Two Terrible Ways Schools Rob Children Of Their Futures—And Make Money Doing So

I recently discussed with a colleague one of the oddities many of us continually encounter when teaching college students, and we both agreed this is one of the maddening truths of dealing with high school graduates today: They simply do not believe us when we explain that they will fail our courses if they neglect to pay attention and do the work we have assigned.  

However, the sheer incredulity that I sometimes encounter when I explain to a young adult that they have flunked is perfectly understandable to me.  We are often today dealing with students who were pencil-whipped through their high school courses, offered phony-baloney credit recovery for those classes where they did not even bother to attend, and were generally taught nothing in K-12 other than that there is no actual consequence for steadfast ignorance.  Therefore, why should they believe that their college teacher has no intention for passing them just because they are carbon-based life forms?  Was this ever the case during their 13 year plod through public schooling?  

Probably not.

K-12 education in America is typical of most entrenched government bureaucracies: There is no connection at all between pay and performance.  In fact, given that school funding is typically tied to nothing other than mere daily attendance, there is truly no incentive for anyone to bother with teaching and learning.  Your local public school will get their cash from local taxes, state funding, and federal grants whether students are studying Calculus or sleeping through a film on penguin reproduction.  Outcomes have no real place in American public education; the point is to keep students in a seat so the funding keeps rolling in.  If youve ever wondered why 35 years of education reform has resulted in negligible results while costing taxpayers a small fortune, this is a good place to begin your inquiry.

This peculiar quirk of how we fund K-12 education perhaps helps to explain at least some portion of the attraction to our latest American educational fad: Restorative Justicediscipline in our public schools.  

Despite any reliable research to demonstrate the efficacy of this punishment-light approach to school discipline, one that exchanges suspensions and expulsions of troublemakers with methods more akin to plain wishful thinking, Restorative Justice—“RJin todays lingohas taken hold across the nation.  Aside from promising that a more nurturing and sensitive approach is somehow better than dealing forcefully with those who disrupt classes, instill fear, and injure others, this method also puts money directly into the pockets of any district that adopts it because students who are expelled or suspended do not count as being in attendance, which means the money that follows them in the door will not be forthcoming.  Consequently, RJ can be a moneymaker disguised as compassionalthough the compassion seems to extend not at all to the victims of the bullies, stalkers, and abusers who now need not fear many (if any) consequences for causing physical and emotional harm to others.

Forgiveness does, of course, have a place in the classroom because young people always make mistakes, which is the reason we place them under the care and supervision of adults, and learning from mistakes is a necessary part of emotional maturation and development.  

Therefore, public schools have an obligation to model and teach the necessity of engaging in respectful behavior, obeying reasonable rulesand accepting the punishment that follows if respect is not offered and rules are not followed.  The alternative is to enable the most selfish attitudes and the rudest possible behavior among our young, which is going to further harm these children and adolescents as they proceed through life and discover just how many doors are closed to them due to learning from their public schools that lashing out has no consequence attached.  Educators who tacitly encourage misbehavior by failing to nip it in the bud are actively harming the young people in their care, and parents should be appalled at what is being taught—or not being taught—to their children through the Restorative Justice model of school discipline.

The same misguided compassion(not to mention the same yearning for the cash tied to school attendance) that informs our nations misbegotten embrace of Restorative Justice also animates the continued movement toward dramatically reducingor outright banninghomework in our nations public schools.  Setting aside for a moment the boon these practices provide for classroom teachers who will no longer need to deal with stacks of assignments to grade, policies that reduce or eliminate homework also keep many students coming to school because the stress of the academic workload is dramatically lessened.  Everyone may enjoy the opportunity to relax more and study less, but the negative impacts are rarely discussed.

Although some argue that any policy that keeps students in school is most definitely a good one, it must be pointed out that actual learning requires mastering the skills necessary to study andwork independently.  Moreover, the complex and time-intensive assignments that are necessary in middle and high school to enable students to learn the higher level academic skills they will need later in lifeparticularly if college is part of their life plansimply cannot be squished into the confines of the regular school day.  Homework is a critical adjunct to classroom instruction, and the failure to learn how study and work independently perhaps helps to explain why 30% of college freshman across our nation do not return for their sophomore yearsthey are simply unable to sustain the study habits necessary for classroom success.  

Would assigning and grading homework in K-12 have helped the millions of students who will abandon higher education this year? Would abandoning Restorative Justice discipline policies improve our schools and help our students?  I would argue that the answer is yes to both questions, but I am certain the Education professors will continue to publish academic papers suggesting otherwise.  Why is this the case?  Darned if I know, but at least their learned studies provide plenty of cover for school districts who care more about the cash tied to attendance than providing safe and academically sound classrooms for our nations children.

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A Modest Proposal For Our Public Schools

We live in the age of “big ideas” regarding how we can improve K-12 education in America.

We need personalized learning. Flipped classrooms would help. Teachers and students need to practice mindfulness. We could use more classroom technology—or perhaps less. No child will be left behind. Every student will succeed. I anxiously await the Lake Woebegone Education Act of 2035, which will mandate that every child be certifiably above average.

Let’s face the hard truth right here and now: All these many, many decades of reforms later, real and lasting improvements in K-12 academic outcomes are hard to find, and much of the available evidence points to further systemic declines.

Standardized tests continue to show that huge numbers of students are failing to learn, but apparently we should pay no attention to these test scores because they are nothing but a “snapshot” that fails to capture the “whole child”. As a result, hordes of high school graduates will continue to enroll in college each year—yet be wholly unprepared for college work—and flunk out after a semester or two. This is, however, not a reflection of the work being done (or not being done) at your local public schools. These danged kids must be partying too much.

Local news media—which pretty much operate as transcription services these days—will continue to report that their public schools are doing a fine job because these local television stations and newspapers really have no alternative but to do so. To report honestly about deficient academic measures and outcomes runs the risk of angering homeowners who are worried about their property values and contractors who are equally worried that the latest school construction bond might not pass and hence screw them out of lovely, fat paychecks. Any national or governmental data on broader problems with our country’s public schools do not, of course, apply to the schools in your own community, which the local news media have assured you are doing an excellent job preparing your children for successful futures. The circular logic of it all is a wonder to behold.

However, if a child is willing to sit in a classroom—or anywhere inside the building—so that your local district can collect their daily apportionment of state tax dollars, all will be well. If a student doesn’t like to write, that child can complete an “alternative” assignment—draw something, perhaps? If a child flunks a test, there is no need for worry—the school will likely allow unlimited test retakes. Hate to take notes or study? A student need have no concerns about that—count on a “study guide” the day before the quiz that contains all the answers. If nothing else works, your child can always enroll in a “credit recovery” course where, after watching a few movies and jotting down some random thoughts, full course credit will be expeditiously granted.

There are, of course, still public schools where some standards are maintained—and more and more charter schools are opening to provide alternatives for frustrated parents and students—but the daily reality for many children and adolescents throughout the length and breadth of our nation is maximum busywork and minimum learning. These problems later wash up on the doorsteps of our nation’s beleaguered community colleges, which are expected to somehow remediate 13 empty years of schooling within the span of a single semester.

I have suggestion so radical that to speak it out loud almost tempts a bolt of lightning to strike: Start flunking students who cannot perform to a minimal level of competence, which should translate into skills that would give that student a 50/50 chance of earning a C in a first year college course.

This does not seem an unreasonably high standard to set, and it would both bring some much-needed rigor back into our nation’s public schools and provide some reward for hard work. Our current system of striving to pass any student who can fog a mirror has turned much of our core coursework into a joke and has convinced everyone—students and teachers alike—that caring about learning is a waste of time.

Our unrealistically high graduation rates would obviously dip were we to adopt this standard throughout our nation’s schools, but those who thereafter received a diploma would at least have some assurance they possessed a good portion of the skills necessary to succeed in college or job training—and would not be condemned to a life of nothing other than the most minimally skilled jobs.

As odd as it might be to say this to those many Americans who are unaware of the diploma mills that so many of our public schools have become, implementing and sticking to this standard would entail a shock to the system akin to violent revolution. Rather than just pencil-whipping students through the grades, it would involve actual teaching, assessment, learning, and the many stresses of hard and sustained work—with no guarantee of success—that were once common in our nation’s public schools. Those teachers and administrators who cannot adjust to this new reality would need to be pushed aside, the happy nonsense that consumes so much of the average school day would need to be discarded, and both students and parents would need to face up to the fact that failure is sometimes a necessary stop on the path to actual learning.

Our other option is, of course, to continue to chase every educational fad that comes along, make excuses, and keep right on cheating many, many eighteen year olds of their futures while giving them nothing but an utterly false sense of their own competencies. A renewed commitment to teaching and learning seems an obvious choice to make, but one should never underestimate the corrosive powers of the inertia, laziness, petty politics, and bureaucratic timidity that are the hallmarks of American public education today.

Would Emergency Micro-Grants Help More Community College Students Succeed?

“Persistence” is a buzzword most educators at community colleges hear a great deal. We know too many students enter classes in the fall and—often before even the full academic year has passed—are gone from campus. Not surprisingly, a great deal of thought goes into what can be done to help students—especially the many who are older and re-entering the classroom or the first in their family to attend college—to complete their classes and secure a degree. There are a variety of ways to massage and tweak the data on degree attainment, but widely reported national percentages for completion tend to land in the low twenties. Obviously, everyone who works with community college students wants to do much, much better than this.

A great many good and helpful programs have already been implemented, and most boil down to providing more cocoon-like and intrusive advisory or educational interventions. Whether we are talking about mandated tutoring, individualized study tools, academic coaching, or even wake up calls to encourage students out of bed in the morning, most initiatives are some variation on the theme of hand holding. Truthfully, some students who lack confidence or independent life skills need exactly this because that which would seem obvious to many—attend classes regularly, complete the required readings, ask questions in class, and take careful notes—might not be so for students who attended academically deficient public schools or have no college-educated family members or close friends to act as mentors or role models.

It is also, of course, often the case that a simple lack of college-level skills in reading, writing, and math places many students into remedial coursework where they struggle to catch up. This is a continuing and largely avoidable tragedy that speaks to our national failure to provide every child with the opportunity for a quality education. The grievous dropout rate at our nation’s community colleges will continue to be inflated by inadequate public schools as long as we insist on handing high school diplomas to the equivalent of functional illiterates.

There is, however, another category of community college dropout whose problems I believe bear closer examination: those who are adequately prepared, motivated to succeed, but are dragged down by relatively minor financial circumstances beyond their control.

I am thinking of the single mother who has an unexpected expense and cannot pay her daycare provider at the moment. Unable to attend class for a week or more, she falls behind and grows frustrated. Upon her return, even though she has tried to work on her own and emailed her instructors for help, she needs to work much harder than her classmates to catch up—if she ever does.

I am thinking of the young man who has car problems and lives beyond the range where public transportation is possible. He misses classes while scrambling for a way to pay for the repair that will allow him to return to class. He emails his instructors, he knows what he is missing in class, and by the time he finally finds a relative or friend who can help pay for the necessary repair or provide transportation, the possibility of a successful semester is already slipping away.

I am thinking of the young woman who has a part-time hourly job in retail to help cover her living expenses while she is in school. Unfortunately, she falls seriously ill and misses over a week of school and work. There is no issue with her school absences beyond the assignments she needs to catch up on because she was medically excused from class, but the missed hours at work are a tremendous problem regarding her budget—so she takes on additional shifts when she is barely back on her feet to help cover her rent and food. As a result, she loses time to study and to fully recover from her illness, which has the inevitable negative impact on her wellbeing, classwork, and grades.

The three examples I have sketched from my experiences with my own community college students have a common theme: a minor financial setback becomes an academic catastrophe.

In all of these cases and many others like them, the amount of money necessary to keep these students in their classes and on track to graduate was shockingly modest—perhaps a couple of hundred dollars could have saved their semesters and helped them to succeed in school. The question I have when I see adequately prepared and motivated students fall by the wayside due to a financial glitch that is relatively minor and utterly beyond their control is this: Should community colleges “invest” a bit of money in these students today to help them to graduate tomorrow?

Compared to the staff, facility, travel, and advertising expenses associated with continuing to recruit new students to replace those who are lost—but might have been saved at the cost of a few hundred dollars at a critical juncture in their educational lives—there might be a very good dollars and cents argument to be made here. Moreover, the availability of this sort of emergency grant—some portion of which could be tailored to assist students who fit a particularly high-risk profile—could also draw more students into reaching out for other help offered by the college rather than just disappearing. If $200 for a new starter motor for a car today is going to help a student walk across the stage and collect an Associate degree a few years in the future, I cannot but believe this is a worthy—and worthwhile—expense.

I well understand the reasons community colleges will be wary of setting up programs to make emergency micro-grants. Community college trustees and state administrators would be understandably fearful of the negative publicity and investigations that would certainly result from this type of initiative were it to be poorly managed. No one wants to open the newspaper and read about sneaky students with sob stories scamming their local community college for weed money.

However, appropriate guidelines and management controls could certainly be developed by community colleges that would greatly minimize—although admittedly not eliminate entirely—the possibilities for abuse and misuse of the funds set aside for this purpose. Any such program should certainly start small and scale up as experience working with students provides the feedback necessary to fine-tune the process of disbursing funds, but it must not fall into bureaucratic deadlock if it is to be truly helpful to students facing a short-term financial crisis.

Although no reasonable person is going to suggest simply handing out cash from a shoebox in the Dean’s office, a program of this type will be effective if—and only if—funds can be provided within a business day. The more time that passes between the articulation of the financial emergency and its resolution, the fewer students who actually will be helped.

Is this idea worth a shot? That would be up to an individual community college to decide. However, it might be worth asking what is currently being spent on all programs at that college connected to student recruitment and retention, gather those figures, do some rough calculations, and ask whether a $250 grant that has, for the sake of argument, a 50/50 chance of keeping a student in school is a bargain when balanced against all the other expenses on the other side of the ledger.

I offer this idea for consideration because I believe we need to challenge ourselves to think outside the box to find solutions that will better serve our students—including those who are motivated but lack, for a variety of reasons, the economic safety net other students might possess. Given the well-documented crisis of non-completion at our nation’s community colleges, perhaps it is time for some innovative initiatives that are based upon the real world challenges that so many of our economically vulnerable students actually face. If we do not stretch beyond the tried and true (but perhaps not entirely effective) solutions of the past, we risk losing more and more students of modest means—but big dreams—who are trying to use community college as a stepping stone to a better life.

A version of this article was also published on Education Post (educationpost.org) entitled “Too Many Students Drop Out of Community Colleges. Here’s How We Fix It.” on January 19, 2018.

Tinkerbell Explains It All

I have a vague memory of being taken to a performance of Peter Pan when I was a child. Like almost everyone of a certain age, what sticks out the most is the scene where Tinkerbell is apparently dying, and we were exhorted to clap our hands to a near-insane pitch of enthusiasm until, accompanied by our childish squeals of delight, “Tink” revived—thanks to the sheer power of our collective belief.

The “Tinkerbell Effect” refers to the peculiar phenomenon of something seeming to exist only because we desperately wish to believe it is so—and I wonder whether this explains much about the country we live in today. We have chosen to believe in a host of lies and half-truths peddled by our financial, political, educational, and cultural elites—no matter how illogical and inexplicable they might be—and these falsehoods have survived because of our refusals to acknowledge any evidence they might not be true.

Therefore, we ignore increasingly urgent warnings regarding the dangers of our inflated stock markets and housing prices, educationally-deficient schools and colleges, overextended military, and staggering public debts. If we just clap our hands hard enough, we will be safe from any consequences of our greed, stupidity, hubris, and profligacy. Concerns that any—or all—of these problems are imperiling our nation’s future are regularly debunked by elected leaders and well-paid experts who soothingly assure us that all is well.

And we clap our hands like trained seals, content to believe the unbelievable. Stock market and housing bubbles are just fine. Diplomas based on content-free coursework guarantee our children are academically prepared to pursue their dreams. Endless wars have no effect on our military readiness. Functionally bankrupt governments will still be able to take care of our many needs and wants.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap

It is, of course, basic human nature to ignore bad news and actively distract ourselves with the trivial and sensational, so it makes perfect sense that vote-seeking politicians and smiling lobbyists can easily convince us the party will never end. Nonetheless, we need to peek up from our digital devices in order to discern the difference between what is truth and what is deception.

We will, unfortunately, need to find a way to solve our problems despite our empty pockets—and the refusal of so many to accept this fact. It is now (nearly) impossible to ignore our dire public sector fiscal problems, which have been compounded by several decades of resolutely refusing to live within our means. The expansive promises of politicians who claim to be able to protect us from all harm through the magic of ever-expanding government programs has become a self-destructive exercise in spending that has been sustained only by increasingly suspect guarantees security is just one more big tax increase away.

However, if you find any of these observations disturbing, upsetting, insulting, or contrary to your most cherished beliefs, that’s your prerogative. If you keep clapping, I’m certain everything will turn out just fine—somehow.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.

The Problems Posed By To Kill A Mockingbird

Recent media reports regarding efforts by a school district in Biloxi, Mississippi to drop To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculum have generated understandable concern. As schools continue to grapple with both disorienting societal changes and increasing political polarization, we are inevitably going to see more challenges to specific classroom content and practices, which should concern any professional educator. Anger rarely results in good policy decisions.

Our societal discord certainly connects to broader questions regarding what we expect of our K-12 schools. That fine line between education and indoctrination will be ever more difficult to discern as educators struggle to find ways to challenge students to think without falling into the trap of preaching to them. However, given the well-documented deficiencies in critical thinking skills that colleges and employers must grapple with today, it is more important than ever to encourage our K-12 schools to shake students from their easy assumptions and comfortable mental inertia. The question is, of course, how best to do this.

I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird to high school students in the past, and they were often shocked to read about the routine degradations inherent in the entrenched racial discrimination of our nation’s history. If nothing else, the novel served as a lesson that allowed us to ladder into discussions about what has—and still has not—changed in America today. It has been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach this particular novel, but I suspect that my classroom lessons and activities regarding To Kill A Mockingbird would need to be very different now because I would be compelled to address uncomfortable changes in our perceptions of the characters and their motivations.

The cartoonish delineation between the heroes and villains in To Kill A Mockingbird has always posed pedagogical problems, although it eases reading comprehension for an audience often composed of 8th or 9th graders. On the one side we have the Ewell family, who are a caricature of what we expect—and perhaps prefer—our racists to be, an ignorant and violent clan devoid of even an iota of decency or honesty. Facing off against them, we have Atticus Finch, a caring and compassionate lawyer and tragic widower raising two intelligent and inquisitive children who are miraculously free of the least taint of racism. Caught in the middle we have Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by the evil Ewells, and the very personification of stoic dignity in the face of injustice. There are no shades of gray among these main characters; there are only, if I may be forgiven this analogy, broad strokes of black and white.

To Kill A Mockingbird, were it to be published today, would likely face a somewhat more mixed critical reception. Aunt Alexandra’s desperate efforts to put a gloss of girlishness on the tomboyish Scout would likely be more harshly judged by contemporary feminist critics. Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s sexual relationships with African-American women would raise questions regarding power differentials and consent. Boo Radley’s peculiar interest in his prepubescent neighbors, which obviously includes covertly observing them and following them outside the house at night, might not be so wondrously free of any question of pedophilia—or at least “stranger danger”—in today’s less innocent world. It may well be that the year of the novel’s publication back in the mists of 1960 was the very last moment in our cultural and social history when the questions and answers seemed quite obvious and easy, so complexity and nuance could be blithely set aside in the pursuit of an uplifting fable.

I’ve always been a bit leery of joining in the chorus of hosannas regarding To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps this is because I have always found Atticus Finch a bit less than admirable—which I realize is near to sacrilege to some. Although he has the best possible intentions in the worst possible situation, Atticus Finch and his legal machinations, in a final and flinty-eyed analysis of outcomes, actually come to nothing. Tom Robinson is dead, no minds are changed, and the Jim Crow system that informs the actions of the town and its people is wholly unaffected.

Atticus Finch’s attitudes and actions are in many respects a foreshadowing of the well-meaning (but ultimately ineffectual) white liberals in the 1960’s whose best intentions would be overrun by the flame and fury that finally destroyed Jim Crow segregation and its many local permutations. Although the novel suggests that readers should derive some cosmic satisfaction from the death of the thoroughly despicable Bob Ewell, which also allowed Boo Radley to finally reveal his essential human decency (although it might be reasonably observed that manslaughter is a mighty odd plot device to get there), it would be impossible to argue the trial of Tom Robinson produced any significant changes in the town or its people.

Of course, all of this speaks to the many moral compromises that inform the book. The worst of the town of Maycomb and its racist attitudes is on display, but the best of the many small but significant accommodations the decent need to make each day to survive in an indecent world also bear our examination. It could be argued, if one really was looking for hope for a better future, that the most moral course of action Atticus Finch could have pursued would have been to refuse to represent Tom Robinson, thereby removing the thin veneer of respectability that placates those whose mute compliance is needed. Imagine how different the novel would have been if Judge Taylor had not been able to use Atticus’ stirring but pointless speech to soothe the consciences of those who knew just how profound an injustice was being done. Moral but meaningless victories serve the needs of tyrannies that need to smooth over the rawness of oppression, and we should not fail to recognize that Atticus’ carefully restrained outrage sounded lovely but changed nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, beside the point of why the novel is now often banned. The norms that now rule in many communities judge the politically incorrect—but historically accurate—usage of the “N-Word” as both insult and casual descriptor to be too much to bear in our sensitive school and social climates. This is understandable, but it also opens up opportunities for classroom discussion of the novel and its context. If we are going to crusade to excise every questionable bit of U.S. history from our schools instead of engaging in the conversation, research, and exploration of our past that is a core mission of education, we condemn our children to facile sloganeering instead of intelligent and well-rounded inquiry that will prepare them for a future where the answers will be neither obvious nor easy.

Perhaps the key to continuing to use To Kill A Mockingbird in our nation’s classroom is to gently remove it from its pedestal and recognize its limitations—just as acknowledging our own human limitations is the precursor to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel, and the tiresome insistence on canonizing it impedes an honest engagement with what can be learned from a thoughtful and critical reading. Just as a person can be wonderful but flawed, so can a book fall into that same category. If we can accept this, perhaps we can finally move forward instead of squabbling without end, which ultimately does nothing to improve the education of our children.