If I could
Last week I read the Center on Educational Policy's report on public education, and I found its support for public schools heartening. Although the report concedes that public schools are far less than perfect, it points out that they have played a vital role in American society, and it argues that they should be supported by the public.
The report listed six missions of public schools:
1. To provide universal access to free education.
2. To guarantee equal opportunities for all children.
3. To unify a diverse population.
4. To prepare people for citizenship in a democratic society.
5. To prepare people to become economically self-sufficient.
6. To improve social conditions.
The report states matter of factly that not all public schools are fulfilling their missions well. The big question is how can we do better. Many educators and people on the left side of the political spectrum would argue that we need more funding. They would say that we need more money for more teachers so that we can have smaller class sizes, and that we need to fund more programs. They would also argue that we will get better teachers if we pay them more.
I am not against any of those things, and they would all be somewhat helpful, but I think if we got them all, the results would still be disappointing. In other words, I doubt that they would make the big difference that we are looking for. For example, smaller class sizes are a good thing, but they aren't everything. During my thirty-three years, the worst class I've ever had was my smallest, because so many of the kids in that class either didn't care or were disruptive. The best single class I've ever had was my first hour class in 2002-03, and at that time it was one of the largest classes I had ever had. It was such a good class because there were so many good kids that they brought everybody else in the class with them. I must admit that my worst class would have probably been even worse had it been larger, but my best class wouldn't have been any better if it had been smaller.
And it isn't just class size. I have seen so many different programs tried during my years in teaching with such limited success that it's hard for me not to snicker any time I hear of a new one. When it comes to new educational programs that are going to cost more money, I have more sympathy for frustrated taxpayers than many of them would imagine.
On the other side of the political spectrum, we have the righties who believe that"accountability" and "choice" are the answers to improving education in America. They believe that teachers and administrators aren't trying hard enough, because public schools aren't affected by market forces, so they think competition with private schools would force us to get better. Once again, I think that if they got their way, the results would be disappointing. There might be some small initial improvement at the beginning, but in the long run any improvement would be marginal, and with vouchers, public schools would probably actually end up being worse. There are some teachers and administrators who don't make the effort that they should, but I think that those on the right don't know how hard many of us do try.
I am convinced that we could achieve the "big" results that we all want if we would create a positive learning environment for kids who want to learn, regardless of their ability, and kids who are willing to behave. We could do that by removing kids who are unwilling to behave or make a reasonable effort from their classes. I know that I am beating a familiar drum here, but it is a drum that I believe needs to be beaten over and over and over. Sometimes I feel like a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness.
If you are a teacher, just imagine teaching classes in which your most disruptive and apathetic kids were removed. How much more effective could you be? How much more would those kids who are trying and behaving learn?
If you are not a teacher, I want you to realize two things: First of all, I believe that public schools need to educate any student who wants to be educated. The second thing is that I am not looking to give the boot to a lot of kids here. I teach in what I would call an average school, and I have about 150 kids during the day. If I had the power I would like to have, at this time, one student would be gone. Sixty-seven percent is required to pass in my class. This kid is sitting at 14%, he talks openly in class about how he can get drugs, and I've had a couple of girls tell me that he scares them. I would put three other kids on probation for their behavior, and three others for their miserable effort. I would guess that three or four of these kids would improve enough to stay in their classes, but a couple of them probably wouldn't, and they would be out the door, too. I want to make it clear that if any of them came back next year and wanted to try again, I would be more than happy to let them give it a shot. An added benefit to this is that there is no question in my mind that if I had this power and everyone knew it, there are other kids in my classes who would pick up their effort and performance considerably.
What about "bad" schools with a lot of "bad" kids? In his book, The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard makes the point that even in large inner-city schools where people have the perception that almost all kids are "bad", only a relatively small percentage of disruptive students are destroying the education that is supposed to take place. But assuming that the numbers of problem students in those schools is much larger than it is in mine, it becomes even more important to free the kids who want to learn from them. The more disruptive and apathetic kids there are in a classroom, the less likely it is that anyone is going to be able to learn anything. If you are wondering what we can do with kids who get kicked out of their classes, you can check out this post that I wrote last July.
There are always people who think I am being heartless when I make this argument. After all, we are in the era of "No Child Left Behind". But the kids I am proposing to leave behind are kids who are not learning anything anyway, or kids who are destroying the education of their classmates. I said this before, and I'll say it again: I believe we should be doing everything we can do to educate any kids who want to be educated--that should be our number one mission. If we ever stop trying so hard to accommodate kids who couldn't care less about that, we will do a lot better job of carrying out that mission, along with all of our other ones.