Thursday, March 06, 2008

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.


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.


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.

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.


Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis you are forgetting the fourth, equally enormous, roadblock: permitting students and their parents to sue schools for educational malpractice inflicted upon those studenst who do want to learn and are motivated to learn and yet are prevented from learning by antiquated and faddish practices employed in many schools.

3/06/2008 11:53 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

KD, I'm a little confused about how what you are saying here fits into what I'm talking about, but it's good to hear from you again. I've been reading Diane Ravitch's "Left Back," and I have to admit that it does leave me shaking my head. I've been using it as my "breakfast book" in the mornings, so it's taken me a long time, but I've only got forty pages left.

I know how you feel about the instructional practices in schools, and although I don't think the situation is as bad as you do, I agree that there are some real problems there. I do think, however, that there is hope for progress in that area. However, I don't think we will ever come close to fully enjoying the fruits of that progress, until we do the common sense things that I am talking about.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but while we are both talking about the whole education system, I believe that much of your emphasis is at the early grades, while mine tends to be more on the upper grades.

3/06/2008 1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, regarding the union issues you bring up, my feeling is that the best thing that could happen is to make union membership strictly voluntary. If some felt that the union was not serving their needs or that it was creating unnecessary problems, they could withdraw their membership and withhold their dues from the union. That would certainly make the unions much more accountable to their members.


Daniel Simms

3/06/2008 1:44 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis, I think it's important because it provides a real incentive for schools to adopt sound practices.

My focus is the early grades because I don't think you can fix the later grades or the current motivation problems until the early grades are fixed. I can't imagine there's any way you can get motivated kids in middle/high school after they've endured five years of academic failure. No amount of parental motivation can fix that.

3/06/2008 5:29 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

KD, I'm willing to concede that what you are talking about may be part of the problem. I do, however, think that you are overrating how large a part of the problem it is. I say that because so many of the kids who cause problems seem very capable.

Even if you are right on the money, though, we still need to provide the best educational opportunities that we can for those middle and high school kids when they get to us. I've said this before, but I want to re-emphasize that if teachers had the power to remove disruptive and apathetic kids from our classrooms, and it was made clear to the kids that we had that authority, I'm convinced we wouldn't have to remove very many. And that would be good for everybody.

3/07/2008 4:55 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

Kderosa, correct me if I'm wrong, but educational malpractice suits have been brought against school boards and particular schools in the states. Just none of them have won. So it's not a matter of permitting them to go forwards, it's that, up to now, the judges have seen no merit in the cases.

3/07/2008 6:11 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Daniel, I forgot to respond to your comment. I disagree with you on this one. I don't believe in open shop. Whether or not a particular place is going to have a union is up for question, but if there is going to be a union, I believe everyone should have to pay a fair share of the dues. If some people can receive the benefits a union provides without having to pay the dues, some people are going to choose not to pay the dues, even if they like what the union is doing. That's just human nature. Eventually, that union is going to fall apart.

3/07/2008 6:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, I think that is a poor excuse for requiring employees to be a part of an organization they don't want to be a part of. If you require union membership, then the union will be less responsive to the desires of the members they are supposed to be serving. Instead of the direction of the union being influenced by those with the best ideas, it is influenced by those with the most political clout. Hence, the problems you sight in your post.


Daniel Simms

3/07/2008 7:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, perhaps "poor tradeoff" would be a better expression to use than "poor excuse".


Daniel Simms

3/07/2008 7:44 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Ian, I believe the reason why those cases were dismissed was because the courts found that there was no cause of acton for education malpractice, not because the plaintiffs lost on the merits.

3/07/2008 8:00 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Here's a good discussion of the state of the law with respect to education malpractice.

The reluctance of courts around the country to recognize educational malpractice actions is buttressed by compelling public policy reasons disfavoring such recognition. The public policy reasons include: (1) the lack of a satisfactory standard of care by which to measure an educators conduct; (2) the inherent uncertainty in determining the cause and nature of any damages; (3) the resulting burden that would be placed on schools in a predicted flood of litigation; and (4) such a cause of action would force the courts to blatantly interfere with the internal operations and daily workings of educational institutions. S. Brown & K. Cannon, Educational Malpractice Actions: A Remedy for What Ails Our Schools?, 78 Ed. Law. Rep. at 643 (Jan. 28, 1993).

3/07/2008 8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3/07/2008 10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Florida legislature gives teachers the authority to remove students from their own classes. (Located here and here.) Many teachers fall for the illusion of a hierarchy for teachers and administrators, so that administrators sit on the top of the heap and teachers form their base. Therefore, teachers have become fearful of administrators and do not want to do anything to make them unhappy. Referring students to the office for behavior intervention places a burden on administrators that they do not want. Additionally, the school is evaluated on how many referrals get generated.

Only when teachers reawaken to the notion that administrators and teachers are co-equals and must work as a cooperative team, will teachers exercise the authority granted to them by Florida's legislature.

3/07/2008 2:52 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Daniel, the best way to state my view of unions is to use the words that my father did when he told me what he thought about unions when I was a young boy: they are a necessary evil. I understand your feelings, Daniel, but I would still maintain that open shop is a very bad idea.

KD, I wouldn't be surprised at all if you said that you had already read "Left Back." Whether you have or haven't, I thought of you when I read what Daniel A. Meyers said after taking part in an evaluation of "open classrooms" in the 1970s: "The time has come in American education when teachers should stage a walkout when education evangelists propose innovations that have not been validated by careful research over a long period of time. Instead of being paid and applauded, these hucksters should be sent packing and should be thankful they are not jailed as would representatives of a pharmaceutical house for dispensing a drug before it had been tested."


3/07/2008 3:04 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Goader, forgive me for my ignorance, but I'm not sure what is meant by the "authority to remove students from their classes." Does that mean simply to send them to the office, or does it mean to kick them out for the semester (or year)? I already can send kids out of class to the office; that's not nearly enough.

3/07/2008 4:49 PM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

Maybe this is just a variation of roadblocks #1 and #3 but ...

A major way we in the ed business (I'm a high school teacher, too) get our money is by helping to spread the following set of ideas:

If you don't get an education, you will fail. If you do get an education, you will succeed. We know how to provide an education.

Politicians and commentators (and most voters) buy into this. It is a major reason no one wants to be known as "anti-education."

However, allowing teachers to get rid of disruptive kids doesn't fit easily with that story. Instead, it sends messages like:

1) Teachers are cruel monsters. Since depriving students of an education automatically makes them failures, we are deliberately making some of them failures.

2) No, we're not really cruel monsters. Not finishing high school won't make you a failure. It really isn't that important.

3) We just don't know how to educate people who don't really care, and we don't know how to educate people who do care when the non-carers are around.

If people start believing any of those, they will be less likely to spend money on us, and more likely to entertain alternatives to us. I think this is a major reason teachers unions don't push for teacher authority to get rid of disruptive students.

Unfortunately, number three is largely true. And there is, fortunately, a fair amount of truth to two. It may be possible to take much of the sting out of one by saying, "once students realize they will be thrown out if they ruin it for others, they will straighten up and fly right, so few kids will really be hurt." But even that goes against the fairly extreme story that we are presently propounding.

3/07/2008 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


In Florida, a process exists so that a teacher can remove a student from class and refuse to allow him or her to return.

3/08/2008 6:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, please think about union membership from a moral standpoint (you seem like a pretty moral guy). What right do some people have to force another person to pay their money into an organization that this person doesn't want to be a member of, even if it is thought to be better for everyone? Zero right. Another way must be found. The rights of the individual must be respected, even at the expense of the collective.


Daniel Simms

3/08/2008 6:03 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Daniel, the idea of agency shop (which we have in Minnesota) is that people aren't required to join the union, but they are required to pay for the services the union provides in negotiating a contract for them. In other words, a teacher doesn't have to join the union, but he or she will have to pay a certain percentage of the dues that the members are paying. If there was some way to pay the union members the salary negotiated by the union, and non-union members the amount they would receive without that, it would be fine with me if they didn't have to pay a dime. But let's face it; there's no way to do that. So I do believe that having non-members pay their "fair share" is, in fact, the most moral way that it can be done.

If you already knew the concept behind agency shop, I apologize if I came off as lecturing you. I really didn't mean to.

3/08/2008 6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand what you are saying, Dennis (and I don't think you came off as lecturing me), but I don't feel that anyone should have to pay for services that they don't consent to receiving. It's not unreasonable to imagine that some very productive employees could do a better job of representing themselves than a union could do. They should have that right, without having to pay for other services they don't want or need.

By the way, regarding that comment you deleted yesterday, I have seen the exact same comment on a couple of other blogs. Pretty bizzare.


Daniel Simms

3/08/2008 7:43 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Daniel, if someone could figure out a way to do what you are talking about--and do it honestly--I would have no problem with it. And regarding the comment I deleted, if I had responded to that, the only thing I could have said was, "Huh?!?!"

3/09/2008 3:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Minnesota Statutes make a distinction between "removal" (one to five days out of class) and "dismissal" (more than five days out of class) from class. "Removal from class" is a temporary remedy such as in-school or out of school suspension (up to 5 days, although the administrator can extend it to ten days), and does not require parent notification. Dismissal is the longer term remedy and begins with an alternative placement to an alternative learning environment. This does require administration to attempt to contact the parent and is a process much like Florida provides.

Although, Florida's law allows somewhat more discretion for teachers, Minnesota law clearly gives teachers the authority to first "remove" and then "dismiss" students from class for continuously disruptive behavior. Teachers in Florida rarely exercise their full authority because the administration prefers the problems to stay in the classroom. This is a form of subtle intimidation of teachers by administrators. Teachers must shift their attitude away from administrators as bosses and toward an equal and cooperative relationship.

Minnesota Statutes 2007

…Subd. 2. Dismissal. "Dismissal" means the denial of the current educational program to any
pupil, including exclusion, expulsion, and suspension. It does not include removal from class…

…Subd. 2. Grounds for dismissal. A pupil may be dismissed on any of the following grounds:… (b) willful conduct that significantly disrupts the rights of others to an education, or the ability of school personnel to perform their duties…


3/09/2008 5:37 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thanks for your research, Goader. I'm not sure how you are interpreting this to mean that a teacher can "dismiss" a student. I definitely do not have the power to do that. The only person in my school who can "dismiss" a student from my class is the principal. And I'm reasonably certain that that is the way it is throughout the state.

When it comes to expelling a student, forget it. If a school here wants to expel a student, the legal costs make it nearly impossible. And then, if the student was expelled, the school district has to pay for an alternative education for that student. The result: we end up putting up with things that we should never put up with.

3/09/2008 7:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am one who believes that a relatively few chronically disruptive students ruin the chance for many students to receive a good education. Do something with those few disruptive students and it makes all the difference.

3/09/2008 1:17 PM  
Blogger The Vegas Art Guy said...

goader, you are right on the money. I have one class (It's ALWAYS one) that has 4 trouble makers in it. Those four make it harder for everyone else to actually learn. If I could permanently remove them from my room, life would be much easier.

3/12/2008 9:59 PM  

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