Our post last Wednesday on Real School Reform generated a lot of comment, much of it thoughtful. The responses tended to fall into two groups: Those who are taxpayers with children in school and those who are still pursuing an education degree with hopes of some day being a teacher. The former group tended to agree with the basic theme of the post, the latter group tended to be outraged by it. The former group were fairly uniform in saying that they don't want their child in a classroom where the teacher cannot teach. Those in the latter group generally expressed the view that disruptive students should be viewed as a challenge, that it would be reprehensible to just give up on them, and that any teacher who felt that such students should be expelled from school is not worthy of being in the classroom.
To the extent that this second group volunteered the information they were often elementary ed majors, and I certainly did not intend to suggest that I think elementary children should be expelled, unless they are very deeply troubled and a danger to their classmates. My post was directed, though, at a serious problem among high school students, a group with which I've had some experience.
What we need to do as a society, I guess, is have a conversation about what we want our schools to accomplish and what the order of priorities should be. Do we want our schools to be educational facilities? Do we want them to be athletic mills? Do we want them to be social rehabilitation centers? Whatever our highest priority is all else should be subordinated to that goal. If the priority is to give our young people the best education we can provide for them then we need to remove, to the extent we are able, everything that prevents us from achieving that goal.
Taxpayers are paying teachers to be educators, not to be social workers. When a student is chronically disruptive, disrespectful, violent, or threatening, he brings education to a grinding halt, he cheats his fellow students out of a better future, he robs taxpayers of their investment in the school, and he demoralizes good teachers who entered the profession excited about teaching. Such students are the biggest reason our schools have difficulty turning out academically accomplished graduates, and nothing else we do to reform education will make any significant difference until these barriers to academic success are removed from the classroom.
Understand, I'm not talking about a fourth grader who has trouble staying in his seat. I'm talking about the six foot thug who threatens to punch his 100 lb. teacher in her face if she doesn't get off his case. I'm talking about the one or two young men or women in a class who are consistently loud, rude, obscene and insulting to both their classmates and their teachers and who make it impossible for a teacher to present a lesson. I'm talking about the student who has remained unmoved by his teachers' best attempts to help and counsel him about how he can improve his chances at a decent future. I'm talking about the student who has already been suspended three or four times in a school year but whose unacceptable behavior remains unchanged.
When a teacher's day is spent constantly running around the classroom putting out fires that teacher is not teaching. When a teacher's stomach is churning throughout much of her day, when she wakes up every morning dreading her seventh period class, when she checks the absentee roster each morning in hopes that so-and-so is absent that day, she's not going to be nearly as effective as she could be, and her students are inevitably going to be cheated.
A number of readers suggested that teachers of very disruptive young people need to develop strategies for dealing with them. This is the sort of thing students learn to say in their teacher education courses. In real life young teachers quickly learn that very few, if any, of those strategies that sounded so good in their college ed classes actually work. The only strategies many teachers in too many of our schools can hope to develop are strategies for managing their stress and getting them through the day.
Sure, as many readers pointed out, difficult kids often come from dysfunctional homes and can't help being the way they are. That's no doubt true, but it's irrelevant.
One reader, however, responding to a different post said something that is relevant to our original post on school reform. He mentioned that a police chief of his acquaintance once told him that:
"There are three sets of people out in the world. The first is 85% of the population, who you don't really have to worry about, and if you do happen to have a run in with them, you just tell them what they did wrong, and they will never do it again. The second makes up 10% of the population, and these people need a little help with the law and fitting into society appropriately, so we're here just to guide them along. The final group makes up the last 5%. These people are the predators of the world who just need to be locked up behind bars. That is our mission, to find these animals and put them where they belong."
Except for calling them predators and animals (though a few of them certainly are) the same statistics pretty much hold for the population of many of our high schools. The good teachers can guide that 10% in useful directions, but few can do much with that 5%.
Even if one or two of them could be helped by school personnel the commitment of time and resources necessary to achieve even the most modest progress is so great that everyone else in the school suffers. That 1% to 5% of students are obstacles standing in the way of schools fulfilling their mandate, and they need to be removed if we're going to be serious about improving the quality of the education the vast majority of our students deserve.
Some readers seemed to think that showing incorrigible students the door was tantamount to condemning them to a lifetime of dysfunction, but why think that? Many people who were unmanageable while in school suddenly grow up when forced to make their own way in the work world or the military. In some cases, getting them out of the school environment is the best thing we can do for them.
If some other alternative can be found for these kids that the taxpayers are willing to underwrite then fine, but there's no reason to think we're doing anyone, including the problem students themselves, any favors by keeping them in school and constantly recycling them through the principal's office. They're not learning anything while they're in school, and they're preventing others from learning, so what's the point?RLC