Why We Can Expect a Major Escalation of High School Protests This Spring
As an historian of social movements, one of the things I have learned is that experience in one form of protest often spills over to another. In the 1960’s participation of tens of thousands of young people in civil rights demonstrations, some of which took involved civil disobedience, went a long way to shaping their response to the escalation of the Vietnam War, leading ultimately to the largest and most militant anti-war movement in US History, You can also say the same about the participation of hundreds of thousands of working class Americans in hunger marches and unemployed demonstrations in the early Depression years, an experience which conditioned them to participate in the wave of militant strikes that swept through the US from 1934 through 1937, leading to the collective bargaining agreements in overland trucking and the auto and steel industry which labor leaders had once thought impossible.
We may see a significant escalation in education based youth activism as a result of the remarkable protests against the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice currently sweeping the nation. Although these protests have attracted people of a wide variety of ages and racial backgrounds, tens of thousands of high school students have participated in them, not only in Ferguson, but in New York, Florida, California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado and numerous other states where thousands of people have taken to the streets. And with many more protests to come, those numbers could escalate dramatically.
The sense of power and agency that these high school students are gaining from participation in these protests should not be underestimated. For many, these have been the first protests they have ever participated in and the sensation of being part of a purpose filled group of thousands of people capable of shutting down streets, highways, bridges and transit lines has given them a feeling of power and agency they never thought possible
That feeling of power is not going to disappear. It is going to remain part of who they are and when they return to their high schools and even middle schools, many of which have test filled curricula, zero tolerance disciplinary policies and heavily policed security arrangements, a coming clash is inevitable
Do not be surprised if the result is a wave of school walkouts this coming spring- some to protest excessive testing, some to protest humiliating security policies, some to protests the elimination of arts and sports programs, some in solidarity with people protesting police violence in their own cities and neighborhoods. Young people who have had a taste of freedom, a taste of solidarity, and a taste of their collective power are not going to easily adapt to the scripted curricula and constant test prep they are being deluged with; with metal detectors in their schools; and with police being brought in to arrest students for minor disciplinary infractions. To young people who have been in the streets and brought the operations of whole cities to a standstill, compliant acceptance of policies which humiliate them bore them and stigmatize them may well be seen as intolerable.
And if high school walkouts spread to the point where they make schools non functional and interfere with testing, they may do more to force a reconsideration of Test Drive Pedagogy and Common Core than all other protests combined
The genie of youth activism is out of the bottle, and will not return any time soon
And the result may be the first real break in the Test Machine that has grabbed control of our educational system and is busily squeezing the life out
of it for all concerned