Monday, February 22, 2010

Students Who Are Better Than Slaves

When I wrote a day ago that a criminal investigation would surely be forthcoming in the story of a school district that had been using spyware to take webcam pictures of its students during off hours, I didn’t know that the first subpoenas had already been issued. The whole sordid episode highlights the culture clash between the schools and society at large. The two groups have vastly different perspectives on the status of students. To schools, students are viewed virtually as property, with a status scarcely elevated above that of slaves. This is the only way to explain how a school administration could think it appropriate to install spyware on student computers and use it to take pictures of the students, and potentially others, in the privacy of their homes. If the school staff thought of the students as citizens, it would immediately have occurred to them that spying on them in this manner, even if done only once, even if done to investigate a suspected crime, would violate not just a web of state and federal laws, but the U.S. constitution, which includes a few words on the subject of “unreasonable search.” The fact that this system of spyware and spying was so taken for granted within the school that it was spoken of openly speaks volumes about the status of students, not just within that school, but within schools in general.

This schoolhouse view of students as the equivalent of property collided with the real world outside, however. Legally, of course, students are citizens and have rights. Legally, too, the school is a branch of the government, and as such is obligated to live up to the same standards of conduct imposed on any other part of the government. In the larger community, students are viewed not as the equivalent of property, but as highly valued members of society, in a capacity more akin to princes and princesses than slaves. So how does the dignity of a student disappear when the staff of a school enter the school building?

The problem, as I alluded to in my previous post, has to do with the cultural expectations of the way a school operates. It is expected in a school that students do not gain any status at all until they have completed all their studies and passed all their tests. This is a tradition that goes back to the days when the Druids were the strongest presence in education — that is to say, it goes back before recorded history. The easiest way to see the connection is to look at the graduation ceremony. For a couple of hours, students are asked to wear a stylized, modernized, cheapened version of a Druid costume — as if they have just completed Druidic training and are now being recognized as Druids. Except that when the ceremony is over, the students are not welcomed into a learned community, but are instead sent away from the school grounds forever.

If schools are to be reformed, I believe a small step in the right direction would be to do away with the traditional concept of graduation. The granting of a diploma at the completion of a student’s studies reinforces the traditional idea that these studies are valueless until they are completed. If 45 classes are required for a student to qualify for a high school diploma, and a student completes 44 of them, he or she is regarded not as nearly a high school graduate, but perhaps as a dropout — and that fundamentally doesn’t make sense. My suggestion is that schools grant “partial” diplomas to students who have completed any part of their curriculum, in order to recognize this partial success. Having a sense of proportion in recognizing students’ accomplishments is only fair, and it would go farther, in my opinion, in encouraging students to continue their studies than the current approach of withholding this approval until it is too late to make a difference.

Most importantly, it would give students a status that they don’t currently have. This, then, would force schools to recognize their students as people who matter — while they are still students. This changed status for students would encourage schools to measure their success as schools not in terms of grades and test scores, but according to what the students are able to do. That is a change that, I believe, could only improve the quality of the education that schools provide.