Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Choice? Standards? Balderdash!

I am now in the middle of reading Left Back, Diane Ravitch's history of reform in American education. One of Ravitch's clear messages is that we should be wary of movements. After having spent nearly all of my life in American public schools--first as a student, then as a teacher--I can only say, "Amen!"

Over the weekend Joanne Jacobs ran a post on competing articles from Sol Stern and Lisa Snell in which they debate which of the two educational movements of the early 21st century, "choice" or "standards," is the true answer to improving education in America. As someone who actually works in the classroom, it is frustrating for me to read their thoughts. They are both so certain that the movements they advocate are the answers, but it seems to me so obvious that neither of them will lead to much improvement. And while they argue about which of their fads is better, they, like all the other experts and policy makers, ignore a simple change that could do so much.

Lisa Snell insists that what is needed is choice, and Stern has also been a strong advocate of that in the past. Well, I have news for both of them. The most important reason that kids from the low-performing urban schools, that Snell is most concerned about, need choice is to get away from all of the disruptive and unmotivated kids they have in their classrooms that make true education impossible. We have always heard that kids in urban schools need choice to get away from poor instruction and uncaring teachers, but I suspect that some of the teachers in those schools are more caring and better than many of the rest of us could ever hope to be. Those teachers are working in incredibly difficult situations, and I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for them to constantly hear that they would improve if only there were competition to make them try harder. After promoting it for years, even Stern has given up on that idea.

Stern, a strong critic of so-called "progressive" teaching methods, now believes that standards will force us to improve our instruction methods. Well, I've got news for him. If I have enough disruptive and unmotivated kids in a class, like I do in one of my classes this year, it doesn't matter what my instruction methods are--not much learning is going to take place. I have had a great deal of success during my teaching career, but this year I have one class out of my six that has me tearing my hair out. I have a sneaking suspicion that this class is giving me a taste of the conditions that teachers in some of those urban districts face with regularity.

The answer to improving education in America is maddeningly simple, and every so often Sol Stern stumbles over it without seeing it. He says that one of the reasons he admires small Catholic schools is because they "enforce order in the classroom." Well, how about giving those of us in public school classrooms the power to enforce order in our classrooms? In order to do that, when some kids behave horribly day after day, and when some other kids make absolutely no effort to succeed day after day, it has to be much easier for us to remove them from our classes than it is now. Then we wouldn't need to give kids a "choice" to find a different school. Then we can actually take a look at which instruction methods work best, because they will matter. I don't know any public school teachers who don't want to be able to enforce order in their classrooms, but we are forced to be unbearably tolerant. If Sol Stern and Lisa Snell really want to improve public education in America, why don't they help us do something about that? That is a reform that would do more to improve public education than choice or standards ever could. I guarantee it!

12 Comments:

Blogger CrypticLife said...

So, the states where teachers are allowed to "enforce order" ought to be ranked higher educationally, right? The following states allow corporeal punishment by schoolteachers.

State rank State
48 Alabama
43 Arizona
40 Arkansas
16 Colorado
30 Florida
39 Georgia
29 Idaho
20 Indiana
9 Kansas
36 Kentucky
47 Louisiana
49 Mississippi
23 Missouri
50 New Mexico
7 North Carolina
15 Ohio
41 Oklahoma
26 Pennsylvania
33 South Carolina
42 Tennessee
32 Texas
8 Wyoming

State ranks provided by http://www.psk12.com/rating/USthreeRsphp/STATE_US_level_Elementary_CountyID_0_start_1.html. If you average them out, it's not a positive statement on the value of corporeal punishment.

I know you're not saying we should whack our children, but a lot of people interpret "enforcing order" that way.

2/12/2008 7:22 AM  
Anonymous Zeke said...

We all know what results from 'movements" right? Yes, and that is what we have often gotten in education from any of various movements. After 39 years in a high school social studies classroom, Dennis is right: without basic order, no learning. Order can be achieved with compassion and humor, but must be achieved.
I read about urdan schools and can't imagine teaching in some of them - until that changes, little real change.

Read 'Tested' by Linda Perlstein, to understand the reality of even a good urban elementary school.

2/12/2008 1:52 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Zeke, you and I are on the same page, and thanks for reminding me about TESTED. That will definitely be on my summer reading list.

Crypticlife, I am definitely not talking about corporal punishment. I have no desire to be doing THAT. I firmly believe that what we need is to redefine education as a right. All kids should have the right to an OPPORTUNITY to gain an education. They should not have a right to be in a classroom or a school no matter what they do. If a student won't try, or if a student disrupts my class with any regularity, I don't want to spank him. I want to be able to remove him from my class.

2/12/2008 3:54 PM  
Blogger TT said...

Interesting, I had a conversation with a student today that went something along these lines:

Me: You know, Student A, someday some enterprising attorney is going to figure out that there is money to be made suing the families of those students who are so disruptive that they deny other students their right to an education.

Student A: What does that mean?

Me: It means that I hope you are finished with school by then, because I think that attorney could win a nice settlement from your family on behalf of the other students in the class.

This led to a class conversation on FAPE and whether students should be held responsible for interfering with other students' education. The overwhelming conclusion was that if they knew their families would be held financially responsible, they'd be better behaved.

Maybe we can shift the focus from corporal punishment and choice to financial penalties. Although that would not matter much to those who had nothing to begin with - still, it sends a message.

2/13/2008 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The answer to improving education in America, the ONLY right answer, is to subject it to free market forces instead of government control. You are beating your head against a wall, Dennis, trying to make any progress within the present system of mandatory attendence (abduction), mandatory curriculum (indoctrination), and financing by taxation (theft). And you wonder why so many parents don't seem to want to be involved in public education.

You would probably say that if we removed the government from the provision of education, some would go without. But do you honestly think that many don't go without now?

Before there were public schools in America, literacy rates were high and education was in demand. And that demand was being met by market forces. There was no reason whatsoever for the government to get involved in education, except to indoctrinate young minds into subservience to the state. In that respect, public education has worked remarkably well.

a troll named benny

2/14/2008 5:32 PM  
Anonymous Betty said...

The lack of support from administrators and parents in some public schools makes it difficult to teach. I have known parents that moved their students from public to private schools, and they were no longer able to pull the strings and get their kids out of trouble. They somehow managed to accept the tougher standards of discipline just because it was private school. Go figure.

2/17/2008 7:28 AM  
Blogger Cory, 2700 A.D. said...

Benny the troll--

Maybe you should let Nordic countries such as Denmark know that public education causes a drop in literacy rates, so they can get that last 1% that isn't literate up to speed.

BTW, before there were public schools in America, we were not an industrialized society, most blacks were moving from slavery to sharecropping, and the US hadn't even begun to hit its immigration stride.

Anwyay...honestly, there needs to be a movement toward small-class early childhood and early elementary education. The achievement gap widens at a very young age, not because of differences in at-school schooling but at-home schooling. Since we can't force parents to read to their kids and have kids read to them as much as possible, we should give the underserved in our population as much of a chance to do so with as much individual attention as possible. This, of course, is expensive and fundamentally tough to do, but if someone asked elementary teachers what they could do with a class cut in half, well...you'll see tears come to their eyes.

2/17/2008 4:42 PM  
Anonymous benny the troll said...

So what's your point, Cory, 2700 a.d., except that you probably don't care for my suggestion?

2/17/2008 7:32 PM  
Blogger Cory, 2700 A.D. said...

My point is that you can't base your argument for free-market education based on statistics from a century ago. Also that public education in and of itself isn't a bad thing, as seen in the countries of the world with the highest quality of living.

2/17/2008 10:26 PM  
Anonymous benny the troll said...

Actually, Cory, 2700 a.d., it was more like two centuries ago. I would say that a system of abduction and indoctrination, financed by theft, would not be a good thing for a society that thinks that it is free (we are not anywhere near as free as most of us think we are). I suppose it's easy to justify public education so long as one is so vested in a system that teaches children that they can't survive without their master, the state. Wouldn't it be nice, dear teachers, if you were free to teach?

I'll now leave you fine people alone.

2/18/2008 9:37 AM  
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