We're All Bozos Here

If there is a constant theme in American education, it is reform. On many issues Jefferson, Washington, and the other founding fathers were as far apart as their modern political counterparts, but on one matter they were in universal agreement: The survival of their experiment in practical democracy demanded new and better methods of educating the general public. MacGuffy's readers, Noah Webster's dictionary, and the work of John Dewey are all a part of America's ongoing attempt to bring a better education to the masses.

The motives behind our apprehension have changed over generations, but the concern has not. Forty years ago, the launch of Russia's Sputnik led Americans to conclude we were losing the Cold War in--of all places--the classroom. Today it is techno-society and the global economy that are perceived as the threat. During the past half-century blue ribbon commissions on education have become a feature of the American landscape, and every one of them diagnoses a crisis and urges major change in the way America educates its young.

And what do we have to show for this chronic reform? Not much. By any objective measure the American system of public education has fallen behind that of the rest of the industrialized world. American children are near the bottom of the first world in math and science, and unlike their Asian and European counterparts, they don't study the foreign languages necessary to compete in a global economy. Most damning of all, many of the young who graduate from high school are functionally illiterate in English.

The news is no better closer to home. Take a look at the Metro section of the daily papers: Concern over Minnesota's public schools has replaced transportation, taxes--even crime--as the dominant issue in regional news. A recent KARE 11/Pioneer Press poll on how to spend the state's budget surplus found that using it for education enjoyed considerably more support than such alluring options as cutting state and property taxes. Minnesotans are worried about their public schools, and not without reason. As measured by national standardized tests, our once-vaunted system of public education has fallen behind demographically similar states such as Iowa.

We can hardly agree on anything else at the end of the 20th century, but we share a clear consensus that the public schools are badly broken and in need of a drastic fix. Unfor-tunately, the demand for reform falls on a system of such complexity that it may be incapable of healing itself. Competing cultural and economic interests make nonnegotiable demands on the public school bureaucracy. In response, a maze of overlapping political and professional jurisdictions offer complex, often contradictory solutions. In this environment, it is not surprising that people are increasingly confused and pessimistic about the possibilities for fixing the system--and increasingly receptive to radical and simplistic prescriptions
for change.

The state of affairs here in Minnesota is typical of the country as a whole. While one group of reformers strives, for instance, to take the professional bureaucracy and the courts out of the school system, another works to give government greater control. At the local level, both Minneapolis and St. Paul are experimenting with privatizing elements of the system. The Minneapolis School District has also applied for an exemption to phase out court-ordered busing and restore neighborhood schools even at the cost of racial balance. The reaction of the civil rights community has itself been inconsistent. The Urban League, according to local president Gary Sudduth, is taking a "wait and see" stance. The NAACP, after dithering for a number of months, has taken the district to court over the plan.

Equally contrary impulses are at work on the state level. The NAACP is also suing the state on broad constitutional grounds, demanding an "equal education" for all students. But while civil rights groups are trying to put the schools under the aegis of the courts, Governor Carlson, invoking the conservative mantra of the free market, wants to solve our educational problems with a voucher system that would open up the public system to direct competition from private schools. Likewise, the state school board, caught between inner-city civil rights groups and conservative suburban interests, is deadlocked in its attempt to develop new desegregation guidelines for the state as a whole.

Then there is the legislative mandate to produce rigorous statewide academic standards. Bias experts wrangle with assessment gurus, and both clash with subject area specialists. Civil rights activists fear the standards will further discriminate against those already least well served by the system. Trapped in the crossfire from competing social and professional interest groups, the standards committee has lost two directors in as many years, and has already spent $10 million to produce two very limited tests for basic competency in math and reading. In more specialized subject areas, the project is likely to end up doing little more than picking and choosing among existing standardized tests. And when all is said and done, success will depend (as project directors admit) on the cooperation of local districts--the same local districts whose failures prompted the undertaking in the first place.  

What a mess. And it's far from clear that the issues which spark the greatest controversy actually have much to do with the problems. So what's wrong with the public schools? And why do our constant efforts at improving them bear such meager fruit?

During 25 years as a teacher, union leader and education reporter, I have asked several thousand people for their opinion about what's wrong with our schools. Like Diogenes wandering about with his lantern, I've asked wherever I thought I might hear an honest answer--from students, teachers, administrators, educational theorists, and politicians. The most frequent diagnosis (and a good one) is that the public schools have become paralyzed by competing adult factions. Teachers on one side, administrators on another, legislators on yet another. Taxpayers at large versus parents of children with academic or behavioral problems. The political left versus the political right. Minority leaders against an essentially white-run system.

But as an overall analysis of the problem, the answer that struck me most profoundly came from a teacher on disability leave for a variety of stress-related symptoms. "The problem with the public schools," he said, "is that they are not real places." What he meant by this piece of hard-earned wisdom was that in the public schools the distance between theory and practice has reached mind-bending dimensions. What we say we want from the schools bears only a tangential relation to the true demands we make on the system--and the tools we provide it to do the job. Down at the level of the halls and the classrooms, the gap between our real and our stated agendas creates what this teacher called "a schizophrenic fairyland world." The distinguishing feature of this world, he maintained, is that it is "a place where actions have no consequences."

We say, "Behave or else." But there is no else. Because we also say that everyone is entitled to an equal chance for an education, and one of the real purposes of the public schools is to warehouse children--keep them off the streets and out of our hair--for seven hours a day. Enforcing simple rules of conduct stirs up a number of hornet's nests, including the bugaboo of race. Likewise, a student expelled from school means angry parents, and from an administrator's point of view, that means two fewer votes come the next levy election. The net result is that children have to make a major effort to incur disciplinary consequences, and the lowest common denominator ends up setting the behavioral tone for our public schools.

We say, "Study or else." But that too is an idle gesture. Real academic standards distinguish individuals by talent and effort. But at this point in history they also have a disconcerting and undemocratic tendency to distinguish (at the statistical level) by sex and race. And that's just for openers. Real standards also interfere with a school's athletic and social mission. They cause children to complain and ask their parents for help with homework--cutting into the television-viewing time of parents who were themselves raised on the tube. Real standards threaten marginal teachers. They deny diplomas to some perfectly nice children, and worst of all, they cause borderline students to bail out and spend their days loitering menacingly on street corners. Real standards have consequences, and rather than face them, we dumb down our expectations to the point where any child who warms a chair for 12 years can get a diploma.

The trouble with fairyland, however, is that children are always the first to recognize it. Smoking out adult hypocrisy is indispensible for growing up connected to reality, and as every parent knows, children have a preternatural talent for it. They know, even if we don't, that serious academic and behavioral standards interfere with too many of the real purposes of the public school system.

To take just one example out of numerous possibilities, consider the recent rise and fall of outcome-based education. To educational theorists OBE looked like the holy grail they are always seeking: a magic methodological bullet that would lift student performance without producing any painful political side effects. Let students compete essentially with themselves; remove all those distracting and crippling pressures on self-esteem, and they would just naturally be eager to learn. Turn the key, then stand back and reap the social and academic benefits. The procrastinating student, however, looked at OBE and immediately saw something else: With the progress of a hundred or more pupils to monitor, his teachers would be hard-pressed to tell the case-by-case difference between modest ability and a lack of motivation.  

The problems of public education are many and complex, and what follows is an opinionated analysis of the system's failings based to a considerable extent on personal experience. It is also a scatter-gun approach to an issue worthy of an entire encyclopedia. But as an organizing principle and a fixed point of reference, I submit the following for your consideration: The problem with the public schools is that we delude ourselves into thinking that we are the masters of fairyland.

Children are, always. Since they have an agenda just as self-centered as our own, it isn't romanticizing them to say that they know better than we do what we are really up to. Which kid, for instance, has more native smarts: the one who busts his butt to please parents and teachers by getting A's, or the one who figures out that despite all the grown-up huffing and puffing, nothing really bad will happen if he bags trigonometry? Measuring the precise distance between the official proclamations and the actual rules of the adult world is a child's most important maturational job. When children stubbornly refuse to act the way we want them to act and learn what we know they are capable of learning, they are trying to tell us that we don't really mean what we say.

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.

Yet politicians and education professionals have tacitly agreed to make it a nonissue. The broad assumption is that if the juvenile inmates are running the asylum it is because adults aren't using properly up-to-date methodology for "managing children." The implication is that with enough cultural sensitivity, enough of a "caring environment," and the proper teaching and management techniques, all children can be made to behave without ever having to invoke real sanctions. If they can't, there is something wrong with the system. We recognize the absurdity of this proposition in every other area of the civic compact: We don't expect the police to keep the highways safe without the power to write tickets. But in the schools we are dealing with children. Surely we can fool them into playing by the rules without actually having to enforce them.

In their way, they've been trying to tell us otherwise for the better part of half a century. In last fall's Pioneer Press survey of students, many of them complained about all the harping on discipline schools were doing at the beginning of the year. The timing of the survey made it a reflection of what has become an annual rite of autumn in districts across the country. As a hollow sop to public outrage, class rules are gone over in detail by each teacher, and the entire student body is convened in the auditorium to hear the message from the principal: "This year, we really mean it."


Students in the survey knew perfectly well that when all the preaching was done it would be business as usual. In all likelihood, what they actually resented wasn't the prospect of a stricter atmosphere but the waste of their time. We insult their intelligence with our posturing.

It is a failing among some American teachers to want to be "friends" with students, but most teachers don't run unruly classrooms by choice. They are gradually worn down by the amount of energy needed to maintain basic order. Keep sending kids to the office, and your classroom will quiet down, but you are creating problems for your boss, and you can bet they will come back on your head. For the principal or vice-principal, there are parents to be called, the same old lecture to be given over and over again, paperwork to be done, maybe ethnic quotas to be fudged, and--as children are well aware--intricate due process to be observed. Even at the best suburban high schools, disciplinary actions are regarded as an embarrassing public relations problem. Trying to maintain a level of order above the school norm can get you a reputation as a teacher who "can't manage kids."  

The educational theory is that a good teacher can control, motivate and teach all of her students without support from either the administration or parents. For about 1 percent of the most charismatic teachers, the theory almost holds. But most teachers fall somewhere on the scale between good or competent, and they can't control every kid without help from those who have real authority over the child. Rather than face the principal with another discipline problem, however, many teachers will write the troublemaker a pass to almost anywhere--just to get the disruptive element out of class so that the rest of the students can learn something. The kid gets out from under adult supervision, the teacher gets peace in the classroom, the principal doesn't aggravate his ulcer. Everybody's happy. In high schools where I've taught and observed, the library often becomes a kind of de facto detention center.

We do indeed mismanage children. When we're not ignoring them or shunting them into the care of someone else, we romanticize and sentimentalize and generally think of them as something other than real people. (Usually, we conceptualize them as objects to be manipulated by the latest fashion in child development or management theory.) We mismanage them by failing to enforce reasonable rules rigorously. The results are no different from what you would expect in any other area of society. The scofflaws remain a relatively small fraction of the population, but they set the tone out of all proportion to their numbers, divert enormous amounts of energy from more important tasks, and cause a broad erosion of respect for the institution.

No one wants to go back to the days of the paddle and the hickory stick, and cracking the whip over children isn't the solution to the dilemma of the public schools. Adult control of the halls and the classrooms is merely the necessary precondition for doing the real job. No degree of methodological sophistication and no amount of caring and sensitivity on the part of a teacher will cause a kid to learn if he's swinging from the light fixtures.

Where discipline is a problem it is preemptive. But in the majority of American schools, even high schools, children learn less than they could and should not because they are out of control, but because learning isn't the primary focus of the institution. The message that comes through is that it's good if you learn this, but it's okay if you don't. Since it isn't really necessary, children reasonably conclude that it isn't important. And they have an iron-clad rule about that. They love to waste time just as much as adults, but they won't let you waste it for them. If their day is going to be spent on stuff that doesn't really matter, they'll take over and do their own pointless stuff. And that's just what they do in many American high schools.

In the absence of real adult authority and real conviction about what they are supposed to be accomplishing with their time, students work out a subtle scratch-my-back, scratch-your-back deal with the on-site adults. The young agree to a level of behavioral restraint in return for a corresponding level of ongoing entertainment--and academic standards that don't seriously interfere with the party.

I once spent a day in a reasonably good suburban high school observing the classes of a crackerjack science teacher, a man with a quick wit, a natural empathy for the young, and a degree in chemistry from Harvard. He also had a showman's flair. "If I see they're getting bored," he said, "I drag out the chemicals and blow something up." His classes were well-organized and productive. Students were actually learning chemistry and physics. But all day long they wandered into class late, or stood up and strolled out the door. He followed their comings and goings with his eyes but never said a word. When I asked him about it later, though, it was he who exploded. "Today, the students have a legal excuse to get out of class to vote in a 'best legs' contest. What does that tell you about the priorities of this school?" Since the administration hadn't bothered to develop a practical way of letting teachers know which students had already exercised their franchise, election day was basically another free day for students.  

Some wealthier suburban Twin Cities districts spend over 10 percent of their total budget on extracurricular activities, from chess club and girls' hockey to cheerleading, glee club, and FFA chapters--not to mention big-ticket items like varsity football and basketball. (When conservatives complain about America's educational spending, they almost always neglect to mention that by our standards, schools in other countries have minuscule or non-existent budgets for extra-curricular activities.) Classroom business is constantly disrupted by the fact that the members of the soccer, wrestling or cross-country team are excused at 1:00 so they can travel down to Red Wing for a game. When do they get to hear the teacher explain compound interest or cellular mitosis?

A civics teacher voiced a common complaint. "If assembly runs over the end of the period, the kids get to stay until the program is finished. But if the bell rings when I'm right in the middle of explaining constitutional checks and balances, that's too bad. The kids are out of here." It all adds up, and it sends a powerful message to children about what is really important. The energy, time, and money spent on these extras are usually defended with the Munich-style argument that if you don't keep the children amused, they'll lose interest and drop out. Blame it on Big Bird and the Count.

During 25 years of involvement with public education, I've probably talked about the profession with a couple thousand teachers. In the course of those conversations one refrain has come up from the trenches over and over and over again. As one teacher put it, "If they would just let me do the job I thought they hired me for, everything would be fine." There is probably an element of professional self-serving in this lament, but when it is far and away the most frequent complaint by the people doing the actual work, you have to wonder if it doesn't signify.

The greatest distraction of all, of course, are the extensive athletic programs unique to American schools. Especially in districts that are struggling academically, they often become the tail that wags the dog.

To a considerable degree, the values of every public high school in America are turned upside down by athletics. There can be no greater crime than to go less than "all out" on the field. Break a varsity team rule, argue with the coach, miss practice, or dog it, and you are a loser, a jerk, a pariah devoid of team and school spirit. On the other hand, you may actually be considered cool if you skip class, talk back to a teacher, waste time, cheat, or don't bother to do the work. The major dailies cover high-school sports, not high-school academics. You get a varsity letter you can show the world for playing on the first string, not for being a National Merit Scholar.

The message about what really matters--and what really doesn't--comes through loud and clear. The hypocrisy is destructive enough in a suburban school. In a rural or city school where the institutional sports fetish is reinforced by powerful patterns in the community, the results are truly distorting. It gets worse with each passing year. In fact, high schools are now a well-established link in a continuous chain that stretches right up to the ranks of professional sports leagues. U of M basketball coach Clem Haskins has been actively recruiting point guard Khalid El-Amin since the boy was a sophomore at North High.

Efforts to reduce the influence of athletics meet powerful resistance not only from communities, but from the increasingly muscular sports industry. The treatment of high schools, especially minority-dominated inner-city high schools, as meat markets for college athletic programs has become a major concern of college presidents. Hoping to use the power of the colleges to push high schools toward an emphasis on academics rather athletics, the presidents recently staged a mini-revolt at the NCAA convention, taking the first tentative steps toward wresting control of athletic programs from coaches, boosters, and athletic directors. When the presidents actually succeeded in pushing through marginally higher academic standards for the awarding of athletic scholarships, the move was greeted with shrill and stubborn cries of discrimination from the influential Black Coaches Association--which numbers the U Of M's Clem Haskins among its prominent members.

The argument of the coaches runs as follows: You can't expect inner-city high schools to provide a good education. The only hope for the minority student is to reach college on athletic prowess and get a catch-up education there. Setting real academic standards creates a barrier to this process that discriminates against minorities. An interesting line of reasoning. The truth is, it has more to do with the shortage of good college point guards than a passionate commitment to educating minority youth.  

Put in the crudest terms, the sporting attitude seems to be that the only minority youngsters going anywhere are the athletes, so we might as well structure the system to save those few. It would be a cynical system if it worked, but it doesn't, even for the athletic elite it presumably favors. For the vast majority of scholarship athletes--those who don't land one of a couple thousand jobs in professional sports--the news is bad. In spite of the pious protestations from the coaching profession, only about 40 percent of all NCAA I scholarship athletes actually graduate from college. (The number is even lower for minority athletes.) Many of the athletes who do manage to graduate end up as semi-literates with worthless, tailored-for-the-purpose degrees like "Sports Administration."

Moreover, it is no longer just the colleges aggressively chasing high-school athletes. Many NBA teams now actively scout high-school basketball games. The Timberwolves' most recent number-one draft pick, Kevin Garnett, was plucked directly from high school, and he entered the draft in part because he couldn't meet the minimal requirements for college admission.

Talented minority athletes are courted and pampered and catered to as 14- and 15-year-olds. They receive the benefit not only of big-time high-school programs, but of an extensive and organized network of coaches' clinics and summer training camps and Amateur Athletic Union leagues--even specialized high schools whose sole purpose is helping troubled youngsters with unique athletic talent. There is no comparable organized effort to help minority children who are struggling academically. If there were, Kevin Garnett might have graduated high school ready to go to college rather than ready to play in the NBA. And so might hundreds of thousands of other inner-city youths who don't have his athletic options.

For the great majority of black, Hispanic, and Native American students--the ones who aren't scholarship-caliber athletes--the power of the sports lobby represents one more brick in the wall that stands between them and a good education. Proportionately, minority college enrollments have actually fallen about 2 percentage points in the past decade, and the dropout rate has increased. They begin behind and fall further behind.

Even in purely financial terms, the costs of this obsession with sports are staggering. To be fair about it, the inner-city districts of Minneapolis and St. Paul spend only about 1 percent of their operating budget on extra-curricular activities, but that doesn't begin to cover the real monetary costs, particularly capital costs. Administrators at St. Paul's new Arlington High, which is scheduled to open next fall, are vaguely apologetic that the school has only 28 acres of prime urban real estate for athletic facilities--instead of the 50 acres commonly found at suburban schools of similar size. But in its defense they point out that the new school will have a 2,000-seat gymnasium with an elevated indoor running track.

What ends up on the front pages in the school reform debate--whether it's choice or vouchers or busing--has very little to do with what goes on in the classroom and what's really wrong with public schools. But there's no mystery about the nature of the problems. Our schools waste enormous amounts of energy enforcing minimal levels of order, and they aren't focused on the academic mission.

But it isn't as though somebody just forgot to press a button somewhere: Schools aren't bad because teachers are lazy or government bureaucracies can't get the job done. Schools are bad for profound cultural and economic reasons. And once they get that way, powerful interests are served by maintaining the status quo. Schools have difficulty maintaining order because Americans, when they aren't ignoring their own children, are tremendously protective of kids' rights. To put the old joke in educational terms, the definition of a liberal is a conservative whose own kid gets into academic or disciplinary trouble. When that happens, it's no longer time for the school to clamp down on those damn kids. In fact, it's probably the school's fault, and we want it to fix the problem without involving us, thank you.

If schools devote excessive amounts of time to essentially frivolous activities, that too is because powerful interests are being served. Especially in the inner city or isolated rural areas, enormous amounts of civic pride--not to mention the community's entire social calendar--revolve around Friday night's basketball or football game. It's not just a cinematic cliché that interfering with these rituals is setting yourself up for trouble. I once flunked the star senior on the football team a week before the game with our arch-rival. Rather than confront me on the one hand or angry parents and rooters on the other, the principal took matters into his own hands. For the rest of the week he made the boy come to the office at lunch hour and write 10 sentences. In English, I presume, since he got a passing grade in my course for this effort. (As I remember, we lost the game anyhow.)  

The children of both liberals and conservatives star on the basketball team or run cross-country or lead cheers or sing in the chorus. And parents of every political stripe get equally upset when those activities are threatened in the name of economy, academic integrity or anything else. (Several surveys have found that people are disturbed about the overall state of education, but perfectly happy with their own children's school.) Our schools may be bad, but when it comes down to paying the real costs that come with specific reforms, a lot of people prove to be content with those schools just the way they are. And all our protestations to the contrary don't fool our children for one minute. CP


AFTER YEARS OF steady deterioration, behavioral standards in the public schools may have bottomed out and actually begun to rise in at least a few Minnesota districts. A recently released study by the Children, Families and Learning Department shows that 274 students were expelled in 1994-95, a three-fold increase from five years ago. Most of the change can be attributed to a very few districts, and leading the trend is Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan District 196. Tightening discipline was a priority of superintendent John Haro when he took the job three years ago, and for once it was no empty campaign promise. Last year was the first under a tough new policy, and the results were dramatic. The 25,000-student suburban district expelled 55 students, a full 20 percent of all the children ejected from Minnesota's public schools.

Developing a new policy began with public "site council" meetings designed to elicit community input--as well as the crucial factor, public support. Working within the due-process constraints imposed by school law, the district eventually developed a re-written student "rights and responsibilities" policy in which specific behaviors called for specific penalties imposed with zero-tolerance leniency. As in most school districts, teachers and administrators review the policy line-by-line with students at the beginning of each school year.

What the spelling out of some 40 infractions and attendant penalties boils down to, says Rosemount Middle School principal Larry Larson, "is basic respect for yourself and others." From the outset, however, the question has been whether adhering to cumbersome state law on student rights would allow for a policy flexible enough to deal sensibly with individual circumstances and students. Director of Secondary Education Dan Kaler, who has final authority in all serious disciplinary actions such as expulsion, maintains that principals and teachers do have the latitude to take case-specific disciplinary action, and that building-level response to the new policy has been overwhelmingly positive. "I met with both the middle and high school principals this week," he says, "and asked them point-blank what we should consider changing in the policy. They had to struggle to come up with anything at all."

Some building administrators, however, finesse the question of flexibility. "There are times," says Apple Valley High principal Gary Embretson, "when I'm grateful for for the cut-and-dried areas of the policy, and times when I'm grateful for what gray areas it does have." Likewise, Rosemount's Larson notes that the tight correlation between offense and punishment doesn't always distinguish between the kid who loses it once and "the 3 percent of the population that causes the real problems." Partly as a result, District 169 is joining forces with Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, another district which has tightened discipline, to develop a highly structured alternative school designed to ease less than incorrigible students back into the system.

"A tougher discipline policy isn't a panacea," Larson adds. "It works best in conjunction with other programs, including a concerted effort to get more parents into the building during the school day." Like many educators nowadays, Larson is concerned that students "own" the disciplinary policy--see it as in their own best interests. He looks forward to the time when Rosemount can begin "peer mediation," the latest term for student-faculty disciplinary committees.

The general feeling among principals seems to be that the tougher line on discipline has at least enabled district schools to hold their own under increasingly difficult conditions. Dakota County has had an influx of lower-income families, especially in "second ring" communities like Burnsville, Eagan, Rosemount, and Apple Valley, and those families bring with them the usual problems for schools. "The kids are tougher to control than they were 10 years ago," says Larson. Adds Apple Valley's Embretson, "They get into more serious trouble at an earlier age. For the first time this year, the district has had to hire a full-time police liaison officer."  

The real test of the policy's spine--and all-crucial public support--came last year when District 196 was sued by the parents of a boy expelled for carrying a knife in school. The case made headlines throughout the state, and the district got its share of media criticism for its rigidity in expelling a student for carrying a "pen knife." Administrators stood by the letter of their law, however, and successfully defended the district's weapons policy in court. The decision to duke it out in front of a judge was no doubt made easier by the community reaction to the case. "Our office was getting lots of cards and letters and phone calls," recalls Secondary Director Kaler. "I think we actually gained a great deal of support from the community."

Changing the behavioral atmosphere in a school takes tenacity--and sometimes courage. Kids are in many ways more resistant to change than adults. After years of grown-up huffing and puffing about their behavior, it is inevitable that they will challenge another "new" discipline policy. And when administrators actually do take a tougher line, they run the risk of turning passive community support for safe and orderly schools into organized and aggressive opposition from those directly affected by the changes. "We have some parents who appreciate the need for consistent policies even when it impacts their own children," says Rosemount's Larson, "but you always have parents who want control and a safe environment until it's their kid who gets in trouble, and then..."

There are indeed no panaceas in education, and drawbacks emerge whenever reform gets down to specifics, but in the second year of Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan's experiment, the bottom line is encouraging. Embretson, Larson, and Kaler all report that, in Kaler's terms, "The general community still seems to support the changes overwhelmingly." Most important of all, the kids are apparently getting the message. So far this year only 16 have been expelled.

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