A Teacher Questions Compulsory Schooling
In all the discussions about vouchers, charter schools and higher standards, I never hear anything about what I have come to believe is the one proposal that would do the most to improve the quality, integrity, effectiveness and democratic character of our current system.
Can one change really make that much of a difference? In the book The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course Before It's Too Late , psychologist and educator Seymour Sarason invites readers to imagine a situation where we are empowered to initiate one change, and only one, in a school system. The only restriction is that the change cannot cost discernibly more money than is now available. "On what basis should your decision rest? Obviously, you will seek that change which, if appropriately implemented, (quite an assumption!) will have over time desirable percolating effects on other problems in other parts of the system. The important point is that you do not choose a change because it addresses an important problem – of which there are many – but because what you seek to change is so embedded in a system of interacting parts that if it is changed, then changes elsewhere are likely to occur."
The proposal I am making is one that meets Sarason's criteria of having a long-term and far-reaching percolating effect at no additional cost. Imagine what would happen if our current compulsory school attendance laws were simply rescinded? This legal change would leave our public provision of free and appropriate education intact, while placing the burden of service on our schools rather than on the families and individuals who would then be free to choose when, how or even whether or not to use them. It would bring our public education system in line with the fundamental democratic notion that institutions are created to serve people rather than people to serve institutions. Existing anti-discrimination laws would keep schools from denying anyone access to publicly-funded learning opportunities, while making these programs and classes completely optional.
Compulsory attendance laws undermine learning by creating an atmosphere of coercion, mistrust and manipulation. They do this by their very existence as the faint (or not-so faint) hum in the background of each potentially joyful moment in every classroom. We all know the best way to make anyone hate doing something is to force their compliance under threat of punishment. Learning that is meaningful, lasting and real can only take place with the consent and willing participation of the learner. One cannot teach the values of freedom and democracy using a totalitarian pedagogy. The medium is the message.
Compulsory attendance laws also exist under the questionable assumption that our system of mass schooling is capable of meeting the unique learning needs of all young people – why would we force anyone to attend if we did not believe we had what they needed? But if learning theory tells us anything, it is that there is no such thing as a "one-size-fits-all" education. While the majority of students seem to do reasonably well in our current system, there is a sizable minority who are destined for humiliation and failure through no fault of their own. These children are exceptional in one way or another and have learning styles that cannot be adequately served by mass methods. Compelling them to continue beating their heads against an unyielding brick wall is both cruel and eventually devastating. Why not empower these young people and their families to take charge of their own learning and their lives? They may find our support and guidance easier to accept when we remove our guns from their heads, and compulsory service laws would require us to do everything in our power to provide learning opportunities that work for them.
So what is it that we are really afraid of? A world full of passionate, curious, thoughtful, self-directed individuals whose creativity and confidence have not been undermined by an oppressive and controlling system? I suppose a democracy could do worse!
Finally, compulsory attendance laws are just plain unnecessary. In an age when access to virtually unlimited knowledge is easier and less expensive than ever before, do we really think that spending most of their waking hours behind the walls of often less-than-inspirational institutions with hordes of same-age peers is the best way for children to grow up in our world? And just imagine the unlimited possibilities for creative learning opportunities that would arise given the demand for them! The walls dividing our schools from our communities and the rest of life would crumble and learning would become an integrated experience of joyful growth that complements human nature and feeds the human spirit.
Jim Strickland is a community-based educator in Marysville, Washington. He says that if he could focus all of his energy on one issue that he believes would have the greatest long-term impact on moving our world in the right direction, it would be to abolish compulsory schooling. He invites response from readers who are interested in raising public awareness and inviting political action. He can be reached by email at