Friday, June 30, 2006

Parents and Higher Standards

Education Weekly reports that according to a study done by a New York policy group called Public Agenda:

Parents are twice as likely to cite lack of money and lack of respect for teachers as "very serious" problems as they are to cite low academic standards.

I would draw two conclusions from this:

1. This confirms my feeling that there is no great demand out there by parents for higher standards in public schools. (I wonder how many parents who did cite low academic standards as a serious problem would still feel that way if it meant their kids might get lower grades.)

2. Parents in general are smarter than this blogger has been giving them credit for.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Improving the Quality of Teachers

I've blogged about disruptive students, I've blogged about apathetic students, and I've blogged about good students. I've blogged about their effects on other students, and I've blogged about their effects on their classes and their schools. Some might think that I'm unwilling to see teachers to take any responsibility for trying to improve education. Well, I guess it's probably time for me to blog about teachers. I'm warning you, though--some teachers who read this might not like what I have to say.

Some critics of public education make it sound as if there are so many incompetent teachers, that if you ever walked into a public school, you couldn't help but trip over one. Sol Stern, in his book Breaking Free, writes about what he calls "by the rules" teachers who work only 30 hours per week, and earn $81,000 a year doing it. As I said in an earlier post, Jay Greene's portrayal of public school teachers in Education Myths is insulting.

None of this squares with my experience. I've found most teachers to be hard working people who are thoroughly competent at their jobs. I live only a block away from our school, so I am up there working a lot--after school hours, on weekends, during Christmas and summer breaks, and there are always other teachers up there with me. And although I can't speak for New York City, I can assure you that there are no teachers in northern Minnesota bringing home anywhere near $81,000. Despite this, I don't think we're as good as we could be. And I think the major things that hold us back from being as good as we should be are our tenure and seniority systems.

I can count the number of incompetent teachers I've known during my career on the fingers of one hand, but that is still too many. Once teachers have tenure, it is too difficult for principals to get rid of them. I've said in previous posts that teachers should have the power to remove students who are hurting the education of others from their classes. If I'm going to take that position, then I'd better be willing to see principals given the power to remove ineffective teachers from their schools. There should be an effort to turn-around unruly students, and there should be an effort to help teachers to improve. But if it becomes clear that those efforts aren't working, none of them should be allowed to continue to hold back kids who want to learn.

I have known very few teachers who were truly incompetent, but I've known too many who never became as good as they should have. That is because they began to feel to safe because of the seniority system. I have also seen too many bright, enthusiastic, and hard-working teachers let go simply because they lacked seniority. The reason I left the first school I was at was because I was in such a precarious position because of the seniority system. I was one of the hardest working and popular teachers in the school, but it didn't matter when it came time for cuts to be made. It also didn't matter to the senior member of my department, so he spent all of his preparation time sitting in the teachers' lounge drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. For the past several years of my career, I have benefitted from the seniority system, but I made up my mind during my early years that it was unfair, terrible for education, and that I would never support it.

A few years ago, we had a social studies teacher named Daryl Frisbie. He came to Warroad after being cut by his previous school because he lacked seniority there. He taught civics to ninth graders, so I would get his kids the next year for my American History classes. As part of my class, I will frequently ask my students civics related questions. When kids are asked questions that they were supposed to learn the year before, there will normally be a couple of kids who will know the answer, there will be some more who will remember the answer after they hear it, and the rest of the kids will be clueless. When I asked Daryl's former students those questions, however, nearly every hand in the room would shoot up. And he didn't just teach kids; he inspired them. There wasn't a week that went by when some students didn't talk about something "Mr. Frisbie said' or "Mr. Frisbie did." It didn't take long for me to realize that our school had acquired a very special young teacher. But for the last few years, our school has been suffering through a period of declining enrollment. So when cuts had to be made, we ended up having to lose this outstanding teacher, while other teachers were shuffled into classes that they'd never taught before in order to protect the seniority system.

I know many teachers disagree with me about this, but one of the things that surprised me after my book came out was how many told me that they agreed with me. When I wrote my book, I assumed I was in a very small minority, but I'm not so sure about that anymore. I do understand the arguments for the seniority system. Teachers are afraid that if we don't have it, when cuts have to be made, politics will raise its ugly head. But as bad as that might be, I don't see how we can come up with a worse system than one that has us letting go of teachers like Daryl Frisbie.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Grooming the Child Athlete

Ever since I was a young boy, I have loved sports. Sports has remained a major part of my life since I became a teacher, because, until I retired from my hockey position in March, I've always been a coach. A couple of days ago, I came upon this article that was run by the New York Times: A New Competitive Sport: Grooming the Child Athlete. Maybe people who read this article would think that coaches love to see parents who will do anything for their kids athletic careers, but here's one who definitely doesn't. I think that by loving sports so much, we are wrecking what should be a good thing.

One problem with this is that we are pricing a lot of people out of our sports. Hockey people are as guilty as anyone for the excesses in youth sports, and we are paying the price in many communities. Hockey used to be a sport for kids from working class families. The Minnesota State Hockey Tournament used to be dominated by towns like Eveleth and other iron range communities in northern Minnesota, but that is no longer the case. Unfortunately, the game is turning more and more into an activity for the upper-middle class only. Working class parents just can't afford the sport anymore in most communities. From reading this article in the Times, it looks like a lot of other sports might be on their way to doing the same thing.

Another problem is that we end up with parents who become more dedicated to their kids' sports than the kids are. For the past several years, I have worked at hockey schools in the summer, and I've always felt uncomfortable when I've walked out into the lobbies of the arenas I've worked in and watched some of the parents. Hockey parents, like parents of athletes in all sports, tend to have high hopes for their kids, and they certainly can't be faulted for that. But so many of them seem to think that if they can find the right hockey school, or if they buy the right pair of skates, and get the perfect equipment, that this will be the key to stardom, scholarships, and maybe even pro contracts for their children. There are few things I find more sickening than seeing hockey parents doting over their young future stars. I can say that because it was just a few short years ago that I was doing some serious doting of my own. I've often said that temporary insanity is a pre-requisite for being a hockey parent, and I passed the test with flying colors.

All high school coaches have some problems with parents, and there is no better sport to illustrate why this is so than hockey. For starters, children often start playing before they are five-years-old. The parents spend huge sums of dollars on equipment, and they are expected to provide transportation to and from practices and games until the player is in high school. The number of games youth hockey teams play varies from place to place, but it may well be fifty or more. Many parents have to plan nearly every weekend in the winter around youth hockey games and tournaments, and it's not unusual for the hotel bills by the end of the season to be in the thousands of dollars. Then in the summer, they often plan their vacations in such a way that they can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to send junior to the best hockey schools.

The result is that by the time the youngster is in high school, the parents have made enormous investments in time, travel, emotion and money to their child's athletic career. We have very, very committed parents, and some of these committed parents are going to be very hard to please. There may be hell to pay if the coach doesn't put junior on the varsity as a sophomore, or if he simply doesn't play him enough. As anyone who coaches knows, what "playing him enough" means for some parents can be an impossible standard to achieve. Worse yet, sometimes junior isn't very good, or sometimes he just gets tired of the sport. Now it's the coaches' job to put him on the junior varsity, or more fun yet, to cut him from the team. For some reason, the parents who have made all those investments in hopes of stardom, college scholarships, and pro contracts aren't very understanding when that happens.

The pressures on coaches these days are enormous. Not only do many parents expect the coach to feature their sons or daughters as the star players on the team, but they also expect that the coach should be able to produce a championship team. After all, with all that talent, how can they lose? It is a rare parent who is able to look objectively out onto the field, court,or arena and say to his neighbors, "You know, our kids just aren't that good."

Once again, the majority of parents of kids I've coached have been wonderful, and the only times I'd hear from them was when they thanked me for my efforts at the end of the year. The problem is that during the season, the more difficult parents make it hard to remember that those reasonable parents even exist. If a student getting a bad grade in an academic class can cause a parent to become unreasonable, you can multiply that unreasonableness by a factor of ten or more when it comes to sports. Parents who are unhappy with a teacher usually don't like him. Parents who are unhappy with a coach often view him with unmitigated hatred.

Don't get me wrong! Despite all this I still think being involved in sports and other extra-curricular activities is a wonderful thing. I also think it's wonderful when parents encourage and support their kids. But parents have to be very careful. The activities our kids are involved in need to be things that they really want to do rather than things we really want them to do. And today, that's a lot easier said than done.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

PESPD'S Myth #6: Public schools will improve if we use vouchers to force them to compete with private schools

In my last two posts, I wrote about the important effect that good students have on a school. The post about T. J. Oshie gives an example of the great effect that a group of good students had on one student, and the post on Nick showed the incredible effect that one student had on an entire class.

Some people believe that the way to improve public education is to have a full-fledged voucher system. I don’t know whether these people don’t understand the importance of good students to a classroom or if they just don’t care. The idea for vouchers first came from Milton Friedman, who is a famous conservative economist. And, of course, in our society being a famous anything makes one an expert on education. I have often gotten the feeling from conservatives that, whenever we hear the name Milton Friedman, we are supposed to genuflect.

People who are for vouchers, of course, want to take the state aid for a student that normally would go to that student’s public school, and give it to the student’s parents in the form of a voucher. Then the parents can take their vouchers and use it for at least part of the tuition if they wish to send their kids to private schools.

Now, I have to wonder which parents of which students would do that? For some reason I doubt that many of our "I don’t care" students would end up going to private schools, because so many of the parents don’t care either. I think it’s reasonable to assume that they’d just take the path of least resistance, and keep sending their kids to the public schools. It seems to me that the parents who would be most likely to take their kids out of public schools and send them to private schools would be the ones who really care about education. So in other words, I think the kids public schools would most likely lose would be students like Nick and the kids that made such a difference to T.J.. Someone is going to have to explain to me how that is going to improve public education.

I have to admit that Jay Greene tries to address this issue in his book, Education Myths. He assures us that it would be not be a problem, based on results of studies he’s done in places that do have voucher programs. Using his studies, he argues that test scores of public school students have actually improved after voucher systems have gone into effect in their districts. Everything I had heard before reading Greene's book was that the test results regarding districts using vouchers were mixed, and according to the National School Board Association, independent sources have questioned the validity of his studies. But even assuming Greene’s studies are accurate, I am not convinced about his conclusions.

It seems to me that there is a very basic flaw in Greene's studies on public schools systems that face voucher competition. They are almost entirely based on some of the worst performing public schools in America. Two studies that he emphasized dealt with the Milwaukee Public Schools and Florida schools that had been labeled as failing. Quite frankly, when a classroom or a school gets bad enough, rather than having a positive effect on their classmates, it seems more likely good students would lose their own motivation. I believe that because I have had classes--thankfully, very few--in which this has happened. It’s entirely possible that in a bad school, the loss of motivated students, which concerns me so much, would turn out to be a non-factor. That’s why I would not oppose vouchers in public schools with miserable test scores and ridiculously low graduation rates.

Greene seemed very excited about his findings that Milwaukee and failing Florida schools improved after voucher systems were put into place, but he certainly didn't argue that they improved to the point where they could now be called good schools. They simply weren't as bad as they had been before. There are no places in the United States with even average schools that have full fledged voucher systems, so there is no way that Greene could have conducted one of his "unbiased studies" in a situation that would apply to most schools. If we accept that the very poor schools included in Greene's studies really did improve, it still seems to me to be quite a leap to assume that all other schools would improve, too. As I've said in earlier posts, if public schools are given the same powers to deal with disruptive and apathetic students that private schools have, I would be happy to compete with them. But if we are not given that power, I'm convinced that a full-fledged voucher system would be a disaster for public education.

This is my vision of what would happen if we ever went to a full-fledged voucher system. I'd be interested in hearing if other people agree or disagree. First, there will be concerned parents who will remove their children from public schools in most school districts and use the vouchers to send them to private schools. Removing motivated students will cause the education that takes place in many of those public schools to be a little worse than it was before, and this will encourage even more parents to send their kids to private schools. I can envision many school districts getting to the point where almost any parents who cared about their children's education would do this.

Some of these parents would be able to afford to send their kids to first-rate private schools with the help of the vouchers, and those kids would probably get a very good education. Other parents who can't afford that would use the vouchers to pay full tuition at bargain basement private schools and their kids should do okay as well. The instruction at these schools might be a little shoddy since some of the teachers might not exactly be qualified, but that should be offset for students because they would be freed from being in classes with kids who can wreck learning. And let’s not forget those parents who are already sending their kids to private schools. Since they’d get a few thousand dollars knocked off the tuition they’re already paying, they would get a heck of a deal!

The public schools, on the other hand, would be left with the children of parents who don't care enough about education to move them despite the schools’ deteriorating situations. Obviously this would include the most disruptive and apathetic students because, after all, they've got a right to be there. Tragically, the public schools in this scenario would also include some kids who really do have a desire get an education and to better themselves, despite their parents’ lack of concern. Actually, I should probably say that these kids would have had a desire to get an education, if they were given the chance in a decent learning environment. These are the children who truly would be "left behind."

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Power of One Good Student

In my last post, I told the story of T. J. Oshie as an example of how a group of good students can affect an individual. But is it possible for an individual student to have a significant influence on a class? The answer is a resounding, "Yes!" Having Nick in my class taught me that lesson very well.

Class discussion is an important part of almost any social studies class. There is nothing like a good class discussion to make otherwise dry material meaningful to high school students. But there have been times when I've conducted class discussions on the same subject on the same day, and gotten completely different results in different classes. In one hour, there will be a number of kids who jump into the discussion with both feet, and my most difficult task is to keep the kids from interrupting each other. Then, in the next class, it might be like pulling teeth just to get a few kids to say, "Yeh," "Nope," or the ever popular, "I dunno." The difference in the class might be made by only three of four students, and sometimes it can be just one.

Like T. J. Oshie and his friends, Nick was a member of the Warroad High School Class of 2005 (Yes, that was quite a class!), so I had him in one of my American History classes four years ago. Nick was a big, bright, good-natured young kid, and I've never had a student who was better in class discussions. Every teacher knows what it's like to have kids walk into class and say, "Do we have to do this again?" when they find out what is planned for the day. Teachers in our school never had to worry about hearing that when Nick bounded into class. In fact, any day I had class discussions planned, I could count on hearing him say something like, "I love these!" As a teacher, I'm here to tell you that makes you feel pretty good.

Nick loved to laugh and he loved to argue, and he was one of those rare teenagers who could get himself to really care about things that happened 100 or 200 years ago. You want to talk about whether or not we should have gone to war with Britain in 1812? Nick could get fired up about it. Better yet, he could get other kids fired up about it. When Nick was in my class he would literally goad other students into getting involved. As a result, his class consistently had the best discussions of any of the American History classes that I had that year. There were a number of times that class would argue right up until the bell rang and then they'd continue the argument in their later classes. Some of the other teachers didn't appreciate it, but I sure felt good about it. Nick was a very special student.

I am the sophomore class advisor, and one morning in December, our principal, Bill Kirkeby, called me out to the hallway from my first hour class. He said that we were going to have to call of our sophomores into our mini-theatre to meet with them. I asked him why, and he replied that he was going to have to tell the sophomores that Nick had died. When his father had gone to his room to wake him up in the morning, he thought it was strange that Nick's reading light was still on. He had suffered an aneurism sometime shortly after going to bed.

Obviously, this was a terrible personal tragedy for Nick's family and many friends. His funeral was held in our gymnasium, and the next month was a very emotional period in our school. Mention Nick's name any time during the rest of the year, and some girls in my classes would break into tears.The sophomores on our hockey team had his initials pasted on the back of their helmets, and players on our other athletic teams did similar things. But besides the personal tragedy, Nick's death was also a real blow to the education that took place in our school. He was not just missed because everyone liked him so much and because of his fantastic personality; he was also missed because of the contribution he made in every class he had attended.

My American History class that he had been in was never the same. It was still a good class, but it was never again what it had been when Nick was there. I can still picture in my mind students who took part in almost every discussion when Nick was there, but almost never got involved after he was gone. Our discussions in that class were just never able to take off the way they had before, because Nick was no longer there to get his friends going.

Do good students make a difference in the learning of their classmates? You bet they do. Nick was a student who his classmates and I will never forget.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

T. J. Oshie and the Power of Peers

I have said a lot in previous posts and comments about the destructive effects that disruptive and apathetic kids can have on a classroom. In fact, I have said so much about it that I have the feeling that some people are getting a little tired of it. Okay, it's time for me to change my tune!

Just as poor students can have a negative effect on a school, motivated kids can have a very positive effect. Sometimes it's a group of students helping direct an individual student in the right direction, and sometimes it's an individual student having a profound effect on an entire class.

This is T. J. Oshie. The picture on the left shows him with his father, Tim, who is a member of our Indian Education Department and an assistant coach on our hockey staff, and the other picture shows T. J., who is not considered very big by hockey standards, running over a player from a foreign country who was unfortunate enough to get in his way when he played for our national junior team this past winter.

In 2005 our varsity hockey team at Warroad had a record of 29-0-2 and won the Minnesota State Class A Championship. T. J. was one of our captains, and he is the most talented hockey player I have ever coached. Because of his accomplishments at Warroad, he earned a full scholarship to the University of North Dakota, and he was a first round draft choice by the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League. This spring he finished a fantastic freshman season at UND. He earned a number of awards and honors, and it looks like he has a very bright future that could well include earning millions of dollars.

In addition to his wonderful talent, T. J. is one of the most enjoyable kids I've ever had the opportunity to work with. Many of our hockey practices at Warroad are grueling, but I've never seen anyone work so hard, yet have a smile on his face nearly all of the time while doing it. The spirit of joy that he brings to the game is contagious, and he boosts the morale of any team he plays on. But T. J. is also a classic example of what having peers who are good students can do for an individual.

T. J. moved with his dad to Warroad from the state of Washington at the beginning of his sophomore year. I had him in myAmerican history class, and he was not a good student. His effort was rarely better than mediocre, and I put him on our school's scholastic ineligibility list a number of times. If he'd have kept going the way he started at our school, I firmly believe that he'd have never been able to play hockey at a college.

But T. J. was very lucky because he came to our school at exactly the right time. T. J.'s number one love was hockey, and it would be the hockey players in his class--the class of 2005--who he would end up spending much of his time with. It just so happens that the this group of hockey players was the finest group of student-athletes that I've ever known.

Here is a picture that this group of hockey players had taken during their senior year. In order to avoid confusion and make my point, as well as to shorten things up a bit, I will only go through the players in the front row. I want to point out that if I say that a student was on the A honor roll, I mean that he was consistently on it, and not just for one or two marking periods.

On the far left is Kyle Hardwick. He was a defenseman, president of the senior class, and an A honor roll student. Next to him is Josh Brodeen, who was T. J.'s right wing, and a B honor roll student. Then, Eric Olimb, a defenseman, T. J.'s best friend, and an A honor roll student. Next is Mark Thiele, our goalie, and an A honor roll student. Next is T. J., then David Larson who was a defenseman and a B honor roll student. Next is Andy Brandt who was our third line center and a B honor roll student. Finally, on the far right is Ben Bengtson, T. J.'s left wing and an A honor roll student.

Believe me, our hockey players usually don't get grades like this (I wish they did!), but this was a very special class. These are the kids that T. J. would be hanging around with for three years, and when you hang around with kids like this, good things happen. So by the time this picture was taken in January of 2005, TJ, too, was a member of the A honor roll. Qualifying academically at UND never became an issue.

The one who deserves the most credit for T. J.'s success is T. J., himself. What talent, what personality, what a work ethic, and what character he has! But when you have big hopes and big dreams, it sure helps to have great friends to help you along. And that is something T. J. was definitely blessed with. And if you don't believe me, just ask T. J.!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Why Are Some Schools So Bad?

As someone who believes in public education, I find these two articles--one which talks about the dropout rate in New York City, and the other which talks about the Newark public school system--very depressing. According to the first article, between 50 and 65 percent of the kids who go to New York City public schools don't graduate. The article about Newark doesn't make it sound like things are any better there, and it implies that kids can get a great education if they leave the system and go to small Catholic schools. In fact, this article focuses on a Catholic school that has been very successful working with kids who do not exactly come from well-to-do families:

ON the day before graduation at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School here, Ruth Ameiorsano walked with her students into the parish church next door for a Mass of Thanksgiving. As the school's sole guidance counselor, Ms. Ameiorsano had particular reason for gratitude. Every one of her 35 seniors had been accepted to college, the third year in a row she had posted a perfect record.

Success had not come easily, not in a place with all the troubles and snares of Newark. Ms. Ameiorsano had compiled transcripts and assembled health records. She had taught SAT prep classes and edited application essays. From those essays, she knew the lives these teenagers led. One girl had seen her cousin shot dead in a drive-by attack. Another recalled an uncle, addicted to heroin, passing out on the family couch.

No matter how supportive one is of public schools, it would be difficult to tell people who cared about their own kids' education to keep sending them to the public schools discussed in these articles. These are situations in which it would be hard to argue against having a voucher system. I hate to say that because if these schools lose their motivated students, they will never be able to improve to the point where they can be called "good schools". But I also don't want to see kids, who really want an education, sacrificed for a theory that these schools might be able to get better.

But why are these public schools so bad, when the private schools working with kids from the same area are able to be so good? I have never worked in an urban school district, but I am going to give my guess. Anyone out there who knows more about these situations than I do should feel free to tell me if I'm hot, cold, or somewhere in between. And please don't get angry at me for drawing conclusions about a situation for which I have no first hand experience. Heck, public education critics and policy-makers do it all the time!

The schools in these areas have a lot of kids coming from less than ideal neighborhoods and homes. I have no doubt that some of these kids do want to learn and be successful. Most of these kids with good attitudes probably come from families who, despite living under difficult conditions, make the education of their children a priority. Others might have some other adult role model who has pushed them in this direction, and still others might have this positive attitude simply because of something within themselves. But because of the conditions they are growing up in, there would also be a much larger than average number of kids going to these schools who don't see education as having much meaning in their lives. Their effort might be minimal, and their behavior might be awful.

I have argued before that if there are too many apathetic and disruptive kids in a classroom, that learning becomes almost impossible. I suspect teachers in inner-city schools see this situation a lot. The kids fall farther and farther behind, and some of the kids who were motivated probably begin to adopt the ways of kids who don't care. Some teachers who began by wanting to make a difference probably find that nothing seems to work, so they get frustrated and eventually quit trying as hard as they should. Some schools like these also probably have some teachers who weren't that great in the first place, and are there only because they couldn't get a job anywhere else. The result: lousy schools with miserable scores on tests and miserable graduation rates.

I suspect the inner-city kids who go to small Catholic schools, like the one discussed in the Newark article, do so well because so many of the kids are motivated, and they've been effectively separated from kids who aren't. Any parents who are willing to pay to send their kids to a school have obviously made their kids' education a priority. When you put kids from families like these together in the same classroom, should anyone be surprised that they're successful? I'm always exacerbated when I read about students who are successful, and the author expects readers to fall over from shock because the kids are black or from low-income families. If you put a motivated student in a classroom with other motivated students, I don't care what race the student is or who her parents are. This is a recipe for success, and if I can't help that child learn, then you'd better fire me in a hurry.

Assuming I am not completely off base in my analysis of the situation in inner-cities, I have these questions: Do we have to pull kids out of the public school system in order to create a decent learning environment for them? Can't we find a way to put motivated kids with other motivated kids--or at least separate them from kids who can ruin their educations--within public schools?

DCS, there's that darned recurring theme again! :)

Friday, June 23, 2006

PESPD'S Myth #5: The Key Factor in Any Classroom Is the Quality of the Teacher

First of all, let me make it perfectly clear that this is not a cop-out. I do think teachers are very important, and I also think we should be more accountable than we are. But I have had classes where good things consistently happened throughout the entire school year, and I've had other classes where I've felt like we've accomplished very little. Since I am the same teacher in these different classes, how can the results be so different?

My reason for writing this post is not to say that teachers don't matter, but to say that there is another factor that is also extremely important in determining the amount of learning in a classroom. At least at the high school level, I believe this factor is even more important than the teacher. This factor is consistently ignored by critics of public education, and worse yet, by those who make policy. In fact, I can't recall ever having heard this factor discussed in any articles or books I've read or TV programs I've watched on the subject of education. The factor I am talking about is the make up of the students in a classroom and the effect they have on each other.

A typical classroom would consist of some highly motivated students, some apathetic students and possibly a disruptive one or two, and a bunch of kids who are somewhere in between. Show me a classroom with a higher than average number of motivated students, and I will show you a classroom where a lot of learning is taking place. And I am not just talking about the learning by the motivated students; I'm also talking about the learning by the other kids who are fortunate enough to be in that particular classroom. On the other hand, show me a class with a higher than average number of apathetic students, or maybe just a couple of really disruptive ones, and I'll show you a classroom where we're lucky if any learning is taking place at all.

Earlier this year I had a conversation with a biology teacher from a neighboring school district, and he told me an interesting story. He had four biology classes, and at the beginning of the year. He told me his third hour class was his best, and his sixth hour class was unquestionably his worst. At the semester break, three kids from his sixth hour class transferred into his third hour, and the two classes completely reversed themselves. The third hour class became his worst, and his sixth hour class became his best. Here is a situation where we have the same teacher teaching the same content in the same school, but all it took was three kids out of one class an into another to completely change the dynamics of those two classes. And please don't assume that this happened because this guy was a poor teacher. He is excellent, and is one of the most charismatic teachers that I know.

This happens because most students are like I was--not overly motivated, but not really what you would call apathetic, either. They're somewhere in the middle, and they are willing to go along with the pack. Put that middle-of-the-roader into a good class, and that student will become a pretty good student, too. He wants to fit in and be like the rest of the kids, so he doesn't want to be the only one who hasn't done his homework, and he doesn't want to have the lowest score on a test. But put that student into a classroom where there are enough kids who simply want to screw around, and he can become a real pain in the class himself. And believe me, I am speaking from first hand experience!

Some would probably still argue that the quality of the teacher is the most important factor in a classroom, but I think anyone would agree that the make up of the students is very important. But look at what public policy has done and is doing regarding that. Through court decisions and legislation, we've made it nearly impossible for teachers to remove apathetic and disruptive students from their classrooms. Now, legislation is encouraging homeschooling and there are more and more public officials pushing for vouchers. In other words, now we are encouraging some of our most motivated students to leave. I can't imagine a better course if we want to destroy public education. And I'm afraid that's exactly what some people would like to do.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Jay Greene's Hatchet-job on Public Schools

I finished Jay Greene's Education Myths about a week and a half ago, so I better write about it while it's still relatively fresh in my mind. Greene is a researcher who has conducted a number of studies, and they all seem to be unflattering to public schools and anyone who works in them. In one of his chapters Greene argues that schools aren't performing worse than they used to, so one might think that the book isn't totally one-sided. Public education proponents shouldn't get their hopes up, however. Greene basically uses this chapter to say that public schools never have been any good.

Greene is a professional researcher, and I'm not. I know I'm getting into dangerous territory if I quibble with his methods, but I will say this. Throughout the book, Greene refers to numerous studies and statements that are supportive of public schools, and then he proceeds to tell us they are all wrong. He does this by using studies that came up with contradictory results, usually ones that were conducted by (Guess who?) Jay Greene. This leads me two conclude one of two things. Either researchers are capable of setting up studies in such a way that they can consistently get results to support whatever they wanted to conclude in the first place, or Jay Greene is the greatest researcher who has ever lived, and any researchers who come up with conclusions different from his simply don't know what they are doing.

While Greene's command of facts and figures is impressive, he seems to have no feel for what actually goes on inside classrooms. He constantly presents education as something that is done to or for students, rather than something in which they need to play an active part. Students who learn, do so because of the good job done by the good schools; students who do poorly, do so because of the poor job done by the poor schools. The effect of their neighborhoods and parents on students is downplayed, and the effect that students have on each other in different schools is completely ignored.

Greene paints a horrible picture of public schools. In his last chapter he does say that public teachers are generally good people, but throughout the rest of the book we are presented in a way that borders on insulting. We are portrayed as highly paid people with little talent and motivation, who don't care very much about our students, and who really don't do very much work outside of school hours. Administrators are portrayed as caring mostly about the amount of money they can get ignorant taxpayers to fork over to their schools. I've only worked in two schools during my career, but Greene's portrayal of public schools and the people who work in them simply doesn't square with my own experience. We all know that there are some teachers and administrators like the ones he describes, but the great majority of the ones I've known have been good people who sincerely cared about their students and worked hard.

Greene's overall conclusion is that public schools need more incentives built into them. Although my vision is a lot different than his, I don't completely disagree with him. He endorses merit pay, and I'm not against that, but I think it's difficult to come up with a system that is workable and fair. I certainly wouldn't trust Greene to do it. I actually think a bigger problem is the difficulty that schools have in keeping our best young teachers, and getting rid of some of our worst teachers because of our tenure and seniority systems. Although I think teachers in general are a lot better than Greene does, we do have some who do a lousy job, and they give the rest of us a black eye. I have also seen too many good young teachers let go simply because they didn't have enough seniority.

More than anything else, Greene pushes for the idea of school choice, which of course, includes vouchers. Although he never actually comes out and says this, I assume that he would favor a full-fledged voucher system, and not one just limited to low-income families in troubled school districts. Like other conservatives, Greene talks about how wonderful the market system and competition would be for public schools.

Fine! If they want competition, then let's make the competition fair, because as things are now, it wouldn't be fair. Private schools can dismiss kids who don't behave or don't perform; public schools can't. Greene uses statistics to show that private schools rarely have to use that power, and all I can say to that is, "Of course, they don't!" For one thing, they have the power--and that makes a huge difference, but they are also dealing with a completely different clientele.

Having public schools "compete" under this handicap would be the equivalent of having them try to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. So if Greene and other conservatives truly want competition in K-12 education, then they should begin by pushing to give public schools the same powers in dealing with disruptive and apathetic students that private schools have. After all, doesn't that seem "conservative"? If they're willing to do that, then I'd say, "Bring those private schools on!" But if Greene and his friends are unwilling to do that, then they should stop saying that what they want is competition, and tell us what they're really trying to do.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

PESPD'S Myth # 4: All High School Aged Kids Should Be Encouraged to Stay in School

"Stay in school!" I don't know how many times I've heard this over the years. I've heard it on public service commercials on TV, and I've heard it from politicians and other prominent citizens. It's another saying that sounds very good, and for most high school aged kids, it's reasonable advice. The problem is that for many of the young people to whom this saying is most intended to be addressed, it isn't.

Before I go on, I should say that I recognize that in many places the drop-out rate is very high, and that is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed. The causes need to be examined, and solutions need to be found. We need to find ways to encourage more kids in those areas to care about their own educations. But the solution definitely is not to simply tell kids--or worse, to force kids--to stay in school. Being in school definitely has value for any student who is willing to make an effort and follow reasonable rules, but some students aren't willing to do those things. For those students, being in school is of very little, if any, value, and they become real threats to the education of other kids.

A few years ago, we had a student in our school who got into trouble with the law, and was ordered to attend school regularly as a condition of his probation. This might have been beneficial if there had been some performance standard attached to this condition, but there wasn't. I'm sure the judge and the probation officer assumed that anyone who attends school will pay a reasonable amount of attention, do a little homework, and do some studying for tests. They assumed wrong! As it turned out, this young man would frequently be found roaming around our hallways during school hours. When asked if he wasn't concerned about how this might affect his probation, the young man answered, "The judge said I had to go to school. He didn't say anything about being in class."

This would be bad enough if the only student being effected was the wandering student, but that is not the case. Kids in a school affect other kids. At the middle and high school levels, peer relationships become extremely important. Many kids care much more about their relationships with their friends than their relationships with any adults--even their parents and especially their teachers. Any time a motivated student moves into our school district, I feel good, because I know that student might cause other kids in our school to become more motivated. On the other hand, every time an apathetic or disruptive student walks into our school, I know that this kid might lead other kids in our school astray. It seems to me that judges and policy makers have no recognition of this.

For example, during our last school year we had a rather nasty incident take place involving a couple of our students, and they ended up being sent to a "training center." I had both of the young men involved in my classes. The first was constantly a major problem in the classroom. He rarely did any work, and I learned very early that I could never turn my back on him. There were many times that I wondered to myself, "Why is he even here?" Some students were entertained by his antics, however, and he seemed to possess a certain amount of charisma. The second young man involved started off very poorly in my class, because he was not naturally gifted in social studies. He was a quiet kid who never bothered anyone in class, and he plugged away, so that by the time he was sent away, he was earning a solid C in my class. He had definitely earned my respect, and I felt good about his progress. Although I'm still a little unclear about the incident that got the two students in trouble, my guess is that if the charasmatic troublemaker hadn't been around, the second young man would never have gotten involved. In public schools, we seem determined to save them all. By trying to do that in this case, I think we ended up losing a student that we didn't have to lose.

I really believe that all high school students should make a choice. They should either commit themselves to trying to be successful, which means making an effort and being willing to follow reasonable rules, or they should leave. If they choose to leave, we should respect that decision. Celine Dion dropped out of school when she was twelve years old, and she hasn't done too badly. When asked about it, she said she hopes her own children will do well in school, but she also said that she believes school isn't for everyone. Maybe she's right. I mean after all, would it have better if she'd have been forced to stay in school?

Rather than forcing or even encouraging kids, who don't want to be there, to stay in schooI, wouldn't it make a lot more sense to make it clear to them that if they ever decide they've made a mistake, we will welcome them back? Time Magazine's "Dropout Nation" featured one student who did just that, and ended up doing very well. I would be all for programs that would encourage dropouts to do follow his example. Chicago had a such a program a number of years ago that was featured on "60 Minutes" and it seemed to be working. There was actually one situation in which a mother was in a high school class with her daughter. I don't know if the program is still around, but I think it was a great idea. I can think of no better example for some of our young people than to have someone in their twenties who had dropped out of school, found that it's a lousy way to go, and is now showing up for all his classes, doing assignments and studying for tests.

I don't know about other teachers, but when students are willing to make an honest effort, I don't care how old they are or what their backgounds are, I'd love to have them in my class. But if I have kids who have made up their minds that they don't want to be there, or they want to be there for the wrong reasons, there's really not much I can do for them.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Surprise, Surprise! Homeschooling Parent Blames the School

Aargh!!! That scream you hear coming out of northern Minnesota is from me after reading Thomas Croom's blog, Homeschooling: It's More Than an Education Alternative. Croom is a conservative blogger who's child (actually his wife's nephew) was expelled from his school. He blames his child's school for the lack of discipline and the teachers for a lack of concern that ultimately led to the boy's expulsion, and he is perfectly willing to generalize about it. He says about his reasons for homeschooling the boy that they "are the culmination of what would happen to any child not properly excised from public school at an early age."

Conservatives do not tend to be fans of public education, and neither do parents of kids who have managed to get themselves expelled, so no one should be surprised by Croom's disdain for public schools. Nevertheless, his tying the experiences of "any child" to the experience of what was obviously a very troubled young man is hard to take. Croom doesn't say exactly what the child he was caring for did to get expelled, but the fact he did separates him from the typical public school student. I can't speak for other states, but I do know that in Minnesota it is almost impossible to get expelled. According to Jay Greene--not exactly a public school advocate--less than two percent are expelled nationally. This alone puts the kid in a very "select" group.

In all my years of teaching, I've never seen a situation resembling the one that Croom describes. Teachers and schools are far from perfect, but any students I've seen who have managed to get themselves expelled or suspended have clearly brought it on themselves. Although Croom acknowledges that his wife's nephew had problems in his "private life," and he even concedes at one point that not every teacher compounded his problems, his piece gives the perception that the young man's problems were mostly the fault of the school system. Maybe they were, but I doubt it.

Most parents are reasonable, but all teachers, who have been at it for awhile, are aware that there are parents of troubled kids out there who can't wait to blame any problems on them. Because of that, we have to spend a ridiculous amount of our time doing things to make sure our backsides are covered when those accusations are made. I don't know how many hours I've spent during my career after school and on weekends making and answering phone calls and emails, and filling out deficiency and discipline slips, because I know that if I don't, that parent will probably be the one who says, "Why didn't you tell me there was a problem?" Maybe Croom is correct about some of his criticisms of the school, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there's another side to this story.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

When Education Isn't a Right

In case you're wondering why I've been so quiet lately, I've been gone on the annual Fermoyle family vacation for the last nine days. We went to sunny Florida, and managed to break their drought by bringing Alberto with us. (For the first three days of our vacation, the most commonly heard phrase from any member of the Fermoyle family was, "Sunny Florida, my a--!") I actually felt guilty leaving my fellow bloggers without a word, but since I use my real name, and I've told everybody where I live, I didn't think it would be prudent to announce over the Internet that my wife and I would be gone from our house for a week. In any case, I'm back! And I'm armed with all kinds of new knowledge after reading Blogging For Dummies (I even understood some of it!), and Jay Greene's Education Myths (which Anonymous Teacher shamed me into finally reading). I also read Caleb Carr's The Alienist, while laying out by the pool working on my future skin cancer, but I'm afraid that won't do much for my blogging skills.

I have to admit that I was thrown off by the comments on my post about "the right to an education," especially the ones by Anonymous and DCS. I did not expect so much agreement. I thought that some would view me as an angry old man who can’t wait to start kicking kids out of school. Just before I left for my vacation, I prepared a follow up to deal with that. Even though I didn't get the disagreement that I expected, I'm still going to go with it, because I think it really helps make the case. What I want to do is to describe an educational situation that I have been involved in for 32 years where kids don’t have the right to be there--high school hockey. Granted, being on a high school athletic team is not the same as being in the classroom because being on the athletic team isn’t compulsory. Nevertheless, I think there is something to be learned here. And by the way, I am admittedly plagiarizing from my book, but I can’t find anything that makes my point better than this.

Playing on a high school athletic team has not been interpreted as a right, so coaches can dismiss players if their actions are hurting their team. Because it is clear that coaches have this authority, it rarely has to be used. For example, during my seventeen years at Warroad, we always had between thirty and forty players on our varsity and JV teams. During that period, only two players were dismissed for failing to live up to our team’s behavioral standards. And believe me, the behavioral standards for our hockey teams have definitely been higher than those of a typical classroom.

I can only imagine what it would be like if coaches didn't have this power, and players simply had the right to be there, as they do in a public school classroom. The effort of players in our hockey practices is excellent, and most of that is because they want to be good, but part of it is because players know that a lack of effort won't be accepted. Because of the energy our players put into our practices day after day, our teams and our players get better and better as the season goes on. What would happen if a disgruntled player could simply quit trying, but depend on being able to continue playing on the team because he had a right to be there? What would happen if a player could skip practices, and know that he could return whenever he wanted, and also know that the worst thing that could happen to him would be to have to serve detention? There is no question that our teams and our other players would not be as good as they are. Yet, this is exactly the situation our society has decided to tolerate in our classrooms. Considering this, one has to wonder if our society really believes that academics are more important than athletics.

There are those who think that giving teachers the power to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms is a radical idea, but it is really just common sense. Up until the late 1960s, this was the way things were done in public schools, and there was never any public outcry that students’ rights were being abused. Masses of students were not being thrown out of schools for spurious reasons. In fact, most people believed the system worked pretty well. But then some Supreme Court justices decided to step in and fix what wasn’t broken, because some students had been suspended for political protests in their schools. Making decisions to guarantee political and due process rights to students might have seemed reasonable at the time, but I wonder if those justices could have foreseen that their decisions would eventually lead to a high school student in Kansas thinking that he could intentionally vomit on his teacher and get away with it. I wonder if they had any idea how many students they were condemning to worse educations.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

PESPD'S MYTH # 3: Education Should Be Every Student's Right

How can anyone argue against education being a right? I know how bad it sounds. It’s like arguing against Mom and apple pie. The idea of education being the right of every child sounds so good, but there’s one problem. It doesn’t work very well. It’s bad for schools, it’s bad for teachers, it’s bad for students who get stuck in classes with disruptive and apathetic students who ruin their education, and it’s even bad for most of the disruptive and apathetic students.

The way education is now treated as a right began with court rulings in the 1960s. First, the Supreme Court said that students don’t leave their rights at the schoolhouse door. Later, they declared education to be a student’s property right that can’t be taken away without due process of law. Then, they ruled that students could sue school officials who knew or should have known that they were denying students their due process rights. Congress and state legislatures couldn’t wait to jump on the students’ rights bandwagon, so they have passed legislation reinforcing this concept.

Philip K. Howard, in his book THE DEATH OF COMMON SENSE, argues that nothing has done more harm to public education than declaring education to be the student’s right. I agree. This has made it impossible for schools to deal effectively with most disruptive and apathetic students. It has led to horror stories like those described by Elizabeth in her post, THE DISASTER WE CALL PUBLIC EDUCATION. If a student brings a weapon to school, then that student might get expelled. But for anything else, it is either impossible or prohibitively expensive to do so.

Let me make myself clear. I have no problem with students having the right to enroll in our school, and I have no problem with them having the right to be treated fairly while they are here. But they should not have the right to just be here. That should be contingent on whether or not they are willing to make a reasonable effort to succeed, and whether or not they are willing to follow reasonable rules. If some kids are determined not to do those things, there is nothing good that can happen from their presence in school, and it should not cost thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees and court costs to get rid of them.

The rights of disruptive and apathetic students to remain in school has effectively taken away the right to an education for millions of students who actually wanted one since the Supreme Court made their rulings. But as I said earlier, this does no good for the disruptive and apathetic kids who are supposedly being protected, either.

Most students behave, in part, because they don’t want to get in trouble. They don’t want teachers to get angry with them, they don’t want to serve detention, and they definitely don’t want to be suspended. Disruptive kids aren’t deterred by any of these things, but many of them do want to remain in school. Most students want to earn good grades, and they want to avoid bad ones. Obviously, apathetic kids aren’t terribly motivated by grades, but again, many of them do want to remain in school.

I am convinced that many disruptive kids would improve their behavior, and many apathetic kids would actually start to make an effort if they thought there was a real possibility that they could get kicked out if they didn’t. Wouldn’t this be the best possible thing we could do for these kids? And if they are totally unwilling to change, what good does it do them to be in school?
I am all for offering incentives to troubled students to do well, and sometimes those incentives work. I am all for those few teachers who are so full of love and empathy that they can reach kids that nobody else can. Nevertheless, I think these "carrots" would be effective a lot more often if we also had a stick. As it is now, when it comes to dealing with disruptive and apathetic students, public education doesn’t have a stick.

Monday, June 05, 2006

PESPD'S MYTH #2: The American People Want Their Schools to Have Higher Standards

Early in Jay Greene’s book, EDUCATION MYTHS, which is basically a blast at public education, he mentions as fact something that teachers know is a myth: parents want schools to set higher standards for their children. In fact, I would argue that a major reason that the standards of public schools aren’t higher is that we try so hard to give the parents and other people in our communities exactly what they want.

In my book, I have a section called "The American People Blah, Blah, Blah." I wrote it during the political campaigns of 2004 because that’s what I felt like I was hearing anytime I heard a politician talk about education in America. They would say things like, "The American people demand that our schools have high standards," or, "The education of our children is the highest priority for the American people." These politicians and people like Greene make it sound as if the public in general, and parents in particular, are willing to do anything it takes to bring about a better education for our nation's children. The implication is that any educational problems we have are the schools’ fault. Teachers and administrators just aren’t working hard enough. We’re not doing what "the American people" want. Baloney! (I would use a different word that begins with B, but it would seem unprofessional.)

When it comes to supporting education, my community is better than average, but there is no way that it fits the scenario painted by those politicians or Jay Greene. Let’s take my school’s attendance policy as an example.

Quite frankly, I think our school has done a lousy job with this, but that’s because we’ve been losing the battle to parents. I don’t know how many kids in our high school missed 25 or more days of school this year, but it was a lot. They missed so much because their parents consistently write notes for them, and our school didn’t have the guts to tell them "No!" nearly as often as we should have.

Some of the parents who write all these notes are lousy parents, but that’s not always the case. We have tried having policies to deal with our problem, and sometimes it has been parents of some of our best students who have undercut those policies. We used to have a 10 day limit on absences for a semester that worked pretty well, but then an influential member of our community who wanted to take his daughters on a cruise protested, and the policy turned to mush. In March and April, I had four different girls, all of whom were good students, take two full weeks off from school to go to Hawaii with full approval from their parents. Now to me, that is not exactly demanding high attendance standards.

And it isn’t just attendance. When I first started teaching in Warroad after fifteen years of teaching in Mt. Iron, Minnesota, I came with strict policies for cheating and for leaving the room during class. I was forced to back off of both after a firestorm of protest from parents. One of the parents was a school board member who was so irate that he went in and actually started pounding on the principal’s desk. (One lesson I learned from this was that parents are much more willing to challenge a teacher who is new to a district than a fifteen year veteran.)

Demanding high standards? I have worked with a lot of parents of special education kids over the years, and most of them are pretty good, but some of them aren’t. I have sat in on IEP meetings where parents "knew their rights," and demanded the lowest possible standards for their kids. And it’s not just parents of special education kids. Higher standards would almost certainly mean more homework for students. Do you think parents who have their kids working during the school year want that? I don’t think so. And I don’t think the employer in a neighboring community, who encouraged his teenaged workers to skip their afternoon classes so they could work more, would want that, either.

Despite my negativity here, I know there are a lot of good parents out there. I know there are parents who support everything our school tries to do, and everything I try to do. But please don’t tell me that the public and parents are all demanding high standards. Every teacher knows that whenever schools try to raise any standards, some parents will fight us every step of the way.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Dialogue on Disruptive Students

Elementary History Teacher and DCS had an exchange of comments in my last post, and I began to write my own comment in response. The comment was getting so long, however, that I decided to make it my next post. Don't worry, though; I will get back to the myths.

Here is Elementary History Teacher's comment:

I explain to my students every year my title is teacher not learner. I teach and they learn. I cannot learn for them. I can provide opportunities for them to learn and I can provide different methods for the learning but they have to do something. There are a growing number of students today who do not respond to any of my invitations to learn. They prefer to disrupt, threaten, and commit violence. Their actions negate their right to be in the learning environment because they threaten the success of others.

Here is DCS's comment:

I can understand and agree with much that everyone is saying. Let me just say that that even though most teachers are dedicated to their profession and their students, there are teachers in the classroom who disengage their students on the first day. So do parents. I know because I've seen it first-hand.

Kids say things that are inappropriate and not well thought out. As adults, we must be careful not to take everything personally. Many kids go through stuff today that we adults never had to experience at their age.

If a student told me that I failed, I'd ask him why he thinks that. Sometimes there is something else going on with the student that really has nothing to do with you.

Finally, to Elementaryhistoryteacher - I get your point. However, let me say this: I hope teachers as a group understand that lifelong learning is important and that we can all learn something from our children. Kids have a way of getting to the heart of a matter very quickly and offering fresh perspectives on issues. They can also sense quickly when adults don't respect them.

Even as the parent, I have always allowed my children to speak their mind about anything, as long as they do it with respect. If there is an outburst of angst, where I'm accused of something, I'll ask my child questions to see what's going on with her. Often, it's something that has nothing to do with me. Sometimes I have goofed. In those cases, I apologize. Apologizing doesn't make me a weak parent.

As someone who has worked one-on-one with students failing in communication arts, I have found that many of these children act out but are actually great readers. With these kids, I look for creative ways to engage the student first - which often involves listening. I don't judge them. Once we have established rapport, it's easier to get positive outcomes from these students.

As an educator and a parent, I make a point of trying to look at situations as if I were a kid. In addition, if my child and I disagree about something, I explain my position from the vantage point of an adult. Often, my child will tell me that she never "thought about it that way." Again, I think we adults must remember this: "It's not always about you."

And now the old guy's two cents worth:

In DCS's comment, there is nothing I can point to and say, "That's wrong!" DCS has such an impressive knowledge base and everything she writes is so well thought out that I try to avoid arguing with her. I'd much rather argue with people who don't know anything or who shoot from the hip. Then I get to win once in awhile. Nevertheless, I do have a different perspective than her in dealing with difficult students.

There is nothing more frustrating for me than having a really disruptive student in class. DCS says in her comment that there are things some of these kids have to go through that we never did, and I know she's right. But it's so hard to keep that in mind when one of these students is destroying what you are trying to do in a classroom. DCS also says that teachers need to realize that it isn't about us. I would like to put up a front of righteous indignation, and pretend that I've never thought that it's about me, but I have to admit that there have been times when I've been guilty of taking things personally. Nevertheless, the thing that is foremost in my mind when I am in front of the classroom is to teach the 25-30 kids that I have in that room. It's not just about that one disruptive student, and it's not just about me; it's about the other students in that classroom who are being hurt by what that disruptive student is doing, and what they are missing out on because of all the attention I've got to be giving to him.

Before I go on, I do want to say that I have had some successes in dealing with disruptive kids. One of the highlights of my career involved a kid who was classified as EBD that I had in a basic class that I taught three years ago. He failed the first quarter, and was a constant irritant in class. By the fourth quarter, however, he completely turned around. He was earning As and Bs, and he was THE positive leader in the class. I can remember showing a video, and when it was over, he said, "That was really a good video!" The other students nodded in agreement. I have no doubt that if he had said it was lousy, that would have been followed by a chorus of, "Yeah, that really sucked!" from the rest of the class.

I think there were four factors that caused this student to turn around the way he did: 1. He was a basketball player, and he realized that if he didn't pick it up, he would be never be eligible. 2. Once he started making an effort in the class, he realized it was possible for him to do quite well. 3. There were no other disruptive students in that class, so he had no one to feed off. 4. We had a great social worker who met with him regularly.

I wish I could say that I have succeeded like this on a regular basis, but that is not the case. Very few of my disruptive students have ever turned around.

I have a great deal of empathy for Elementary History Teacher, because it sounds like she has had a number of disruptive kids to deal with this year. There have only been a couple of times during my career when I've had more than one or two really disruptive kids in one of my classes, and those classes have truly been nightmares. If there are three or four really disruptive kids in a class, they will inevitably drag along three or four other kids who wouldn't be any problem if they were in another class. The class becomes a circus as six or seven students try to outdo each other with acts of sneakiness and misbehavior, and it is almost impossible for any learning to take place. Normally, I love seeing my students out in the hallways before and after school and in-between classes. I thoroughly enjoy joking with them, chatting with them, or just saying, "Hi!" to them, and hearing them say, "Hey, Mr. Ferm" in return. But when I had those nightmare classes, I would actually feel embarrassed anytime I saw students from that class that actually wanted to learn something. Then I did feel like I was failing, because I was letting those students down. It was very difficult for me to feel understanding or sympathy for the kids who were destroying that class.

I am thankful that I have had so few classes like that, but I know there are teachers in some areas of the nation who go through that class after class, year after year. Quite frankly, I don't know how they do it.