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Morning Joe, Success Academy, Prisons, and Kids who wet their pants

04/14/2015 01:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015
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I have to stop watching Morning Joe when I exercise. It's not our political differences that get to me. I find that kind of funny. But when Joe Scarborough starts praising the charter school movement in general, and Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy in particular, I have to hop off my exercise bike and change the channel.

Joe loves everything I hate about our current educational climate. He uses words like rigor, discipline, accountability based on high stakes testing, teacher ratings, and higher test scores. I guess he believes we have to be tough with other people's children. I just wonder how angry he would have been if one of his kids wet his pants taking a difficult practice test because he was too stressed to ask to use the bathroom. Or even worse, because she was not allowed to use the bathroom during the actual testing window.

We are talking about third graders here, folks. I'm pretty familiar with what makes kids this age tick. I have a grandchild in third grade, and I can assure you kids her age are not all that mature. My granddaughter is a great reader, but she still loves to put on costumes, dress her American Girl doll, and play imaginative games like Frozen or Harry Potter.

I shudder to think how upset she or her friends would be to see their names posted on a chart in the school hallway for all to see as a failure. That's part of what happens at Success Academy, Morning Joe. How would you like to see your child's name listed in the "red zone"? Yes, eventually these kids might pass the tests. But the shame and damage to their self esteem cannot make up for a moment of pride in getting a high enough score to move off that dreaded list.

After reading a New York Times Magazine article by Mark Binelli, "Inside America's Toughest Prison," it hit me that America is amazingly punitive. Binelli describes conditions at the federal Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado, where inmates spend almost all of their time in solitary confinement. Granted, there are some very bad guys there, but there are also many mentally ill lesser criminals who end up there because of the closing of mental health facilities and inflexible sentencing laws.

The map that accompanies his article is rather shocking. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Perhaps the fact that we have no problem locking up so many people sheds some light on the punitive attitude we have toward children in our public and charter schools. Success Academy is an extreme example of this. Any tactic, including public shaming, is justified to achieve good test scores.

Sadly, stressful, competitive, joyless education that treats children like prisoners rather than kids seems to be the norm these days. In a New York Times article about Success Academy by Kate Taylor, she states:

"Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea. Incentives are offered, such as candy for good behavior, and Nerf guns and basketballs for high scores on practice tests. For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is effort academy, which is part detention, part study hall."

According to former Success Academy teacher (there is an enormous turnover rate):

"We can NOT let up on them...Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them."

The public schools my grandchildren attend can be similarly punitive. Children are expected to walk through the halls and eat lunch in total silence. They can "murmur" (my granddaughter's word) at lunch, and hopefully the lunch monitors won't catch them. The carrot and stick approach is preferred over any attempts at helping children develop intrinsic motivation. When they are caught doing something "good," they get a token they can cash in at a "store" for useless junk. But when they break a rule, no matter how small, they are punished by losing the one short recess they have and by having their parents informed immediately. While the public shaming, teaching to the test, and regimentation don't rise to the level of Success Academy, it is still there.

What is it about the American character that makes so many buy into the notion that discipline, conformity, and punishment are as important in our schools as they are in our prisons? Why do we feel the need to be so strict with other people's children in our schools? Until folks like Morning Joe accept that other people's kids deserve the same respect they would want for their own children, we will continue educating kids in prison-like schools.

It is we, not the children, who should feel deeply ashamed that the pressures we allow to be put on 8-year-olds in our schools cause them to wet their pants.