Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.
~Franklin D. Roosevelt
By now most have heard about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Graduation Plan to make students describe what they will do after school in order to get their diploma. Alexandra Rosenmann in Salon is calling it “cruel.” Students, in order to receive a diploma, must show that they have one of the following:
- A secure job.
- An acceptance letter from college.
- A trade apprenticeship.
- A gap year program.
- Acceptance into the military.
With all the problems Chicago has with gangs and violence, won’t this keep graduates from getting in trouble? Why, one might ask, is this plan considered cruel?
Here’s the rub.
Chicago has a long history of treating teachers and students unkindly in the name of privatization. In 2016, 1000 teachers and staff were laid off. They have shuttered dozens of schools and opened many charters, even though there is little proof charters have better prepared students.
More recently, it’s appalling to view the treatment of special educator Sarah Chambers. Sarah fights against cuts to special education. She speaks on behalf of students.
Why, in a country known for free speech, are those who speak out against what they see as injustice punished—especially a teacher who works with our most vulnerable students? Sarah’s students could someday struggle to find a vocation. Her fight encompasses the overall treatment of students.
Along with this, the graduation plan itself to ensure that graduates graduate with a goal in mind is not cruel. It’s the punishing of students and teachers that is cruel! It is making the plan mandatory in order for students to receive a diploma that is cruel.
Everything school reformers like Emanuel do to schools, teachers, and students always involves chastisement or penalty, even though quite often those individuals don’t hold the cards to control the situation they find themselves in. And when they do speak out, as in the case of Sarah, she is fired!
It is important to note that there is no money to fund additional counselors to help students decide where they can get a job, acceptance into a college, or gap year program. If there were there would be hope for better results for students.
While teaching high school, the career counselor at my school worked closely with my students. Many had mild learning disabilities. The key was to find out what they were interested in, their academic and social strengths. We aimed to introduce them to jobs and careers they might not have considered. Some students didn’t understand the many occupations that were out there.
I found this to be one of the most important things we could do with high school seniors, and it was also satisfying as a teacher to see students get excited about careers they never knew existed.
If Emanuel would have said they were going to assist students with these goals—help them find jobs and secure acceptance in college—or understand what students want to do for a vocation, I’m betting many would have been impressed.
But he, like most reformers, had to add the punitive element to graduation—a rite that is undeniably important to students. No plan=No diploma.
But adolescents having difficulty in school need help. Without it, and without a diploma, we could see a fueling of student anger. This could create even more receptivity to gangs—an outcome Emanuel wants to avoid. Instead, his cruel plan could backfire and push those students who fail to receive a diploma into the streets!
Emanuel is not alone in his use of cruelty towards students and teachers. Salon’s use of the word cruel pretty much sums up America’s push for privatizing public schools. It’s often cruelty masked as being for the child’s “own good.” And it is usually more about firing teachers and shutting down public schools.
For years, what has been happening in our public schools could be considered cruel—cruel to students—cruel to teachers—even cruel to parents!
- Intentionally defunding public schools is cruel.
- Denying children with special needs adequate special education is cruel.
- Charter schools that are selective and steal funds from traditional public schools are cruel.
- Closing neighborhood schools is cruel.
- High-stakes testing is cruel.
- Removing the arts from the curriculum is cruel.
- Firing teachers who speak out on behalf of their most vulnerable students is cruel.
- Firing counselors and support staff is cruel.
- Over-strictness towards students is cruel.
- Denying teachers resources than calling them inept is cruel.
- Making children attend buildings that are unsafe or crumbling is cruel.
- Pushing technology at all costs is cruel.
- Denying teachers who demonstrate excellent teaching tenure is cruel.
- Pushing older teachers out of the profession is cruel.
- Punishing teachers with unproven accountability measures is cruel.
- Making class sizes so large a teacher is overwhelmed is cruel.
- Replacing qualified teachers with Teach for America types is cruel.
- Retention of students who have reading disabilities is cruel.
- Eliminating recess for children is cruel.
I could go on, unfortunately.
But in a country like ours, schools have no business being cruel. It is as if America has turned against its own children and those who help them learn.
Cruelty never works. Cruelty begets cruelty. Compassion and understanding should rule.
Emanuel should keep the graduation goals, but drop the mandatory diploma rule.
He should focus instead upon lifting the people in charge of assisting students to reach those goals. But that would mean truly supporting public schools and the qualified teachers who work in them.
I’m afraid all I can say is don’t hold your breath.