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High Expectations and Comfortable Prisons



The above image shows California Youth Authority students in their classroom. The students are the ones inside the cages, and they are being taught to read. A friend drew my attention to this photo after I shared a story about a similar kind of prison, about kids learning to read in cages, albeit ones where the bars, while not visible, are nonetheless solidly constructed.

Awhile back I was observing in a local urban elementary school classroom — all kids of color, mostly free lunch, low test scores. One of those schools that is mandated to use a scripted literacy curriculum for at least 90 minutes a day in order to meet federal testing requirements. At times when I have criticized such curricula, I’ve been accused of having an “overly sentimental, humanistic” view of students (god forbid, humanistic) — I have been accused of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” when I have said that “high expectations” are not necessarily being met by having kids and teachers follow a script.

This point was starkly illustrated as I was sitting in this classroom watching the teacher implement the Open Court literacy curriculum lesson-of-the-day. Since teachers and students generally don’t have much choice in how and when they do different activities, I could hear the same sentences coming out of both adult and student mouths from other classrooms up and down the school hallway. The teacher I was watching was running a few minutes behind, so I’d hear instruction coming from other classrooms, and sure enough, several minutes later nearly the same words would be replayed in the room where I was sitting.

I thought I might be mishearing things when the kids down the hall started chanting, “It was a comfortable prison! It was a comfortable prison!” But no. Moments later the students in my room were directed to chant the same sentence. Nobody blinked an eye — these beautiful, vibrant children who had not moved or been asked, pushed, prompted, or inspired to think an original thought for the entire hour that I’d been sitting there, were chanting “It was a comfortable prison.” Direct from the teacher’s manual.

And yet, proponents of these so-called high expectation promoting programs, would claim that such instructional techniques will help prevent today’s chanting and figuratively-caged students from becoming tomorrow’s literally-caged prisoners. After all, many states predict the number of future prison beds based upon the number of 4th graders who don’t read at grade level. So, as this reasoning goes, if such practices help to achieve these ends, then chant they must, to the exclusion of much else that constitutes education. I find this reasoning to be narrow and incomplete if we are to value children as more than labels, test scores, future prison beds, or dollar signs.

I pondered these cages, scripts, figurative and real prisons as I followed the execution last week of Stanley Tookie Williams. As the debate swirled around issues of guilt or innocence, change and redemption. I couldn’t help but note the lack of attention towards the larger question — what it means for our society that so many of us unquestioningly watch as state-sanctioned murder becomes the norm. How much have we all bought into the script that prevents us from recognizing, much less achieving the bigger picture of a more just and moral humanity? How do we support, through our silence and compliance, the scripts that are created and replayed to legitimate our government’s imperialistic world endeavors?

What would it mean to truly have high expectations, not only for other people’s children, but also for ourselves as fellow humans, for our collective redemption and renewal? Can this vision be scripted, packaged and sold… guaranteed? Which are the prison walls that need to come down?

“It was a comfortable prison.” We may never do away with the actual prisons we create for others. However, those that we fail to acknowledge, those that we tacitly accept for ourselves, these are the scripts and prisons that can hopefully one day be read in the past tense. These cages may have indeed been comfortable, for some. But at what price for others and for us all?

ELISA SALASIN can be contacted at Many of her writings can be found on her blog, Two Feet In.


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