Reforms I could learn to love!
As I said in my last post, I took a two week hiatus from my blogging, and I never really intended to take that much time off. I have been busy. I traveled to the Twin Cities for a hockey coaches' clinic, and that meant the extra work of preparing for a substitute before I left, and then catching up after I got back. But being busy wasn't the main reason that I was so quiet. I took so much time off because I've been reading Sweating the Small Stuff. I wanted to do a post on it, and I just couldn't figure out what I wanted to say.
I should say before I go on that I have not turned into a critic of public education, and this certainly isn't meant as an indictment of public schools. I am still convinced that the people in our school district are getting what they want, and that's probably true for most public schools around the country. The kids who want to go to four-year colleges end up going to four-year colleges, the kids who want to go to vo-techs end up going to them, and the kids who just want to graduate from high school and go to work in a factory end up doing that. Nevertheless, I think we can do so much better.
Sweating the Small Stuff is about six inner-city schools that have their kids performing incredibly well. Before I read the book, I thought I'd be writing a "Yeah, but..." post. Yeah, they've got great results in those schools, but it's unfair to compare those schools to normal public schools because.... I do believe it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for most public schools to do the things that even University Park Campus High School, the only semi-regular public school described in the book, is able to do. Nevertheless, while reading the book, I found myself focusing on the admiration and envy I was feeling for the people involved in setting up and operating those schools. I also found myself wondering how public schools like mine could at least move in the direction that the outstanding schools described have taken.
The author, David Whitman, describes all six schools as "paternalistic." They treat their students like a very tough but loving father would treat his children. They tolerate no misbehavior, no acts of disrespect toward teachers or other students; they set high standards, and they expect the kids to meet them. Of all the remarkable accomplishments I read about in the book, the one that struck me the most was that of a seventh-grade class at the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland: the entire class had perfect attendance for an entire year. That's thirty kids for 180 days. Since I had five kids absent from my fifth hour class on Friday, perhaps you can understand why that impresses me.
The basic thing all the schools do is to focus from day one on creating a culture in which learning and achievement are valued and disrespect for teachers and peers is not tolerated. Discipline is tough and immediate, and operates according to the "broken windows" theory of James Wilson. The idea of this is that if there is one broken window in a building and it gets repaired quickly, end of problem. On the other hand, if it doesn't get repaired quickly, pretty soon you've got a bunch of broken windows. When it comes to student conduct it means that if there are a few minor conduct problems and they are ignored, pretty soon your school becomes a zoo in which no one can learn. I think public schools have suffered badly from the broken windows theory over the past generation or two. Quite frankly, when I read about the cultures in those inner-city schools described by Whitman, and then see the behavior and attitudes of many of the kids in my own school, it makes me want to cry.
One advantage that all of the schools described in Sweating the Small Stuff have is that the families of the kids have chosen to send their kids to them. That is a huge advantage, and it cannot be dismissed. If we want public schools to improve significantly, however, I'm convinced that we have to try to do some of the things that those schools are doing, even though we have to do it with kids who are basically assigned to our schools. There are a lot of schools around the nation, including mine, that could use some paternalism.
Whitman, like many critics of public education, views our teachers' unions as a major obstacle to improving education. He says that the six schools that did so well either had unions that were meaningless or no unions at all. My question is, does it have to be that way?
As I've said before, I'm grateful for what unions have done for me. There is no question in my mind that my salary would be less, and I would have a much less comfortable lifestyle if it weren't for teachers' unions. But I really believe that our unions have to change. There is no question that they have the potential to be our main instrument to bring about positive change. Other than helping to keep teachers' salaries reasonable, they've done very little in that regard. In fact, our critics are probably right about them being obstacles. It's time for our teachers' unions to start behaving more like professional associations and less like unions.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if our "professional associations" would take the lead in trying to get courts and legislatures to recognize that discipline and order are necessary in schools if learning is going to take place. So much of what the courts and legislatures have done over the last forty years have made good discipline in public schools much more difficult if not impossible. Wouldn't it be wonderful if our "professional associations" would take the lead in getting education schools to quit pushing solely child-centered methods. Maybe they could even urge them to teach more about maintaining discipline and order in classrooms, rather than encouraging teachers to "negotiate" with the kids. Finally, wouldn't it be wonderful if our unions would begin to help schools keep their best teachers and get rid of their worst ones regardless of seniority. Teachers have the power to control our unions and I really believe most teachers would like to see these things happen. If that's not true, then that is an indictment of us all.