School and the Carceral State

I got a job substitute teaching at charter schools in New York City, and I’ll be blogging about the experience every day or so for the next couple of weeks. While it’s easy to tell the story about the dysfunctional urban charter school, just like it’s easy to tell the one about the urban public school, I’m not trying to rehash either of those old, tired tales. That said, the charter distinction is important; though they are not pedagogically monolithic, charters suck resources away from public schools, erode the power of labor unions, fuel racial and class segregation, feed corporate influence over schooling, and promote the hiring of novice white teachers in communities of color, over black and brown teachers who are actually invested in and live in those neighborhoods. And more. With all that in mind, these stories attempt to reframe the conversation on public education through a cultural lens. What happens in schools, and why? 



  1. Prison Guard

How do you feel about this school?

“Rikers Island,” a girl in an eighth grade classroom said. Her friends were seated around her and they all nodded. The four or five of them had been having a quiet conversation when I came and intruded on them, hoping they might share their experience with me. I was supposed to be drugging the class with a worksheet that contained capsules like this:

(3x – 4) / 8y  =  9×2 + 8x – 3

but lo and behold, they didn’t want any of that, so instead I let them talk, in groups, about whatever they wanted. I thought devilishly to myself: Were they losing a day of instruction?

“It’s just prison,” one of the girls said.

“Why is it like prison?”

The students’ actions answered this question better than what they could tell me verbally. Out loud they said things like how they’re forced to come, how no one trusts them, how they’re expected to sit in the same place all day doing work that numbs their brains and hardens their souls. The way I watched them conduct themselves after I made it clear I wasn’t going to play prison guard conveyed the same story more vividly. On the prison floor that suddenly ceased to be a prison, the students ran and jumped around, vaulting over desks, falling out of chairs, injuring themselves and feeling good about it. One kid came away with a bloody leg while his friend, a Good student, ventured out of the room to find a bandaid. Students stuck their bodies out of windows to shout gleefully down through the black iron grating, calling to any random person who passed by. Remnants of the master’s tools, once piled neatly on the teacher’s desk or lain out in orderly fashion in front of the students, had been cast aside and down to the ground. Papers balled up and ripped through, broken pencils, rulers, broken pencil sharpener pieces, all scattered across the floor.

But though I refused to run a prison, sometimes it was still a prison. Flashes of guards’ faces appeared in the door window every couple of minutes, and each time they caused a sudden hush to fall over us. Sometimes a teacher would walk in and everyone would go silent. It perplexes me that these teachers hardly ever say anything when they do this, usually just stand in the doorway staring us all down for a couple minutes–they are performing prison guard. They hardly say anything unless it’s a short, parting remark about how “I shouldn’t have to come in here” or “you all know better.” Then they’d leave, and the students would revive their mirth.

“How come everyone gets so quiet when these teachers come in like that,” I asked a student.

“It’s because they’ll suspend you real fast.”

Other times teachers would burst in and, without so much as a greeting or any kind of pretext, launch into a full excoriation of the students: “Are you gonna do your work today? I didn’t get anything from you all week. <pointing at individual students> No work. No work. No work.”

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At the end of one eighth grade class I witnessed a teacher march into a nearly empty room and pull a boy aside. “Come here,” he told the boy, who walked over slowly. The boy had been yelling with his friends during our class, and I guess this teacher had recognized the boy’s voice. When they were face to face the teacher began a brutal upbraiding that quickly turned into a lecture about how the boy “was better than that” and was supposed to “be a role model.” The lecture dragged on. The boy looked down, shamed, while the teacher kept at it, drilling into him, the anguish and severity of the interaction plastering the teacher’s face. I had met him in the hallway earlier and complimented him on his shoes, but now he looked so full of rage in his didactic moment that I wanted to steer clear of him. He was unbearable. The boy was clearly not listening to anything that was being said, only praying that the teacher did not have a suspension in mind and that the episode would end soon.

The school was turning these teachers into caricatures–the cartoon villain variation of the teacher they thought they wanted to be. I wondered if this was anything like what they had envisioned upon deciding to enter the field. Perhaps some of the 50 percent of teachers who leave after five years do so because they realize their work is closer to that of a correction officer than an educator. Except COs make a hell of a lot more money.

graphic taken from National Education Association

Each time I enter one of these schools, the first thing I am told is what is not allowed. I’m briefed on what the students must not do, how the students will try to do all of it anyway, and how I am supposed to act in order to deter their disobedience. In a tenth grade earth science classroom I was told where the “blind spots” in the classroom are and how I needed to immediately show them I was boss by telling them exactly what to do, forcefully. As the students filed in it dawned on me that I was feeling (1) afraid of them, and (2) incompetent as a teacher because I have never taught in this way. The prison culture had done a number on me–it had primed me to be a prison guard. In this way, not being a prison guard felt nerve-racking, like was breaking the rules. This revelation blew me away: to not treat my students like prisoners–respecting them, listening to them, asking them about themselves, letting them joke and laugh, talking to them like real human beings–was to teach in a rebellious and illicit way. Alone with the students I was a fugitive, hiding from the rest of the staff, presiding over my rogue class.

      2. Broken Windows

“Charter schools pretend like they’re better than public schools, but they’re all the same,” one student told me. Like many of her classmates she had been moved from a public school to a charter school when she was much younger. And like many of her classmates, she saw little difference between public and charter. The pretense she referred to likely has to do with how charters are politically en vogue–many pass themselves off as havens of student success, and laboratories of economic opportunity, specifically for low-income children of color. Charters are generally able to do this by appealing to families with more social agency and the physical ability to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get their kids into a new school generously funded by philanthropic/corporate wealth and public tax money. They push out kids that they label “special ed” or “behavior problem” (Our model just isn’t a good fit for your child) and they establish a more narrow, standardized and test-centric curriculum so that they can easily produce good-looking measurable outcomes. The kids pick up on the charter school’s political hustle; they also know that it’s just as miserable as any other place they’ve gone to. I think this owes to the one-two punch of a mind-numbing curriculum and a disciplinary code that resembles a police state.

Like plenty other police forces, the NYPD used the “broken windows” approach to anchor its “stop-and-frisk” policy and its campaign to incarcerate black and Latinx New Yorkers. The schools I’ve subbed in so far enact this same approach. Grounds for ejection from the classroom include phone use, listening to music, talking too loudly, getting up out of one’s seat when it’s not time to do so, working in groups greater than two, and of course, not doing the work. When the students tell me they go to school in a prison they are referring to all the rules–and accompanying punishments–that have been codified in anticipation that the students will not abide by the academic norms. Any observant kid in these schools can see that the work she’s expected to do in math, science, social studies and English class doesn’t really match the stuff they and their parents do in the real world. Lessons taught by teachers read like nonsense to engaged citizens. They know it’s a setup and it simultaneously bores them to death. The boldest ones will resist that work; others will, more discreetly, find ways to avoid or subvert the work without calling too much attention to themselves.

Broken windows discipline in school is designed to nip that resistance at the bud so that, ultimately, all the students do all the work, get good grades and graduate. This is how these schools propose to help marginalized youth; create a locked-down environment in which blind compliance translates smoothly into achievement. These schools preach “asset-based” perceptions of students, complete with structures of positive reinforcement, so as to make it feel like they believe in their students rather than assume they’re all trouble; like they’re empowering their students rather than criminalizing them from day one.


The kink in the machine is that the students see right through it. An even more farcical and depressing fact is that the teachers understand that their students see through it and force it on them anyway because they know it’s how the system works. They imagine the system won’t let the students down if they just learn to bend their bodies enough to make it into adulthood. It’s sort of like cops who walk a “tough” (code for black/Latinx) neighborhood and praise some residents for not doing anything illegal, for attending a job-skills program or for reporting to their probation officer like they were supposed to. The patrollers run a society on the pretense that prosperity will come reliably to these Good citizens even though all parties know the Good behavior isn’t really helping anyone. Like the prison guard teachers, they may sense how the “system” is crushing that community but they still promote the fiction that it is these folks who are making their future through Good decisions, or breaking it with Bad ones.

The kids might not have a racial or class analysis, but they know the disciplinary code and the school curriculum are both based on horrendous distortions of what is right and wrong in the real world, what is good work and what is not good work, what it means to be smart and what it means to be dumb. Maybe the teachers are still performing prison guard, and maybe the students are willing to play along if it means they can eventually get out relatively undamaged, with a credential. The credential still means something, even if the education doesn’t. And they are reading through the bullshit every cloying moment it’s imposed on them.


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