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The War On Kids

At the AERO Conference this past week we screened the movie, THE WAR ON KIDS.

I’m interested in your opinion.

The documentary, which is 95 minutes and has 8 segments, basically makes the argument that middle class schools, for white children, are a lot like prison.  It opens with an examination of “zero tolerance” policies, with cops doing drug busts in high school hallways, pulling guns on kids while drug sniffing dogs nose student backpacks, and moves through the drugging of kids for ADD and ADHD. (The film makes the point that 90% of the psycho stimulant drugs consumed in the world are taken by American schoolchildren).  It concludes with a segment on the uselessness and inanity of homework.  John Taylor Gatto, Pat Farenga, real time high school teachers, and many, many kids actually held captive in school are profiled.

I’m interested in your opinion of the film because I left the screening deeply uneasy.  It is very brave for highlighting some issues that often don’t get talked about in mainstream discourse on schooling (schools are designed for producing quiescence, passivity, disengagement, they treat kids like criminals and inmates), and many of the alternative educators at the conference, who don’t hang out in American public schools, were more distressed than they were already inclined to be given that they’ve completely opted out of the system.  (Why would ANY parent in good conscience send their kids to public school, they wondered aloud…)

But as a political tool, its fundamental message is fear.  It wants to arouse fear in the viewer, about what schools do, about their effects, about the lack of resistance at every level.  The film is an unmitigated, unvariegated picture of compressed, dismal incarceration, and in me induced a kind of alienation, the kind of numbing it sets out to condemn.  You can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, and that’s exactly what this film is about:  using fear to try to activate the average viewer to do something.

I wonder how you’d see it?  Is this the kind of political tool we want to use?  How much does it help, and how much does it harm.  And with whom?

As a secondary note, in the discussion following the film, trends emerged among the commentors.  One group (perhaps smaller) wanted to talk about what to do and how to engage politically to change the system.  Another group (remember this is a conference for homeschoolers, alternative schoolers, free schoolers, unschoolers, and some far-thinking public schoolers) who said:  Thank god we’ve opted out.  We’ll produce the alternative ways, and that’s how we’ll “act” upon the system.

What do we think here at the COOP?  What is our theory of action for change?

And do tools like THE WAR ON KIDS help up?

I’m really interested in what you think.

(You can get the DVD online…watch the trailer here)


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


17 thoughts on “The War On Kids

  1. I think we have plenty of ideas and that we implement them with optimism, inquiry, reflection, and integrity.

    Something we’re lacking is scale. I’ve been reading the Charter Management Organization report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education, as well as commentary on it. One thing these organizations do well is scale. Although they still need philanthropic support to do so, the organizations can replicate themselves through highly prescriptive administrator, teacher, and student indoctrination models. Eighty-four percent of the school reported being prescriptive “in trying to ensure all affiliated schools follow a set design for curriculum and instructional techniques, human resource functions, and student behavior and support programs.”

    Our brand of #edreform resists prescription, or, perhaps more accurately, prescribes adaptable beliefs rather than lock-step actions. Is that fair to say?

    Whereas pop #edreform promises standardized education (ironically, with now with new adaptable computer programs!), our #edreform promises personalized learning networks and resources.

    Whereas pop #edreform batches curriculum, assessment, and instruction and pricing, our #edreform acknowledges that fair isn’t always equal and that students consume different resources based on their wants and needs.

    Whereas pop #edreform has captured the imagination of politicians and business people acculturated to competition and scarcity, out #edreform promotes a culture of success and abundance for all.

    Whereas pop #edreform divorces the disciplines from one another and assesses student “achievement” arbitrarily at the end of each school year, our #edreform celebrates learning as a life-long endeavor and views timely feedback and self-reflection as natural, frequent parts of inquiry.

    Whereas pop #edreform sacrifices democracy for capitalism’s benefits for the elite, our #edreform sacrifices elitism for democracy.

    We are in competition for the attention, funding, and promotion of people who have been socialized to consider us communists, losers, and dirty hippies – people who view the kinds of work we want our kids to do as soft, fuzzy, and nice.

    I think we continue to educate our students, parents, and communities differently; we find allies who bridge the communication and education gulfs between us and those that believe underwrite pop #edreform because they don’t know any other way; we do everything we can to scale; we accept being hurt and refuse to be afraid.

    Great questions, Kirsten –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 29, 2010, 10:02 am
    • Chad, this is a brilliant set of distinctions. Thank you. Scale is a fundamental issue, and one that is at the center of the “alternative” educational movement–to the degree that it has a center. (Talk about herding cats.) Only 3% of American schoolchildren are currently schooled in “alternative” ways, despite the fact that the movement has been growing with more vigor than ever anticipated by John Holt, since the early 1980s. I’m completely with you that scale, impact, voice, how to craft the message and become part of agenda formation is critical. At a national level.

      Two days ago I sat in on a session of Redesigning the American High school session at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The thing that struck me–although the discourse has grown a bit more challenging and edgy (it isn’t taboo anymore to talk about how high schools take part in creating their own dysfunctionality)–is how much we are still talking about tinkering with a dying model–how to make better the institution that alienates about 80% of its inmates, teaches kids to hate learning, actively repels poor kids and kids of color–how to fix it up! 130 adults sitting intently in a room looking at powerpoints and listening to faculty members talk about tinkering around with an institution that was designed for life 80 years ago. And no one was incredulously standing up on their seats and saying: what the hell? what are we doing? Folks, we are OUT OF A JOB and we better figure out what the hell we are going to do with our lives, because this baby is dying.

      So with your exquisite points in mind Chad, I get to thinking that maybe what we need too (this is a YES/AND, we need everything and everyone on board) is a change of narrative, a different story to tell ourselves about what is happening in American education. That right now we see ourselves as little fighters on the outposts, marginalized and all about REAL learning, rather than capitalist, attainment-focused learning, and really we are in the vanguard. As more and more folks walk away from conventional schooling because the certification that it provides is no longer necessary (for instance, online high school courses and early access to college courses), and challenges to the monopolistic model grow (charters, pilots, homeschooling networks) what positive alternatives do we have to offer as the market breaks up?

      What have we learned about learning and teaching and growing children we want to communicate? What new metaphors for schooling do we have to offer?

      I’m thinking about that. You?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 1, 2010, 8:54 am
      • I am. I had two great local conversations this week about American education, so I’m also thinking about the prohibitive cost of college education and what being a proponent of school choice means in terms of traditional public schools and their bulked-up, Charter Management Organization cousins.

        It strikes me again that a useful alternative to college would be a high school experience that launches students into sustainable entrepreneurship and service projects of benefit to their communities – high school as a Community Corps incubator. There remain occupations for which advanced training is necessary – perhaps traditional public high schools could become dual-enrollment hubs for students who want to do away with college prerequisites and requirements – for students who want to start college studying what they want to studying pursuit of their vocations.

        Of what use is a traditional public high school? Of what use is a diluted undergrad experience ravaged by standardized testing’s voracious inability to prepare students for deep, conceptual, and empathetic work and higher education’s Cerberus of institutional ego, disdain for K-12 education, and financial opportunism? Should these things be preserved as choices? Does their mere preservation perpetuate innovation-crippling privilege? As school choice advocates, do we agree to scale up privilege-extending programs like KIPP even while decrying privilege’s effects on disenfranchised and disengaged students? Do we reinvent school AND preserve it as a matter of principle? How do we cooperate with the people who can scale schools? Are we content not to do so on principle? How do we capture a share of new markets, like Virginia, for school choice outside of Charter Management Organization offerings? Are we willing to be a business, not just a movement? Would we ask teachers at an urban PBL school to spend as much time with students and their communities as KIPP schools require of their teachers?

        I’d like to see teachers get over the false division between traditional public schools and charter schools so they can get to work writing charters together that present what they want for students. I’d like to see a 3rd union take our money to lobby for assessment reform, not teacher privilege. I’d like to talk about #edreform for the kids no one is reaching, including urban students who “lose” their lotteries, rural poor students who are isolated, and docile suburbanites camouflaged by their compliance.

        I will work on what I want to communicate more clearly for a post later this month – something about how quickly we could turn this thing around from inside the classroom if we just paid attention to what we know about learning and motivation – if we paid more than lipp-service to innovating pedagogy.

        And teaching as we know it is dying. The vendors could open up their own learning centers with their own software today if it wasn’t so profitable to do so in public school classrooms already. KIPP could adopt a blended learning model instead of chants. Divisions could go entirely scripted chasing federal funds.

        I’d like to see the unions hold community education nights. I’d like them to ask community members and leaders if they would accept larger class sizes, fewer teachers, and more computers in return for higher test scores, and then I’d like everybody in the room to talk about the ramifications of their answers and how they would need to vote to be in accordance with them.

        It’s John Henry time for educators. Can we think of ways to use the machines and work with their inventors before we lose to them?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | July 1, 2010, 11:38 am
  2. Kirsten,

    I am reluctant to offer much as I have not seen the film. From what you say it does sound like the film makers took a dark approach to highlighting the similarities between two of our most populated social institutions.

    It’s not an approach I would personally use, but it will reach some people and not others. Will it really help further education reform, probably not. “Waiting for Superman” is a film more likely to do so judging on the buzz it is already generating.

    How much harm will it do? I honestly don’t think enough people will see it outside of the alternative education circles to do much harm. I could be wrong, that’s just my best guess right now.

    I like what Chad has put out above to differentiate our ed reform. I think your question “what is our theory of action for change?” is a perfect topic for our un-conference. It’s a vital question.

    All the best,

    Posted by Adam Burk | July 1, 2010, 6:37 am
  3. Adam, I just put Waiting for Superman on my Netflix list. What do you think of it?

    I am absolutely on for a discussion of what is our theory of action for change. It would be great to open our unconference with everyone devoting 2 minutes to that to start.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 1, 2010, 9:00 am
  4. My response is short and sweet (or sour?) The video trailer makes the movie seem like a justification for people to pull their kids out of school and for alternative programs to exist. It is not a catalyst.

    I taught for 5 years in a school where I have watched 5th and 6th graders get dragged away in handcuffs. What’s not being discussed is why parents pull their students out of these schools rather than fighting for change.

    In addition, these issues lie in school culture. School culture is dictated by adults. Parents are adults. Teachers are adults. If these problems exist (meaning whatever students are doing to get in trouble) it is our responsibility to find out why these things are happening and what we can do as adults to ameliorate the issue.

    I also have issues with the trailer saying that discipline problems aren’t reasons to medicate. How about we stop thinking about these ADD/ADHD behaviors as discipline problems and as signs that traditional teaching methods won’t work with these students?

    OK, so my response ended up longer than thought, sorry 🙂

    Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | July 1, 2010, 4:10 pm
    • You make a strong point about adults’ responsibilities to children, Mary Beth –

      I don’t often find parents and teachers working together to change school culture. Have you observed the same? If so, how do we build an adult community that has any kind of regular discourse on changing how school looks and feels to the children and families most penalized by, say, a traditional or zero-tolerance school environment? Have you followed the Harlem parents? What models of community engagement and cultural transformation do you like? Have you worked with the responsive classroom model or restorative justice?

      I think we parents to help push for changes in the way we teach, which means we need to talk more. I have to get better at parent involvement.

      Thanks for your insights!

      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 2, 2010, 6:57 am
      • Chad,

        First of all, schools need to keep in mind that many parents are hesitant to walk into a school because of the horrible memories they have of school themselves. This can be accomplished aesthetically by making the building itself welcoming (plants, bright colors, student work) as well as by expecting staff to be welcoming to parents.

        I am fascinated by what is going on in the Harlem Childrens Zone, though I am not sure how replicable the model is. What has been done right is engaging parents and the community with the school and its expectations before their child even attends.

        As far as Responsive Classroom, I used to teach Responsive Classroom methods to students at a summer camp. It is amazing how simply changing the words we choose can change classroom culture. RC does not work in a bubble, however. To be fully effective it needs to be ingrained in school culture. The model also has more to do with the way adults conduct themselves than students. The adult is always the role model, showing students how to react to situations and respond to others in an appropriate way.

        I am familiar with Restorative Practices, which Philadelphia adopted recently, but have not experienced them. I believe they hold a lot of opportunity for curbing violence and building school community. Again, the success of RP depends on the adults involved. I have sat in meetings with parents who justify their child’s behavior or see nothing wrong with their actions due to the culture in surrounding neighborhood.

        I am not in any way pretending to have answers or all the solutions, but after 5 years working in a failing school (it no longer exists anymore after being shut down completely) I am convinced that it was the adults in charge who did not step up to the challenge. I think you also nailed it on the head when you said ‘we need to talk more.’ There is a level of distrust in the schools pictured in the video that needs to be addressed.

        Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | July 7, 2010, 2:53 pm
        • Those are helpful insights, Mary Beth. I would love to read a narrative of how Harlem Parents United formed. I want to visit one of our local schools this year that’s using the Responsive Classroom approach, and I’ll share out what we take, as a school, from the participation of some of our staff in a Restorative Practice workshop this summer.

          You’re right that adults bear the responsibility for establishing a school culture (and ensuring student input into it, I think) and making the changes necessary for kids to experience, safety, joy, and learning. Parents are allies with whom we – at the building level – often have too little contact.

          All the best,

          Posted by Chad Sansing | July 7, 2010, 3:23 pm
    • Hi Mary Beth! Homeschoolers and alternative schoolers (I was just at their big conference) get really pissed off when public school folks tell them they should stay in the system and fight for change. I really sit in the middle of that: I work in public schools, but I also understand (and see) the incredible things that can happen (amazing learning!) when you take kids out of the system. So what if parents feel like they just can have no impact on their local public school? That the system is so entrenched and bureaucratic they just think the best option is to get out?

      Do folks who opt out of the system put any pressure on public schools to change (because more and more folks are opting out.) Does this leave schools like the public hospital system, with only the “least active choosers” (meaning the poor, those with less social capital, those who do not understand the game of school) IN? What’s your position on this?

      And ultimately my feeling about the film is that the filmmaker was/is really working on some of his own stuff, his own experiences of schooling, and he’s felt unheard for a long time so his message is very unnuanced. BUT I’ve continued to think and think about it. So that’s important.

      Where are you on this? What do you think is your responsibility for creating change?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 7, 2010, 11:42 am
      • Kirsten,

        I completely understand the parents’ frustration. However, how many of those parents work 2 or 3 jobs? The night shift? Have 4 kids in the same school? Make $25,000 a year and are raising a family on their own? I am working right now with a parent of one of my former students trying to get her into an independent school, so I understand where they are coming from. Her daughter, due to no fault of her own, lives within the boundaries of a chronically failing school. She hated sending her daughter to school every day worried about her safety. However, as I stated above, the problem is many parents feel powerless or aren’t educated in what they can do and what their rights are.

        As for parents pulling their students out having an impact, the only impact I’ve seen is that the regular public schools are left with the most difficult populations to teach (uninvolved parents, a high percentage of special education, high-poverty and students reading years below grade level). There has been little or no impact in how teaching and learning happens in these schools. If anything, the grip is tightened and schools have no control over what they teach, how they teach it or sometimes even when they teach it.

        I guess what rubbed me wrong about the trailer (I have not seen the full film) was its obvious sensationalism. It’s great to point out the problems, but the harder and more nobler cause is to provide solutions. Maybe he does so in the film, as I said, I haven’t seen it.

        My responsibility for creating change is to engage parents, to open up my classroom to them, to share with them what their child is doing, to celebrate their child and, if needed, give a parent the knowledge and resources to DO something. I have also spent lots of time each year talking to my administrator, making suggestions, collaborating with colleagues and building initiatives to improve school climate. Sadly, it was to no avail.

        As for pulling a child out of public school, I am a partial product of private school. I attended private school on almost full scholarship until the end of 3rd grade. I wouldn’t count out sending my child to an independent school if I had the means and it was the best fit.

        However, if a public school looked more like an independent school, that would be my first choice. What sets independent schools apart is the lack of government oversight. While NCLB is still in effect, any public school I send my child to will have AYP hanging over their head. I don’t have the means to homeschool my child, though my aunt has partially homeschooled her son, so I know it can be rewarding.

        As a parting thought, what I haven’t seen discussed is the huge number of students going to school online to avoid the bullying and dangers of attending school. Many of these are public charters using Federal money.

        Thanks for an engaging post!

        Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | July 7, 2010, 3:08 pm
  5. hey guys.. a little out of the loop during iste.

    i’m with you Kirsten…i’m much more a proponent of a Bill Strickland approach.. look like the solution.. not the problem.

    i left iste with an even more committed heart to redefine school.

    and met up with some friends face to face who feel the same. – hoping they all will soon show up here.

    i think we have before us a most incredible opportunity.. a chance to change our focus from bad to good.

    Posted by monika hardy | July 1, 2010, 11:40 pm
  6. I need to see both Waiting for Superman and The War on Kids. Until then, I can’t say too much without being entirely speculative.

    I’ll get on this.

    Posted by Joe Bower | July 1, 2010, 11:44 pm
  7. Monika, Glad to know where you live.

    Being good to each other is clever.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 7, 2010, 11:45 am
  8. I saw “The War on Kids” at the AERO conference, like Kirsten. It contained a lot of strong footage of pretty brutal treatment of kids in schools, i.e. the drug searches and police presence. That type of stuff was pretty unbelievable to see and hard to watch. It was almost equally tough for me to listen to the principal who authorized it all based on a sort of “better safe than sorry” rationale. He was just one of several administrators in the film who represented the disconnect between adults and students in schools, and the complete lack of adult trust in, or respect of students. They were depicted as the enemy.

    What I took from the film was more of a metaphor of how school culture and curriculum are unfriendly towards students.

    School culture/schedule: John Taylor Gatto commented on how the structure of the school day makes no sense. He discussed how we just start to scratch the surface in a subject—we get in a meaty discussion with our kids–only to have the bell ring, learning halted, and the kids shuttled off to P.E. class where they are forced to don shorts and t-shirts and do laps around a dilapidated, smelly gymnasium. It was almost funny, it sounded so ridiculous.

    That was one illustration of how “un-kid friendly” our practices tend to be. In high schools, the bell rings and any learning and thinking is stopped, the amount of time given to eat lunch in a civilized manner is non-existent (for teachers too!), and homework consists of overwhelming assignments with little thought as to what purpose they serve. I wonder how many teachers would actually want to complete the homework they assign. Do they stop to think about this?

    Curriculum/Learning/Teachable Moments: At the places I taught, and as an elementary school teacher, I had the liberty to extend writer’s workshop into my math slot, for instance, and generally took the liberty to follow the teachable moment. I sense that happens less and less often. If we truly respect kids and their learning, wouldn’t we honor them and their learning in this way? I know pacing guidelines and curriculum mapping don’t really allow for this.

    What do kids get jazzed about? What gets them in the “flow?” What activities allow them to show their strengths? When is there time to get to know our kids, their interests, their lives, their talents? Does our curriculum allow us to create the environment that brings out the best in our students? Do we give them enough choice? And how do we help our kids build agency?

    The film didn’t address too many of the previous questions. It showed how unfriendly schools are and how untrusting the relationships between adults and kids can be. With situations and relationships like these, learning must be pretty hard to come by.

    Posted by Jennifer Groves | July 25, 2010, 11:39 pm
  9. Jen, It’s fantastic you left a comment! We’re so glad you’re here and maybe you’ll write a guest post? The catalogue of “kid unfriendly” practices goes on and on. Now we’re here trying to think about how to mobilize the revolution. What sword are you carrying?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 29, 2010, 4:54 pm

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