For decades, even centuries, people have argued about how to improve education. It seems we are in an endless cycle of reform.
The wise reformer knows that any broad, systemic changes need to be let loose for a good five to ten years before you can really start to accurately assess their effect on student learning.
Education does not have a quick fix.
Or, does it? I have one. This solution, what I'm calling "The Answer," is the result of over nine years teaching in an energetic, diverse, and challenging school. We have superb students who attend Stanford and MIT, and we have students who attend the state prison and drop out reading at the 4th grade level.
In my career, I have pondered and expounded upon a number of issues that need to be addressed that would improve our schools. But there is one issue, far overriding all the others, that in my informed estimation would have the single greatest impact on the lives of our students were we to address it as we should.
As you read my blog, you will see me refer to this regularly. Here it is, in short. There are two main parts.
The Answer (part 1):
We must stop viewing education as a "right."
Whoa, that's extreme. "How dare he," you say. "This is America." You're absolutely right. This is America. What we pretend to call the land of opportunity. Why then do we restrict the opportunities of millions of students so we can keep coaxing, prodding, pleading, cajoling, and cuddling the worst students in our schools, almost always to no avail?
My proposal is to restore rightful authority to teachers and administrators.
Give us the right to remove students from our classes and schools. Remove the "he has a right to education until he's 18" absurdity.
Do you know what it would do for the other 30 students in a class if you could just remove the 2 worst ones who daily, constantly, endlessly, and with such stubbornness against all advice and assistance to the contrary, continue to ruin the classroom environment?
Every teacher can tell you story after story of classes they've had where a few students who just refuse to cooperate end up dragging large portions of the class down with them. If these few students were removed, it would make all the difference for the remaining students.
See, some students struggle with learning, with focusing. Some students want to learn, but they get easily distracted. They need a positive learning environment. When there are students nearby who are constantly off-task, whispering to them, playing with their stupid cell phones, not working, poking them, arguing with the teacher, it's very hard for these marginal students to do their work and to learn.
These students are having their educational opportunities robbed from them. At what point is enough, enough?
A five point warning system, in each classroom, would solve this.
Here are the specifics:
- Teacher sets clear expectations at the start of the year. These are approved by administration (we do this already at my school)
- Students understand that violating behavioral expectations can result in "strikes." (call them what you want, this is a rough draft)
- On the 3rd strike, you are kicked out of the class for a week to think about your conduct.
- On the 5th strike, you're out for good, and the rest of us can breathe a sigh of relief that we might finally have an uninterrupted 45 minutes of learning for the rest of the year.
Now, what are the problems with this?
Well, they're pretty obvious. What do we do with students who get kicked out? Well, when you can finally extricate yourself from the restrictive paradigm you have been fed since birth, and accept the possibility that education is not a human right, but rather a privilege to be taken seriously and appreciated, you'll know exactly what to do with the removed students.
Let them fend for themselves.
First, they would have to find another class (again, you remove them from each class, by the teacher's order, not from the whole school). If they can't find another class, then they'll have to try for that subject again next year.
Or, if enough teachers are kicking them out, they'll have to find a different school.
Eventually, hopefully, they'll finally figure out that the reason they're getting kicked out of every class and school isn't because everyone else is "beefin."
No, it is actually solely and completely because of their own conduct. Their own disdain for learning, structure, challenge, discipline, and order. For those horrible things we call rules (that every job, institution, non-profit, and functioning home also has).
Eventually, maybe they'll finally change, grow up, and decide to get serious about life. If they don't, what's the difference? These kinds of students, though we pour millions of dollars, thousands of hours, and hundreds of teachers, tutors, counselors, and trainers at their feet, usually drop out anyway and take all those resources with them.
Who do you think drops out of high school? It's not a mystery. These kinds of students account for a fair percentage of them. And, the great thing is, if we could remove these students earlier, maybe we would hold on longer to some of the others who get discouraged and drop out now, because we could actually devote some attention to them in class.
If I didn't have to babysit the reckless 3 students who drive me crazy every day, I could devote a lot more time to the struggling 10 students that I hardly ever get to in the current system. Maybe some of those 10, who often end up not graduating, would benefit from that extra attention. They want to learn, but it's hard, and they get annoyed with the constant chaos caused by the cowardly few.
See, education has value. Too many of our students have forgotten that. It's not free. They are getting paid to go to school. Paid by the taxpayers. It's about time they are made to do their jobs.
This proposal would work instantly in any high school. I'm not sure if it's appropriate for middle school, and definitely not in elementary. Students need adequate opportunity to find their own way, and young children haven't had that chance yet. But at some point, they begin to see what makes a good student. There are plenty of examples to emulate. Plenty of advice is given. The choice is theirs.
It is for this reason that the second part of my proposal comes into play.
The Answer (Part 2):
Charge a $10 fee for every student, every year, for their education.
This small fee is easily payable by 99% of our students. Ten bucks a year is nothing these days. Almost everyone has cable TV, internet, multiple cell phones, expensive shoes, and Ipods. Supposedly, my school has over 50% of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches. Yet I see them carrying all this expensive stuff around.
They can afford ten bucks.
The point is not to raise money, as it wouldn't be a significant amount. The point is to communicate one thing: Your education is worth something. Don't waste it. If you can't scrape ten bucks a year together for your education, something is seriously wrong.
Education isn't the answer to everything (though some mistakenly seem to think so), but it sure makes a BIG difference in almost any significant area of life. Isn't that worth ten dollars a year?
Require students to pay this money (that's only $120 over the entire 12 years of education, excluding kindergarten), and once they reach high school, hold them to the Five Strikes system of behavioral expectations.
Do these two things, and watch what changes.
There are people in Sudan who travel miles and miles every day to go to school. I read a story of a guy who escaped Uganda during the atrocities committed by the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army, I believe). He swam through alligator-infested rivers, rebel territory, desert lands, and when he finally established himself, what did he do? He opened up schools for girls. And they come from miles and miles away to be educated.
Now there are some people who understand the value of education.
Contrast that with the students we must endure who look at us like we're insane when we expect them to have a frickin' pencil out before the bell rings, and as if we are the most offensive, impudent jerks alive when we tell them to give us their cell phones when we ask for them, because it is too unreasonable to expect them to keep them out of sight for a torturous 45 minutes.
These kinds of students are so inured with entitlement, with arrogance, with self-righteousness, with stubbornness, that nothing we do gets through to them. Everything is our fault.
But what if they had just Five chances to stop ruining our classes? Five chances to close their mouths, not argue back, and accept what we say and expect of them. If they knew each teacher had this authority, and if students started getting removed, and no amount of complaining from parents could get them back in, we might finally see this stuff change.
And if not, I've still got 30 other students to worry about. Remember, this is a small--very small--percentage of students. Don't misunderstand me as being one who dislikes my students. Don't read that description above and think our schools are full of chaos and disorder. That type of student is a small percentage of the whole. Less than five per class, even in some of the worst classes.
Most students, deep down, do want to learn. Most students want to get along with their teachers. Most students want to succeed.
Let's stop pandering to the self-destructive few who have already decided what they want out of life, and it doesn't include knowledge, understanding, stability, or positive influence.
This is my Proposal, the Answer, to addressing the core problem as I see it in our public education system.
1. Restore the teacher's rightful authority in the classroom
2. Require a $10 fee from each student
Then, maybe we can finally have time to read some of these "reform" ideas that keep getting thrown at us, but don't even have a chance of working in classrooms that get disrupted by students such as those I described above.