If Criminals are What You Want, Criminals are What You’ll Get (UPDATED!)
A common axiom in teaching is that children will rise to the level of expectations. This is something I believe deeply, albeit with two caveats: the expectations must be reasonably achievable given the child’s general developmental level and specific skills and experiences; and the child must be armed with the necessary tools (e.g., skills, knowledge, physical materials) for success. However, I also believe that the converse is true, that children will sink to the level of expectations if those expectations are too low. Which is why the following does not surprise me… at all:
Last year when American Paradigm Schools took over Philadelphia’s infamous, failing John Paul Jones Middle School, they did something a lot of people would find inconceivable… During renovations, they removed the metal detectors and barred windows. The police predicted chaos. But instead, new numbers seem to show that in a single year, the number of serious incidents fell by 90%.
Rather than treat the students like prisoners, they treated them like, well, students… like kids. The students and kids that they were. Removing the security infrastructure was not all that they did. They completely made over the way in which the adults in the building interacted with the students and the expectations for how the students interacted with each other. Gone were aggressive security guards and in their place were engagement coaches. Students were taught the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a noncoercive, nonviolent approach to conflict resolution originally developed for prisons but adapted to support students in violent schools.
In essence, the school raised the expectations for the students, gave them the tools to meet the new expectations, and the students did. So while the school’s actions and results might have surprised many in the community, including the local police who predicted “chaos”, it isn’t surprising to me.
I’ve long struggled with many of the steps that schools take in response to social, emotional, and behavioral issues with students (to say nothing of how schools tend to respond to academic issues). Dress codes and uniforms, zero-tolerance policies, metal detectors and other security measures… all risk sending perverse messages to students about power, authority, safety, individuality, trust, and perhaps most importantly, their own self-worth and value. And it does not surprise me that such measures are taken in schools that are predominantly populated with students of color and students of lesser means.
Which brings me to a recent piece penned by Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, the drummer for The Roots. In it, Thompson explores his emotional response to the George Zimmerman verdict and, more broadly, how it feels to be black in America today. Thompson relays a series of experiences and interactions which communicate a single message to he and other black men like himself: You ain’t shit. He explains:
I’m in scenarios all the time in which primitive, exotic-looking me — six-foot-two, 300 pounds, uncivilized Afro, for starters — finds himself in places where people who look like me aren’t normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct? In the beginning — let’s say 2002, when the gates of “Hey, Ahmir, would you like to come to [swanky elitist place]?” opened — I’d say “no,” mostly because it’s been hammered in my DNA to not “rock the boat,” which means not making “certain people” feel uncomfortable.
I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement.
Fortunately for all of us, Thompson has overcome the daily message that he ain’t shit and become a highly successful musician who graces our ears every night on “The Jimmy Fallon Show” and elsewhere. But how many kids, black kids and brown kids, don’t? How many get the message that they ain’t shit, accept it as truth, internalize it, and act accordingly? How many kids look at the bars on their classroom windows and the metal detector they must walk through to access that classroom and think, “I ain’t shit. I’m a criminal,” and proceed to act like one?
The failure and success of John Paul Jones Middle School shows that this is the reality for all too many. Fortunately, that school seems to have found a way to combat this message, to treat their students with respect, arm them with the tools to reciprocate, and have reaped the rewards. The question now is, how do we do that more broadly in society? How do we stop telling the various groups we tend to marginalize… blacks, Latinos, gays, immigrants, women, Asians… that they ain’t shit, that they’re evil, that they’re less than, that we have little to no expectations for them? How do we remove the metaphorical metal detectors and window bars so that more kids like Thompson can become adults like Questlove? How do we raise the expectations for all our kids and, consequently, the adults they become, arm them with the tools to achieve success, and collectively reap the gifts that each member of our society is capable of offering?
President Obama discussed many of these issues in an amazingly candid speech given early today. Definitely worthy of a read.