There Are No (Wild) Children Here?

In the September 16 issue of The New Republic Elizabeth Weil has a provocative article, “In Defense of the Wild Child” about the emphasis on self-regulation for kids in schools. It’s quite worth reading – but not because this is a new issue.  The question of how much youth adults should allow the young has been discussed, debated, and recorded since the Greeks – and probably long before.  Rousseau wrote a whole book about it, Locke had plenty to say, and Americans from Jefferson to Twain to current education writers have views on what is at its core a genuine tension of both values and educational practice.  Weil instead grafts today’s debate about students’ emotional learning onto the current context of school reform.  The result is an awkwardly time-bound article about a wide-ranging issue.  She, for example, says the motto of the school reform movement is “No Excuses.”  I was unaware there was a motto, and if there is that surely wouldn’t be it. Besides,the “no excuses” ethos is more about the adults who serve students than it is about the students themselves.  There are, however, schools (including “no excuses” schools) seeking to wrap academic and social structure around students in some formalized ways.  Dubbed the “new paternalism,” David Whitman and Paul Tough have chronicled those efforts.

Those schools disproportionally serve low-income students and that raises two interrelated issues about social class and education: Are we perpetuating class-stratified schools, albeit better performing ones, under a different banner? And, somewhat conversely, how much do lower-income students need something dramatically different than other students given what we know about social capital, out-of-school supports, and knowledge?  Those are not easy questions – and almost impossible to discuss in the current hothouse education conversation where arguments turn on accusations about motive much more than they do on facts, context, or what’s actually being discussed. Here it’s hard to miss the upper-middle class sensibility of Weil’s take.

Only in the penultimate paragraph does she forthrightly turn the lens on parents rather than the schools.  That’s where the action is, it seems to me.  My own bugaboo on this issue is that young people don’t spend enough time outside – which is one place kids can genuinely be kids in addition to learning about the world around them.  But programs to do that – especially ones with more perceived risk, for instance Outward Bound or summer programs offering kids backcountry adventure – are struggling these days.  The reason is not budget cuts, reform, or liability issues.  It’s parents.  They’re not choosing these experiences for their kids anymore.  It’s obviously a larger issue than just that piece of it but the trend is illustrative: Don’t blame the schools for responding to some clear signals from parents.

So for the schools’ part here, parents want and kids need different things. Are we really going to settle a long-running argument about how to educate – in every sense of that word – young people through one school model or another or through some basket of programs? That’s perhaps the most compelling argument for allowing parents more choices for their kids within our system of public education.  The parents who want Montessori might look with suspicion at the parents who want Core Knowledge but they have a shared interest in ensuring a public system that is dynamic enough to accommodate both within some framework of accountability and quality.  And for the poor, why shouldn’t they enjoy the same range of choice as the affluent, not just a choice between a public system failing them and different option or two?  If you want to talk about excuses, the laundry list of why we shouldn’t or can’t do that is as long as it is unconvincing.

Update: Check out Dan Willingham with another slice of this.

12 Replies to “There Are No (Wild) Children Here?”

  1. Well put. Simply well put. I have been struggling myself with this idea that seems to be getting more and more traction that different socio-economic groups need (or learn best) in different environments. This started for me when battling with the success of the charter movement in NYC. Just as you put it, it is very hard to have this debate without it turning into accusations and suspicions on motives. But beyond that I can disagree with the style of the “no excuse” philosophy of the charters and still appreciate their incredible success with a very specific population. The problem is what do we do after they are successful? Is segregating education in such a way the answer? Certainly it is better than the hidden segregation of the public system, but can that public system be improved to provide? Can the public system become dynamic as you say so that the students who do require the intense structure and emphasis on assessment can get it while students who learn best in a more blended and active environment have that? I refuse to believe that the difference correlates with socio-economic backgrounds, or rather I refuse to believe that it has to. But I am open to being wrong as well.

  2. I was unaware there was a motto,
    As Von Etta Hall said as a 4th grade teacher:
    Brains, Brains, Brains.
    You thought they said Trains.
    You weren’t going anywhere, so you didn’t get any.”

  3. Jeremy,
    Another question is when can a child graduate from the intense structure into the more blended and active environment?
    Or are they tracked for their schooling years?

  4. More “Hatred” from The Professional Education Reform Crowd:
    Joe Williams edition

    In New York, to cite yet another example, the state teachers weren’t happy that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had the audacity to suggest that the public – including the state Government – shouldn’t tolerate schools which persistently fail to educate children. The union’s flacks quickly seized on Cuomo’s descriptive use of the term “Death Penalty” for failing schools. We can only assume they we’re pretending to be outraged on behalf of homicidal maniacs on Death Row or something clever like that.

    Strange bedfellows there

  5. “The reason is not budget cuts, reform, or liability issues.”

    Oh, please. This is patently untrue.

    So parents are to blame with outdoor education but schools and teachers are to blame for EVERYTHING ELSE that is going wrong with our students and that is why we need teacher accountability measurements.

    Got it.

  6. Andy raises a question that has been bothering me for a while now, although I don’t think it’s the same question Weil raises in her TNR article. She’s extrapolating from her own middle-class experience, and it’s not clear to me she has any real understanding of what goes on in a KIPP-like charter school.

    To address Weil’s article, teaching “self-regulation” doesn’t have to mean stifling a child’s creativity. And she confuses that term with “grit” and “social and emotional learning,” all of which are different things. (See All kids need to learn things like being quiet sometimes when others are talking, raising your hand to speak, etc. This has always been part of the function of school, and if you don’t learn things like that you’re probably going to have trouble later on in life.

    But to me, Andy’s question is the more interesting one: “Are we perpetuating class-stratified schools, albeit better performing ones, under a different banner? And, somewhat conversely, how much do lower-income students need something dramatically different than other students given what we know about social capital, out-of-school supports, and knowledge?”

    It is undeniable that some kids, primarily those from lower-income families, need certain things from school that they’re not getting at home: more structure, more instruction in basics like vocabulary, etc. In education, one size is never going to fit all. But, as Andy acknowledges, it’s become hard to talk about that.

    I agree in theory that poor families should have the same range of education choices as the affluent, but what if a free-form, less rigid model doesn’t actually work as well for their kids? What if it results in classrooms controlled by a disruptive minority of students rather than by teachers? The fact is that without some kind of order in the classroom, learning can’t take place.

    I’m troubled by the two-tier system that seems to be evolving, but I also think we need to acknowledge that, at least in the present, poor kids and wealthier kids aren’t always going to thrive in the same school environment. Wealthier parents (and maybe kids) are going to bristle at some of the techniques that work well for poorer kids, and they may leave urban public school systems as a result. But if we don’t ensure that the disruptive (usually poorer) kids learn how to control themselves, no one is going to learn anything — and we’re not doing the disruptive kids any favors by failing to teach them how to control themselves.

  7. Children need opportunities to use their knowledge and skills for self regulation. The knowledge and skills must be taught to them first however, and this should come from the teacher and parents. Both must work together to help the child learn.

  8. I agree with Natalie for saying, “poor kids and wealthier kids aren’t always going to thrive in the same school environment.” Self regulation is an essential skill that human beings should acquire to function positively in society. This regulation should not mainly be blamed on the lack of outdoor activities not chosen by parents, as Weil suggests, but I do agree with the schools having to restructure curriculum in an attempt to help children obtain necessary skills. This idea of an emerging tiered system should be alarm to provide choices for low income families. I do wonder, however, if providing parents with the opportunities to choose a correct school for their children, will they make an informed choice or choose at all?

  9. Children have skills but they want someone to develop their skills.
    Teachers and parents can see their skills and help children to benefit from it and organize children idea.

  10. I think as educators we can all agree that children come from a variety of different backgrounds and learn in a variety of different ways. Regardless of backgrounds, children should have the opportunity to be placed in the environment that will work best for them AND their families. It is very important families are honest about their capabilities to and are as involved in the education process as possible. If educators and families could figure out together what environment and what skills should be taught where children would be positively impacted.

  11. All children have different backgrounds, personalities, learning abilities, and home lives. Therefore, we must remember that setting a certain standard will not work for everyone. Although, we must follow a curriculum for learning, it is up to the cooperation of the teachers and parents to work together to help each child individually. A child’s personal life can deeply effect his/her ability to learn or function in a school setting. Trying to remember that each child has different capabilities and needs can help the teachers and parents work together to find the best way to help these children. Unfortunately, teachers won’t always receive the assistance and attention they need from the parents and vice versa.

  12. Socioeconomic disparities, regarding education, is a significant factor in determining a student’s success in school. I agree that the same quality of education should be afforded to all students of various economic backgrounds. But, the reality is that parents and students themselves may not be able to afford the external assistance that certain programs, outside of school, provide. For example, do GRE, SAT, or other standardized tests scores really indicate the potential academic success of students? Most would argue no. But, students, who take courses to aid in their preparation for the exam, are more likely to achieve a higher score. There are some families and students that are unable to pay for these classes, which forces them to rely on their own self-motivation or other means. How does this translate into the classroom? What about the student’s confidence? Being paired with students who come from high achieving households and whose parents can afford the time and monetary expenses towards their child’s education would leave other students feeling helpless and inadequate. This, in turn, can have a negative effect on the student’s academic performance. Therefore, to have a unified classroom where students of all socioeconomic backgrounds come together to learn seems very logical and beneficial. But, additional steps need to be taken to ensure that low achieving students are performing at an exceptional level regardless of their economic disadvantages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.