Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Compulsory education is great for other people

There seem to be more and more proposals to lengthen the school day (or year). Someday I will list all of my objections to that idea. (Briefly: I think the benefits are speculative to the point of illusory and are entirely outweighed by the costs. More is not always better.) For now, I’d like to point out just one bothersome aspect of the discussion – one that is true of the discussion of many so-called school “reform” proposals.

Suppose we could confidently identify some quantifiable benefit from subjecting kids to hundreds more hours of school each year. Suppose we knew, say, that requiring full-day school attendance would eventually increase the math abilities of the average adult by five percent. Should we do it? Suppose it would increase ability by only three percent, and suppose that we’d need to send the kids to school year-round, six days a week, from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. to achieve that gain. Would it be worth it? Can the burden on kids ever be too great, or the potential gain too minimal, to justify the compulsion?

If so, you wouldn’t know it from today’s educational debates. The discussions focus exclusively on whether any given proposal would “increase achievement.” Whether that alleged gain is big enough to justify the burden on children is simply not a concern. Who cares about burdens on children?

Adults hold the state to a pretty high standard: we expect that the government won’t impose on our freedom without a good reason, and the bigger the imposition, the more compelling the reason should be. With kids, though, any justification at all will do. If it raises test scores, we must do it! Children’s freedoms count for nothing at all. It’s as if the scale has only one side, and is thus tipped by any “achievement gain” whatsoever. How easy it is to require sacrifices from people who have no say in the matter.

Of course, we could also “increase achievement” by requiring adults to undergo continuing education throughout their lives. If anyone ever proposes that, something tells me there will suddenly be two sides to the scale.


Chris said...

Peter Gray, as usual, is an exception to the rule.

On Iowa’s latest proposals to lengthen the school year, Karen W. reports here.

Karen W said...

From Justice Appel's dissent in King v. State (p. 157-158):

"The notion is uncontroversial that where a liberty interest is impaired--and surely it is impaired by mandatory school attendance--the deprivation of liberty must be rationally related to a legitimate state objective. (citation omitted). There is also no doubt that education is a legitimate state objective. The question under due process is whether the education received by the person whose liberty is impaired is rationally related to the state's legitimate interest in educating citizens. Any application of the due process clause, however, would give the state a wide range of permissible action in providing education to its charges. There is no due process right to a specific kind of education, but only a sufficiently reasonable educational effort to justify the intrusion on the liberty interest."

Incidentally, I've been reading the "for other people" part wrong in the post title--as in, not my children but other people's children. I am assuming the DE isn't proposing more time for all students because there would be push back from parents whose children are doing well enough academically already and need the after school time for sports and music instruction.

Chris said...

Karen -- Great quote. Even though it's from a dissent, I don't think it's saying anything controversial. Of course, virtually anything passes rational-basis scrutiny. Nonetheless, it's nice to see someone explicitly recognize that children have liberty interests, too.

As for the post title, I suppose there are two ways to read it. I actually meant in just in terms of how easy it is for enfranchised people (i.e., adults) to think very differently about burdens imposed on unenfranchised people (children) than about burdens imposed on themselves. But I think you're also right that some people are readier to endorse longer school days and years when it applies only to other people's children, not their own. (See, for example, this kind of thing.)

Rivka said...

Chris, great insight.

I think that, despite all of the sentimental glurge to the contrary, Americans place very little value on childhood. On children, sure, but not on the experience of childhood itself.

The assumption underlying the massive piles of homework, the threats to shorten summers and lengthen the school day, the loading down of the curriculum with extra burdens at younger and younger ages, is that kids don't have anything better to do with their time. The things they would choose to do on their own are valueless timewasters - better replace it with something productive!

John Holt has a riff somewhere in one of his books about adults' jealousy of children. Why should they be carefree, if we can't? Why should they have free time, if we're working ourselves to death?

Once you've seen the conflict framed in that way, supporting evidence is everywhere. Policies restricting kids are supported by constant evocations of the workplace: kids should wear uniforms to school because workplaces have dress codes, kids can't be allowed to choose what to study because adults take orders from their bosses. Kids shouldn't have so much damn free time to play video games, daydream, kick around with their friends, and good off - it doesn't prepare them for their future of being harried, stressed out adults.

Chris said...

Rivka -- I agree completely. Children are at the bottom of a very long chain of coercion. The adults know better than the children; the administrators know better than the teachers and parents; the state knows better than the local school boards; the federal government knows better than the states; and the billionaires know better than everybody. Funny how people with more power always know what's best for people with less power.

Chris said...

As if on cue, Peter Gray chimes in about the developmental importance of free play.

Chris said...

By contrast, this writer seems to think we need to carefully choose what we "assign" our kids to read over the summer -- to "ensure purposeful independent reading given the low accountability of summer assignments." Because of "the data," of course.


Doris said...

Hi, Chris--On the NYT piece, I, too, dislike the idea of summer reading assignments, but I thought the author was at least trying to explore some important issues as far as how teachers introduce children to the idea of literary value and canonicity. In my reading of the piece, her main point was not so much to endorse summer reading assignments--she does say that mostly she thinks students should experience summer reading as pleasurable--as to argue that if such assignments are going to be made at all, then quality nonfiction reading assignments would be preferable to the two existing extremes in fiction assignments: classics that are too hard for a given student or fluff that really doesn't have enough substance to sustain detailed analysis.

Chris said...

Doris -- That's true to some extent, but I didn't come away with the same impression that she was agnostic about whether reading should be assigned at all, especially as to the older kids. I read her emphasis on what "the data" show about whether the kids are "attaining knowledge" through their summer reading (not to mention her concession that kids who actually like to read classic fiction "should be permitted this luxury") implied her agreement with the practice of imposing reading assignments on kids over the summer. Of course my own feeling is that we might consider giving the kids ten weeks in which we are not telling them what to read and scrutinizing whether they are sufficiently attaining knowledge, so maybe I was too quick to assume that the author felt otherwise.

I have to admit, as well, that I don't really understand why she thinks kids will be more likely to enjoy or understand non-fiction that is imposed on them than fiction that is imposed on them.

Doris said...

Hi, Chris--OK, I wouldn't dispute your take on the piece. She calls into question the strategies used to implement summer reading assignments, not the wisdom of making them at all. Fair enough. And, needless to say, just because I didn't comment on it, that doesn't mean I wasn't irked about her endorsement of the idea that "strong" readers should be left alone and "weak" readers should be micro-managed. Grrrrr!!!!

All the same, I just wanted to point out that I thought there were still some interesting issues percolating in her discussion apart from the question of whether the reading is "assigned": e.g., how we talk to our children about literary merit, how we encourage them to think about questions of canonicity and cultural literacy, and so on. She was asking what the purpose of a summer reading assignment was supposed to be, and I thought that was a worthwhile thing to ask.

Chris said...

That's true, and those are interesting issues!

I do sometimes wonder about the issue of quantity vs. quality. Now that my own kids are all at the chapter-book age, I know relatively little about what's in the books they're reading. I can't help but wonder how many of them are just the paper equivalent of crappy Disney Channel TV shows. On the other hand, I'm not sure how much it should worry me. I hardly read at all as a kid, and spent most of my waking hours watching TV.

KD said...

This is a good post. Before we talked about lengthening the school year, I'd like to see our school district look at other issues. For instance, for my kid that was in junior high, having a late start day(due to weather) on an early out day drastically shortens the length of each class to the point you wonder what could really get done in class. Then you have time wasted on assemblies featuring Ronald McDonald at our elementary school.

It is easy to talk about changes that affect other people when they don't affect you. I certainly wouldn't want to see the school day lengthened at the junior high or high school level. I wouldn't object to slightly lengthening the school year, but I'm one of those old fashioned people that still likes the traditional school year, and summer vacation.

There have been a few people that have proposed a balanced calendar school year on a trial basis at a few elementary schools in Iowa City. One of the elementary schools mentioned was the school our younger kid attends. A balanced calendar means a shorter summer vacation, more break time elsewhere, but the same number of school days. When I first saw the idea mentioned in the P-C a couple of years ago, I was surprised at the stubborness of a few commenters that wanted to ignore the downfalls of such a plan. It definitely seemed like an "other" people idea. Thankfully, this idea has never went anywhere.

Chris said...

KD -- I dislike the "balanced calendar" because I think it's good for kids to get away from school for a sustained period. The plan seems to be motivated by a desire never to allow kids to stray too far from the world of compulsory education, which strikes me as kind of creepy.

Fortunately, on that issue, the interests of the kids and the interests of their parents seem pretty well aligned. Don't mess with our summer vacation plans!