Compulsory school attendance has put youth at the hands of school boards and state education departments. These organizations have the power to determine whatever information they wish to portray to America’s youth. Where students may find freedom in knowledge discovery, they are limited by policy and classroom environments. When presented with information to learn and be tested on in the classroom, students accept it at face value, not even considering the option of contesting it. In addition, because of zoning laws and their own families’ inflexibility, students are unable to decide even which district to attend. These facts goes unquestioned—it is simply “the way it is.” As it rests, the educational system has a top-down organization, eliminating the voice of those it affects. The result is a power-play between the school board, the administration, and the students. The power of the school board and administrators resulting from the current educational system has influenced students to give up their agency to these experts before they even obtain it.
There are plenty of beautiful things about our educational system, but there are also plenty of problems, the most obvious of these being that at no point in time do students question this system. At no point do students voice concerns and take up agency in their education process. A fundamental concept of democracy is the incorporation of the voice of the people, in this case the students, in policy debate and decision-making. Currently, the educational system is tailored to please those who speak out and have an effective voice: teachers’ unions, parents of students, and administration. There is a blatant disregard for the voice of those being taught, the direct beneficiaries of the policy itself.
Why is this? One obvious reason is that the entire demographic is unable to vote. This results in representatives with no incentive to address students’ concerns. Policy decisions therefore aim to please the concerns of parents or unions, disregarding the students directly. Moving deeper into the district itself, we can begin with the school board: appointed by other school board members or a political leader of a town, these decision-makers are in essence the experts of all things education within the district. Rarely do they interact with students and rarely are they forced to explain their choices to those they affect. In this way they are a misrepresentation of the students. As Frank Fischer discusses, these groups cannot be considered the direct voice of the people. This hierarchy is far-removed from the people it represents and cannot, by design, fully speak for students (Fischer, 113). These leaders in the community have limited experience in education yet are expected to determine the direction the district goes year after year.
Moving deeper still into the classroom: from the first day of first grade, students are listeners, receivers of information. Taught to be silent and respectful of authority, they must take the word of the instructor as law. From the beginning students are conditioned not to question information unless for clarification. As we mature, we learn that not everything we have learned in elementary school or high school is set in stone, yet this atmosphere conditions young people to be passive within the walls of a school. The result? A population waiting for someone to speak for them, to tell them what to do and when to do it. These students are not prepared for higher education, as made evident in an article in The Education Letter: “One in three Pennsylvania high school graduates who enrolls in a state-owned university or community college cannot pass a first-year college math or English course,” (“Pennsylvania”). As a society, we then expect these ill-prepared individuals to enter the adult world and make independent decisions, when they are obviously incapable.
Blindly permitting invisible faces to choose where and how youth are educated has become the societal norm. The educational system has been criticized for years, yet the criticizers are not those directly affected. Agency has been removed from students and given to parents, or school boards, or government representatives with no incentive to recognize the needs of those who do not vote for them. Before they even enter the classroom, students subject themselves to others’ agency–at not point is critical questioning of the education process, or enthusiasm to question why this process exists, fostered in our youth. Ethically, this is unacceptable. As stated previously, in a democracy those affected must have a voice, and this is patently not the case. Withholding information about policy-making processes from youth, and eliminating more mature youth from the process altogether, is the blatant constraint of an entire demographic. When analyzing current school board ethics, studies define successful school boards as ones whose districts perform well on exams, and aim to make decisions that purely benefit students in that way (Feuerstein). This definition omits the ethics regarding the integration of student knowledge with administrative knowledge. Yes, it is a success to have students perform well on exams, but overlooked is the unethical action of eliminating the voice of the affected population in decision-making about that population.
Students do have a small voice when it comes to influencing the inter-workings of the district. It usually comes in some form of student council. Made up of elected students, this group determines things like homecoming themes and requests funding for field trips. Occasionally, and in my experience, a represenative is invited each week to school board meetings, where he is given a seat in the back to listen to discussions about funding that incorporate jargon understood by few in the room. In this way, students are pacified, given a small ineffective voice disguised as actual influence, when in reality they are being marginalized further. By ignoring the students entirely, the school board is unethically encouraging students’ alienation from the process.
If you were to walk through a high school, you would find numerous young adults under the age of eighteen upset with particular systems within their district, yet most would have no idea who to turn to for actual influence in the process. They have become subject to faceless policy-makers and are permanently in a state of reaction, having never been included in or educated about the process. The current system in place within school districts eliminates completely student participation where it is most necessary. Students are ignorant to the uses of what they are learning, made evident in the infamous answer to “what did you learn today, sweetie?”: “Nothing.” The experts deciding what it is that is important to teach do so behind closed doors without any thought to rationalizing their choices to those they effect. Students are not utilized in the decision-making processes of school boards, where perceived to be experts determine their futures. In addition, the voting age has marginalized an entire demographic, eliminating elementary and secondary students’ opinions from being represented in Congress let alone their own school districts. Over time, this has developed into a democratically unethical process, rationalized by the notion that public schools are places of “limited rights” for students.
Feuerstein, Abe. “School Board Ethics and Effectiveness.” Planning and Changing 40.1 (2009): 3,3-34. ProQuest. Web. 27 Sep. 2011.
Fischer, Frank. Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: the Politics of Local Knowledge. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Print.
“Pennsylvania Department of Education; New Higher Education Data shows Thousands of Pennsylvania High School Graduates Head to College Unprepared.” Education Letter.
19381840 (2009): 13. ProQuest Education Journals. Web. 27 Sep. 2011.