Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Schools as prisons?

How many of our nation’s educational administrators view schools essentially as prisons, where the primary activity for students is “doing time?” Hopefully not many. This story last week from Ingelwood, California, however, suggests at least a few principals may have this view. At Worthington Elementary School, the principal enforced a “nuclear attack” lockdown so severe that students had to go to the bathroom in buckets rather than use the restrooms.

All to keep students from leaving school and joining in the protests over proposed US immigration and criminal law changes.

What does it mean to be a responsible citizen of the United States in 2006, btw? Does it just mean being a good taxpayer and a passive consumer? Does it mean, for students, never being tardy and always turning your homework on time so you can score well (read: at least achieve minimum state standards) on administered assessments?

Hopefully not. I think we should be glad students got involved and wanted to get involved in protests over US immigration policy. These protests were not violent, and certainly had important rationales. The search for identity in our nation is a huge issue, and we should want our young people to have an active role in this process. We are a diverse, multicultural society, and I think many who live in the United States today are uncomfortable and not “at terms” with that reality.

We celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday across the nation (except in Arizona I think) every year in public schools. It is probably a holiday in Ingelwood, California as well, for the students and teachers of Worthington Elementary School. I wonder if the irony of this was perceived by anyone there during the “nuclear attack” level lockdown imposed to keep students in school as if they were prisoners: without important voices that need to be heard, or civil rights that they can and should exercise even if they are still minors?

Thanks to Stephanie Sandifer for sharing this link last week in her post, “MySpace, Immigration, Self-Expression.”







3 responses to “Schools as prisons?”

  1. arvind s grover Avatar

    What an awful lesson in democratic citizenship. Imagine if students were able to rally around a cause that was important to them, *with* school support. Perhaps study the issue in a history class, a debate in front of the school, a website dedicated to informing the public, an oral history of local immigrants, a economic examination of the benefits/costs of undocumented immigrants, an exploration of ethics and law. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

    Instead, let’s lock kids up and force them to learn whatever facts happen to be on day 150 of the school year. Forget what’s relevant to them, us, or the larger world. I hope my sarcasm is obvious here.

    What a sad article to read. I am looking for the story of schools that supported their young protesters. Anyone have any to share?

  2. Stephanie Sandifer Avatar


    Thanks for the link. Your blog is one of the ones that I read most frequently — and I’ve learned quite a bit about blogging and new technologies in the classroom from so many of your posts. As a newbie to blogging I’ve scoured the internet for models of well-written and organized blogs like yours that would help me become a better blogger.

    Your comment in this post about about “doing time” generated thoughts about another related issue — the issue of “time” vs. “learning”. I think there is a strong connection between this administrative view of school as a “prison” — or “factory” (after grad school I spent one summer working in factory in Indiana and found the experience rather “prison-like”) — and the policies that we have in place about required amounts of time that students must be in class… x number of days, x number of hours, x number of minutes per day… as if learning is something that is predictable and something can be turned on and off…

    I’ve had conversations with other educators this year about learning vs. time — and the idea that we must change our concept of “how to do school”. Time should be the variable and learning should be the constant. Instead, what we do is hold time as the constant and allow learning to be the variable.

    In other words, we mandate that teachers must cover a certain amount of curriculum materials by a certain date — regardless of whether or not all students have learned material. With over-crowded classrooms it is impossible for teachers to ensure that all students learn the material. So our students suffer the consequences because we are so locked into timelines and schedules. We should be mandating that ALL students will learn certain standards and that our schools be designed in a way that allows flexibility for individual differences…

    I have a quote hanging in my office… “All students can learn and succeed, but not on the same day and not in the same way.” — William Spady

    As long as we continue to operate schools like “prisons” or “factories”, we will continue to fail our students in so many ways.

    The story about the school in Inglewood really didn’t surprise me… it saddened me greatly… but, unfortunately, it did not surprise me.


  3. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Thanks for the kudos and feedback. I’m convinced the web 2.0 world / blogosphere is where all of us will keep learning and growing with each other in the months and years to come. So I’m glad to meet you and get acquainted a bit with your ideas!

    The point you make here about time is critical. I think the issue is HOW SCHOOLS MEASURE LEARNING. In most cases, we measure learning with “seat time.” Schools are paid by the state not based on what students learn, but based on whether or not students are in school. The assumption is that students have to be in school physically to learn. And the assumption extends further, to say that good teaching and learning is (of course) taking place whenever the students show up. We all know these assumptions are false. Yet that is the predominant paradigm.

    These issues are raised by home schooling, I think. How do students demonstrate their mastery of topics, their learning? Many are taking CBES (credit by examination) tests once they get into high school to “prove” they have learned content.

    The issue is about time, but it is also about how we ask students to demonstrate their learning– and how that is measured in a way that is recognized by institutions (esp colleges). These are vital issues to explore in greater depth!