The real problem with public schools is not poor funding. It’s not obstructive teachers unions. It’s not an overemphasis on standardized testing. It’s not a lack of innovative programs. Helpful changes could be made in all these areas, but we would just be dancing around the edges. The real problem in education is the social chaos created by two generations of disintegrating families, entitlement attitudes, failed discipline and misguided attempts to use public schools for social engineering. The failings of our schools reflect deep dysfunction in our society.
My wife began teaching in public schools over 25 years ago. She has taught at both the middle school and high school levels. The district she taught in for most of that time transitioned from a middle class suburban community to a poor, high-crime, heavily minority community. Gangs, drugs and teen pregnancy are significant problems, even among seventh and eighth graders.
Teaching in this environment is not for the faint of heart. Mustering the optimism, the energy and the courage to face the daily challenge for the 4000th time requires more dedication and fortitude than the average person possesses. It is, as Samuel Johnson once said about remarriage, “the triumph of hope over experience.” It’s true that many burned out teachers stay a few more years just to finish out the years of service needed for retirement. But most are still committed to doing what they can to make a difference. They press on, hoping to make an emotional connection with another hurting student, buoyed by the spark of learning in the eyes of the ones who rise above their environment.
The deck is stacked against success. Easily a third of classroom time, sometimes more than half, is devoted to dealing with discipline problems. It’s no wonder the school districts keep trying to add extra class time for remedial work on the basics like reading. But they’re trying to fill a leaky bucket because every year sees fewer classroom minutes spent on instruction.
What kind of discipline problems? Students put their heads down on their desks and sleep. Students get up out of their seats and wander around the room to talk to their friends. Students cheat on tests, vandalize books and equipment, steal supplies, get in fist fights, shout at the teacher and make threats. Most of the troublemakers have no interest in learning and they make sure no one else can, either. They are failing all their classes but they simply don’t care so they don’t try. They are angry, disillusioned and hurting. Sometimes an empathetic teacher can make a connection, but most of the time they can’t.
How did we get into this mess? First and foremost is the disintegration of the family. Most of these students either have no father in the home, or they have a stepfather with whom they have a strained relationship. This affects boys and girls in different ways. The moms lament that they can’t control their sons. Many of the boys join gangs. The girls are often sexually promiscuous. They want to have a baby as soon as possible because they feel that’s what makes you a real woman. In this they have their own mothers as role models.
Today’s students are now the grandchildren of the boomers. They are the third generation of those who made rebellion against authority their defining issue. Parents no longer support the schools on discipline issues. It never occurs to them that their child might be lying or might actually be in the wrong. They leap to their child’s defense and the children learn to have an adversarial attitude toward teachers and administrators. The schools, for their part, are afraid of being sued. They abandoned corporal punishment long ago and will even back down on something as simple as issuing detention if the parent complains.
Overwhelmed administrators dictate elaborate discipline processes teachers must follow before they can send a disruptive student to the principal’s office. Instead of getting the source of disruption out of the classroom as soon as possible so instruction can resume, teachers are giving repeated warnings, documenting misbehavior in writing, taking students aside for verbal correction and phoning their parents, all while the rest of the class waits.
In the name of inclusiveness schools try to “mainstream” special education students as much as possible rather than segregating them in special classes. While this is a laudable goal, when those students are disruptive it is not fair to the other students. Many students are designated special ed not because of learning disabilities but because of behavior problems. Every year my wife sees more special ed students in her classroom. She has had classes in which as many as a third of the students were in this category. When the number of special ed students is high enough a teacher’s aide is supposed to be assigned to the classroom, but due to resource limitations this does not always happen.
The cult of self esteem is so strong in our society that we have raised our children to expect they will always be successful, whether they try their best or not. Students are unwilling to work hard, and they feel victimized if the result is a low grade. They feel victimized if their misbehavior results in negative consequences, like being disqualified to play sports. Instead of understanding that they are being held accountable for their behavior, they imagine that their teachers are “out to get them.”
I don’t know how to solve all these problems. They reflect deeper societal problems that go beyond anything under the control of the schools. What the schools should do, I submit, is focus on educating the educatable. We need to recover the idea that a free public education is a privilege and not a right. We need to clearly articulate to students and their parents what the rules and expectations are for those who want to take advantage of this privilege. Students who cannot sit in a classroom without being disruptive need therapy more than they need instruction. School isn’t going to do them any good until they are sufficiently in control of themselves to listen and learn.
As individuals, we must teach our children the importance of marriage, the need to respect authority and the value of hard work. There is nothing new in that. But too many of us have lost sight of these core values. We thought there might be a shortcut, but it turns out we were wrong.
It’s not enough just to get our own houses in order, either. As Christians we need to be reaching out to the hurting people in our communities. We need to be coming alongside single parents whose kids need positive role models. We need to help families who struggle to feed and clothe their children. We shouldn’t expect the government to step in with billions of dollars and solve all of society’s problems. The biggest problems aren’t solved with money. They are matters of the heart.