We're All Bozos Here

A former teacher's contrarian view of the reforms that have to precede "education reform.

The grand irony in all of this is that children are no more comfortable with this state of affairs than we are. Survey after survey and study after study have shown that the great majority of children are happier in a school with real and consistently administered academic and behavioral standards.

Let's start with the basics. The very first thing that every foreign exchange student notices about American high schools, even good ones, is the relative lack of control adults have in the classrooms and the halls. The first thing that every American teacher who works abroad notices is the respect for adults. It was likewise my first and most lasting impression when I moved from college to public school teaching. By happenstance, I taught seven years in college followed by seven years in a public high school. As a college instructor, I never had to raise my voice to a student. Over the same time span in a troubled high school, I must have taken serious disciplinary action against a couple dozen seniors.

There is of course no developmental miracle that turns unruly, disruptive 18-year-olds into serious, sensible college freshmen over the course of one summer vacation. In fact, 10-year-olds know how to behave. The difference between a high school senior and a college freshman is purely in the expectations and standards of the surrounding institution.

A college instructor is regarded as a responsible adult carrying the full authority of the institution in protecting the academic mission. (Even as a lowly teaching assistant cranking out freshman English students, I was the unquestioned and final judge of appropriate behavior within the walls of my classroom.) College students are legal adults, but even at state universities, being thrown out of class for behavioral reasons is usually a penalty without recourse to due process. As a consequence, of course, neither I nor any college instructor I knew ever had to discipline a student for disruptive behavior.

What a change when I became a high school teacher. For four years running I was on the "discipline committee," a more-or-less standing effort to write rules that would box children into a legal corner and enable us to get some control over them. Every time a child screwed up it set off a complex quasi-judicial process that had to be completed to the letter before the matter would even be considered by the principal, who was more worried about offending parents and voters than maintaining order in the school. Disciplinary action required written reports in exhaustive detail. We were taught to gather evidence, provide direct quotes, and to make a list of witnesses--all necessary before the slightest action could be taken against the kid who set fire to the chem lab wastebasket. How in hell were you supposed to control a troublemaker, write a legal brief, and teach 25 other students all at the same time?

It took a while for the real difference in my status to sink in. I was no longer an adult. I was legally--and in the eyes of administrators--on an equal footing with the children I was supposed to supervise. As a college teacher I had the implicit authority of in loco parentis. As a high school teacher dealing with minor children, I did not. And as always, the children are the first to know the real score. That's why high schools students subtly treat teachers as fellow children. (I knew I was at my best as a teacher when kids asked me, "Why are you a teacher?" in a tone implying that the work was beneath real adults.)

The lack of genuine adult authority isn't merely humiliating, it is hopelessly time-consuming. As Henry High School principal Michael Huerth points out, "Most of a teacher's time is spent trying to control four or five students." As every parent knows, children are fledgling legal eagles. Given due process for schoolboy offenses, they have the numbers, the ingenuity, and all the time in the world to wear out adults. After a while, maintaining enough order to teach algebra can seem like more trouble than it's worth.

I asked a gathering of Minneapolis teachers how they felt about discipline in their schools. In addition to the usual groans and shrugs, one teacher told me that they had made progress at her school by establishing a student-teacher discipline committee. Nothing new, such committees are in reality a measure of last resort, an attempt to co-opt children and use peer pressure to enforce adult values. In inner-city schools, discipline committees are also often an end run around the politically explosive fact that teachers, most of whom are white, end up disciplining a disproportionate number of minority students. But these committees are either desperate pleading with children to enforce the rules that adults can't, or they are show tribunals where the student participants are regarded by their peers as narcs and kiss-ups. When the adults in a school can only control a child by winning the consent of other children, that school is in trouble.

Those within the system (students, teachers, administrators, professional pedagogues) and even to a certain extent the public have come to accept chaotic schools as the norm. The idea of school as some kind of joke played by children on adults is a uniquely American tradition stretching back to colonial times. Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane is the prototype of the addled, neurasthenic teacher driven mad by unruly pupils. Only Hollywood could have made Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the whole genre of films based on the irrelevance and goofiness of school life; only Americans can fully appreciate the humor. We have taken what is essentially a nonproblem in most of the world (with the exception of doddering old England) and managed to turn it into a preemptive dilemma. Too many American schools are out of control, and they are inevitably bad schools.

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