Sunday, October 6, 2013

Colonialism in the Inner City: Charter School Discipline Practices

Recently a post on Jonathan Pelto’s excellent blog, Wait, What?, led me to two articles on the education reform movement by retired Bridgeport, Connecticut school principal Ann Evans de Bernard. Dr. Bernard called the efforts of rich white business people and politicians like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Jeb Bush and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, “colonialism.” I could not get the term or the concept out of my head. That term “colonialism” along with another Pelto blog entry on the “No Excuses” discipline practices in charter schools coalesced to bring focus to a concern I have been carrying around for some time. Why a different(and harsher) discipline code for charter schools?

First, please indulge a brief history lesson. Colonialism described a period of European expansion starting in the late 1400’s that included the exploration of the Americas. The colonialism that Dr. Bernard describes is probably best embodied by the actions of western European countries toward Africa and Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With a combination of national zeal and Christian fervor, European nations pillaged great swaths of Africa and Asia in the name of “civilizing the heathens.” The most altruistic among the colonizers sought to bring Christian religion and “improved” living conditions to the two continents. The less altruistic sought to conquer new lands and subjugate peoples for financial gain. No one bothered to ask the people who were being converted and whose lives were being disrupted irreparably if they wanted any of this. The superior and white Europeans (and, of course, in the American west, white Americans) were going to “raise those savages up.” This was, in the words of noted imperialist Rudyard Kipling, the “white man’s burden.”  The damage wrought by this period of supreme racial and national arrogance is still being felt throughout the world today.

That brings us back to the present day charter movement and “No Excuses” discipline programs. Jonathan Pelto describes “No Excuses” as a “militaristic, highly disciplined, autocratic system in which children are forced to understand that discipline, conformity and following rules is the fundamental cornerstone that leads to academic achievement.” What I have personally observed reinforces what Pelto says here. Students who squirm under the thumb of this autocratic system are dealt with harshly. Some are placed “on the bench.” If you are on the bench you are physically separated from classmates and may only speak to the teacher. You must sit at a silent table during lunch and you must write and orally deliver letters of apology to your classmates for disrupting their learning.

In a "no excuses" school I visited, all the students wore blue shirts and khaki pants. I noticed that while this was nearly universal, a few children had on yellow t-shirts over their blue shirts. When I inquired about this, I was told that these children were being punished for talking in class or the hallway or for disrupting class in some way. They were "on the bench” and the yellow shirts identified them as such. Yellow shirts! Wear your shame for all to see. I guess Walmart was out of dunce caps.

Now, I understand that good order and discipline are necessary for the smooth operation of a school and to generate a sound learning environment. But I have to wonder why this particular form of militaristic, intentionally humiliating discipline was chosen for inner city kids in inner city schools. It would never fly in a suburban district. Other choices are available, like the well-researched and highly effective Responsive Classroom strategies that respect the integrity and individuality of every child.

So why “No Excuses?” Dr. Bernard’s word colonialism gave me my answer. The children of the inner city are being treated by their “benefactors” as inferiors. Charter schools are colonial enterprises.

I’ll finish with some more of Dr. Bernard’s words, “At worst, [the educational reform movement] embodies a blatant disregard for the cultural integrity of real children living real lives, as if they were part of some unacceptable caste.”