My friend sent this photo to me. He was walking by the school and was struck by how much it looks like a prison. There are so many things that are so common in school that they are part of our social vernacular, but they are unique to the school system and prison system and nowhere else:

1. Timed, massively catered eating with food people don’t like.

2. Scheduled time for outdoors but never enough.

3. A carrot and stick system because no one wants to be there.

4. Special buildings to keep people off the streets.

5. The system corrupts to the point where people are likely to make worse decisions when they get out. I know you know this is true for prison, but check out this research about how kids are better decision makers before they go to school.

As a whole, the similarity between school and prison has been documented as the school-to-prison pipeline. This is not some fringe idea cultivated by lunatic activists. School is such a huge on-ramp to the prison system that the ACLU has argued that the police who patrol public schools are not trained to deal with young kids whose only infraction is being tardy too many days in a row.

The trend today is to criminalize more and more behaviors that are typical of school-aged kids who have relatively little adult supervision. New Jersey, for example, has made bullying a crime. The New York Times argues that this does not make schools safer, but rather speeds up the process of moving kids out of school and into the criminal justice system, where they will likely spend most of their lives.

Schools are operating on shaky ground. Constitutionally, since a wide range of research shows that schools are suspending minority kids for nonviolent infractions at a much higher rate than white kids.

Lots of school reformers have ideas to fix this problem, but the core issue is that schools need tons of rules and a police force in order to control kids who do not want to learn what they are being told to learn. As technology infiltrates the lives of kids, they get more and more comfortable with independent learning. And the biggest result of this comfort is that school seems proposterous. All the answers are online.

Sometimes I imagine that the only thing that is going to get parents to stop sending their kids to school is when the kids riot – just like prisoners – to get their freedom back.

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32 replies
  1. karelys
    karelys says:

    My husband loves to watch The West Wing. It’s a very old show.

    Right now we are on episodes of either very late 90s or early 2000s. One episode was about public and private school. In some of the arguments the president says “if we do this, it’s the beginning of the end of public school!”

    The line stuck out because truly, all the values of education and better life that the US wants to impart to everyone cannot be supported by school. And it’s interesting that someone snuck in the dialogue in an old tv show (that happens to be #10 on the most important shows out of the top 300. Some important people who get paid to do this list said so).

    • Gwen Fyfe
      Gwen Fyfe says:

      It’s not really old… it only finished in 2006. It started in late 1999…

      I’m a West Wing nerd, but I don’t remember this bit at all. What episode were you watching?

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        haha! that seems super old to me!

        I don’t know what episode it was. It’s definitely after the daughter gets rescued. And CJ finally starts wearing clothes and a haircut that fits her.

        I think it’s before she gets that hunk of a boyfriend?

  2. Gwen Fyfe
    Gwen Fyfe says:

    Penelope – little typo – “proposterous” instead of “preposterous” in the second to last paragraph.

  3. Sam
    Sam says:

    This is anecdotal- but I was speaking to a woman from CT the other day and she said that her child’s school called the police on her child’s friend after he playfully slapped her child on the behind on the playground. The two boys are 8 years old! The mom told the school that in the future she would prefer to be informed of any situations like this first before they call the cops on another kid. They did this without consulting the kids or the parents to find out what had happened. Crazy! Are we getting to the point where any misbehavior can be criminalized?

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “As technology infiltrates the lives of kids, they get more and more comfortable with independent learning. And the biggest result of this comfort is that school seems proposterous. All the answers are online.”

    I think the above pretty much summarizes why your friend Lisa works within the NYC system. She serves as a voice for school students and educators who believe technology is not a distraction to the classroom but can rather be used as an enhancement to the learning process. Schools could provide a better learning environment with a focus on the myriad of ways tech tools can be used to gather information and provide assistance to discover critical learning skills that students can use for the rest of their life.

    • mbl
      mbl says:

      I love reading comments like this that weave various PT posts together. I agree that integrating technology to foster critical thinking skills is a great intermediary step while we wait for the paradigm shift that Karelys was alluding to the other day.


  5. laurie
    laurie says:

    I stumbled on your website last night. I’ve read about this before school and the similarities to prison. I have an intersting perspective on this issue. I am a certified teacher but trained and worked in private schools. Public vs private schools….is like oil and water. Private demonstrates the best petagogical practices for students, public does not. I am starting to conlcude that our public schools are creating cookie cutter kids but they have also created cookie cutter teachers with (at times) high salaries and the best benefits.In talking with a public school teacher neighborhood friend he had no idea the foundation and background of common core. Classroom management styles support the negative behavior because those kids tend to get all the teacher attention while the “good” kids are completely ignored. Education is an interesting debate and I am about to jump on the homeschool bandwagon!

    • Splashman
      Splashman says:

      I attended an expensive private school 5th-12th grade. I now homeschool my children.

      If by “oil and water” you intend to claim that private schools are completely different (and better) than public schools, I’ll argue that the differences are of degree only. The fundamental problems are no different.

  6. Mary
    Mary says:

    The kids who “riot” typically get drugged by a psychiatrist. It’s only the lucky ones who get pulled out to homeschool.

  7. Natalie Lang
    Natalie Lang says:

    This is just depressing. There are no schools like this where I live… I’m not naive, I know that there are inner city schools that have these chain link fences around them, but seeing pictures of it makes me really sad. I still care about the PS system, so I spout off about common core and no child left behind and teach to the test… but this element really is shocking to me. Our kids are prisoners for 8 hours a day…

  8. Heather Bathon
    Heather Bathon says:

    “All the answers are online.”

    This may be true, but how do we help kids ask the right questions in the first place? How do we help them think critically about the answers they get online, or anywhere else for that matter?

    This is my biggest struggle as a homeschooler. I can’t bring myself to completely un-school because I’m way to uptight about leaving formalized critical thinking up to my child. I want her to not only learn the mindset but also be aware of having the mindset.

    I wonder how the un-schoolers approach this…


    • Natalie Lang
      Natalie Lang says:


      I don’t completely unschool either as I have found it to be very limiting…I’m an eclectic homeschooler, meaning I take all the best things from the different homeschool methods and use them. For instance, I use curriculum/workbooks for math and language arts. I also let her take a class at our local homeschool co-op if it interests her. I put her in structured music and art classes, but because music and art are her passions I give her plenty of time to “pursue those passions” outside of formal classes. We also do lots of field trips and travel and learn through exploration. It works for me and doesn’t limit me to any “one” way of homeschool. For instance, unschoolers would not let me in their club because I use a curriculum for a few subjects. School at homers won’t let me in their club because I don’t have a “mini” school set up in my home and dedicate 4-5 hours a day of home instruction in each of the 7 required subjects. So I’ve learned not to let any one method of homeschool dictate what’s best for me and my kids.

      As moms, we know what’s best for our kids, and while I love the thought of children guiding their own education, I choose to see it as a partnership, and so when my daughter tells me she wants to be an astronaut… I’m going to help her do that by giving her lots of math which will help her in engineering and science courses down the road.

      • Karen Eaton
        Karen Eaton says:


        I love this definition of unschooling, which comes from Pat Ferenga: “When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear.” (Holt GWS FAQs about unschooling).I am venturing into homeschooling next year, and while I love so much of what I’ve read about natural, child-led learning (I.e. “unschooling”), I know I wouldn’t be accepted by the unschool crowd as a true unschooler. But, I know I’ll give my kids enough freedom to learn as I can bear, so as far as I’m concerned,we’re unschoolers, and if anyone asks, I’m pointing to Pat Farenga for justification!

        • Mama Bear
          Mama Bear says:

          To me, unschooling means you are doing whatever you want to be doing. There are no rules! That’s the beauty of it. :)

          ~ fellow unschooler

          • Natalie Lang
            Natalie Lang says:

            I thought I was an unshcooler too until I got berated for using curriculum and doing some structured things… so apparently to some I am not. Oh well… I don’t like fitting in a box anyway, but eclectic seems to fit me well.

        • Natalie Lang
          Natalie Lang says:

          Karen, I like that quote. I wish more unschoolers were aware of it. I joined some forums and got told I wasn’t an unschooler because I do use curriculum (even though it’s just math and language arts), and I put her in a formal class for some things. I also provide some structure and give guidance, and apparently that offended some and I’m supposed to let them play video games only and never try to interrupt to do some other types of learning. I’m all for pursuing their passions and helping fuel that. But I don’t like being told what to do by any homeschool group especially when what I do works for my kids… also, I allowed the unlimited screen time and my kids ended up getting nightmares, so now there are some limits because I was tired of getting woken up at 2am by scared kids. Maybe when they are older I’ll reintroduce that.

    • mbl
      mbl says:

      I definitely consider us to be unschoolers. But we use whatever from wherever. My approach is to proffer and procure. We use a mixture of co-op classes, videos, nature walks, the library, recreation, crafts, and whatever “educational materials” that strike our fancy. My 7 year old loves the Life of Fred math books, but flat out states that she just reads them for the story and doesn’t “do the math.” My ego would prefer that she did, but she gets so, so much out of the LoF holistic approach that I can’t (or at least don’t) complain. She tends to read and re-read the books in one sitting and is getting a great foundation.

      I recently picked up some analogy workbooks for 4th graders that someone was giving away. My m.o. for stuff like that is to wait until she is captive in the van and casually mention, while holding them out of reach, “Oh, I got these books in case you are interested. I love analogies, but I’m not sure if you will. Actually, they are for kids a bit older than you, so . . .just let me know . . .” and then I put them down on the seat. Like clockwork, “I’ll look at them!”
      “Okaaay . . . but some of the words might be too hard. Just let me know if you need help.”
      She worked on them for two hours straight. Chuckling and sharing when something struck her as funny. Which leads me to, humor (puns, sarcasm, etc.) is a great way to teach critical thinking skills. I think being able to see different interpretations and points of view are crucial to each. She is exhaustively inquisitive and we spend most of our day refining our language skills. She is a hoot! She had been going to a social skills group for pragmatic language (Asperger’s), but once we started homeschooling, it became kind of a ridiculous interruption, given how her days were spent.

      What a ramble. (Perhaps I just use some pragmatic language help . . .)

    • mh
      mh says:

      Great question. I console myself this way:

      1) My kids are NOT that special. Teaching kids the basics is fairly easy and can be done without much fuss; developing their character is important; spending time together as a family will pay off in the long run.

      2) My kids ARE that special. They deserve the time (MY time) to develop their own interests, to have resources and space available for them to pursue their passions, and they need the independence to decide what is working. Even VERY YOUNG children have interests. By the time your child is 7, they will be showing the seeds of greatness, in their own individual ways.

      3) School sends the message that all children are (should be) alike. Diversity is limited to skin and religion, and possibly immigration status. Diversity of thinking patterns? Diversity of play? Diversity of interests? Diversity of learning styles? You jest. Everyone in the class advances at the same pace, everyone in the classroom studies the same lesson, everyone does the same worksheets. Everyone gets graded.

      I’m raising individuals, and I happen to have all boys. I have one I’m still trying to figure out. The school would have given up LONG AGO, medicated him, and put him on an IEP. Pigeon, meet hole. Do you know how I homeschool him? We play catch, back and forth, and he is beginning to trust me and tell me his ideas. And yet, I have another kid who is so strong academically, he just begs to be tested so he can show his stuff.

      Kids teach you.

  9. Joshua
    Joshua says:

    Not many that read this post want to admit what your saying is true. They are forced to miss the forest for the trees, like the guy commenting on your words about technology.
    It’s a dangerous post.
    If people like you and send there kids to school then they are gonna have a hard time with this post and you since they are sending there kids to prison, basically.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Hey Joshua, tell me how my commenting on the technology aspect of this post is missing the forest for the trees. Whether or not I choose to comment on the “school-to-prison pipeline” aspect of this post doesn’t tell you or anybody else anything. If I want to deviate from the main theme of this post, that’s what I’ll do.

  10. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    I’ve been saying for a couple of years that schools are “government child custodial facilities” with no time off for good behavior. You could look it up.

    But there’s more.

    Government schools are a problem on the discipline front. Schools need to do summary justice when kids violate the rules. But government shouldn’t do that, except for the IRS. It’s supposed to use due process. So close the government schools.

    Government schools are a problem on the First Amendment front. All education involves the inculcating of values. If the government inculcates values it is running an establishment of religion. (Yes, I regard progressivism or liberalism as a secular religion). That’s why conservative parents get so wigged out about “values clarification” and sex education; they don’t like their kids getting an education in the other guy’s religion. So close the government schools.

    This isn’t that hard!

  11. Charles
    Charles says:

    The recipe cards for a prision are the same recipe cards used in schools. If you can cook for one institution, then you are qualified to cook for both. Both are products of the industrial age for factory work.

  12. EMJ
    EMJ says:

    Link #5, so far as I can tell, bears no relationship to Penelope’s claim about the quality of decision making before and after entering school.

    Readers of this blog would do well to occasionally follow these links. This is not the first misleading one I have seen.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Luckily, you’re reading a blog, so you have the ability to look at the research I base my conclusions on. If you were reading something in print, you’d have to take the author’s word for it. This is why I love blogs – each link is an invitation from me to have a conversation.


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