Friday, August 22, 2008

Authoritarianism in Schools

Remember Joe Clark? The principal who made a lot of friends and enemies, patrolling his school with a baseball bat, locking the fire doors to keep out drug dealers, and expelling students who didn't meet his standards, whether or not they were disruptive or breaking school rules? George Will probably skipped that story (and the movie it inspired), but he loves the concept. Describing a boy who attends the American Indian Public Charter School, and dreams of becoming a doctor, Will describes,
Ben Chavis, AIPCS's benevolent dictator, told the boy that although he was doing well at school, he was not up to the rigors of AIPCS, which is decorated with photographs of the many students it has sent to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. So the boy asked, what must I do?
Will doesn't fill us in on the answer to that question, perhaps because he deems it irrelevant. Yay authoritarianism!
AIPCS is one of six highly prescriptive schools Whitman studied, where "noncognitive skills" - responsible behaviors such as self-discipline and cooperativeness - are part of the cultural capital the curriculum delivers.... Students are taught to sit properly - no slumping - and keep their eyes on the teacher. No makeup, no jewelry, no electronic devices.
School uniforms, strict behavior codes, nothing particularly innovative there. Except as a charter school, it appears that the principal gets a couple of big advantages over public schools. He can serve a student body where the parents want that type of structured environment for their children and, as Will's anecdote indicates, he can kick out kids who don't toe the line, whatever their academic performance.

Will doesn't know anything about education, but he's essentially an authoritarian personality so it's no small surprise that this appeals to him. Except this is George Will - I suspect he was meekly following all of the expected behavior norms even without an authoritarian hand (at school) threatening him with dire consequences (or even modest consequences) for misbehavior. He has probably never understood why other kids couldn't toe the line, and appears to believe that authoritarianism is a universal cure-all for what ails our nation's inner city schools.

Yes, some kids will do well in an authoritarian environment, and some who might slack off or misbehave will learn to toe the line. The problem? Not all kids flourish in an authoritarian environment, and many well-behaved, smart kids will do better in an environment with less rigidity. And, as Principal Joe Clark discovered, public schools can't arbitrarily boot out any kids that can't adhere to the authoritarian model, or don't make good grades despite their cooperation.

After gushing over authoritarianism as a cure-all for public education, Will whines,
Unfortunately, powerful factions fiercely oppose the flourishing. Among them are education schools with their romantic progressivism -- teachers should be mere "enablers" of group learning; self-esteem is a prerequisite for accomplishment, not a consequence thereof.
What school did Will attend where self-esteem resulted from academic performance? Yes, there's some reinforcement there, but a lot of the kids I remember who had the highest self-esteem were mostly indifferent to academics.

Sure, Will can point to a single anecdote and allude to others he does not describe, as supporting an authoritarian model for schools, but has given no apparent thought to the reasons why this can work with a self-selecting population of students yet not carry over to the general population. And like the "self esteem" crowd, he would impose his model on everybody because his gut tells him that it would work, not because he has any empirical evidence to back up that idea.

Will illustrates how he'll grasp and endorse any idea, no matter how untested and perhaps even counter-productive, if it "feels right" to him:
AIPCS's 200 pupils take just 20 minutes for lunch and are with the same teacher in the same classroom all day. Rotating would consume at least 10 minutes, seven times a day. Seventy minutes a day in AIPCS's extra-long 196-day school year would be a lot of lost instruction.
As if children are wind-up toys who can work without interruption or break for the entire school day, save for the 20 minutes allowed for them to gulp down their lunches. As if there's an inherent superiority in avoiding a break between classes (how many schools give kids ten minutes as opposed to, say, five?) and having all subjects taught by the same teachers as opposed to subject matter specialists. As if there aren't other ways to switch off teachers - such as by having the kids stay in the room while teachers move between classrooms. It's a gimmick, but Will is so entranced with it that he doesn't realize that he's every bit as reactionary as the "high self esteemers" he deplores.

Public education can be improved with empirically tested models and data. Knee-jerk advocacy of untested models? It gets in the way of progress.


  1. I saw the headlines in the A2News and was hoping that you'd read the article so I didn't have to. Remember, George is on my "rip off head, shit down neck" list.

    This model might work for the small amount of students who learn that way. For the rest of the kids, it won't be so easy or useful. And I'd be interested to see how fast the school would turn away my special ed kids....

  2. I didn't realize you liked him so much. ;-)


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