I recently read about Commerce City, Colorado mulling over the possibility of enacting a daytime curfew, from the hours of 9 am to 2:30 pm. Teenagers on the streets during this daytime curfew would be transported to their schools and levied a $499 fine. The city’s police chief and the two superintendents of the school districts serving Commerce City all support this proposal. One superintendent stated, “We know if we get them in our building, we can reach them, but we can’t do anything when they’re standing behind 7-eleven.”
I will contrast that effort in Commerce City with a view articulated by a colleague of mine when I taught at a high school in Utah. He desired to place a sign above the high school’s main entrance that read, “Only enter if you want to learn.” He felt a frustration with having to teach some students that had no interest in learning. His educational utopian was to work exclusively with students that wanted to take advantage of all that the high school had to offer. What about those who did not want to learn? He did not want to concern himself with these students.
Obviously, there are quite a few flaws in limiting access to education to those who want to learn – not the least of which is that such a policy would only serve to widen the opportunity gap between students. However, just forcing students to attend schools seems antiquated. So, what is the answer?
I believe that all students, regardless of background or ability, have an innate thirst for knowledge. All schools need to do is tap into that thirst and students will want to come to school each day (assuming the learning environment is safe – a plug for the video on bullying that was posted earlier on this site). However, to tap into that innate thirst requires resources. If I am at-risk of ending up behind 7-eleven then “business as usual,” or traditional public education with 30 students in one class listening to a teacher lecture, is going to fail to tap into my thirst.
Education must be allowed to become more attentive to the individual needs of each student if society desires all students to fully realize their potential. Specifically, a more individualized system of education would have to be defined by local education agencies. Just imagine a system where educators can identify the particulars of every student and each student has a genuine advocate. In addition, instruction is tailored to the needs and interests of each student. In such a system students would want to come every day not because of a law, but because adults cared about them and the learning was meaningful.
Such a system takes a significant infusion of resources and, given the political climate nationally, seems unlikely. It is significantly less expensive to just force students to attend school, albeit ineffective. I will end this entry with a quote from Richard Rothstein. In his book Class and Schools, Rothstein (2004) proposed widespread social changes to address the achievement gap. He then quantified the social changes at $156 billion, and recognized that it is politically unlikely that such changes will occur due to political apathy. He then offered the following explanation related to this price tag, which I feel applies to the idea of creating a more individualized system of education, “to say that this spending is not politically realistic is not the same as to say that it is unaffordable. An average annual spending increase of $156 billion is only about two-thirds of the average annual cost of federal tax cuts enacted since 2001” (p. 145).