Blame the bad students (and parents)

Public schools are failing because they’re overwhelmed with too many anti-social students from dysfunctional families, writes Victor Davis Hanson in his 2011 Politically-Incorrect Resolutions on Pajamas Media.

I went to largely Hispanic and impoverished elementary schools from 1959-67. The teachers, by today’s standards, were probably insensitive and unduly harsh. . . . In September and May the non-air-conditioned rooms were often over 90 degrees. I can remember our second grade class was 44, with 5 folding chairs that we rotated in and out of, given the absence of desks. Instruction was mostly by rote . . .

And yet there was almost no violence on campus – and no counselors, psychologists, or teacher aides. Students from dire poverty arrived clean, polite, and ready to study. Parents came to school night classes to learn English and meet with teachers. Back to school night was packed. . . . A student’s detention was considered a family catastrophe.

With well-behaved, ready-to-learn students, the public schools worked, Hanson writes. Today’s families are sending more poorly behaved children — anti-social, rude, disruptive — than the schools can handle.

Hanson dreams of creating “a shame culture in which the worst sort of social transgression (far worse than smoking) is to burden the public schools with children that were neither raised nor tamed.”

Is it possible to change parents who don’t feel ashamed of their children’s bad behavior?

Strong principals and teachers can create a school culture that values learning, cooperation and courtesy. KIPP’s motto is “work hard, be nice.” Downtown College Prep, the school in my book, pushes ganas (desire to succeed), community and pride. But it’s very hard to do if the parents aren’t on board.

Speaking of creating a culture of respect: I’ve tried to maintain a calm, civil tone on the blog without stifling comments. Lately, some commenters have taken to calling each other (and me) liars, racists, imbeciles, etc. I’ve decided to delete rude and patronizing comments and to mark persistent offenders as spammers. Please try to find ways to express your opinions without insulting others.  It’s not effective in persuading people to your point of view. And it’s getting on my nerves.

About Joanne


  1. Travis A. Wittwer says:

    It would be great if there was a sense of shame. I think without a conscience; without a sense of shame; without an idea of ethics, we will unravel as a country. Eventually, there will be nothing left worth keeping.

    Love the comment at the bottom about rude commenters.

  2. I feel no compunction about deleting the comments of trolls on my blog. As the old saying goes, you can disagree without being disagreeable–well, most of us can, anyway.

  3. I went to a small-town school (1-12) where most of the kids were poor or lower middle class, came from married two-parent families who both raised and tamed their kids. The school had no counselors or security; principal, who taught 3 periods of HS history, a secretary and a janitor. Period. Discipline issues were generally minor; talking in class, running on the stairs, chewing gum etc. The HS coach had a serious one-on-one with the occasional persistent troublemaker; once every 3 years or so kept the rest of the natives in line.

    There was also no welfare; all charity was private and the undeserving (author of their own misfortunes) received nothing. I’ll add to VDH’s list of shame; having illegitimate kids, breaking the law and being on any kind of public asistance. Being on public assistance should be contingent on appropriate behavior for the whole family.

  4. Sorry about the grammar errors – I didn’t proofread. The behavior/discipline issues in the schools are step one (I’ve never heard of a good school with real discipline issues) but we also need much better curricula in all subjects and much more effective and efficient instructional methods. Those last two issues are the direct result of the horrible ed-school philosophy. Close them all!

  5. The biggest problem is that many parents are working long hours (often at multiple jobs) and are outsourcing the raising of their children. I take my kids to the playground and the overwhelming majority of the other kids act like holy terrors while their nannies yak away to each other and/or on their cells. Nobody is paying attention to the kids’ behavior and disciplining them when they act naughty. So no wonder they’re showing up at schools acting like brats.

  6. Hi Joanne,

    Love your blog! I propose a related question — is there any way to ascertain how many parents actually do not feel ashamed of their child’s bad behavior? I notice so many teachers and education reformers emphasizing how devoted their students’ parents are to quality education. Are these uncaring parents Hanson writes about in the small minority? If they are, must we be careful to frame the discussion as such in order to avoid propagating stereotypes about low-income parents? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and the thoughts of other teachers.

    Hope you are gearing up for a great holiday!



  7. Interesting for this to come up as I’ve been pondering a situation I’ve been experiencing this school year. I have a job in which I rotate between 3-4 elementary schools to provide extra science lessons. The schools change every two years and so far I’ve rotated through 12. This year two of my schools are Title 1. In one of them I have not had one misbehaving student in any lesson between kindergarten to 5th grade so far (haven’t yet met the 4th graders). The kids follow rules, listen, don’t play with things while I’m talking, and do the activity without problems. I’ve been rather flummoxed by the whole thing. It’s not a charter school – just a regular PS. Comparing this school to the many others that I work in I can see that there is just a different expectation, starting with the principal. Number one, I don’t see any of the “these kids are poor and stupid so we must treat them as such” attitude that I come across in other schools. The teachers clearly go beyond the mediocre curriculum of this county. I see interesting projects displayed on the walls and come across interesting lessons when I enter the classrooms. The principal is ex-military, but don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing harsh about him, instead he has an air of authority that I don’t often see in elementary principals. My thinking is that it is definitely possible to have chaos-free schools, it’s finding principals (and their bosses) who believe its not only possible, but the right thing to do that is so hard.

    I’m going to throw in one more theory that will rub some the wrong way – being that this school has maybe 3 caucasian kids in it, the principal is probably free from the constant pyschobabble of middle class caucasian parents that their kids are never bad or wrong, instead they are suffering from a long list of learning, eating, mental, motor function, etc. disorders and therefore are not at all responsible for their behavior.

  8. That school would also not have a problem with “this/my kid is being targeted because the teacher/prinicpal etc is racist” – which does happen in majority Asian-white and middle-class schools. I’ve heard it many times, along with the “my kid is a kinesthetic learner so he can’t be expected to sit still” from a number of black parents and any disagreement with either is a political problem for the teacher, principal and school.

  9. Every release of PISA scores is a measurement of a culture’s seriousness about education – or simply about testing. Far too many people simply allow kids – and themselves – to “get by.” When you can get in to college with a D average or no diploma – and you still think you should go – there is a problem with the culture.

    And, of course, the system is way too lenient and lacks serious competition at all but the elite levels. This is why I was recently writing about whether “school choice” advocates should also be arguing for the right to not choose education. Allowing earlier graduation or competency-based rather than age-based education or a la carte choices on curriculum or simply much high standards and requirements to access state-funded higher education might bring about some change.

    But the culture remains the problem – Always has been.

  10. I totally agree with everyone on here! We teach the kids that come to us, but unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance (most times) to teach their parents. We live in a society that has given the green light since the 70’s to go further and further away from a common core of beliefs and “acceptable” behaviors. I am proud to say that I live in a country that affords us that right, but I am not proud of the way people have abused that right and some have let their value systems slide bringing along behavior problems and engaging in the “blame game”.

    Momof4, I love your posts – we can take care of our neighbors because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not the government’s job or responsibility.

    CrimsonWife – you are spot on, I feel. I remember when I first started teaching that I had a discussion with my family over Thanksgiving about behaviors I was seeing and the parents’ denials of such behaviors. I knew then that the parents didn’t see it because the only times they saw their children was the first 30 minutes of their day and the last hour or so. Just enough to feed them, be with them and send them off to either school or dreamland. You can’t know your kid and be an active participant in their life if you don’t see them.

    And of course, Joanne, I totally agree with and respect your last paragraph.

  11. There should be one standard of behavior for all students, consistently enforced by all adults on campus. Certainly, families that raise their children to behave like thugs deserve blame. The courts and politicians also deserve blame, though, in making the difficult job of educating children impossible.

    If a child cannot conform to reasonable expectations for classroom conduct, that child should not have the right to disrupt everyone else’s education. It’s not only the loss of in-class time. The teachers, aides and administrators must document serious disciplinary problems, which takes time which could be better spent on academic matters. If teachers and administrators cannot or will not enforce discipline, every student watching learns that discipline is not enforced. It sounds wonderful on paper to have different expectations for behavior for different students, but in practice it is corrosive.

  12. Crimson Wife and momof4: so it’s the kids from two-working-parent families wealthy enough to hire a nanny, and/or overinvolved two-parent white middle-class families that are causing the national K-12 educational complex to buckle at its knees? Really?

    As for Hanson, I hope he doesn’t accidentally wander onto the campus of a Sidwell Friends, a Dalton, a Harvard-Westlake, etc., because he might faint should he observe the goings-on in a typical K-3 setting. Tiny classes, whole-child philosophies, discipline applied with a feathery light touch, students squirming and running and standing up and expressing themselves freely, no rote learning, tests, or grades, etc.

    Hanson also conveniently glosses over the fact that 50 years ago, the job market had an almost unlimited capacity for people who knew little more than how to program an alarm clock and walk upright. Economic hopelessness has a bunch of nasty side effects.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    Tim. Ref your first question: Yes. The alternatives are too uncomfortable.

  14. Tim, as long as the kids are *learning*, I don’t think Prof. Hanson would faint. I’ve read his work for a long time, and he is a man who values knowledge and results. That said, one can reasonably argue that the approach at Sidwell Friends, etc. is not easily replicated due to a wide variety of phenomena, including the ones Hanson cited.

    “the job market had an almost unlimited capacity for people who knew little more than how to program an alarm clock and walk upright.”

    I would say it still does, it just demands they have at least a BA to do so.

  15. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Victor Davis Hanson has written something every clear-thinking teacher, parent–and everyone else–should implicitly understand: values trump every other factor in producing successful schools. By values, I mean the values of the family, as well as universal societal values (reflected in the school’s ethos) of respect for oneself, one’s family and by extension, one’s school. We need the work ethic, delay of gratification, and a positive, charitable attitude. Send any student–from any socioeconomic or ethnic background–to school with a basic decency and respect for the school, teachers and the education process–and you will get positive results. I have been teaching for 22 years in a public elementary school, and I don’t need redundant, pedantic “data” to tell me the obvious. Stop holding only teachers accountable, when neither students, and most importantly, the families, are not held accountable for their lack of a work ethic (yes, learning is mostly a long, arduous process) and lack of character development. Sure, there are bad apple teachers, always have been (and bad apple doctors, lawyers, journalists, ad infinitum…) But the always insightful and eloquent Hanson makes it clear that there are a whole lot more bad apple families, which have decimated our schools, especially public schools. I stay in teaching because of the decent and respectful students and their families, who deserve all I can give them. And the administrators at most public schools are nothing more than cowardly weasels, principals who lack core principles themselves. We don’t need the latest technology, more test-taking materials or time-wasting professional development to become “culturally sensitive” to be excellent teachers. We need students to come to school ready to learn by families who actually have worthy goals of enlightenment and betterment. ‘Nuff said.

  16. This is why that article from The Onion hit home so hard for so many of us. It was actually a pretty accurate description of what we see in so many students, many of whom are highly intelligent. You talk to them one-on-one, and they are some of the most wonderful children you have ever met. You get a few of them together, and they’re a laugh riot. You get a dozen or more, and you can just forget about it. If students actually came to class prepared to learn instead of just wanting to bounce off the walls like a maniac, we wouldn’t be having a lot of the discussions we’ve had about how to solve our deep problems.

    As with anything, it wouldn’t solve all the problems. But it would make the problems actually possible to solve.

  17. I’ve been teaching for twenty years, at the middle school and high school levels. I’ve seen about everything. From my point of view, parents who make excuses for their kids and argue with the school every time their kids have a detention or a low grade come from all walks. I have seen great parenting in poor families, in black, white, Hispanic, in wealthy families, and in middle class. I have also seen combative parents and horribly behaved kids amongst all the groups I just mentioned. Argumentative parents raise argumentative kids. We have kids who break every rule and then dare the teacher to do anything about it, and when we do, they protest loudly. When the parent of that kids comes in to try to change the outcome, we see the same behavior: loud, rude, name calling, trreatening, cussing and volatile to the point that our security officer frequently has to step in and force them to leave campus or ticket them.
    My school is near a center that provides transportation for missionary families all over the world. We have quite a few families who have lived as missionaries in different countries. These families and their kids are the best you could ever hope to work with. The kids are polite, have wonderful discipline and respect, and are very successful students. Sometimes I wonder how they can stand to be in class with some of their obnxious peers, but they take it all in stride and it does not seem to bother them.
    We do have so many dysfunctional families at our school, students whose parents are in jail, have commmitted incest, are addicted to drugs, have switched partners so many times that the family make up is so tangled up that it’s hard to remember who is related to who…and the outcome is less predictable than you would think. Some of the students from these families do behave in the stereotypical fasion: sulky, non achieving, angry. But I’ve had several of these kids who are determined to do something different, and are exremely successful. It just depends on the makeup of the kid.

  18. Tim; I said nothing about large fractions of school discipline and culture problems being caused by over-involved middle class parents (while that can exist, it’s not the main problem) and said nothing whatsoever about families with nannies – I know nothing about that.

  19. Mea culpa and apologies, momof4. Replace “momof4” with “Geena” in my first comment.

    But generally speaking, if I were to make a list of the ills I feel are plaguing the American public school system, I’m not sure that “overinvolvement from white middle-class parents” would crack my top 250.

  20. so it’s the kids from two-working-parent families wealthy enough to hire a nanny, and/or overinvolved two-parent white middle-class families that are causing the national K-12 educational complex to buckle at its knees? Really?

    Not buckle at its knees, no, but its a problem. Where I live, discipline in the suburban schools is generally more lax than in the city schools a few miles away. Teachers do not get the support they need from their administrators. From what I understand of it, they are responding to pushback from parents. Parents here believe that their little angels can do no wrong. I’m not saying it’s the only problem, or even the biggest, but it’s definitely a factor.

  21. I agree with Susan Riley, this started in the 70’s and is now in its third generation. The parents of the 70’s were lax with their kids. Those kids grew up without a clue about discipline, so their kids were even worse. Right now, those kids are having kids and we’re in it up to our necks.

    Of course, I’m speaking in broad generalities here, there are countless exceptions. It’s not just about school, either. The very idea of right and wrong has taken a beating over the last 40 years, as had the idea of personal responsibility and even the idea of two-parent families. It’s a broad social decline and it’s going to take something extraordinary to reverse it.

  22. Tim, I’ll be provocative, and say that the most affluent private schools are part of the problem.

    As for Hanson, I hope he doesn’t accidentally wander onto the campus of a Sidwell Friends, a Dalton, a Harvard-Westlake, etc., because he might faint should he observe the goings-on in a typical K-3 setting. Tiny classes, whole-child philosophies, discipline applied with a feathery light touch, students squirming and running and standing up and expressing themselves freely, no rote learning, tests, or grades, etc.

    That’s your description of the atmosphere in exclusive private schools. I think there’s a tendency on many people’s part to look at such schools as models of
    “what could be done if we had enough money.” Likewise, if you think that discipline is feather-light in the most expensive schools, it may seem discriminatory to inflict more severe discipline in other schools.

    Such analyses ignore the basic facts of life in the most exclusive private schools. For one, students entering the chain of schools in preschool or kindergarten are subjected to intelligence tests, and the family endures rigorous background checks. The NY Post had an article recently pointing out that NY private school placement advisors were telling clients to hold off on divorces until after schools released admissions decisions.

    At the start, then, these schools start with intelligent children who behave well as toddlers, from well-educated, intact families. As the students move through the system, the children who can’t keep up academically, or who can’t conform to disciplinary expectations, are eased out of the system. That’s why spots open up in later grades.

    Public schools could have very easy-going disciplinary policies, too, if they were able to expell any child who’s likely to misbehave on a regular basis. It’s the expectation that the differences between Spence and the local public school come down to money only which has had grave consequences.

  23. It seems like I have to work harder each year on civilizing values.

    I’m there to teach English, not how to be nice.

    But I have to, and I have to spend a lot of time and energy on it, day after day, otherwise, it would be like giving a guest lecture at Bedlam.

    Usually by this time of year, students act like they’re in Sunday School rather than a pool hall. But I’m not quite there yet. So I keep plugging along.

    Maybe by January or February.

    I don’t blame the parents–though maybe I should. I suspect the real problem is the low set of behavior standards from other classes.

    “In Mr. Wright’s class you can’t do whatever you want. You have to be nice. He’s old but he can hear bad language 30 fee away, even if you whisper.” Well, I hope they’ve all got that by January. We’ll see.

  24. Bob– I think some of the problem is that younger teachers (in the first three years or so…) don’t have the energy to handle lessons AND discipline. They’re still trying to master the art of TEACHING, so that takes up most of their mental energy. If they have to switch to ‘discipline mode’ they can’t teach at the same time.

    It’s the old problem of practicing until something becomes automatic. When NEITHER of your roles is automatic yet, you can’t do both well!

    I think a big improvement would be to have an extra adult in new teacher’s classrooms– just for discipline. As the teacher got more experienced, you could gradually phase out the disciplinarian.

    (My first year teaching, I also had luck with preemptive punishment. The instigators in the class were assigned detention as soon as they walked in the door– if class went smoothly, they lost detention. But it was a small Catholic school, and the kids’ parents were on board– they KNEW their kids were good at starting things but not getting caught!)

  25. Deirdre – I’ve never seen/heard of your type of “preemptive” discipline. How did that affect your classroom culture? I’ve always approached discipline from a point of optimism (you start out at the top and all you have to do is keep it there) and the kids know that if they choose a behavior that’s not acceptable, there are consequences. This has seemed to build a sense of trust and work ethic for me. Do you still implement the discipline method you describe? If so, how do the students respond currently? Just curious.