Friday, April 24, 2009

Choice proponents: What about the children left behind?

Joanne Jacobs, a promoter of charter schools, has a piece today promoting vouchers. Those are certainly two of the top two items on the list of those who consider themselves "educational reformers." I think there are situations in which vouchers are appropriate, and I also have to acknowledge that there are some charter schools that do some wonderful things. Nevertheless, I don't think anyone would consider me to be a big fan of either, so I have a question for those who are. What about the children left behind?

Charter schools and private schools have a definite advantage over the public schools that are the objects of the reformers scorn. Any student who attends charter or private schools are there because their parents have decided that they wanted their children to attend that particular school. That, in itself, indicates that the parents have some interest in their children's education. Students at public schools, on the other hand, are assigned to them. Some parents might want their kids to go to a particular public school, but there will also be a number of students whose parents couldn't care less. That means that any private or charter school, at least to some extent, is skimming the cream.

There is one thing that successful private and charter schools have in common, and that is good discipline. The bottom line of the good discipline those schools have is a certain reality that has to be in the back of students', parents', and teachers' minds: If a student doesn't meet the behavioral and performance standards of the school, he or she will be gone. In Sweating the Small Stuff, a book about six successful inner-city schools, a teacher is quoted as telling a misbehaving student, "If you're going to act like that, you won't be able to stay here."

If we take a kid out of an inner-city school that isn't doing well, and put him into a situation where all of the students have parents who wanted them to go to that school, and the school is able to maintain good discipline, how can the student not do better? The one thing that is amazing to me is that the results from studies comparing kids who have gone to voucher and charter schools with those who have remained in public schools are not more clear.

In any case, in a public school district that is not particularly good, I can certainly understand a parent wanting to send their child elsewhere. But once all the parents who want to do that pull their kids out of that public school, what do you have left? Do we just write off the kids who remain? What ever happened to No Child Left Behind?

The argument that "choice" advocates make is that the competition will force the public schools to improve. Balderdash! Even Sol Stern, who made that argument in a book a few years ago has finally come to the conclusion that that doesn't happen.

Whether you are for choice or against it, doesn't it make sense to give public schools the same power in dealing with their students--and therefore to maintain good discipline--that the good private and charter schools have? Wouldn't all kids be better off if we did that?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Strip search?

I am usually all for giving schools more power when it comes to discipline, but I'm not so sure about schools being able to conduct strip searches. The Supreme Court heard arguments dealing with this case yesterday.

Savana Redding was 13 in 2003 when Safford, Ariz., Middle School officials, on a tip from another student, ordered her to remove her clothes and shake out her underwear looking for pills. The district bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs...

Vice Principal Kerry Wilson took Redding to his office to search her backpack. When nothing was found, Redding was taken to a nurse's office where she says she was ordered to take off her shirt and pants. Redding said they then told her to move her bra to the side and to stretch her underwear waistband, exposing her breasts and pelvic area. No pills were found.

What makes this so bad is that they were looking for Ibuprofen--not exactly a dangerous narcotic--and the tip turned out to be false.

The girl said that it was the most humiliating experience of her life, and I believe her. Let's face it--there aren't a lot of 13-year-olds who feel great about their bodies. One can only imagine how an innocent girl felt being forced to go through that.

Obviously, there are serious issues here. What if the girl had actually had the drugs? Would that make the search okay? What if the drugs in question were more serious ones? What if she had been accused of having some sort of weapon?

I don't know.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The madness of keeping criminals in schools

On the tenth anniversary of Columbine, I came upon this article by Caitlin Flanagan as I was going through Joanne Jacobs site. Some of what the article said was music to my ears (or eyes).

Joanne's post also deals with an article that puts the lie to the idea that the two thugs were simply victims of bullying, but this one gives a brief history of the two murderers.

The one aspect of Columbine that seemed unworthy of examination -- when it came to pondering the policy changes that might actually make American schools safer places -- was the fact that the two killers had a long track record of doing exactly what deeply disturbed teenage boys have been doing since time out of mind: getting in trouble -- lots of it -- with authority.

Ten months before their shooting spree, Harris and Klebold were charged and convicted of stealing tools from a parked van. They were sentenced to a "juvenile diversion" program, which was intended -- by dint of counseling, classes, and the coordinated efforts of school administrators, social workers and police officers -- to keep the boys out of the criminal-justice system. According to the records of that experience, Harris reported having homicidal feelings, obsessive thoughts and a temper. Both boys were placed in anger management, although -- strangely, given Klebold's history of alcohol use and his submission of a dilute urine sample to his minders -- they were excused from the substance-abuse class.

Back at school (which they attended throughout their enrollment in the juvenile-diversion program), they smoked cigarettes in the hollow behind campus, cut classes and blew off schoolwork. According to Dave Cullen's new book, "Columbine," when Klebold carved obscenities into a freshman's locker and was confronted by a dean, "Dylan went ballistic. He cussed him out, bounced off the walls, acted like a nutcase." Both boys also picked on younger children and got into fights.

Here's the part that I really liked!
...There was a time when boys like these would have been labeled "juvenile delinquents" and removed from the society and company of good kids, whose rights were understood to supersede those of known offenders against the law. It was once believed that good kids should be neither endangered nor influenced by criminals-in-training.

Maybe it's time we started believing that again.

Joanne's post also includes this quote from Flanagan's article: " expel a student in most public school districts is an arduous business. An expulsion hearing is required, and parents may choose to appeal the decision, a process that rains down a world of legal woe on whatever teachers and administrators have been involved in the action."

I don't know about other states, but in Minnesota it's worse than that. The school district that expels the student is still responsible for providing the education for the expelled student. That means hiring a full-time tutor for the student. When considering the legal costs involved and the greater costs of educating the troublemaker outside of school, districts can't afford to expel anybody no matter how bad they are. It's ridiculous!

Flanagan also says this:
It is, of course, the responsibility of the state to provide some sort of education to all its children under the age of 18, and so for a host of legal, moral and economic reasons we end up with an ugly truth about our nation's schools: By design, they contain within them -- right alongside the good kids who are getting an education and running the yearbook and student government -- kids whose criminal rehabilitation is supposedly being conducted simultaneously with their academic instruction.

As someone who taught school for a decade and who has now been a mother for about as long, I can tell you that -- when it comes to children -- the rigid exercise of "due process" in matters of correction and discipline makes for high comedy at best and shared tragedy at worst.

A big "Amen!" to that. The problem is that education is viewed as a right. It shouldn't be. I'm all for our society providing the opportunity for all kids to get an education, but that shouldn't make it a right. If a kid comes into a school and acts like a criminal, he should be kicked out. Period!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

If only we could make teaching more like coaching!

About a month ago, I finished up another hockey season. Coaching hockey in Warroad is very demanding in terms of time, energy, and emotion, so I always look forward to the freedom I'll have when the season ends. But when the season ends, I always feel a little empty. I love teaching--I really do. But the fulfillment I get from that doesn't come close to matching the feeling of fulfillment I get from coaching.

As a coach, I feel much more important to my players than I ever do to my students as a teacher. A major reason for this is simply time. I'm not sure whether I spent more time this winter with our hockey team or with my wife. Practices, games, tournaments, over-night trips, and bus rides all add up. Because of all that time, a coach gets the opportunity to talk to players that a teacher can never get with students. I don't know how many times I sat down and talked individually to players this year, but it was a lot. More often than not, kids respond to these talks with real gratitude, and I'd come away from that feeling pretty good.

One reason the talks I had with players were so meaningful is that the kids cared so much about what we were talking about. It's tough to match that when I talk to a student about their performance in American History or Economics. One can argue about whether or not sport is too important to young athletes, but the bottom line is that it is very important to them. Although there will be some grumbling while kids are going through difficult skating drills, deep down they expect and actually want to be pushed. I don't get that feeling very often in the classroom.

The bottom line is that kids who are out for a sport want to be there. I firmly believe that, at least at the high school level, school should be the same way. In other words, it should not be compulsory. Public education should be there for any young person who wants it, but it shouldn't be forced on anyone who doesn't want it. In fact, it can't be forced on anyone, because there is no way that you can force someone to learn who isn't interested in doing so.

Finally, as a coach--even though I am just an assistant coach--I have real authority. If a player ever becomes a liability to what we are trying to accomplish on our team, our coaching staff does not have to put up with him. Players can be dismissed from our team at any time. Everybody knows that--coaches, players, and parents. Partially as a result of that, the power that coaches have in this area rarely has to be used. During my twenty years at Warroad, only two players have had to be dismissed.

I often criticise so-called educational experts, but now I'm going use a quote that I got from Diane Ravitch's Left Back. In 1933 Isaac Kandel said this: [There is] "one part of our educational system, secondary and higher, in which there is no compromise with standards, in which there is rigid selection both of instructors and students, in which there is no soft pedagogy, and in which training and sacrifice of the individual for common ends are accepted without question. I refer, of course, to the organization of athletics." He suggested that if American schools became more like their athletic programs, they would be reinvigorated.

That statement was made over 75 years ago, but it still holds true today.

Friday, April 03, 2009

U.S. Defense Spending: Did you know this???

Before I start, I should say that this has nothing to do with education--unless you want to relate it to all the complaints we hear about how much money is spent on it.

About a month ago, I had CNN on in the morning as I was getting ready to go to school, and they had a very brief news piece about defense spending in China. They said China was increasing its defense spending for the coming year by 15 percent, and they also said that meant that the Chinese had increased spending on their military by double digits every year for two decades.

I found that to be terribly alarming. I thought, those darned Chinese with that huge population and their rapidly growing economy are becoming a real threat to us.

The only thing that made me feel good about this was that I thought this would be a good current event item to assign to my American History classes. So when I got to school, I went to Star/ to look for an article on this topic, and I found it right away. The first couple of paragraphs basically said what the CNN piece had said, but when I got to the third paragraph, this is what I read:
The country's spending, which puts it on par with Japan, Russia and Britain, is still dwarfed by U.S. military expenditures, which are nearly 10 times as large.

Maybe I'm showing my ignorance here, but I had no idea! I mean, I've always known we spend a lot on our military--and I'm not knocking that--but ten times more than anybody else?!?! Holy Moley!!!!

Am I an idiot? Did you know we spend that much more than anyone else? I have to confess that I had no idea.

NOTE: The Star/Tribune article I am using in this post is not the same one I read initially, but the paragraph regarding U.S. military spending is the same. In the article I read originally, it was in the third paragraph. If you want to find it in the article I linked to for this post, it is in the very last paragraph.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Can't we find a happy medium?

I was browsing through the blogosphere, and came upon a site called Schools Matter, and ran into this piece on KIPP Schools. I then went to the article about the the KIPP School in Atlanta where some parents pulled their kids out of the school because of what they considered harsh discipline. One student, in a group that was made to go and sit by themselves, wet her pants when she was not allowed to go to the bathroom, and another ended up vomiting. KIPP Schools have a reputation for harsh punishments and humiliation, and even though they are publicly funded, they can get away with that because charter schools are given special leeway by the states. As I read, I couldn't help thinking, "Why can't we have a happy medium?"

I have been lucky this year, but like most traditional public school teachers, there have been many times that I've had to tolerate behavior that I should never have had to tolerate. I did that, because I felt like I didn't have any other choice. I mean there are only so many times you can kick a kid out of class and send him (or her) to the office. Although I haven't had any blatantly disruptive kids this year, I do have kids whose effort is pathetic, and of course, I have to put up with that. We are now in our last marking period, and I'm stuck with two young men who have failed all first three marking periods and show no sign of doing anything different this one. I also have a couple of students who are woefully underachieving, and of course, there's nothing I can do about that other than send deficiency slip after deficiency slip to the parents.

I have no desire to humiliate any students, and I have no desire to bludgeon any students into performing. KIPP Schools have a reputation for producing fantastic test scores, and if it takes harsh punishments and humiliation to do that, and if that's what parents who send their kids to those schools want, I'm not going to knock them. But I teach in a traditional public school, and I'm not looking for fantastic scores; I'm just looking for good solid ones. I just want every kid in our school who wants a good education to be able to get one. If KIPP Schools are going to be allowed to do the things they do, and they are getting the results they are by doing that, wouldn't it make sense to give those of us in traditional public schools just a little more power? Wouldn't it make sense to allow us to demand that kids behave reasonably and make a reasonable effort in order to remain in our classes?