Three Roadblocks on the Path to Common Sense
In many of my posts and comments, I have argued that the best thing we could do to improve public education would be to give teachers the power to remove disruptive and unmotivated kids from their classrooms. When I've had conversations with other teachers, and even parents that I know, about this, they almost always agree. But if most teachers and a lot of good parents agree that this would be a good thing, why can't we do it? Here are three major roadblocks that are in the way.
ROADBLOCK #1: THE POLITICAL RHETORIC OF THE TIMES
If you suggest to a teacher who wants to do his job well, or a parent of well-behaved kids that some kids in school should be kicked out of their classes, most of them will know exactly what you mean. But can you imagine a politician, a talking head on TV, or any member of the educational elite taking that position today? The name of our national educational reform plan, No Child Left Behind, speaks volumes. The political rhetoric of the late 20th and early 21st century has consistently proclaimed that every child must be given a quality education. If only we could get those in power to recognize that it is possible to give the opportunity for an education to every child, but it is impossible to give an education to anyone. Then, perhaps, we could get them to change what they are saying and the policies they are making.
ROADBLOCK #2: VIEWING EDUCATION AS A PROPERTY RIGHT
In rulings it made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Supreme Court declared that education is a student's property right, and it cannot be taken away without due process of law. They also determined that if any school official denies a student his or her rights, and that official knew it or should have known it, that official can be sued.
There are libertarians, as we know from comments on this blog, who believe that education should not be provided by the government. I don't agree with them on that, but I do agree that education should not be considered a right. A right is something that government should not be able to take away from you--freedom to express yourself, freedom to be whatever religion you want, your property; it is not something that the government is obligated to provide for you. In his book, The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard said that education is not a right, but a benefit that is provided by a democratic society. He also said that the Supreme Court's turning education into a property right has done more damage to public education than anything else that has happened in the last 40 years. He is right.
The hopeful note on this is that the Supreme Court does change its mind. In fact, it has changed its mind over 260 times. In 1992 Sandra Day O'Connor listed the criteria that should be used by the Court for overturning precedent. She said the Court must determine whether the rule established by the earlier Court was workable. When you look around at was is happening in some public schools around the nation, it seems clear that this rule is backfiring. Instead of guaranteeing the right to an education, it is taking away the opportunity for a decent education for many kids.
ROADBLOCK #3: OUR UNIONS
If I am right that the great majority of teachers believe we need more power to remove disruptive kids from our classrooms, it seems natural that the battle to do that should be joined by our unions. But let's face it, that isn't going to happen.
There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, our unions are controlled by people who buy into the political rhetoric of the times that says we must save every kid. Most regular classroom teachers have some common sense, so they know that many of the educational platitudes we hear sound wonderful but are completely unrealistic. They understand that saving every kid isn't possible and that we are ruining education for a lot of young people who could be saved by following that route.
The problem is that the people who run our unions do not fit that mold. Some of them have never run a classroom, some of them have not done so for a number of years, and others are educational ideologues. Ideologues of any kind tend to forfeit their common sense. They buy into their party line and platitudes even when that goes against everything they've seen in real life.
Even more important, I suspect, is that if we start questioning "due process rights" for crummy students, it is only natural that someone will say, "Well, what about those due process rights for crummy teachers?" That will call into question tenure and seniority, and there is no way that our unions want to go down that road.
And finally, although I hate to be so cynical, I would guess that there might be another very practical reason why our unions have never suggested that there are some kids who don't belong in school. Giving blatantly disruptive and hopelessly apathetic kids the boot would mean fewer kids in school. Fewer kids in school, might mean fewer teachers (although I don't think that would have to be the case). Fewer teachers means less union dues and less money for staff.
I want to point out that I do believe in teachers' unions. I think they have made a very positive difference in my own life. But on this particular issue, they have been, and I'm afraid will continue to be, useless. When it comes to defending teachers' rights against administrators, our unions have been completely fearless. When it comes to teachers' rights to do their jobs effectively by removing kids from their classrooms who make that impossible, they have been completely gutless.
These roadblocks are enormous. How can they be overcome? I wish I had an answer, but I don't. But then, you never know. Barack Obama made a speech in which he told parents that they need to start doing a better job, and I never thought that would happen. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could find some politician, or even a popular TV talking head, with the common sense and guts to grab this issue? Wouldn't saying, "Teachers should be given the power to remove disruptive kids from their classrooms!" fit right in with John McCain's crusty, no-nonsense, straight-talk image? Well, I can always dream.