New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof edits the regular "On the Ground" column, which publishes essays by teachers in public schools around the US about education and its discontents. Yesterday’s essay, "The Mire," by Chicago inner-city teacher Will Okum, talks about the problem of trying to teach those few students in a class who are genuinely engaged and hungry to learn while the "kids at the back" make noise and trouble for everyone else:
Midway through another brilliant lesson on five-paragraph essays,
chaos erupts in the back row among the students who do not care. My
first-period English class crashes to a standstill as several failing
students ignite a hysteria of insults. Other students stew in
frustration as they wait for me to restore order and continue the
lesson. Sitting in the front row, Kentrail is visibly exasperated that
I cannot do my job. Shatara’s teeth and fists are clenched; she stares
at me with accusatory anger. Finally, Ronetta screams, “Make them shut
up!” Only after the temporary removal of the two instigators six
minutes later does the class return to our discussion of thesis
Class time not wasted on discipline is often squandered explaining
make-up work to oft-absent students or reviewing remedial skills that
should have been learned in early middle school. Intelligent, motivated
students like Kentrail, Shatara and Ronetta suffer the most on such
days when academic progress is glacial. Too often, their individual
brightness is consumed in the mire of the whole. They should not be in
this class; they should not be in this school.
Did you have a class like this in high school? I know you did. I did too. Sometimes I was one of the kids at the front. More often, alas, I was one of the kids at the back (though I was seldom really loudly disruptive… I was usually just tuned out and scribbling in my notebook).
This situation strikes me as one of the most critical affecting public education. Schools have a mandate to serve every student; students are required by law to attend school. A handful of students want to be there, or want the reward of the good grade enough that it’s as if they want to be there. A few more are actively unhappy to be there and take out their frustrations on everyone else, demanding more than their share of the teacher’s time and energy. Most of the rest don’t really care and just want the bell to ring so they can get outside and talk smack with their friends or engage in PDAs with their sweeties or drive their cars fast through the parking lot and escape.
What’s the solution? Okum suggests that disruptive kids should be removed entirely and that high-potential, high-achieving kids should never have to suffer the indignity of sitting through another class interrupted by those Rotten Apples. I’m inclined to agree, on one level; but then there’s the problem of what to do with the Rotten Apples. Segregate them all in a big warehouse-like classroom where monitors patrol with stern eyes and Tasers at the ready? Sounds like a perfect prep school for prison. Load them down with punishments so harsh that they’ll just drop out of school altogether and become somebody else’s problem? Once again: fast track to prison (where more than 1 out of 100 US adults are currently cooling their heels, a rate higher than any other country’s–including China’s).
I guess in my happy little liberal puffy-cloud dream world I like to imagine a public school system where different resources exist to serve different needs. Kids who want to master the five-paragraph essay (and beyond! Maybe someday they’ll grow up to join the exalted ranks of bloggers!) could have a nice quiet place to do so. Kids who want to work on cars while listening to speed metal could have a nice speed-metally place to do so. (And I guess kids who want to master five-paragraph essays while listening to speed metal could just be issued iPods or something.) Kids who need some serious mentoring from people who grew up in similar situations to their own and managed to emerge un-pregnant, un-addicted and ready to move on… well, maybe there could be a big living room with couches and books and art supplies and maybe even an Xbox for those kids.*
Pipe dream, yeah… what makes me think that a one-size-fits-all world would ever adopt the radical notion that kids are people… and that people deserve to be treated as individuals, not statistics or prodigies or problems? Hmmm. Crazy dream though it is, it seems to have at least slightly influenced the architects of the Finnish education system–supposedly the best-performing system in Europe. (Imagine: vocational schools pairing up with apprenticeship programs to ensure students have good jobs before they even graduate! A comprehensive lifelong education system designed to allow anyone–regardless of age–to jump back in at any time! Not trying to teach kids ABCs and 123s and the joy of the phonics-based reader until they’re at least seven years old! "Polytechnic" schools that provide advanced career-oriented training for those students who don’t need or want university degrees!)
*I am biting my tongue and not mentioning how much, except for the cars and speed metal part, this idyllic pipe dream resembles the daily scene at Village Home Education Resource Center, our local "homeschool school." Well, OK. Maybe just briefly.