High School Students Protesting Corporate Education Reform

Why High Schools Students Will Ultimately Take the Lead in Protests Against Corporate Education Reform: A View From the Bronx

bronx high school

Bronx high schoolers protesting (Photo: New York Daily News)

This spring, one of my best students just completed a brilliant senior thesis on what the school experience is like for students who attend the six high schools, in what was once Roosevelt High School, across the street from Fordham’s Bronx campus.

The picture is not a pretty one. Students have to pass through metal detectors to enter schools with “zero tolerance policies” for infractions ranging from wearing a hat, to being found on a different floor than the one your school is located on to going to the bathroom without permissions. Some of these infractions lead to suspensions; if you protest too vigorously, they could lead to arrest.

The classroom experience is little better. Student describe classes almost strictly confined to memorizing material for New York State Regents exams. When students begin discussing interesting subjects, teachers shut the discussion down for fear it might undermine student performance upon tests which their own careers now rely on. Though teachers try to help students and clearly care for them, they are visibly under extreme stress because of fear that if test scores don’t improve, their schools might be closed and they will lose their jobs

The fear spills over into the treatment of students who repeatedly fail tests or who have multiple behavioral infractions. Such students are subtly and not so subtly encouraged, by school administrators, to drop out of school lest they undermine the schools test profile or the atmosphere of disciplined obedience required for relentless test prep

Students at the schools in question are resentful, but not explicitly politicized. They rebel, but the ways they rebel take the form of what historian Robin Kelley called “the hidden transcript’ rather than strikes and walkouts. Students who have been disciplined for violating school rules, or are just resentful about the police state atmosphere, have all kind of ways of showing their contempt :

  • They go out of their way to argue with or “bait” police and security officers;
  • they come late and leave early;
  • they start fights with fellow students or insult and challenge teachers.

But at some point, as the communities they live in become more politicized — which is starting to happen in the Bronx, especially around the issues of police violence and racial profiling — these students are going to ask some hard questions about what they are being put through in the name of getting an education.

And what they conclude may be something like this: “Wait a minute, we are being asked to spent six hours a day doing nothing but sitting at our desks memorizing material for tests, so we can graduate from high school and do what? Go to a college we can’t afford? Get a job working in a fast food restaurant or a big box realtor? Join the military? And even if by some chance we do go to college, is the result worth it when we finally graduate? What do we get? Tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt and jobs that don’t offer salaries sufficient to pay them off?”

The young people my student interviewed are nowhere near that point yet, but they are starting to realize that something is very wrong. It is one thing to subject yourself to prison-like conditions and militarized discipline if the result is escape from poverty and a ticket to the good life. But what if neither of those result from all this sacrifice?

When that realization begins to sink in, and as students see protests in their neighborhoods against racial profiling, evictions, and foreclosures, and closings of day care centers and after school programs, don’t be surprised of these students follow the example of neighborhood activists. They may begin organizing strikes and walkouts to demand that schools be places where real learning takes place and where there are extracurricular activities that make school interesting and nurture skills the students themselves value

There are signs of these kind of high school protests happening around the country — in Detroit, in Maryland, in some portions of New York City — but they are going to expand incrementally in the next few years as justice activism spreads into working class neighborhoods and as Corporate Education reform erodes even more student rights.

mark naison

In elementary schools, parents will be the ones taking the lead against Corporate School Reform; in high schools it will be the students. From my point of view, anything we can do to promote this day of reckoning is positive. Organizing Freedom Schools in inner city and working class neighborhoods that allow students to critically assess their surrounding would be one big step in that direction.

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent

Posted: Saturday, 28 April 2012


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Put together Mark Naison’s article with Reggie Brown’s insights.  You get a picture of school experiences from which some teens DON’T now benefit but maybe – with some changes – could; and many other teens who, without changes, already DO benefit or could, if properly guided.  And there are yet other teens who DON’T BELONG IN ANY VERSION OF A ‘HIGH SCHOOL’ – let alone a high school which has been duly reformed in one direction or another: either because they lack basic discipline or because they’re already beyond need of a regimented group setting to direct their education.  We will never get it right for our teens as long as we equate education with group ‘schooling’, and – adding double insult to injury – both force public schools to deal with undisciplined disruptive kids, and yet try to force other kids to go who no longer need school.   

  2. Reggie Brown says

    “we are being asked to spent six hours a day doing nothing but sitting at our desks memorizing material for tests, so we can graduate from high school and do what? Go to a college we can’t afford?”

    Not true. If you are intellectually limited, NY has excellent vocational options in all our public schools. You can learn a trade and get work experience while attending high school. For poor students who are willing to buckle down and work hard, the money is there for college. Yes, you might have loans. But you’ll also get an excellent publically paid for financial aid package including grants and student employment.
    For those who chose to use drugs and flake out on their responsibilities as a student, their options become more limited. And please don’t tell me these kids have no choices about smoking and drug use. Let’s take a little responsibility for our lives, OK? One of the reasons our public schools are running out of money is because they have to deal with so many problems caused by a subset of their students. Daycare centers at the schools are a great example. We have more teenage pregnancies now than we did before. Talk about a preventable problem! What does it cost the public to raise kids of kids so the teen parents can stay in school? A lot.

    The classroom experience is little better. Student describe classes almost strictly confined to memorizing material for New York State Regents exams.

    I’ve taken the NYS Regents exams, and so have my children. They don’t require memorization. In fact, they are excellent assessments of students’ understanding of material and ability to grasp concepts. Are you suggesting we give up on the assessment tests and go back to letting individual teachers decide if a student should progress to the next grade? Isn’t that exactly how the schools graduated so many kids who couldn’t even read? The tests are useful. They provide a clear proficiency expectations so every student knows what they need to learn. The provide a common structure across the State so teachers can’t ignore the harder parts of the course syllabus, goals and objectives. Mark, why don’t you take one of the tests before relying on what the “students describe?”

    The picture is not a pretty one. Students have to pass through metal detectors to enter schools with “zero tolerance policies” for infractions ranging from wearing a hat, to being found on a different floor than the one your school is located on…

    What?! They can’t wear their favorite gangbanger hats? Poor things. You know what’s not pretty? A bunch of dead children and teachers strewn around our classrooms, shot by angry young men who have easy access to weapons. You think metal detectors are bad? Try losing your best friend to gang violence. Mark, perhaps you should talk to the parents of murdered children whose only mistake was to go to school on the day another student decided to vent his anger in a violent bloodbath. Yeah, it sucks that we need metal detectors to protect innocent kids from malicious ones. But do you have a better idea? Maybe we should just feel compassion for those poor little boys who have such a hard life that they just have to join gangs and take out their aggressions on other kids? Maybe we feel sorry enough for them that we don’t want to infringe on their freedom to bring weapons to school? No, I think we should stick with metal detectors if that’s what it takes to protect the rest of our children. And zero tolerance avoids the problem of a teacher or principal misjudging a kid as one who they think would never shoot another kid. I don’t want teachers to make that call. They’re educators, not psychologists. Friends and teachers of Kip Kinkel, who went on a shooting spree at his school injuring 37 and killing two kids, said afterwards that they never would have thought he’d do something like that. I wonder of the parents and friends of those dead children wish their school had metal detectors.
    If you want to make the schools better, let’s start by making our classes better, not going back to the free-for-all that encourages bad teachers to shuffle non-performing students up a grade to the next teacher. If the tests aren’t good enough, then let’s make them better. If the curriculum is lacking, expand it to be more comprehensive. And if kids feel they want more time to explore material not in the curriculum, then after school study groups are the way to go, not distracting conversations during class.

    • OboAtiba says

      Great post. I think it is highly instructive that many of the things the author of this piece bemoans, such as rote memorization or long school days, are precisely the things which the best educational systems in Shanghai or Finland focus on. It might be highly enjoyable for students to “discuss interesting subjects” in high school classes, but how does that prepare them to compete with a student from Shanghai who instead knows Calculus and object oriented computer programming? 

      Time spent in the classroom should be primarily directed to teaching them the sciences and quantitative reasoning, that’s what is needed today. Political debates should be confined to current events and perhaps history classes.

      The very fact that so many immigrants, especially from Asia, within one generation, have exceeded the average income of European-Americans demonstrates the value of a rigorous scientific and math based education. They saw the value in this and are reaping the rewards. Spending anything more than a minimum of time in a classroom “discussion” is a huge dis-service, even if students will always take the opportunity to do so (I know as a student I did!).

      I would like the author of this piece to opine as to what he thinks of much longer school years. Should American students spend as much time as a Chinese or Japanese student spends in school? Would this bring an educational benefit? 

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