At least someone's finally talking about it!
As I went browsing through education blogs the other day, I was surprised to come across a discussion on New Talk on restoring order and respect in public schools. New Talk advertises itself as a place where "experts discuss America's toughest issues," and their discussion included university professors and the like. I'm convinced that improving behavior and motivation in the classroom are the two biggest challenges we have in public education, but I can't remember seeing a discussion on this by "experts" before.
There are a lot of fingers being pointed at administrators in New Talk's discussion. Jeff Abbott, an education professor says this:
I think a lack of order and discipline is more prevalent in the public schools than the public may be aware of, and particularly in urban schools. I know at least one major urban school where the central office has put pressure on principals to not expel minority students, so the school system's minority expulsion rates look low to the public.
However, urban schools are not the only schools suffering from discipline problems. Just this week I visited a rural school and was told by the assistant principal that he had just conferenced with a boy who was tardy 17 times already this year. Both the assistant principal and principal of that school expressed serious concerns about their authority to discipline, and whether they would be supported by the central office and school board when a parent complains about his or her child being disciplined.
Kelly Flynn, an author and columnist, adds parents to the mix. She says:
I agree with Jeff that the lack of order and discipline in public schools is more prevalent than the public realizes. I taught for nearly 20 years in a large suburban-turning-urban district...We had strong, clear, progressive discipline processes in place, but they were regularly overturned if a parent complained loudly enough. That, more than anything else, affected school culture because kids, and their parents, know how to work the system. If we are going to approach the problem of order and respect in our public schools, we need to start with parents.
With all due respect, I think the idea that we should start with parents is a non-starter. It sounds so good, but nothing is going to happen regarding that. Parents are going to do what parents are going to do. Some will be fantastic and supportive, but there will always those that will want to make sure that their little angels are not disciplined. Ms. Flynn actually addresses the central problem when she says this: "An administrator recently told me that in the early years of his career he was threatened with lawsuits once or twice. Now he is threatened with lawsuits once or twice a day."
It's easy for me as a teacher to criticize administrators for not being firm enough, when I'm not the one who has to worry about being sued. I know that I'm sounding like a broken record here, but the root of the problem is the Supreme Court's declaration that education is a property right that can't be taken away without due process of law. That sounded so wonderful, and so many politicians have wanted to jump on that bandwagon, but IT DOESN'T WORK! That is what leads to all these lawsuits as parents protect their little darlings' rights, and that is the major reason that we don't have better order and respect in our public schools today. Sandra Day O'Connor once said that when deciding whether to overturn a previous Court ruling, it has to be determined whether the rule works. Well, this one doesn't.
I do believe it is possible for a public school to have good discipline, and Joshua Phillips gives an example:
I taught for one year at a large urban high school in Boston and experienced many of the things described by both Jeff and Kelly. When my students misbehaved, I would follow the protocols and systems outlined by the school’s administration. However, when I needed the support of the administration regarding a difficult student and/or a challenging family, I was often told to handle the situation myself.
I then taught at a smaller public school in Boston called Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, which had a similar population of students (100% students of color, ~70% eligible for free/reduced price lunch). Roxbury Prep’s Code of Conduct was virtually identical to that of the Boston Public Schools. The major difference was the administration wholeheartedly supported teachers when it came to discipline incidents. In short, the Code of Conduct was enacted...A structured, safe learning environment can be built in a public school as long as all staff members are on the same page and willing to do the work to implement discipline systems each and every day. Roxbury Prep has consistently been the highest-performing urban middle school in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The high expectations regarding discipline and the willingness of the administration to follow through on infractions of the Code of Conduct have enabled Roxbury Prep teachers to focus on what they do best—providing rigorous, engaging lessons for their students.
I think there are a couple of keys to having the kind of discipline Phillips talks about in a public school. First of all, you need one helluva principal. The second thing you need, and Phillips make this point, is for the teachers to all be on the same page. That means the school can't be very big. Three problems with all this are that there are a lot of principals out there who are mediocre at best, there are a lot of teachers who wouldn't buy into a the tough approach that works so well at Roxbury, and finally, I doubt that it's practical to break all the large public schools we have throughout the nation into small ones. So these are the things I think we need to do:
1. There are models out there of public schools and charter schools in inner-cities and other areas that are succeeding. In most of the cases I've read about, one thing they have in common is that they shun much of the progressive crap that is taught in schools of education. Education schools have to get out of their ivory tower-theoretical worlds, get real, and start focusing on methods that actually work. If they want to throw in some progressive methods as options now and then, that would probably be a good thing. But they need to quit acting like anyone who uses traditional, teacher-directed methods is an educational Neanderthal, and they need to focus much more on classroom management and discipline.
2. Improve the way we decide who becomes principals. Right now, too many principals are in their positions because they were teachers who simply wanted to make more money, or worse yet, teachers who weren't very good and wanted to get out of the classroom. We need a system that is designed to recruit principals from the most competent, level-headed teachers that we have in field.
3. Those principals must be given the power to keep their best teachers--the ones who are willing to be on the same page, and get rid of their worst ones. I know there are teachers who hate this idea, because they have no faith in principals. Maybe some sort of independent panel could be set up in a district that a senior teacher could appeal to if he or she believed the termination was unfair.
4. The Supreme Court's decision that education is a property right that can't be taken away without due process of law must be re-visited.
Great ideas, huh? And I said people in education schools are living in ivory towers! Oh well, at least someone's talking about it.