For the second straight day, students have walked out of classes in Camden high schools. That protest is quickly shifting from the warm and fuzzy of political action by youth, to something much more powerful and poignant. The Camden School District, like any institution, can only function with the consent of its members. It appears to have lost the faith of two of its most important constituencies: students and teachers.
Because Camden’s school board is unelected, and its district is under state control, residents, teachers and students have no formal recourse to push back against the district’s new policies. But that doesn’t mean they’re powerless. As I studied in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, communities without formal mechanisms to change the system will find informal game-changers. Students in Camden, with repeated peaceful political action, may have found such a game-changer.
Schools, like many systems in our society, ultimately depend on the consent of the governed. That is why these student walkouts are such critically important civic action. First, they show that students do not have faith in the district. But second, they demonstrate in a powerful way that schooling can only work if students give this consent. The end of the school year is an ideal time to make this point. Less time is spent on learning and more on assessment. Students can protest without endangering their own education (and, as I commented to the Courier-Post, political action is a fantastic educational tool). By walking out of classrooms, they show that the system breaks down without their participation. That can happen at so many levels. Students can continue to walk out of school. They can refuse to take year-end assessments. They can simply answer “A” and “C” on multiple-choice questions, a silent form of protest preferred by a Camden student who guest-spoke at one of my classes last semester.
Authority can only go so far in fighting these measures. How can you “make” a student give the right answer on a test? It is a fundamental tenant of education that a student must actively take part in it. The system breaks down when they choose not to do so.
The district’s response shows they misunderstand this. With news that teachers who were at the protest will be disciplined, the district is compounding the problem. Protest is occurring because the district has authority and students have none. Responding by flexing authority has the potential to fan the flames of discontent.
By withholding their consent, students are getting the first glimpse of the power they actually have. When they protested they weren’t suspended, in part because it was too difficult to suspend so many, but also because the optics and public outcry would have been fierce. The level of organization and political awareness shown by these students should be commended, not punished.
The danger, from the district’s perspective, is that teachers will realize the same thing. Teachers have little to lose. Many are already being fired, and they’re being treated poorly in the classroom, down to being given scripts that tell them what to say and write on the blackboard.
What happens if they learn the same lesson as the students, that schools only works if they consent to authority?
This happened in Seattle when teachers refused to administer standardized tests, and in Chicago with a teachers strike. Both of these protests moved the needle. Student protest is even more powerful, because it demonstrates simultaneously that students are serious about their learning and that they find the current system untenable.
Losing the consent of both students and teachers would endanger the power of the state-controlled district. For Camden, a community in which the state controls so much of their civic decision-making, that would be a tremendous breakthrough, and a potential game-changer.
That’s one of the reasons student walkouts put the district in such a difficult position. An aggressive crackdown risks jobs in the central office, because it appears they’ve lost control of the district, and risks losing public opinion in ways that we’ve seen in Newark and New York City can lead to populist backlashes. And so the district is cracking down on teachers, likely hoping that teachers (for whom students have professed love and for whom students have now protested) will do the district’s dirty work and stop additional protests.
These teachers deserve to be commended, not reprimanded. By observing the protest, they helped ensure that it was safe for their students. Let’s call their punishment what it is: not an effort to preserve the school day but an effort by the district to control the backlash to its ill-conceived policies. Authority in schools can only function with the consent of students and teachers. In Camden, that consent is slipping.