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?