Monday, February 4, 2013

Inventory

Once upon a time, when the world known to us was smaller and simpler, schools served and answered to the communities that built them. Schools were preparatory for entrance into the local market, distilling local knowledge for local consumption. Communities understand themselves and their needs; schools, being an extension of their communities, responded accordingly. Now, if you’re lucky, they answer to a centralized state education board.

In a “global economy,” schools work towards universal, abstract standards, bereft of local application, absent local input. The bureaucrats living hundreds if not thousands of miles away are more interested in checking a box than making sure students acquire skills they can actually use.

Devolvement of standards accompanies devolvement of accountability. Schools eventually exist for their own sake, embassies of globalization in the second and third worlds of flesh-and-blood people devoted to their families and their communities. Many good teachers go in thinking they can make a difference. They learn quickly not to fight the apparatus, or it will crush you.

“Student expelled for refusing to wear RFID tracking chip badge” the headline reads. “They’ve reduced our children to inventory,” the 15 year-old girl’s father says. He’s right. In they come and out they go. If one clogs the line, pull her out and toss her aside.

This is my objection to the ironically named John Jay High School’s RFID badge requirement. It was not demanded by the parents. It was approved and implemented by entities foreign to the community: the Texas Education Association and the school administration itself.

The article suggests the school will defend itself in court by claiming the RFID badge is “dress-code policy,” rendering it somehow infallible. The comparison with dress code is a conflation of categories that too often interferes in our moral thinking. Dress codes foster a better environment for learning and teaching discipline and respect. A well-dressed person is a serious person meant to be taken seriously. It’s remarkable what dressing up does to people’s attitude towards you and your attitude towards yourself. That’s why I still wear a tie most days to work, even though my employer doesn’t require it.

Once, a visitor to the office mistook me for the boss, even though I’m the youngest, least senior person here. My appearance and its effect on my bearing elevate me above my modestly dressed coworkers.

School uniforms, even further, forge a shared identity among students that the school establishment fosters. Students know when they put on their school uniforms their singular purpose is learning. By more or less looking the same, they more clearly discern differences in character that are valuable in forming opinions of others. My uncle once told me conformity is a measure of maturity. Insofar as we conform to patterns of good and respectable behavior, he was right.

Does an RFID badge achieve any of that? No. Truthfully, John Jay High School’s RFID badge mandate is a ruse to secure more funding from the state of Texas. Local property taxes and state funding are the two main sources of funds for Texas schools. Every school submits a tally of students to the state in order to receive money. Those tallies are usually unreliable, because teachers apparently can’t keep up with students’ whereabouts on campus. My gut tells me this didn’t used to be a problem, but we do have so many problems nowadays that we didn’t use to have.

Thus, John Jay High School thinks the RFID badge will yield it more money by counting students who skip class or who otherwise aren’t present for the teachers’ tally. It’s a stupid policy response to a stupid policy. If one student is allowed to “opt out” of the RFID badge, then all the students will have that option. That’s something John Jay High School, with roughly 3,000 students, can’t afford. According to another report, $1.7 million is on the line.

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