What’s the Difference Between School and Jail?

“So I walk into an advisory class,” says Roger Lowenstein, “And I tell the kids to take out a piece of paper and I ask the kids, in three sentences, what’s the difference between school and jail?”  High-energy, bespectacled and outrageously articulate, Roger is in the middle of a story in answer to my question about the purpose of education.  A former criminal attorney who also spent years as a television writer, Roger founded L.A. Leadership Academy charter school eleven years ago with the goal of educating the next generation of community activists.

“So the kids tell me the difference between school and jail is that we have PE,” he says, appalled.  “So I say: but you get exercise in jail!  And they tell me about the food. So I say: but you get food in jail!  And they tell me about the dress code.  So I say: you think you don’t have a dress code in jail?  Fifteen kids, they could not tell me the difference between school and jail!  So finally they say: what do you think?  And I say: it’s about free will!  If I go to school in the morning and I didn’t choose to be there, I’m in fucking jail!  I tell them, you know why you don’t have a good answer to this question yet?  It’s because you don’t think of yourselves as free!  And you know why not?  Because you don’t want the responsibility that comes from freedom.”

 I can easily see why Roger must have been a formidable opponent in court.  “Until you see yourself as free,” he told the students that day,  “until you use that freedom to make yourself a better person, you’re not gonna be educated.  You’re just gonna sit there and let it all go over your heads.”  To Roger, the exercise of free will is the essence of education.   “I went through this exercise with my whole staff, too,” he tells me.  “Our students need to see themselves as actors on the world stage.”

I’m fascinated by his school’s emphasis on social justice. Unlike my former school, which had a thrifty one-sentence mission (“preparing students for college, leadership and life,”) L.A. Leadership’s mission statement has values that are expressed as a mandala, or circle, that “represents wholeness, and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life reminding us of our relation to the infinite, the world that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds.”  But how does this idea play out on the ground, with real kids?  At L.A. Leadership, which started in Koreatown but has since moved to Lincoln Heights in East L.A., 100% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 61% are classified as English Language Learners.  How does L.A. Leadership translate its ideals into practice?

Roger acknowledges that it’s been a long haul.  “When I came in the only thing I knew was to keep class size down.  I had this fantasy that with a skilled teacher in the room, we’d be witnessing sixteen individual learners in there.”

Since this is my own personal conviction, I’m dying to hear more.  Why wouldn’t that work?

Roger is shaking his head.  “It’s all about differentiation,” he says, using the education term for meeting kids at their own level.  “No matter what you do, there’s always gonna be someone who doesn’t get it and there’s always gonna be someone who’s way ahead and bored.”

So what’s the solution?  “Technology,” he says.  “Right now is the most exciting time in education.  Real reform is being driven by technology.  What if every kid has a tablet?  And on that tablet is a textbook?  And it’s redesigned so that it’s game-based.  Kids take English literature, then they’re immediately assessed, then if they pass, bingo! they’re on to the next level.  Every kid is moving at their own level.”

But does the technology exist?  Roger’s convinced it’s getting there.  “We have the hardware.  It’s all about software now and we’re pretty close.  Salman Khan has fixed education,” he says, referring to the former hedge fund analyst who founded the Khan Academy online education program, which started as video tutorials and now is a website with classes in math, history, science and other subjects, with the stated goal of “providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere.”

In a perfect world, Roger says, an 11th grade English classroom would have 60 kids.  Roger outlines how it would work: 20 would rotate between stations, with a teacher as a facilitator, 20 kids would be at computer stations working, 20 would be doing per exchanges in a loosely guided discussion, and 20 would be working with a teacher.  A third of the way through class, a tone would sound and kids would rotate.

It’s a dream I’ve heard before, most notably at a meeting last year led by an assistant secretary from the Department of Education. But can it actually happen?  For real?  Roger’s convinced that it can.  “If you want to make a contribution,” he tells me, “you’ve gotta understand what’s out there and who’s doing it.  We’re on the cusp of an amazing revolution.”  In pursuit of this goal, Roger says, “I kicked myself upstairs” to the board of directors, hiring as his replacement an expert in this technology-based teaching, which is called blended learning.

My brain, which spent a tremendous amount of time in the 20th century, is struggling to imagine a multi-tasking classroom.  My friend Marion works at a charter school that’s been using blended learning for three years.  I fire off an email to Marion begging to observe some classes so I can see blended learning in action.

Meanwhile, I log in to Khan Academy and sign up as a student.  Though they don’t have English classes yet, I sign up for the closest cousin I can find–World History.  Roger is right: if I’m going to write about education, I’d better learn more about what’s out there.  It’s time for the revolution to come to me.

In other news, I’m very excited to say that I’ve been asked to do a twice-monthly commentary for L.A. School Report, a website about the intersection of politics and education.   Click here for my most recent post there about the criminally overcrowded conditions in LAUSD classrooms.


One thought on “What’s the Difference Between School and Jail?”

  1. I see the point and have often wondered the difference myself. What indeed IS the difference? Not much really. Both are mandatory, with consequences if you do not “attend”. Both are outer directed, with little choice for the attendees, the length of stay is somewhat shorter and variable for the “inmates” than for students.

    It is ironic that we have such high drop out rates, while other students halfway around the world are literally dying to get in to a school. While I agree that “exercise of free will is of the essence of education”, I would take that one step further and say that students are even responsible for their own education as having free will is not the same as being responsible for it. And I have often wondered what our attendance rates would be if school became voluntary in America.

    Schools can and should provide many resources, but those alone will not make an educated student with out their participation and commitment to learning. Differentiation is indeed paramount for students to be educated neither above or below their potential. Imagine the whole premise of school changing to facilitate each child discovering their own potential at their own pace. They could enter school when their own bodies and minds were ready and leave/graduate when they were prepared to launch into adulthood with a clear goal of self actualization with a plan of social and financial autonomy.

    It’s a step backwards really, but with a lot more options. Back, say, one hundred years ago one would have attended the community school as long as you were not needed at home to be a productive member of the family farm. You would have been learning your fathers trade or possibly one from someone in town, while attending school. You left when opportunities arose because being a productive member of society was essential to survival.

    Somehow we reversed all that. School became the goal and college for all the golden ticket. Only it’s not. We graduate without a clue of what we are good at, or what jobs may await us when we do finish our lengthy educations. So many flounder in college trying to make up for lost time, searching for meaning and trying to discover what it is they are, or are supposed to be, passionate about. They have not clue, and why would they? School isn’t about finding the passion from within. It’s about taking in knowledge someone else has deemed important for you.

    When we trust children to learn as passionately as they do naturally from birth, we allow them to be naturally curious learners. When we make them responsible for their own learning they become engaged learners. Maybe schools won’t resemble prison anymore.

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