Saturday, August 23, 2008

Some things our critics don't get

Rather than writing posts the last few days, I've been spending more time reading other blogs and leaving comments on them. As usual, there have been a number of posts involving "choice" and charter schools. I ended up spending a fair amount of time going back and forth with people on a post by Joanne Jacobs saying that blacks do better in charter schools. Anyone who has read a few of my posts knows that I am very big on the idea of giving teachers in public schools the authority to set reasonable standards for effort and behavior and then being able to enforce those standards. I responded to Joanne's post along those lines, and I also expressed my lack of enthusiasm for choice. As usual, I wasn't very popular. It's a little frustrating to me, because I really believe that there are some things that people who are critical of public education don't understand if they aren't teachers who spend much of their lives in classrooms. (And I know how popular saying that is!) This is not meant at all as an insult to those people. I'm not implying that they have no right to express their opinions on education issues, and I'm not implying being a teacher automatically makes my opinions more valid than theirs. Nivertheless, there are just things that I think it's impossible to completely get unless you actually live it. In any case, here are some of those things I think many who are critical of public schools don't completely understand.

1. Whenever the performance of the students in a school is poor, it is assumed that the teachers and administration in that school must be doing a lousy job. In some cases this might be completely true, in others it might be partially true, but it some other cases it might not be true at all. What people, who don't spend their time in classrooms, don't understand is how important the make-up of the students in a classroom is. I have posted about the positive effect that good students can have on each other, but obviously there are some other students who can have a very negative effect.

Not to brag (ahem, ahem), but...I have a good reputation as a teacher in my community. I have received a teacher of the year award and coach of the year awards, so I think I do a pretty good job at handling groups of young people. But I have six classes every year, and some years the differences in learning that is taking place in those different classes is enormous. How can that be when the same person is teaching all of them? The answer is in the make-up of the students in those different classes. Give me a classroom of kids with a reasonable amount of motivation, and kids--who are not a bunch of little angels--but show a reasonable amount of respect for authority, and I can be an impressive teacher. But throw me into a classroom with a few kids whose sole purpose in coming to school each day is to disrupt and see how much attention they can draw to themselves, and some others who couldn't care less about learning anything, and I doubt that I'll impress anyone. Although I've never taught in one of those "failing" inner-city schools, I suspect that they have more than their share of classrooms that are like that. When that's the case, I don't care who the teachers are or who the principal is, not much learning is going to take place.

This is why I am so concerned about charter schools and vouchers. Parents who don't care about their kids' education are not very likely to take advantage of those options. Parents who do care about education are, and their kids are the ones who are the most likely to be positive influences in their classrooms. Take a number of them out of a public school, and leave all the negative influences and pretty soon a decent school might become a bad one.

When there is a truly bad school, however, I can't argue against choice. I don't want to leave any child who really wants an education to be stuck in an impossible situation while we wait for my dream-reforms to happen.

2. I don't think non-teachers realize how few disruptive kids it takes to ruin a class. Having one truly disruptive kid in a class is a major headache, but if you just have three or four it can completely ruin a class. In his book, The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard talked to teachers and was surprised to learn that in even those so-called "bad" schools most kids behaved pretty well. It is a small minority of kids who were ruining education for everyone.

3. Since the 1960s, a number of factors have made it much more difficult for public school teachers and principals to deal with unruly kids. The first move came when the Supreme Court ruled that education is a "property right" that can't be taken away from a student without due process of law. Shortly after that, the Court ruled that any school official can be sued if he or she is determined--by the courts, of course--to have violated a student's "property right." After that, laws were passed saying that students couldn't be punished for their disabilities, and this was followed by the number of kids in schools labeled EBD and ADHD skyrocketing. So if a school official wants to suspend or expel a student, or even kick him out of class; watch out! I'm not saying it's impossible to discipline public school students, but it definitely ain't easy.

Going along with 2 & 3 is the fact that disruptive kids tend to be those who have grown up testing limits, and many of them are definitely not stupid. They are constantly pushing to see how far they can go, so by the time they're in high school, they are experts at playing the system. To make matters worse, when some other students, who would normally be okay, see what disruptive kids get away with, they can also become major problems.

The bottom line to all this is that when teachers and principals are faced with disruptive kids, all the pressure is to put up with them. The damage that is done to the education of the students who are stuck in those classes becomes a secondary concern, if it is a concern at all.

4. This last one involves what I suspect is a misunderstanding about my motives. When I go back and forth with other bloggers on this subject, I always get the feeling that they think I'm an educational Neanderthal who wants to throw a bunch of kids out of school. Believe it or not, that is not the case.

I honestly believe that if teachers had the power to remove disruptive and apathetic kids from our classes, we wouldn't have to use it very often. I have great faith in students' ability to adapt and to live up to expectations. As I said earlier about disruptive students, they are expert at knowing how far they can go. Make it clear that in order to remain in a class or in a school that certain behavior standards must be met and certain effort standards must be met, and nearly every student would meet those standards.

I have been a teacher, but I have also been a coach. In high school athletics, coaches have the power that I believe teachers should have in their classrooms. If kids don't do what is expected, they will be shown the door. During my twenty years in Warroad, there has been a grand total of two kids who have been dismissed from our hockey teams because of attitude and discipline problems. I know that there are big differences between sports and academics, but there is no doubt in my mind that a major reason for that low number is that the kids in sports clearly understand that there are certain things that won't be tolerated.

I also don't want to give the impression that public school classrooms all around America are loaded with disruptive and apathetic kids. Jay Matthews wrote an article earlier this year in which he complained about the public schools that are poor in America, but he also said this:

Our best public schools are first-rate, producing more intense, involved, and creative ­A-­plus students than our most prestigious colleges have room for. That is why less-known institutions such as Claremont McKenna, Rhodes, and Hampshire are drawing many freshmen just as smart as the ones at Princeton. The top 70 percent of U.S. public high schools are pretty good, certainly better than they have ever been...

Despite my harping about unruly students, most of my own classes are actually pretty good, but I definitely have had classes that were awful because of a few disruptive students. When that happens, it's frustrating because I feel like I should be able to do so much more about those kids than I can. There have been times when I have actually been embarrassed when I've seen kids in the hallway who wanted to learn something but were stuck in one of those classes. I have no doubt that in many of those so-called "failing" schools across the country, teachers are feeling the same frustrations I do, only a lot more often.

Public schools definitely have their problems, but I believe in them. I went to a public school, I've taught for 34 years in public schools, and my three sons went to public schools. They are all successful in their careers, and I've seen so many of our other graduates who have been as successful as they've wanted to be. My feelings are best summed up by one of the best quotes I've ever heard, and it comes from the late Albert Shanker, a teachers' union leader who was even admired by many conservatives:

We are about to create a system of choice and vouchers, so that ninety-eight percent of the kids who behave can go someplace and be safe. And we're going to leave the two percent who are violent and disruptive to take over the schools. Now, isn't it ridiculous to move ninety-eight percent of the kids, when all you have to do is move two or three percent of them and the other ninety-eight percent would be absolutely fine?


Blogger Mrs. C said...

I guess I believe in public education as a nice theory in a book. In practice, I find public school staff have been physically abusive to my son in the past here in the state of Missouri. (Please stop by my blog sometime and read the sidebar articles if you want to talk specifics.)

I won't discount the wonderful things MANY teachers are doing; some of the teachers my older sons have are doing a fine job and I get all happy to hear they're teaching again this year.

However, I think the parents should have more leeway in deciding what to do with their children. I think we agree that compulsory education is wrong, but probably for different reasons.

I see the monopoly of public education as being detrimental and leading to a haughty attitude in *some* who work for it. (And it only takes a few to traumatize a child or turn a former PTA member who contributed lotsa money to the "system" into one of "those parents" who refuse to turn in forms every year for her older children. :] )

YOU see the students, teachers and parents who are working every day to make it better.

Actually, I don't think either of us are wrong. I think you are heavily invested in making this system work and I am heavily invested in not allowing it to encroach on the freedoms my family has to homeschool. Sometimes when we have conversations with people who have differing viewpoints, it isn't so much that they have different goals... more that they've seen life from another angle and have different concerns about how to get there.


I'm really glad you are back, Dennis, as I have missed our conversations!!!

8/23/2008 6:06 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you very much for your comment Mrs. C.. I have to admit that I probably am a little unrealistic. I grew up in the 50s and 60s, which was an era of neighborhood schools. We took great pride in OUR school, and people in the other areas of Minneapolis took great pride in THEIR schools. I remember my parents serving on committees and that sort of thing. Since I have spent my entire adulthood in two small towns, I've continued to see that type of feeling. I know that in metro areas, things are different. I long for the good old days, but let's face it--they probably aren't coming back.

I have really enjoyed our conversations, too. But after writing a book and two years of blogging, I felt like I was saying the same things over and over again. As you can tell from this post, that really hasn't changed. I'm going to try to stick with this, but maybe try to spend more time reading other blogs and then just shoot for about one post per week. We'll see. School starts tomorrow, and as you know, sometimes the spirit is willing, but ...

8/24/2008 3:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see the public school system as generally broken and you have cited some of the evidence yourself. It is largely flawed because it is based in compulsion:
* Property owners are forced to fund it, regardless of whether they use it
* Parents are largely forced to send their children to it because they have already paid for it
* Teachers are forced educators to deal with youngsters uninterested in education
* Administrators are forced to retain unqualified teachers if they have managed to be tenured
* Children are forced into hearing the pro-teen-sexuality, pro-homosexuality, anti-Christian, anti-America messages espoused by the unions
Leaving my motivated child in this government-run institution may help other children, but if I have the means (through vouchers, charter schools, or having enough money for a private school after the government steals tuition from me through property taxes), then I will put my child in the best environment I can. I have to be more concerned for her welfare than whether or not unmotivated public school children are inspired by her.
For more about the failing of government-run schools, I recommend "From Crayons to Condoms: The Ugly Truth About America's Public Schools" by Steve Baldwin and Karen Holgate
Just as the Supreme Court was wrong in calling education a property right (how can you have a right to something that can only be earned?), the government should not be in the business of education at all. (1) Government should only be involved in areas specified to it in the Constitution. (2) Education requires meeting multiple changing needs; the free market is the place for that.

8/24/2008 5:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And one more read to recommend:
- Same Anonymous

8/24/2008 6:00 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous, wow! Where do I begin?

You have a libertarian view on education, and I mostly disagree with you, but that's a huge subject in itself. (I've written entire posts on various aspects of that.) So I'm going to leave that alone and go onto some things that I can handle a little more briefly.

I would be dishonest if I didn't acknowledge that there are problems in public education. I've never said they don't exist. I am proposing solutions to those problems. But I'm not sure what you mean by some of your accusations. When I have heard students constantly refer to something as "gay," or when I've heard students say things like, "they ought to kill all queers," I've objected. If that's pro-homosexuality, I'm not going to apologize for it. I've tried to explain the concept of separation of church and state and the rationale for it. Not only that, but (gasp!) I support it. If that's anti-Christian, I'm not going to apologize for that. Although I tell my students that
America is probably the best nation in which to live in the world, and that we've generally moved in a positive direction during our history, I do also talk about some of the things that we shouldn't be very proud of. If that's anti-American, I'm not going to apologize for that. But besides those things, I would challenge anyone to find any student I've ever had who would say that they have ever gotten any pro-homosexuality, anti-Christian, or anti-American messages in any of my classes. I'm not sure what the heck you mean by pro-teen sexuality, but I can assure you that I haven't ever told the kids that it would be a swell idea for them to go out and have sex.

I don't think I'm unusual in any of these things. Yes, we have some idiots who are teachers who try to push a particular ideology on students, but the great majority of us try to approach all of these subjects with as much tact as we can.

You also seem to ignore one of the things I said. I've seen all kinds of public school graduates be successful. These are kids with various ability levels from all the different social classes. As I said in my post, in truly bad schools, I won't argue against giving motivated kids the chance to get out. But in the great majority of schools in America, that is completely unnecessary. Motivated kids will do just fine.

8/24/2008 7:20 AM  
Blogger DMV47 said...

Hi Dennis - I'm a teacher too and glad I happened upon your blog (through Mrs. C's). It seems our taste in templates is also a common thread!

8/24/2008 8:47 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi DMV! I had an autistic kid in my first hour Basic American History class last year, and I really enjoyed him. He'd usually come in about 20 minutes before school started just to shoot the breeze. He was a big sophomore who'd moved to the district from Kentucky, and he was a very nice young man, but he sure humbled me on one of the first days of school. Besides autism, he also suffered from a sleep disorder, so it was not unusual for him to konk out right in the middle of class. I had spent the summer converting all my notes for the class to PowerPoint, and I couldn't wait to give my first presentation. I fired up the projector, turned out the lights and began my effort to wow the kids. Twenty seconds into my presentation, the young man in question was in a full-blown snore. If teaching doesn't teach you anything else, it teaches you humility!

Thanks for stopping by!

8/24/2008 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Same anonymous again. I hope to have time later this week to more fully reply to you, Dennis.

In the meantime, here's the flip side of good students lifting up classmates:

8/26/2008 7:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous again! I am sorry that it has taken so long to draft a full reply. I hope that it will still be read.

> You have a libertarian view on education

I suppose that label works as well as any.

> When I have heard students constantly refer to something as "gay," or when I've heard students say things like, "they ought to kill all queers," I've objected. If that's pro-homosexuality, I'm not going to apologize for it.

First of all, my comments were not about what you personally do or not, so there was no need to discuss or defend your individual classroom actions. Though, on that note, I too object when I hear students use those distasteful and all-too-common phrases. Homosexuals need to be reached with the love of Christ just like anyone else. Why should any homosexual listen to you when you use the word with which they label themselves (gay) as a synonym for stupid? It is terrible.

Second, there is a concerted effort on the part of many activists in education to promote the normalization of homosexuality. Some recent evidence:
Many schools will defend students’ rights to express positive views of homosexuality but not negative ones. Consider how many schools promote the Day of Silence ( but not the Day of Truth (

Third, since you brought out anecdotes, I will contribute one. I once worked in a large public high school with many student clubs. There were three large bulletin boards in the main hallway. On two of them, every club had space for an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper to post announcements. The third bulletin board, which was the same size as the other two that served about 50 clubs each, was devoted entirely to the Gay Straight Alliance.

> I've tried to explain the concept of separation of church and state and the rationale for it. Not only that, but (gasp!) I support it. If that's anti-Christian, I'm not going to apologize for that.

First, again my comments were not about what you personally do in your classroom.

Second, the so-called separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. It is an unconstitutional fabrication of the Supreme Court, much like the so-called right to privacy used to justify the Roe v. Wade decision. See ( for a good summary.

Third, there is an anti-Christian bias throughout much of the structure of the public schools. Church organizations encounter discrimination when trying to enjoy equal access to public school facilities, such as schools that rent their classroom spaces in the evenings. Students often need to bring lawsuits in order to start student-led Bible study clubs or even to announce the See You at the Pole rally to classmates. Hence, the need for help for student such as this (

Fourth, since you care for anecdotes, in that same school I mentioned was a student-led Bible club. (It did take legal suit to force the school to allow it to form.) When I started at the school, I asked the advisor to the club if I could help. He said I should not get involved because associating myself with that club would hurt my chances of getting tenure.

> I'm not sure what the heck you mean by pro-teen sexuality, but I can assure you that I haven't ever told the kids that it would be a swell idea for them to go out and have sex.

Again, I was not referring to you specifically.

However, there certainly is a strong promotion of teen sexuality in schools. Many school districts (including my own until recently) use Planned Parenthood as a resource. Look at just one of their teaching tools: (

Many schools also use SIECUS, which dismisses abstinence education out-of-hand (when abstinence is the only 100%-effective way for teens to be protected). Their own website promotes material that teaches children 5 to 8 years old about masturbation.

> Yes, we have some idiots who are teachers who try to push a particular ideology on students, but the great majority of us try to approach all of these subjects with as much tact as we can.

I am afraid, based on my experiences, I must disagree with you as to whether it is the “tactful” or “idiots” who are in the majority.

> As I said in my post, in truly bad schools, I won't argue against giving motivated kids the chance to get out. But in the great majority of schools in America, that is completely unnecessary. Motivated kids will do just fine.

Call me a libertarian again if you like, but I believe that I as a parent should decide whether or not moving my child out of a government-run school is necessary. Perhaps I am not willing to settle for “just fine.”

In closing, though I disagree with you about 1/3 of the time (such as voting for Obama), I find much of what you have to say fascinating and stimulating. I particularly agree with you on the need to empower teachers to remove disruptive students. Thank you for a good debate.

8/26/2008 7:58 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous, thank YOU for a good debate.

Again, I used examples of what I do because I really do believe that I'm typical.

Like you, I'm a little busy right now, so I'll get back on this later. But thanks for the response.

8/27/2008 3:17 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Back again, Anonymous. I just wanted to deal with the religious issue. I get touchy about accusations that public schools are anti-Christian. My faith is the most important thing in my life, and it is a central part of why I do what I do. My parents were lower-middle class Catholics who always said that we shouldn't be overly concerned with how much money we made. Every day that I go to school, I am trying to bring my faith with me in the way I do my job, how hard I work at it, and in how I treat other people, especially my students.

You are correct when you say that the words "separation of church and state" do not appear in the Constitution, but there is a non-establishment clause that has been interpreted that way. Although the Supreme Court has seemed confused on it at times, I basically agree with what they have done regarding religion and schools. Many object to the fact that school prayers are not allowed, but I do agree with it. I remember growing up in a predominantly Protestant area in Minneapolis, and until I was in about fifth grade, we began the day with a school prayer. Obviously, there was no sign of the cross at the beginning or end of the prayer. I remember that that always made me uncomfortable. Today, that wouldn't bother me at all, but it did when I was elementary school age. Today, in the school I teach at we have a significant Buddhist population. How uncomfortable would they feel? I am fine, by the way, with the idea of a moment of silence where students could pray if they wanted to.

On gay rights, I am more tolerant than you are and I was going to address that, but I think I'll save that, and make a post out of it. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to read your comments.

8/27/2008 3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me again.

I hope that you can address future issues with less personalization. I never questioned what your faith was, what its object was, how strong it was, or how you practice it in your classroom.

I never mentioned an espousing of school-led religious observance. The removal of compulsory Protestant prayer from school was not my issue. I cited schools preventing Christian students from expressing and practicing their faith.

As for homosexuals, I am completely tolerant. I can tolerate something and still believe that it is wrong.

8/27/2008 6:03 PM  
Anonymous Goader said...

Thanks for saying what I've thought for some time. I believe that sometimes the group of students in a class is such that a well-behaved, rich academic environment is virtually impossible. When a few students know each other and tend toward disruptive behavior and, end up in a class together no teacher alone can handle them successfully. Administrators will not always acknowledge this, which can make a teacher feel isolated, almost abandoned. Sometimes teachers will shy away from acknowledging this phenomenon; although, they know it happens.

Last year, I had one particular class that was a disciplinary nightmare. I knew it and the students knew it. No matter what I did, it wasn't long before the dynamics of the room took over. It is so good to hear someone with your degree of experience say that sometimes nothing can be done short of a school wide effort. Even then, maybe some classes are lost causes. I have taught five years after entering education as a second career. I have seen a number of things that would surprise most people who have never taught.

Most parents, in fact, do not know their teenagers as well as think they do. They know the child better than anybody does, but a teenager is no longer simply a child. Some parents would be shocked to see how their child acts in class if they could surreptitiously observe the child through a two-way mirror.

8/27/2008 6:51 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous, research and studies and numbers are important, and I will use those things from time to time, but this blog is really about personalization. The reason I wrote a book and the reason began this blog is because so many of the things I'd seen the experts say about public education and so many of the "studies" I'd read about did not square with my own experience. In my comment on religion and schools above, I really wasn't trying to argue with you, I was trying to tell you where I'm coming from. Also, perhaps I caused you to misunderstand when I used the word "tolerant." If so, I apologize. I was referring to the ISSUE of gay rights. I wasn't referring to your tolerance of homosexuals as people.

Goader, thank you for your comment. What you say here definitely reinforces what this post was about:

"I have taught five years after entering education as a second career. I have seen a number of things that would surprise most people who have never taught."

8/28/2008 2:58 AM  
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