There is a fine line between prison and school. Prisoners are given cells. Students are given desks. Prisoners get recreation time. Students have physical education classes and recess. Prisoners do time. Students meet hours. Both are told when to speak, how to act, and when they can go to the bathroom. Guards roam the cell blocks and halls to protect the sanctity of both environments to protect the individual missions. Prisoners are supposed to learn from their mistakes and take advantage of their sentences so that they may be reformed, thereby becoming productive members of society. Theoretically, students are allowed to learn from their mistakes in an effort to prepare them for the rigors of living as adults. Minus the bars and guns, prisoners and students have similar existences, although, the student experience is more lockdown than it was when Jack Allen was a student.
Jack grew up in an historic town just after court orders forced the school system to desegregate. His public school experience had been one that rode the energy of punk, disco, and classic rock music. He took away an appreciation for people and social justice instead of the book based lessons that seemed too limiting for his education. Thirty years after his graduation from high school and nearly ten years after getting a doctorate in education, Jack sat with the rest of his school’s colleagues in folding chairs that erased every bit of suppleness from their hips. They had been herded into the frigid gymnasium so they could taught the school district’s latest initiative, PIOUS, Practical Instruction Offered Uniquely System. The training began three hours earlier with batches of teachers talking about batches of students. Librarians were paired with English teachers, math teachers were grouped with foreign language teachers, and all of them talked about the relationship between poverty and language readiness as predictors of school success.
PIOUS was simple enough. The premise was that students learn better when the complexity of a concept is deconstructed into its essential parts. Jack found the discussion fascinating and sad. He was sad because he had become the old teacher that he swore he would never turn into. He remembered his first year of teaching when the initiative was to build academic vocabulary so that students would understand the key words in the directions of tests. Back in those brown haired days, Jack thought this to be enlightening, but nearly twenty-five years later, and under a full head of gray hair, he only wanted to push a button and go home to walk his dog. The PIOUS model promised to raise student achievement with a multitude of strategies that were gathered from lists of best practices and slickly packaged under an empirically tested model. Jack found that piece of marketing to be fascinating as the studies supporting PIOUS had been conducted by the same hucksters who were putting out the latest, greatest model of instruction and had been conducted under questionable research methods. Evidently, validity, reliability, and random sampling had no real place in educational research.
An administrator from the district office said, “Jack, what do you think about the relationship of the PIOUS framework to student success.”
Jack thought for a moment. On one hand, he knew that the correct answer was that PIOUS was the answer to helping close everything from achievement gaps to the problems of politicians who control public education funding diverting those funds to charter schools that are run by the very politicians setting educational policy. On the other hand, Jack, knew that the most important player in the educational process was being ignored by policy makers and educational opportunists everywhere. PIOUS removed all of the responsibility for learning from the students. The program while opportunistic removed the focus of education from the students to the teachers, thereby making learning an extrinsic proposition.
“If I might quote, Seneca, ‘You may, then, boldly declare that the highest good is singleness of mind: for where agreement and unity are; there must virtues be: it is the vices that are at war with another.’ I think PIOUS could be good if it promotes a singleness of mind.”
The administrator looked confused. “I don’t understand.”
Jack said, “The purpose of PIOUS is to strip the content down to the essential components of a lesson. In theory, this will allow students to develop a single minded view of what they are learning. Hopefully, they will be able to filter out all that noise that exists in childhood and see the importance of what they are learning. In that way, I think PIOUS is a tool to help students learn.”
“I hear a ‘but’ in your voice.”
Jack smiled because he knew that his answer would be received with the same appreciation as a rake being dragged over sunburnt skin, “The excerpt from Seneca suggests that vices compete with each other to interfere with finding virtue. If we are able to remember anything about our schooling, I bet we each had vices in the classroom. Maybe we didn’t like the teacher. Maybe the subject matter was boring or irrelevant to us at the time. Whatever they were, those vices competed with our ability to focus on what we were learning. It wasn’t until we were mature enough to give learning its due that we could allow school to become virtuous. We had to deal with our vices to find success in school.”
The administrator asked, “Are you suggesting that we bag PIOUS?”
“Not at all. I am suggesting that education, like prison, is not about what we do to them, it’s about what they come to realize while they are going to school. Prisoners who accept the opportunity of reform are able to survive outside of the walls. Students who become virtuous in an educational sense make the most of their school years. PIOUS is one tool that might be appropriate for a student. However, no matter how sincere we are in our belief that this is the best way to teach students, PIOUS is unlikely to fulfill its promise if the students don’t buy into the program.”
The meeting ended at its mutually agreed contractual time. As usual, little attention was given to the greater philosophical implications of why the current initiative was being chosen. There is a blind spot in education that is as vacuous as a cesspool. The assumption is that if a message is delivered with recommendations and data, it must be the best way. In the coming months, the virtues and vices of PIOUS would play out with Jack being the dutiful implementer and open-minded seeker of the capacities and abilities of this new program.