The behavior gap

Teaching social norms makes it possible for poor black students to do well in school, writes Abigail Thernstrom.

(Successful inner-city) schools combat what Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has called “the greatest problem now facing African Americans.” And that is “their isolation from the tacit norms of the dominant culture.” His statement is really the academic version of Bill Cosby’s recent remarks in which he talked about black parents who are not parenting and about kids who can’t speak standard English and who will be shut out of the world of economic success.

This is how the best inner-city schools I know address that “isolation from the tacit norms of the dominant culture.” In addition to an academically superb program, they demand that their students learn how to speak standard English. They also insist that kids show up on time, properly dressed; that they sit up straight at their desks, chairs pulled in, workbooks organized; that they never waste a minute in which they could be learning and always finish their homework; that they look at people to whom they are talking, listen to teachers with respect, treat classmates with equal civility, and shake hands with visitors to the school.

These are skills as essential as basic math. Without them, disadvantaged children cannot climb the ladder of economic opportunity.

This only works if parents and students have chosen the school, Thernstrom writes.

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  1. theAmericanist says:

    Why would that be so — that it only works if the parents and students have chosen the school? In other words, why is it NOT so, when it is that quaint concept, the neighborhood school?

  2. Neighborhood schools? Utter those words in my state and you’re labeled the “R” word.

  3. Michael says:

    “R” word?

  4. TheAmericanist,
    Why is school choice necessary?
    First, Thernstrom is interested in one kind of school that requires specific behavior and she believes school choice is necessary for the “flowering of such schools”
    I suspect school choice is important for a second reason: Self-selected parents/children that choose a school and value the social norms Thernstrom mentions are likely to thrive in that school setting. When parents/children are not given a choice about having the “tacit norms of the dominant culture” imposed on them, they are more likely to resist rather than thrive in the school (i’m thinking of Ogbu’s ‘involuntary minorities’ idea now).

  5. Jane Tucker says:

    This is so true. I see a bunch of these kids on my street. I took some of them to Pizza Hut and the movie Spiderman a couple of years ago (ages 9, 7 and 4). The two older kids, both boys, could not sit still. They were running all over the theater. I can’t imagine trying to teach them anything.

  6. slimedog says:


  7. theAmericanist says:

    Y’all realize that nobody answered the question.

    One person said well, er, Thernstrom said it cuz that’s what SHE thinks (no kidding? I had NO idea), and another said that she knows kids who don’t know how to act.

    Consider the question repeated (cuz hope springs eternal).

  8. One must remember that theAmericanist is one of those self-appointed protectors of black people. He is absolutely certain, if you’ve read his other posts, that his condescending defense of blacks is the only thing standing between blacks and a resurgence of the Klan. He is one of the strangest, and creepiest manifestations of the American political scene, the guy who proves what a saint he is by how severely his heart is bleeding for black people.

    His attitudes are the attitudes that led to the devastatingly destructive social policies of the Democratic party. It was this weepy condescension among liberals that led to the welfare and quota madness that has devastated the black family and church.

    Having stated this, I’ll answer his question. Neighborhood schools aren’t working in the black inner city neighborhoods that we are referring to in this post. They are not working for a number of reasons, all of which have been stated ad nauseum in this blog. Take your choice: (1) immoveable teacher’s unions, (2) a tendency among black political leaders to blame whites for problems that originate in the black community, (3) an educational system for teachers that emphasizes politically correct nonsense over the teaching of fundamentals, etc.

    Mr. theAmericanist, you are part of the problem. Ever on the prowl for the chance to scream “racist,” you continue to feed the notion that blacks should not look within themselves. You are not really interested in this issue, son. You are interested in halo preening. You should develop a real interest or go away.

  9. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Arm teachers. [oops, that was the item above]
    Require orderly classrooms. Do not accept disorderly classrooms whatever the reason for disorder. Remove disruptive students from the classroom. RE-admit removed students only upon strict probationary terms. Have alternative classrooms where disruption becomes less and less possible. Then get on with it.

  10. I think Chris C answered the question: Thernstrom argues that parents and students must choose to accept the norms imposed by the school, especially if these are “norms of the dominant culture” taught in a school for minority culture students.

  11. theAmericanist says:

    I agree that choosing to accept the school’s authority is important, even vital.

    What I don’t see is how (or why) that doesn’t happen with a neighborhood school.

  12. Steve LaBonne says:

    Depends on the neighborhood, doesn’t it.

  13. theAmericanist says:


  14. Steve LaBonne says:

    Do I really need to belabor the obvious? It’s precisely what you wrote yourself: “choosing to accept the schools’s authority”. Some neighborhoods have a lot of parents who care, and who understand the social norms that their kids need to model in order to be successful. Other neighborhoods have too many parents who fail in one or both of those respects. We’ve heard from plenty of teachers in the trenches about how hard it is to teach in schools dominated by the children of such parents.

  15. theAmericanist says:

    Somebody said (maybe it was me, but it sounds like Oscar Wilde) that there is nothing so mysterious as the obvious.

    Aren’t we talking about a set of problems that connect like this? 1) Kids whose parents can afford it and are motivated take ’em out of the public schools in most places. That leaves 2) kids whose parents may be motivated, but who can’t afford a private school, who are stuck in public schools they wouldn’t choose if they could. Which means 3) The kids whose parents MIGHT be motivated enough to ‘accept the school’s authority’ are alienated, while 4) kids whose parents are NOT motivated, who don’t accept the school’s authority (and who can’t afford private schooling anyway) wind up dominating the system.

    Maybe I’m dumb, but it seems to me that we’re not talking about #4.

  16. Yes, the Americanist, you are dumb.

    I faced this problem 30 years ago as a naive hippy who moved to Brooklyn and tried to place his kids in public schools. It was a terrible mistake that nearly resulted in my daughter’s murder.

    You are asking people to experiment with their children’s lives. Obviously, you are unable to differentiate between abstract ideals and the reality of raising children.

    What provokes you to make an abstract, frivolous argument out of an issue that deeply affects people’s lives?

    Other readers, see my previous post for an answer.

  17. theAmericanist says:

    (grin) Never having been a naive hippie and having grown up in, er, interesting circumstances, I dunno as Stephen has a clue, here.

    The question stands: what do you DO, that doesn’t wind up simply making the underlying problem worse?

    I dunno offhand what the stats are, but say of 100% of the nation’s k-12 kids, 40% go to private schools. That 40% might include what, 60% of the best students otherwise available to the public schools? So (math is not my thing) that leaves 60% of the kids, who are now disproportionately harder to teach.

    And isn’t that EXACTLY what the public schools are for?

    So if you decide that the problem to solve is all those motivated parents with their kids in bad schools, and THEY LEAVE, what then?

    I’m not asking anybody to experiment with their kids, Stephen. (And it is only in deference to JJ’s hospitality I don’t say what I think of you, bub.)

    I’m asking: why does this ONLY work, if the parents choose the school? (What, we’re gonna figure out how to send every kid in America to the school of their choice?) Why doesn’t it work with the neighborhood school?

    We’ve seen Stephen’s answer: cuz he used to be young and stupid, and then … he got older.

  18. Steve LaBonne says:

    Americanist, I gave you your answer, but you don’t want to deal with it. There are, sadly, plenty of neigborhoods where parents of what you call type 4 are almost all there is. You may prefer not to face that reality, but your refusal doesn’t make it less real. There are only 2 choices in such a situation: leave the few non-type-4 students stranded in a school where it’s impossible for them to get an education, or give them an alternative. Giving some an alternative does _not_ make the underlying situation worse; it makes it better by helping some kids as opposed to helping none. Evidently your sense of “justice” tells you that since _all_ the kids in that situation can’t be rescued, therefore we should do nothing for the few that are potentially rescuable. I’m afraid you’ll just have to deal with the fact that many of us don’t find that outcome just at all, to put it mildly.

    Why ask a question when you clearly don’t want to hear the answer?

  19. Rita C. says:

    But you have keep the “dump” schools open because all kids have a right to be in school … leaving some schools with enormous problems that the teachers and staff are then blamed for. You have a group of teachers who are working in a physically threatening situation and then told that they’re not doing their jobs. Do you really think it is only teachers in Baghdad who are threatened by their students? The fact that a school like that exists is unjust.

  20. In my experience choice works, because responsibility usually comes with choice. In our state, nearly all the charter schools have parental contracts or agreeements and parents are expected to follow those contracts or they will not be invited back the next year. (We ask less than 1 percent of families to leave.)

    It is amazing to watch the transformation in many out of control children once the parents are “forced” to get involved. Our schools contract requires that parents attend conferences as requested by the teachers (who will go out of the way to make it at a time that works for the parent). Private schools will ask children who misbehave to leave as well, and at least in my community, this is well known.

    We have an attendance zone as well and the families least likely to follow through on the contract are the ones who are just passing through. Not only are these parents not invested in our school, frankly they do seem particularly invested in their child’s education.

    I am a big believer that will all things being equal, a family who exercises “school choice” probably is far more committed to their children’s education.

  21. theAmericanist says:

    It’s clearly unjust to abandon a) kids who are — or might be — motivated to learn in a bad school, as well as b) kids who are themselves more or less just kids, but whose parents might make the difference — but can’t afford a private school.

    My question (for which I’m taking a raft of crap) has to do with the obvious fact that when you have kids like that, and parents like that: WHY DON’T THE SCHOOLS THEMSELVES WORK?

    It’s just not good enough when folks say, ‘well, some parents are worthless’, or ‘I used to be a naive hippie, but then I learned..’

    No, duh? Some parents are criminals: this is news? Public schools have to deal with public problems: this surprises folks?

    There’s a chicken/egg aspect to ‘it works when the parents choose the schools’, simply because you’re arranging for the most motivated parents to select themselves. That’s not a BAD thing, but it begs the question — which, I’m sorry to say, I don’t see folks eager to face.

    (shaking head) Conservatives don’t seem to like to think much past who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’: after that, it shuts down.

  22. Steve LaBonne says:

    The fact that _neighborhoods_ like that exist is the more fundamental justice. But fixing that is beyond the schools’ power, and to ask them to try is merely to set them up for failure at what they _can_ do. Meanwhile, salvaging the students that can be salvaged isn’t Utopia- but it is progress.

    Of course, there is one other situation that mandates school choice: districts too inept and/or corrupt to educate even the educable students. Again, is it really morally permissible to hold the latter hostage to a turnaround that may not happen during their school years? And is a turnaround even likely at all in the absence of any competition? Monopolies aren’t known for their appetite for improvement.

    Let’s be clear- opponents of school choice require an unstated premise for their arguments to make sense. That premise is that a monopolistic public school setup is somehow the natural order of things, and any deviation from it in the direction of offering choices needs to be justified. I find this premise non-obvious, to say the least, and I’m waiting to see a choice opponent make some real arguments in its favor.

  23. “We’ve heard from plenty of teachers in the trenches about how hard it is to teach in schools dominated by the children of such parents.”

    But you always pooh-pooh that as whining, Steve. But thanks for acknowledging the obvious and coming around to the “dark side.” 😉

  24. Steve LaBonne says:

    But read my last post before you get too happy- where I point out that there are also districts that couldn’t educate _anybody_. 😉

  25. My experience is that social norms are required instruction if you want to teach students. If you do not, you may as well be a babysitter. Most of the students have no idea how to properly behave (especially students of poverty). Their point of view and culture is so different from a middle class norm that you have to emphasize that there are two sets of rules. Those outside of school and those rules in school. It takes awhile to train the students on the expected behavior norms and then you can teach your subject material. Parental involvement….that’s another post.

    I noticed someone talked about safety for professors. Teachers need the same defenses. I was threatened once this past year by a student. Interestingly, he was allowed to stay in school. The adminstration said the threat was not serious enough! He only threatened to destroy my car. The student was transferred out of my class. He was your basic thug. At least he did not damage my car.

    I took up teaching after retiring from the Army and I find it rewarding even with the difficulties. In fact many of the folks in my American Legion Post teach.

  26. Rita C. says:

    Generally the more street oriented kids will control the tenor of a school if there are enough of them. Good kids will adopt the street demeanor in order to just be physically safe. They can’t afford to act like they’re interested in their education — they leave themselves open to having the crap kicked out of them. It’s a numbers game. If you tip one way, your school is salvageable. If you tip the other way, the odds are really against you. With a competent staff, if you have enough good families, a school can make it. If you take the good families away from the good staff, you’ve doomed the staff to a failing situation, and they ain’t gonna hang around. Many urban schools have bad staffs when the surrounding charters, magnets, and suburban schools do not. Is it that the urban schools are spectacularly unlucky in their hiring practices?

  27. Steve wrote,
    “..I point out that there are also districts that couldn’t educate _anybody”

    Entire *districts* that can’t educate *one* person? Evidence, please.

  28. lindenen says:

    You’d think that they’d just start enforcing the required norms and behavior in ALL the schools. Then simply remove the students who will not cooperate. Move them to another school for kids like them. Just getting them away from the others should be the top priority.

    I always read about these strict charter schools with uniforms and just do not get why these schools are not made into the norm.

  29. theAmericanist – You’ve been asking how school choice helps, and I agree that most of the answers so far have been pretty mediocre.

    I’m not aware what people here think of when they say “school choice,” but I think the best school choice option is a voucher system where students can choose between private and public schools.

    This means that pretty much everyone will have the choice of going to pretty much any school in the area.

    Why is this better? Well, privately run schools are far better at teaching students than public schools. There are numerous examples of the ugly bureaucracy, wastefulness, and inefficiency of public schools. Profit motive makes private schools serve the students efficiently, and forces them to push for the best ways of teaching the kids.

    This does not mean that all the unmotivated, dumb, and troublemaking students will be left behind in a decaying hole. The best thing about market competition is that private schools are set up to deal especially with those kinds of students. In fact, even today, about 100,000* students with special needs are sent from the public school system to the private system.

    * (9th paragraph)

    I’m sure that less intensive forms of school choice would also result in much improvement. If a principal knows that they have to compete with the high school across town, they are going to spend extra time reviewing why exactly their students are failing. And if they can’t figure it out – if they choose to just throw their hands up and say that these kids are helpless – well then someone else is going to take those students and show how it’s done properly. And everyone will learn.

    Competition has done wonders for the industrialized world. There is no reason why it can’t do wonders for education.

  30. Steve LaBonne says:

    Yes, Suzie. Entire districts that turned into nothing but cash cows for crooked administrators and board members- for example East Cleveland, whose finances were so screwed up that the state declared them “unauditable” and had to take over. Try explaining to parents why their kids should be trapped in such schools.

  31. Steve LaBonne says:

    Rita, you (and many others who have expressed a similar position)seem to be comfortable with the idea of _using_ those “good families” and their kids to try to improve the tone of the schools. (A similar arguments is often used to justify keeping gifted kids in schoools and classes that cannot educate them to their full potential.) I am an adherent of Kantian ethics and I do not countenance treating people- especially kids- as means rather than ends. I guess that’s the fundamental difference here.

  32. Rita C. says:

    Steve — if the school is in good shape, then the good families aren’t being used in the sense that they’re getting nothing for their investment. They’re the backbone of a school that works in the same way that good families/people are the backbones of all functioning communities. Yes, they carry the poorly functioning members of the school to some degree, but I’m not sure how you avoid that. If it’s a good school, good families and not-so-good families will still choose it.

  33. “R” word = “racist.”

  34. Steve LaBonne says:

    If the school is in good shape why are they leaving? Who are you or I to tell them that _despite what they thinK_ the school is in good shape and therefore they _must_ keep their kids there? That should be the family’s decision.

    And if- as you seem to envision- the school _really is_ in good shape (despite some problems, and we all understand nothing is perfect) so that families indeed _want_ to keep their kids there, then how is school choice a threat to that successful school? Either way, you don’t seem to have made any case at all against school choice, assuming such is your intention.

  35. Rita C. says:

    I’m not arguing against school choice. I’m just describing the dynamics of what creates a good school.

  36. theAmericanist says:

    (grin) It is tempting to disregard anything said by anybody who without compulsion refers to themselves as “Kantian”. If nothing else, it illuminates an embarrassing ignorance of economics, never mind civics.

    Rita gets it: “It’s a numbers game. If you tip one way, your school is salvageable. If you tip the other way, the odds are really against you. With a competent staff, if you have enough good families, a school can make it. If you take the good families away from the good staff, you’ve doomed the staff to a failing situation..”

    Actually, this has been going on in one form or another at least since desegregation, when folks finally had the choice to go where they chose. It was exacerbated by the genius who thought up public housing, to concentrate and isolate social pathologies, which directly affect schools. Throw in the drive that supports the likes of Charles Murray, and it’s pretty ugly.

    Lindenen completes the thought: “enforcing the required norms and behavior in ALL the schools. Then simply remove the students who will not cooperate. Move them to another school for kids like them. Just getting them away from the others should be the top priority.”

    Um — doesn’t that mean MONEY?

    As it happens, I spent most of last year working in a school that was precisely for that purpose: a contract with the public school system to take their rejects, and court-ordered placements in special ed.

    The place wasn’t exactly Milton Friedman Middle School. It wasn’t an illustration of a free market, it was a BYproduct of child welfare agencies and the cottage industry of special ed lawyers.

    And it was broke.

    Moreover, I haven’t seen evidence of a groundswell of political capital in FUNDING schools like that. So you’re left with the same problem: getting parents to buy in (without money), and teachng the kids who (along with their parents) don’t buy in.

    LOL — Kantian. Ain’t it odd how the most ideological are also generally the most naive?

  37. Steve LaBonne says:

    Then I don’t disagree with you, but I do insist that the students who raise the tone of the school need to be retained by offering them a good education, not by depriving them of the possibility of leaving. That’s how competition can act as a catalyst for improvement, as it does in so many other contexts.

  38. Steve LaBonne says:

    Americanist, did you have something to say? You need to learn to make your point concisely, if indeed you have one.

  39. AnotherScott says:

    The problem with neighborhood schools is the NEIGHBORHOOD. If there is no support from the neighborhood (i.e. the parents) than any attempt from school authorities to impose social norms will fail. That is why Thernstrom was right in stating that it only works when parents and students choose to allow the norms to be applied.

    This goes to the wider problem in the Black Community that Crosby was talking about. No one is willing to tell anyone else they are wrong or suggest the right way to do things lest they be labeled as Uncle Tom or be seen as airing dirty laundry. Thus, in the Black Community the threshold for bad behaviour and crime is much higher than other communities. It’s partially a fortress mentality built up over years of external pressure (i.e. the racist system). Unfortunately, this mindset has continued passed its effectiveness and now results in an accross the board breakdown in the respect for ANY authority, even teachers; main victim, black children.

    Seeing neighborhood schools as the cure is naive if it requires ignoring nonexistant parents and open-air drugmarkets right next to the schools (something I observed recently next to an elementary school here in the southside of Chicago).

    The change must begin within, but it certainly won’t come just from neighborhood schools.

  40. “Entire districts that turned into nothing but cash cows for crooked administrators and board members- for example East Cleveland, whose finances were so screwed up that the state declared them “unauditable” and had to take over..”

    You’re not answering the question. I asked you to back up your assertion that entire districts cannot educate even one person, and you’ve diverted the topic to finances.

    Still waiting for your answer.

  41. I answered your question. East Cleveland is a perfect example of a district that has provided nobody wuth an adequate education for many years now. (Only a tiny fraction of its students can pass the very undemanding state proficieny tests.) The finances are part of the _reason_ for that sorry situation, that reason being that the kids were the last thing on the mind of the people running it. And as a failed district it is unfortunately far from unique.

  42. Steve LaBonne says:

    There is a post currently up at Reform K12 (written, it should be noted, by a teacher out there in the trenches) that is very on-topic in this thread.

  43. lindenen says:

    “Um — doesn’t that mean MONEY?”

    I don’t think it means much more money than they currently spend. They could build one extra elementary, middle school and high school for the kids who have problems. Or they could simply make one school for each grade level empty at the beginning of the year and then,, over the course of the year, it will fill up. Or just start charter schools for these students. I believe this is one of those issues when where there is a will there is a way.

  44. Tom West says:

    Actually, if you want to really try and educate the most highly troubled students in a set-apart setting, you would probably need many times the funding found in regular schools.

    The special needs of such students require huge effort on the parts of the best teachers. The incentives for working on these students need to be found in the paycheck. Likewise, student-teacher ratios need to be much, much lower.

    Add to that the need for dealing with physical and mental special needs that must be addressed in order for the children to learn successfully, and you have schools that would cost much more than most municipalities would be willing to fund.

    In many neighbourhoods, school choice may well be akin to acknowledging that you are willing to write-off a significant group of children. At this point, society is unwilling to do so, so the inertia is behind a system that, at least in principle, tries to educate all students. For certain neighbourhoods, this *may* be an unattainable goal.

    So, the question becomes one of tradeoffs (as it always does). Do we sacrifice the children of those whose parents are not motivated enough to make a choice in order to better educate the children of those parents who are involved in their education, or conversely, do we increase the difficulty of getting an education for all students in order to provide a better academic opportunity for children of parents who are not academically involved in their children’s education.

  45. If I may be so bold as to enter this fray…

    There is no problem with neighborhood schools. (And yes, I’m talking about the worst neighborhoods you can imagine.) The problem is with intestinal fortitude on the part of the staffs of those schools, most notably the principal. The principal, of course, must be supported on both ends by her staff (aka teachers and assistants) and the board (aka her superiors).

    It is possible to have a public school in a terrible neighborhood work wonders, but only if the principal and staff make the simple choice that they’re going to not accept any behavior considered unacceptable in any affluent suburban school.

    It is my experience, having taught exclusively in inner-city schools, that kids will rise to your expectations. And I mean 99% of kids. Sure, you’ll have to expel a few. A school can’t be all things to all kids, but for the most part, even kids coming from the worst backgrounds can be taught to behave in a civilized fashion and to become students.

    You just gotta have higher expectations, and yes, guts.

  46. theAmericanist says:

    Wow — it’s hard to top this: “I do insist that the students who raise the tone of the school need to be retained by offering them a good education, not by depriving them of the possibility of leaving….”

    Well, if you INSIST. Personally, the only thing that deprives my kid from going to Sidwell Friends … is that $28k tuition.

    Oh, wait — we’re talking about PUBLIC schools.

    Sheesh. It fascinates me the number of folks who insist that all the problems of public schools could be solved, if they could just stop being open to the public. (hand smacking forehead) Why didn’t I think of that?

    It’s even better when folks insist that the free market will make everything more efficient, which they seem to think means cheaper.

    The special ed program I’m most familiar with has a staff/student ratio of something like 9/19: that ain’t cheap, folks.

    (shaking head) JJ posted about Thernstrom noting that Orlando Patterson had observed, er, hey: what if we taught kids to behave in school? Thernstrom thinks this only works if parents and students choose the school.

    So I asked: why is that? And why don’t neighborhood schools work?

    So far, all we’ve gotten for an answer is essentially a fallacy wrapped in a truism. And every time anybody questions the fallacy, ideologues respond by defending the truism.

    The truism is that motivated parents are the key. No kidding? Wow, who’d a thunk it? Hey, I got an idea: how about we have schools that are ONLY open to motivated kids with motivated parents? I bet those would be really good schools, huh?

    I suppose thinking that’s a great insight is at least as impressive as the idea that market forces will make education cheaper. (Ah, that $28k tuition … for a middle school and high school. In a highly competitive market, mind.)

    The fallacy is that if we did select out the motivated from public schools, competition would somehow resolve the mismatch between need and funding in what’s left.

    I think it was General Nelson Miles who tried to entice settlers into Arizona Territory, with a letter back East saying that all the place needed to fix it up was “some more good people and plenty of water.”

    Somebody replied that is all you need to fix up Hell, too.

    (grin) Nobody is more naive than an ideologue. (And before somebody gets clever, it was AC that opened up Arizona: lord knows, there’s plenty of hot air in this discussion.)

    It seems to me from this thread that the answers found here to my questions are 1) Autonomy (for want of a better term) for parent and kids is a way for ’em to feel education is their decision, rather than something imposed on ’em, and 2) neighborhood schools in bad neighorhoods fail — sometimes — partly because the neighborhood is bad (as Another Scott observed) but mostly (as chett and Tom West pointed out) cuz of a lack of guts and gold.

    Never mind the schools themselves: one reason the decisions that seem clear from the answers get no traction is simply because the debate is dominated by naive ideologues like SLB, and more sophisticated (but still naive) folks like Thernstrom.

    I’m all for selecting out the kids who have ANY claim or ambition, but that will cost a ton of money: and I won’t abandon the kids who are left, who will cost more.

    I’m not an ideologue about it; there are lots of ways to move forward (but only one to stand still). But I ain’t naive, either: vouchers will double the cost to scale.

  47. “..I point out that there are also districts that couldn’t educate _anybody”

    “East Cleveland is a perfect example of a district that has provided nobody wuth an adequate education for many years now.”

    Still waiting for the evidence.

    Actually, no I’m not.

    Sit tight with your superlatives and gobsmackingly vague analysis, Steve. Me, I’ll be watching the Ohio newspapers for the statistics on those thousands of illiterate, innumerate East Clevelanders who (according to you) were *never* educated, “for many years now.”

  48. theAmericanist says:


  49. theAmericanist,

    I think I agree with you, sort of. I think that neighborhood, or any schools, will work if (and only if) they have two things 1) qualified teachers and 2) sufficient discipline. I was educated in an era when everyone went to school and most of them got a basic education and many got more. The ones who didn’t behave were kicked out. My brother was one who almost was “asked to leave.”

    Now to the problems:
    1. Some teachers are very good and many are highly motivated–but–there are enough who are simply useless. For some reason, the teachers unions seem to feel that their members should not be capable professionals, certified in their professions. They seem to feel that teachers are more like carpenters (or any other trade) who should have their jobs protected regardless of capability.
    2. The American highly litigious society may have doomed the possibilities of disciplined schools. Faced with lawsuits, “not my kid” parents, violent protests, and other spin-offs of our “it can’t be my fault” society, the school administrators have understandably let discipline slide and many upper level schools have slid into chaos.

    Maybe we could only get good results if we turned the schools over to the military. You laugh, I’m sure, but I was a military electronic equipment instructor and I can assure you that students in our classes behaved and learned the material. Also, we sure got paid less than teachers. 🙂

    We will not get the results we want until we solve these two problems. Almost all children will learn if they have qualified teachers and a disciplined environment.

  50. No, Americanist, no one is talking about making public schools no longer public.

    What is being talked about is making it clear that, past a certain point (earlier than it is set now) a government financed education is not a right. A lot of teachers will offer a suggestion something like this one.

    Will the local district take you on the high school level? Sure — but only so long as you conduct yourself in a manner that is not disruptive of the education of others. If you demonstrate that you do not value what you are receiving, the school should be able to put you out after you have finished middle school. I suspect the change from high school as a right to high school as a privilege would have a significant effect on the tone of the school and its students.

    Sound harsh? I guess I’ve just seen too many kids who are in seats because they are required to be, either by mandatory attendance laws or court-imposed conditions of probation. They are not students — they are practically inmates.

  51. theAmericanist says:

    Truth to tell, I’m not sure the military option is such a bad idea. It was a cliche for awhile (cuz it was true) that if a guy of age got into certain kinds of trouble with the law, the local authorities would offer him boot camp and three years enlistment as an alternative to a trial and jail. I dunno why that couldn’t be worked as an option for some folks in school — primarily with the idea that 1) they get paid, 2) they get yanked from their comfortable (criminal) environment, and 3) they’re kept long enough that they simply get OLDER, away from home and with an enforced savings program.

    ‘Course, you’d still need an elaborate sorting out process in the schools themselves, but that’s fairly simple, if not easy.

    The core problem is fairly clear, then: the question is money and the buy-in process. Right?

  52. Richard Aubrey says:

    This discussion has to do with ways to make schools better, or find better schools, or make education better for many kids, or….general issues.
    The dynamic which is unaddressed is that committed parents whose local school is lousy want to get to another school which might be nicer and they don’t care at all what happens to the school they left.
    These parents will choose with their own kid(s) in mind, and will vote from the same viewpoint.

    Kind of on point: One moron school super burbled a couple of years ago that competition had made him and his staff more energetic in improving the situation.
    Years of parents’ entreaties hadn’t.
    Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut.

  53. Rita C. says:

    It is the good students/families that raise the tone of the school. I’m not sure how to articulate what I’m trying to say better: schools are communities. If you have a healthy community, chances are you have a healthy school/education going on. If your school is an unhealthy community (ie. full of street-oriented families), chances are the school is suffering major problems. The community that is the school is arguably more important than who staffs it, I think. This is my personal observation, but I imagine I’m not being terribly original here.

    FWIW, I’ve been in some really terrible schools. Even in these places full of gangs, violence, deadbeat teachers, and incompetence, etc., I’ve seen individual teachers work with motivated kids and *educate* them. It’s a battle for the teachers and the kids, but they work the faulty system to make it happen. So I don’t think it is possible to say there are schools that don’t educate a single person. They may be too dysfunctional to educate their student population as a whole, but there’s always something human going on these places that nobody on the outside ever sees. They system may be a complete failure, but I wouldn’t write off every person working under that system.

  54. Tom West says:

    the local authorities would offer him boot camp and three years enlistment as an alternative to a trial and jail.

    Given the high standards required and expected of a volunteer army, I doubt the army is really looking for cast-offs from the educational system. Certainly I wouldn’t want to be working with anyone who was handling a modern high-tech weapon system and had trouble reading…

  55. Steve LaBonne says:

    Suzie, East Cleveland has been in “Academic Emergency” for years as a result of meeting almost none of the state’s proficiency-test targets (on many of the tests they have something like a 25% passing rate, where the state requires 75% to meet the goal- and these are very basic tests) and has around a 50% HS graduation rate. As I mentioned, it’s also in fiscal emergency because for years district officials have been stealing public funds by the fistful. If that doesn’t meet your definition of total failure then you obviously will never admit that a public school district can fail.

  56. Steve,

    This is my last post to you about this issue and you can have the last word. Feel free. But you’ve stated, and I’ve quoted you numerous times now, that the East Cleveland district has not educated even *one* student for many years.

    But then you say that 50% of that district’s students are graduating from high school. You state that the entire district has a 25% passing rate. Even if the fiscal/academic situation is as dire as you claim, that’s hardly failing to educate even ONE child.

  57. Steve LaBonne says:

    Suzie, feel free to go on quibbling as this post slides down the list, but I won’t be here. East Cleveland is a failed district that no sane person should want their kids to be in. (What makes you think even the 50% who graduate from HS have even what would be regarded as 8th grade skills in a good district?) Kids should not be trapped in such a district. That’s the bottom line. Chop words and logic all you want, you’re only confirming that you’re such a diehard defender of the system as it exists that you can’t admit the existence of even its most egregious failures. Very revealing.

  58. Richard Aubrey says:

    Steve, you’re presuming Suzi would consider this “failing”.
    Defenders of public education seem to have a different definition.
    Whatever it is, the question of whether the kids are educated is not one of the issues, nor is the prospect of getting suddenly rich as an administrator.

  59. theAmericanist says:

    “Writing maketh an exact man.” — Roger Bacon

    SLB, face it: you over-stated your point, and she called you on it. Now you’re floundering and trying to distract from your hyperbole by insulting her.

    LOL — just thought you should know most folks who post on JJ’s site can READ.

    Not speaking about you personally, of course.


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