoundly negative affect on a student’s attitude toward school.
The rigid, authoritarian nature of our educational system might be acceptable if it had proven effective in achieving our goal of a quality education for all students. The tragic truth, however, is that for many students this approach to education has done more harm than good. Instead of encouraging and nurturing our natural desire to learn, the strict, unyielding character of our educational system diminishes the motivation to learn of many students. Effective learning does not require a harsh environment. The elements of compulsion and control that dominate our present system of public education are necessary only because we refuse to believe that children will acquire essential skills and knowledge, if they are given the freedom to direct a significant portion of their own learning.