Sunday, November 09, 2008

Improving education vs. students' rights

A couple of weeks ago, when I hadn't posted for awhile, my oldest son emailed me this article to, as he said, "stir the kettle." The article blasted American schools because kids today are less likely to graduate than their parents. Come on, American schools, what the heck is the matter with you? Why can't you do better?

As I was reading that article, I came across this one about schools trying to enforce dress codes. The article began with this sentence:

It took only an hour for parents in Omaha, Neb., to get in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union.

That article dealt with a school sending kids home who wore tee-shirts memorializing a student who was shot. The school said they were disruptive and possibly gang related, but the ACLU says the school is forcing kids to sacrifice their "free speech rights at the schoolhouse door."

From that article, I went to a video about students and parents who are protesting against a school that is telling it's cheerleaders that they can't wear their very short skirts in school because that violates its dress code. One cheerleader parent said, "It's a big deal, it's crushing."

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a parent who was suing a school for suspending his son who was wearing a tee-shirt that read "Obama is a terrorist's best friend." The school gave the student the option of turning the tee-shirt inside-out after it had caused an altercation at the school, but the kid, apparently with the encouragement of his father, refused. What all of these things have in common is that schools are doing things in an attempt to maintain order and create the best possible learning environment, and they are being challenged for violating students' rights.

As Philip K. Howard said in his book, The Death of Common Sense, the courts' interpretation of students' rights has done more damage to public education than anything else in the last 40 years. (I wonder how many of the Supreme Court justices responsible for making the most important of those decisions sent their kids to public schools.) If we really want to make significant improvement in public education, especially in schools that are doing poorly, we are going to have to re-think the concepts of "the right to an education" and student rights in general.

I am more convinced than ever about this than ever after reading Sweating the Small Stuff. That book is about six inner-city schools that have been completely turned around, but a reader will be hard-pressed to find anything about a concern for student rights. There is, however, plenty of concern about the kids' education. Most of those schools had uniforms, and they didn't even tolerate students having their shirttails out. Even when reading about the one public school discussed in the book, I saw nothing about a student's right to be there. In fact, one student recalled being told by a teacher, "If you're going to behave like that, you won't be able to stay here."

This is one area in which I actually agree with my libertarian friends. Education should not be considered a right. A "right" is something that government should not be able to take away from you, not something government is obligated to give you. As Philip K. Howard says, education is not a right, but a benefit provided by a democratic society. I believe that our democracy should provide education, but there are going to be a lot of places where we can't do it effectively as long as we look at it as a right.


Blogger Mrs. C said...

Thanks, Dennis!! One thing that strikes me with this idea of the "right to an education" is that school becomes a place you HAVE to go. A drudgery and an obligation. People don't value even the best opportunities when they view them as drudgeries.

May I ask, though, where you would draw the line between education being a "right" and a "responsibility?" Surely as an educator, you would be unhappy were the laws changed so that parents NEVER had to educate their children in any fashion. Would you extend this choice to drop out only to high-school age children? Would you give second chances to children who dropped out but would like to return?

I think we think VERY SIMILARLY in this area. Although, truth to tell, I feel schools sometimes impose boundaries on free speech more often on more conservative expressions. I do mean that in the most broad sense of the term, not just as a political construct. As such, I would not be opposed to tasteful uniforms for public-school children if enforcement of dress code were evenly applied.

:] Bless ya!

11/09/2008 6:35 AM  
Blogger mazenko said...

It's probably the Catholic school in me, Dennis, but I concur that this is one place where I am with the conservatives and libertarians. I remember being in my first year of college, studying education, when the movie Lean on Me with Morgan Freeman came out, focusing on the strict reforms of Joe Clark in NYC school system. There is much to be said for acknowledging the destructive behavior of students who truly don't want to be there and will act as a cancerous cell bringing down the whole body. While I teach in an extremely well run and disciplined upper class community, there are still those malcontents. I have never had much problem with discipline though, as I have simply refused to put up with it. Having an administration that backs teachers, as well as an alternative school for students who don't fit the model, is an effective ingredient in effective schools.

My biggest issue is tardies, for we have large campus with a lenient policy. When I was a student, if I walked in tardy, the teacher simply said, "today or tomorrow." That referred to the fifty minute detention I earned, and it was non-negotiable. After missing the first half of soccer practice and running for the second, I only got one more tardy in four years. Many teachers in my current school just address it with the use of "on-time quizzes," and that works for a student body motivated by grades. As that is the one carrot/stick schools have, it's tough to imagine how an administration deals with a student population in which a considerable percentage are not influenced by that. Showing students the door is an option, and it would hold true in most of the industrialized world.

However, there is the socially conscious liberal in me who says, if I don't reach out to these kids who will? Ultimately, I run the risk of them becoming bigger problems later. There is much to be said for what was mentioned in "Tough Choices, Tough Times," that is being implemented in New Hampshire. Graduation after sophomore year and qualifying for community college or trade school is available. I foresee many criticisms, but the effects couldn't be much worse than already exists in some communities.

11/09/2008 10:16 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mrs. C., I'm going to address you here, but what I'm saying also relates to Michael's comment.

My views in this regard are really rather libertarian. I am not a fan of compulsory education. In fact, I think the term is an oxymoron. We can't force anyone to be educated; education has to be something that someone wants to acquire. I have no doubt that if education wasn't compulsory the overwhelmin majority of parents would want their kids to be educated. If parents don't want their kids to be educated, that is almost certain to be reflected in the kids' behavior and effort, so all we do is end up beating our heads against the wall.

Regarding kids who drop out or are kicked out, I'm all for allowing them to come back and try again if they ever decide education is something they want. Michael says that there are some kids who need to be reached out to, and I'm sympathetic to that point of view. But I suspect that we might all be better off if we forced kids to make a choice. If you want an education, great. Make an effort and follow our rules. If you don't, leave, and if you ever change your mind, come on back and we'll give it a try.

11/09/2008 10:37 AM  
Blogger Jane said...

This is exactly why I voted for Obama. When he turned to the screen and says, "Parents, it is your job to turn off the TV and supervise homework..." he got my vote. The other day they showed him attending a parent conference at his daughter's school. This is a man who didn't get where he is by being bailed out by his parents. I would give my right arm for school uniforms. It would save parents $$ and create a less distracting environment.

11/09/2008 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If education is not a right, and I agree that it is not, then what business does the state have getting involved?

11/10/2008 5:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, if you say that education is not a right, but that the state has the right to force people to provide it, then you are in effect saying that people have no rights except for those the state grants them. You are giving the state unlimited power.

11/10/2008 5:15 AM  
Blogger Luke said...

Excellent points! I totally agree: compulsory education is an oxymoron [smile].


11/10/2008 11:28 AM  
Blogger The Social Reformer said...

pragmaticism is what has caused the downfall of education

11/12/2008 4:59 AM  
Blogger jb said...

I work in a school that is the only one in the county to make AYP so all the students from the other schools may come to our school now. We are overcrowded and frankly have many young people here with no interest in being students. It is obviously very important to our administration that we continue to make AYP. The struggle is to maintain our standards with the influx of new "students" that frankly could care less about their education. As teachers we are told to make the student make the grade, yet when we have many failures the administration wants us to bend over backwards to get students to pass. It is a very stressful and fine line to walk.

11/14/2008 9:21 AM  
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1/02/2009 4:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Uniforms and strict dress codes don't do anything except nearly get me RPCed the first day of school for having a small polka dot pattern on my skirt.

1/12/2009 4:44 PM  
Blogger sexy said...







3/03/2009 12:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, you sure have a lot of common sense for a Democrat! :) What about the U.N. charter on children's rights? UNICEF states that "..the voice of children must be heard and respected in all matters concerning their rights. Countries must promote children's active, free and meaningful participation in decision-making that affects them."

Sound like trouble to you? This bill was signed by Madeleine Albright in 1995, and, guess what, Barbara Boxer, a California Senator (go figure) is pushing the Obama administration to ratify the treaty right away, and he, in vagure generalities, as expressed support for the treaty.

3/27/2009 8:11 AM  
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