Learning irresponsibility

Managing classroom misbehavior takes up way too much time, writes Ilana Garon, who teaches English in a Bronx high school. Students know they can get away with talking in class, hitting each other, walking around the classroom and then talking back to the teacher.

. . . these kids are 16, not six. At some point, no matter how difficult their upbringing, how uninvolved their parents, or how dry the material . . . high school students have to be held accountable for their own behavior. . . .  many times the kids can’t be engaged by even the most fascinating lesson–and, with virtually no consequences for non-violent infractions, teachers’ hands are tied.

New York City’s new discipline code will make it harder to suspend students for “disorderly behavior,” such as swearing and lying to teachers. Instead, principals will use reprimands, parent conferences and lunchtime detentions.

Calling home sometimes helps, but not for long, Garon writes. The school can’t afford supervised detention. Suspension “is often treated as a vacation by the kids.”

Immigrants from Jamaica and Ghana are “often appalled at the behaviors of American-born kids,” who take  education for granted. High school is free in the U.S., so it’s not valued, a Jamaican told her.

Garon dreams of “hard detention” (cleaning the school), suspension and “the threat of expulsion for the toughest repeat offenders.” If there are no consequences, students are taught that “even in their teenage years, they are not responsible for their own behavior.” That’s a dangerous message that will undermine their academic future and their employment prospects, Garon writes.

Teaching students to control their impulses and take responsibility for their actions should start in elementary school.

Teaching math to 11th and 12th graders who’ve failed the seventh-grade-level graduation exam, Michele Kerr has to manage “vortex” and “driftwood” students.

The quintessential disruptive vortex, Deon could single-handledly destroy half the class’s productivity if left undisturbed; his absence or isolation always left most of my “driftwood” students open to the idea of getting some work done.

(Yet) Deon was a math-solving machine who worked fiendishly once I isolated him from all other entertainment.

“Good” kids and “bad” kids “aren’t useful distinctions,” she writes on Larry Cuban’s blog.

About Joanne


  1. SuperSub says:

    First off, one overlooked problem with discipline is the hiring process. I’ve seen way too many wallflowers hired in tough school districts because the are enthusiastic and can endlessly vomit the fad pedagogy of the day…then complain that the admin doesn’t back them up with discipline. I’m not saying admin isn’t responsible or that it all falls on the teacher’s shoulders…in fact, hiring teachers that rely too much on outside help is yet another way that administrations fail in their responsibilities.

    • SuperSub says:

      And secondly (since I started with “First off”) until society accepts either expulsions or corporal punishment for students again, nothing is going to happen.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suppose the best revenge would to be to allow this and muse about how the outside world is going to treat them.
    Since we’re all decent people here, we have to think of something better. Like visiting their homes and hitting their parents–if such exist–with large, heavy sticks, aka cluebats.
    I note the excerpts from the article did not refer to the student victims, either of assault and harassment or interrupted education, not to mention displays of succesful and unsanctioned behavior as a real-life lesson.

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qfBjrHc7H4 from 1955

    There’s a chapter in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book Farmer Boy copy write 1933 that deals with a violent unruly student.

    There’s a simple solution: rescind compulsory education and make it voluntary, at least after a certain age – 14 perhaps. If you want to be there – fantastic, if not bye-bye. But the paternalists have been busy infantilizing young people for 100 years. More power, authority and money for them after all.

  4. Students learn the following lessons in elementary school that carry them through to high school:

    1. What I’m being tested on doesn’t matter. Once I’m tested on it, I won’t see it again. It won’t be built upon. Not next week because you’re on to something new. And not next year, because teachers develop their own curriculum and methods. It’s hard to get enthused about anything because if schools don’t value it week-to-week and year-to-year, how can students?

    2. Mastery isn’t necessary. Material isn’t taught to mastery by a measured standard. Rather, it is taught, and then if the student gets it, they’re brilliant. And if the student doesn’t get it, they have a learning disability. And it’s hard to become enthralled in something if you don’t develop some level of mastery.

    This continues year after year, until you have behavior problems in high school for all but the most motivated students and/or parents.

  5. palisadesk says:

    Be careful not to overgeneralize, RMD. You said: “It won’t be built upon. Not next week because you’re on to something new. And not next year, because teachers develop their own curriculum and methods.” but this is definitely not the general case.

    Many districts, mine included, have VERY prescriptive elementary curricula and methodologies. Teachers do not get to make up their own curricula, choose their methods, texts, etc. If you have followed elementary curriculum issues, you’ve probably read where such excessive top-down control exists (even on matters like minutes the teacher is “allowed’ to speak, or how the desks must be arranged) in districts like NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere. We have been following Elmore’s protocols of designing instructional sequences that build from year to year and do indeed follow up on what was taught before, but the inflexibility of the curriculum is a problem we can’t effectively address.

    The curricula are laid out, the topics to be taught, how they are to be taught, what assessments are to be used, how many days are allowed for each topic, and so on ad nauseam.

    This will of course militate against mastery for many students who cannot master the material required in the limited time available. This is especially true in math. I’ve yet so see where any of the education gurus have tackled this problem openly: how to provide enough practice, *in school,* for those who need a great deal of it to solidify basic concepts, operations or skills? It’s an issue that affects low-SES students more (because the affluent hire tutors, provide home support, etc.) but is not much related to ability per se.

  6. We do NOT have a compulsory education system in the United States, but rather a COMPULSORY attendance system, which is a completely different animal.

    Where I live, the dropout age when I attended high school was 16 (1977-1981)…today it is 18, but back when I attended, a high school dropout could get a decent job in construction, plumbing, or join the military and make something of themselves.

    Fast forward 30 years…a high school dropout is going to fare worse than 3 decades ago. A high school dropout’s chances of joining the military (zero) unless they manage to pass the GED (and then they need a ASVAB of 65 just to be considered) or they finish 15 credits of college coursework with a C average or better (then they’d still need a ASVAB of 29-43 to enlist).

    If high schools only provided education to students who actually wanted it, imagine the types of graduates we’d produce (of course, the leftists would say ‘what about the dropouts?’, my response would be ‘what about them? they had their chance, and didn’t want to take it.”

    • Ponderosa says:

      Bill: don’t you think we could beef up adult ed programs for any wised-up dropouts who want to get the K-12 education they missed?

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Ponderosa. Your question implies adult ed isn’t sufficiently addressing the newly-converted.
        I have no idea. However, I have some relations going to CC at an advanced age of, say, thirty-five. One just set the curve on an accounting exam at 98%. His younger classmates did not do nearly as well, possibly from not showing up very often.
        Education is a process foreign to everything H. Sap has picked up in a million years of evolution from his knuckle-dragging ancestors. How it works in mass is a miracle. But you can’t expect it to work as if were a matter of evpsych we all are powerless to avoid.

        • Richard, I along with 3 others in a class (over the age of 40), plus one student who was a Electrical Engineering Major managed to score better than 95% on a basic stats exam for a class we were enrolled in, along with students (male and female, mostly under the age of 25). The class average was 68% (now imagine how bad it would have been without our five scores.

          The professor posted every formula on her web site, and it didn’t involve math higher than what you’d see in a basic algebra class (mean, mode, variance, std. deviation, probability, etc).

          The thing that probably killed it for most of the students, no calculators were allowed, but from what I saw, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference if they couldn’t set up the problem in the first place.


          p.s. – no, it wouldn’t be all female, and it wouldn’t be all asian, it would just be filled with students who would 1.
          want to be there, and 2. would be expected to work hard. 🙂

    • “If high schools only provided education to students who actually wanted it, imagine the types of graduates we’d produce ”

      They’d be female, White and Asian.

      99% of the problems with education today are the result of an unwillingness to recognize certain demographic realities in today’s world.

      • When Ronald Reagan was Governor of California, he wanted to make entry into all of California’s universities based on work and merit alone. One’s race, gender, age (as long as they were a legal adult), etc. would be irrelevant.

        “But sir,” one of his top aides told him, “If we did that, everyone at the U. of Cal system and Cal St. system and Stanford would practically ALL be Asian!”

        Reagan’s response: “So?”