Don’t blame schools for violence

“To end the killing” — 141 murders so far this year — a Baltimore Sun editorial called for  “effective police and prosecutors, ample drug treatment, better schools, and more economic opportunities.”

Don’t blame the schools, responded Dave Miceli, a veteran teacher, in a letter to the editor.

I have taught in the Baltimore public school system for the past two decades. What we need is better students. We have many excellent teachers. I cannot count the number of students who have physically destroyed property in the schools. They have trashed brand new computers, destroyed exit signs, set multiple fires, destroyed many, many lockers, stolen teachers’ school supplies, written their filth on the tops of classroom desks, defecated in bathrooms and stairwells, assaulted teachers (beyond constantly telling them to perform certain impossible acts upon themselves) and refused to do any homework or classwork.

Miceli blames the crime rate on “a total disregard for life” in Baltimore and other cities.

Who’s responsible for a culture of violence? I’d look to parents.

About Joanne


  1. Elizabeth says:

    What we need ARE better students.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    The schools tolerate the behavior and even subsidize it. You get more of what you tolerate and subsidize. Kick out disruptive, violent students. The End.

    • If only they were still allowed to! Disruptive and violent behavior is considered a special ed handicap now, and it gets the students IEPs and other ‘goodies’ (from the students’ and parents’ points of view). I’ve seen it myself – disruptive, violent students who should have been taken out of K-12 permanantly years ago, getting to walk around like they own the place because their IEPs say that teachers aren’t allowed to send those particular students to the principal’s office (it would be discrimination! their thuggery and violent behavior isn’t their fault!) so they literally destroy the classroom environment… And then the principal comes in and writes up the teacher for that. (“I’m sorry, but your classroom wasn’t in control.”) Insanity at its purest.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Fun side note: I learned recently that foster parents receive larger stipends for kids who have some type of label, so many take any unmedicated kids to the doc immediately to get them on some type of meds to qualify for the larger payments. Our system at its finest.

        • So do biological parents (mothers); it’s called disability. I’ve read comments from inner city teachers who said that kids are specifically coached how to act, so they can be diagnosed with X, so mom can get “crazy money.” There’s a segment of the population that is likely to be illiterate and innumerate, but knows how to play to the government gravy train.

  3. What we need is a whole, new batch of excuses.

    The current bunch are getting a bit frayed around the edges from overuse. That and their flimsiness.

    • Excuses for who? The students and their parents?

      This is ultimately a cultural problem. You can have the most awesome facilities, the most caring and prepared teachers, etc., but it all means nothing if you’re trying to teach and help a bunch of thugs and anti-intellectuals with low IQs. Until the culture overall in this country, and especially in the inner cities (the “ghetto”) and the very rural regions (the “redneck country”) the results won’t change, no matter what is thrown at the problem.

      • Yeah, I don’t think I want to wait for the “overall culture” to change. How about we boot all the folks to the curb who cling feverishly to the belief that an excuse is a substitute for success?

        That’d be a good start but only a good start and really only useful for signaling that excuses will no longer be accepted. If you can’t do the job then you’re out of a job and if you can figure out how to make self-pity pay the bills they you’re all set. Otherwise…well, I don’t care just as long as you’re no longer pulling a paycheck for not doing your job.

        Of course it’s the overall culture of public education, as molded by tax support and mandatory attendance and abetted by the district system, that’s the real culprit. Gotta do something about that.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          We won’t accept excuses as substitutes for success only when we run out of money. As long as there’s other peoples money to fund the excuses, they’ll be endless.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Elim. You’re right, but you missed Allen’s point. What you mentioned is called “hate facts”. That is, they’re facts and everybody knows it but mentioning them is “hate”. Or maybe people hate it when you mention them. Something like that.
        Allen’s point is, since you’re not supposed to mention the hate facts, we need excuses. But the ones we’ve use to date are pretty weary.
        Need new ones.

        • Allen: Good luck with that! Finding people who can do nearly impossible jobs. You’ll end up with about 1 teacher for every 1,000+ students by the time the smoke has cleared…

          • I’m going to have to go out on a limb a bit here Helegast, since your response leaves something to the imagination, but if my guess is correct you feel that holding teachers responsible for learning would make the job nearly impossible.

            If that’s your position then you’ve got to work for the public education system. I can’t think of another area of employment, including other government jobs, in which accountability isn’t just categorically rejected but is treated as if it’d be a crime against nature.

            Oh, and given that when teaching jobs are posted they get lots and lots of response so if you feel the job’s undoable there’ll be a long line of folks who are willing to bet you’re wrong and strongly motivated to prove you so.

        • No Richard, what I’m saying is Elim and everyone else who clings to the “blame the kids, blame society” excuses can take those excuses, roll them up and put them where only they will suffer discomfort. It’s the cheap excuse of people who’ve given up giving a damn or never did.

          But that’s the neat thing about the public education system. You don’t have to give a damn. A rotten teacher can be rotten from day of hire to day of retire and suffer not a single night of troubled sleep. Same for rotten principals and higher level administrators.

          If the professionals don’t give a damn whether the kids learn why should the kids? They are, after all, children and they take their cues from the adults in their world of which teachers comprise an important fraction.

          • So, does NONE of the responsibility for the child’s learning fall on the children themselves, or the parents? It’s all the teacher’s fault?

          • Elim: My two cents: Very little responsibility falls on the children themselves; certainly not before maybe the middle school level. Juvenile delinquent is an oxymoron – a juvenile by definition isn’t capable of understanding. It’s the adults in their lives – starting with their parent(s), aided and abetted by the legion of well meaning social workers, teachers and what have you that haven’t bent them to the right path. As they get older, they can be assigned more responsibility; but ultimately it’s the adults around them that need to get them on the path. If it gets that far, the courts need to put a bit of fear into them; but we do NOT DO THAT! You’re a long time reader, you know the various ideas advanced here. Myself, I like the lines laid out by Heinlein – especially say Starship Troopers. By that’s just me.

            I once had a student who refused to evacuate during a fire alarm (turned out to be real, but contained on the other side of the building). Thankfully, I saw another teacher who had free period and snagged them and gave them my class list; stayed with the student throughout. Debriefed with the principal – asked if I could have “laid hands” on the student and bodily removed them from the building had there been imminent danger. His considered opinion was, maybe, but I MIGHT have been sued; but that the teachers union would back me up. Kid got counseling. *boggle That’s not a consequence, that’s just absurd.

          • I guess it depends.

            Are you looking for excuses why the public education system, and by extension everyone associated with it by employment or election, has no responsibility to see that education occurs or are you trying to determine why the public education system’s so widely seen as unsatisfactory verging on failure?

            If it’s the former, go screw yourself and join the mighty company of excuse-purveyors like Mike in Texas, CarolineSF and others whose screen names escape me at this moment. You can pretend, or enjoy the pretense, that you deeply care about the wee tykes while blaming them for not being a snap to teach.

            If it’s the latter then you ought to pull back and view the matter from a slightly wider perspective.

            Public education does, after all, everywhere have a mandatory attendance policy which my rudimentary understanding of human nature informs me isn’t the best foundation for a cooperative relationship.

            The arm-twisting nature of public education isn’t an absolute block to the establishment of an educational relationship with the kids but it makes the establishment of the relationship tougher then it needs to be. Especially good teachers or principals, especially committed parents, can overcome the reflexively adversarial nature of mandatory attendance but why set the bar that high? Why do parents have to be forced to do what numerous historical examples prove they can’t be stopped from doing?

            Then there’s the indifference to education that’s inherent to the public education system, with all that implies.

            But I’ve gone on long enough in a comment reiterating what I’ve iterated before more then once.

          • I agree with Allen that we could do better at honestly saying what we can and can’t do. So let me start with me.

            Teaching is a very different skill from maintaining behavioral control.

            I’m pretty sure I can teach almost any kid the basics of my subject area, regardless of interest, motivation, or disability. It took me a while to get here, but I believe I’m here now.

            I’m pretty sure I couldn’t maintain control of 30 teenagers who are all unmotivated and angry. The highest ratio I’ve had success with is one oppositional kid for every 2 compliant kids, and it took me a long time to get to even that point.

            I don’t think I’m unusual, among experienced teachers. So what do we do with that admission? Am I a failure for having those limits to my abilities? Should we structure classes to work within those limits, so that the average teacher can succeed? Is that “making excuses?”

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            So, allen, are you saying that mandatory attendance laws should be repealed? Lowered to 14 years old or 12 years old or ? Mandatory attendance but at any school, not necessarily a traditional government-run one?

          • Of course mandatory attendance should be repealed. It’s idiotic law on its face.

            As I’ve already mentioned, history is replete with examples of parents disobeying laws, complete with harsh punishments, that prohibited them educating their kids. So the reason to force parents to do what you can’t stop them from doing would be what?

          • “Of course mandatory attendance should be repealed. It’s idiotic law on its face”

            I would agree to this only if we first passed a Constitutional amendment mandating a high school diploma before being allowed to register to vote.

  4. Students behaving in the way Miceli describes should of course be expelled. It is a sign of insanity that apparently their behavior is tolerated. As a result kids who have no interest in learning greatly impede the progress of those students who want to learn.

  5. Kids who actually want to learn and don’t cause trouble aren’t considered worth dealing with, because they don’t bring any real money in, or provide any real job protection (for anyone except for the teachers, who are by definintion the ultimate scapegoats at best, and given Scarlet Letters at worst).

  6. Parents–yes. But where did they get their ideas of what life is about? The project of demoralizing America has been intentional, sustained across decades, involving many players. Providing more and more government services to people as they act worse and worse is probably not the answer.

  7. D's Squirrel Food says:

    Meanwhile, in the real world, violent crime has been falling for decades.

  8. “or are you trying to determine why the public education system’s so widely seen as unsatisfactory verging on failure?”

    This puzzles me. If you compare graduation rates and literacy levels, the United States is near historical highs. If you control for socio-economic variables, and differences in language complexity, the United States performs as well as everyone else on standardized tests.

    The main problem in Education is the failure/inability to acknowledge that minority culture (Black/Hispanic) devalues education and self discipline.

    • But I’m not going to “compare graduation rates and literacy levels”. I’m going to look at the support an increasingly wide array of policies that indicate a diminishing faith, on the part of the public, in the district-based public education system at least. Perhaps a diminishment of faith in the idea of public education in any form.

      And the main problem in Education (why the capitalization?) is that it’s not.

      The public education system’s a taxing authority that has as its ostensible goal the funding of education. The extent to which education’s funded, and education occurs, is entirely a function of the political influence of the various interested parties.

      Care to name the politically influential constituency that advocates for education?

      It’s a trick question. There isn’t one.

      Gee, I wonder what the implication of that might be?

      • “that indicate a diminishing faith, on the part of the public, in the district-based public education system”

        I agree. I just think that much of this dimished faith is the result of political wolf calling for one reason or another. Apart from a few seriously disfunctional school systems in Blue bastions, our educational system is working as well as it ever has, and as well as eveyone else.

        The problems facing our schools are the result of poor social policies, family breakdown, political correctness and a culture of dependency and victimization. (There is a reason why Black immigrants do better than native born Blacks in school)

        That said, I do believe in school choice, vouchers and charters. I believe we should give parents as many rights and choices as we can, but we should also expect/demand more responsibility from them.

        • “our educational system is working as well as it ever has”

          You know, I’m beginning to think you’re right although my interpretation is that the public education system’s always been as rotten as it’s seen to be now. But the public’s just now waking up to the inevitable result of handing a bunch of authority over to people who have no responsibility to produce the hoped for results. Up until about three decades ago the assumption was quite clearly that if only enough in the way of resources and authority were handed over to ostensible experts the results we hope for are the results we’d get.

          After all, the same strategy won World War II and put a man on the moon. Heck, teaching a bunch of kids some math and history’s not nearly as tough as either of those so how can things go wrong?

          Well they could, right? And somewhere in the 1970’s a lot of the schmucks of my generation started having kids of their own.

          That slapped in them in the face with the realization that they were in the process of consigning their kids to the institution for which they felt no fondness. That realization, along with a steady drumbeat of exposes about the venality, inefficacy, waste, fraud and abuse in the public education system, set the stage for the first and every subsequent charter school.

          More recently that dissatisfaction’s led to an even more distinct repudiation of the district-based public education system. Vouchers, long the red-headed stepchild of education reform has finally found some love but that’s hardly the extent of reforms, is it?

          All sorts of ideas that would previously have drawn nothing more then a horse laugh due to the unchanging and unchangeable nature of public education are getting a second look and some are being enacted into law.

          I put the blame for the descent of the public education system on the various ideas that together go to make up the public education system: tax support, mandatory attendance, the district system, i.e. local control.

          • No No No.

            The whole ‘Our education system is failing” hysteria started when the Department of Education was created! Can’t have federal control and management without a crisis. Meaningless and counterproductive rules, endless paperwork and the enormous expansion of administration can all be laid at the feet of the federal education bureacracy.

            If I could do one thing to fix education I would eliminate the Department of Education and return control of education to local schoolboards.

          • While I certainly won’t argue against the dissolving of the federal Department of Education, and zeroing out its budget of course, it’s hardly the vortex of “counterproductive rules, endless paperwork and the enormous expansion of administration” that’s responsible for all – or most – of what ails public education.

            Those local school boards you seem to think are such paragons of virtue are the result of poorly-attended elections easily manipulable by politically-adroit and powerful constituencies. Yes, that would be teacher’s unions which quite commonly elect members to the board. Where, pray tell, does the allegiance of those board members lie?

            You want local control? You’ll find no better example of local control then in example of schools – charter and private – that have collapsed because parents pulled their kids out. But under the auspices of a school board, the flavor of local control you seem to think is optimal, schools that are unfit for livestock stay open, with kids pushed into them, for decades.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        “Care to name the politically influential constituency that advocates for education?”

        I would name two. Parents, of course. More influential in some places than others. As a rough generalization, I would say more influential in smaller and richer jurisdictions.

        Second, all those people who believe education is the basis of prosperity–stuff like, “In order for America to be strong economically, it needs a well-educated workforce.” I would go so far as to say just about every American believes that to some extent.

        Now, how well that concern translates into actual education is a different question (partly because there is no agreement on exactly what education is–and, thus, the people who run the system have a great deal of power to define it as what they do).

        • Sorry Roger but the question was “name the politically influential constituency that advocates for education?”

          Parents are pretty clearly *not* a politically influential constituency else I wouldn’t be able to point to a number of desperately rotten school districts within a fairly short drive of where I’m typing this response which are educationally execrable, fiduciarily irresponsible yet contrive to pay their professionals quite well. That sounds to me like parents aren’t a politically influential constituency or that there’s a more powerful constitutency at work which has as one of its agenda items an execrable education for the kids in its charge.

          Since I feel that the latter, that there’s a constituency that sees something to be gained by deliberately mis-educating kids, is a silly proposition I’m left with the inevitable conclusion that mis-educating kids is the result of the powerlessness of parents. That parents are not, in fact, a politically potent constituency.

          The second constituency you offer up in the hopes of rebutting my assertion that there’s no politically influential constituency in favor of education is even less persuasive.

          Sure people think education’s a good idea. Hardly anyone doesn’t. But that’s not a politically influential constituency unless you’re positing that people who have a preference for good weather over bad are a politically influential constituency. Sorry, but that sets the bar too low.

          A politically influential constituency finds and elects representatives who profess to support the constituency’s goals and then they see to it that the representative who meets with their approval works to enact laws which meet with their approval. Neither of the groups you mention qualify. At least not until pretty recently when the political atmosphere began to turn against the educational status quo which is why, up until pretty recently – maybe – I was correct in asserting that there was no politically influential constituency supportive of *education*. Not of the political establishment of public education but of the hoped for result – education.

          But it’s still early in the change of political fortunes of the public education system and many – most – areas still operate under the old rules wherein parents made their last choice when they chose where to live, school board elections are thinly-attended and rarely a referendum on the educational quality of the school district and the competence of the professionals has little to nothing to do with the education the kids are getting.

          • Roger Sweeny says:


            You do not appreciate the power of markets. Every person in real estate will tell you that the same house with the same yard will sell for very different prices depending on whether potential buyers think that the schools nearby are good or bad. Since every homeowner would like to sell their house for a good price, this gives every homeowner an incentive to make potential buyers think that the schools nearby are good.

            Now, many homeowners and buyers may be wrong about how good the schools are but they have done a fair amount to make themselves and potential buyers believe it. Most people do not believe their local schools are execrable or anything even close. This suggests that schools won’t change that much even if parents had much more power than you think they have.

          • Right back at you.

            I sure do understand the power of markets and I’ll point out that the lack of a free market in educational services means those that draw a living from the exchange of real estate have had to step up and provide the information the public education system wasn’t required, and thus didn’t, provide. Their customers, those with kids, wanted that information and since the public education system wasn’t forthcoming parents and prospective parents went with the poor second choice of the real estate agent.

            As to what people believe, that’s a function of the information at hand and the lies we might need to tell ourselves.

            If financial circumstances force you, as a parent, to live in a lousy school district then one quite human response is to decide your little corner of that lousy district, the school your child attends, is the exception.

            You can see the dynamic operating in the disconnect between parental feelings about the public education system in general and their feelings about the schools their children attend. The former’s pretty lousy. The latter pretty good.

            Parents have to believe the school their child attends is the exception otherwise they’re failing their child. Some parents, not many I’m thinking, will have the honesty to admit to themselves that they are failing their child but most will construe various artful dodges such as the lousy district they inhabit has one, good school and their child attends that school. The evidence also suggests strongly that parents, when they do have a choice, will act on it.

            If you go to countries that have vigorous free markets in K-12 education – India and Nigeria for instance – schools are in constant competition and a school that treat parents or kids badly, doesn’t do rise to the expectations of parents, disappears quickly. I really don’t see any reason why American parents, once they come to terms with the foreign idea of choosing their child’s school, won’t also determine the fate of schools.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I am arguing that though there is not much of an explicit market for K-12, there is an active and powerful implicit one. I would also argue that lots of people who attended K-12 schools aren’t very well educated, but that most parents are basically satisfied with the quality of the schools their kids attended.

            There is, of course, a very large explicit market for college and other post-secondary schools. I would argue that many of the people who attend those institutions aren’t very well educated, though they are basically satisfied with the quality of the schools they attended.

          • I think Roger’s on to something with the ‘parents don’t know what makes a good school.’ Or perhaps it’s “People who are good at school value different things than people who are NOT good at school.”

            For instance, when I’m evaluating a school, I look at the Math and Science offered, the AP pass rates, the colleges kids go to afterwards. Because I see High School as ‘college prep.’

            I know other people who look at the quality of the sports teams, the ‘school spirit’, the community service orientation and the cleanliness of the school. Because they value high school as ‘community life prep.’

            Pretty much the only thing I can find that ALL parents agree on is that discipline problems, violence, and filth are bad things…..

            So….. what makes a good school depends a lot on what you think school is FOR. The media/blog debate is mostly run by the people who like academics and college, and so who lean towards the ‘college prep’ side of things…..

            But…. most people aren’t good at college…. so the public debate may look very different than the ACTUAL debate, if that makes any sense…..

          • As in there’s a dearth of ads being run with tantalizing come-ons to parents to enroll their kids in the school running the ads?

            Well sure. It’s an infant market that just struggling out from under the wet sheet of the district-based public education system and most people in the more competitive end of the pool are still quite new to the idea of advertising as a concept. Comparing the advertising I’ve seen, for private and charter schools, to advertising in general I’d say the competitive K-12 market is circa 1902.

            It’ll be an iterative process wherein the schools that determine which advertising approach is most fruitful will be pioneers and other schools will be forced to follow. How could it be otherwise?

            Some of the advertising will be eye-candy, ivy-covered halls set amid tree-shaded lawns and all that, but there’s a hunger for real information as the pressing of real estate agents into the role of experts on education proves. Parents want to know which schools are good, and which schools suck. Resources will arise, as they already have in the form of and other, similar web sites, to inform parents. They’ll get better because they’ll have to.

            Even without those measures though parents contrive to tell good schools from bad via proxies.

            I mentioned the competitive markets in K-12 education in India and Nigeria. The desperately poor parents decide which school gets their trade by how they and their kids are treated. That may not be a sophisticated measure of educational value but if school employees and administration are dismissive or rude it’s likely parents will take a cue and decide to take their trade elsewhere. There may not be a perfect correspondence between professional competence and politeness but that’s the way the smart money will bet absent strong indicators to the contrary. You may put up with snotty waiters and long waits for tables but only if you’re damned sure the food’s first class.