Failure to Learn

The Special Counsel for the Education Group of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund recently decried what she termed the “education to prison” pipeline. The point she made was that black students, even at early primary school levels, are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than are their white peers and that fifty percent of arrest referrals from schools involve black or Latino students. According to the attorney, such suspensions result in so much time lost from learning and disaffection with school that a much higher percentage drop out of school and/or end up serving time in prison, yet ninety-five percent of the infractions that result in suspension or expulsion from school involve non-violent offenses such as disruption of class or abusive talking back to a teacher.

The proposed solution? Focusing on “instructional discipline” and referring the problem students to guidance counselors rather than the police.

First off, instructional discipline doesn’t work if the student won’t do it, nor can guidance counselors help if the students won’t listen – and those are the very behavior patterns that cause students to get suspended in the first place. It’s not that the students are initially bad; it’s that the culture from which they come hasn’t provided them with the behavior patterns necessary for scholastic success. What makes matters worse is that these students desperately need discipline in their lives, but because of their background, they won’t get it outside of school and “modern” requirements for teachers make it almost impossible for classroom teachers to supply that.

A relative of mine was teaching in a city school several years ago when a second grader told her that he wasn’t going to do an in-class assignment… and that if she insisted, he’d yell and claim that she beat him. She said he needed to do it. He repeated the threat. She insisted. He screamed. She called the principal, who said that she could either recommend suspension… and face possible legal threats, or not insist on the boy doing the work. She quit and found a job in a suburban district where she taught successfully for years.

Abusive talk and disruptive behavior in a classroom are not “minor” problems. They threaten the learning of all the non-disruptive students, and if a teacher is required to spend the time necessary with the disruptive student, then the other students suffer. There is only so much time available in a class period or school day, and putting any additional burden on the classroom teacher simply penalizes the other students.

There are very successful charter schools in some of the toughest inner-city neighborhoods in the United States. And yes, they have dedicated teachers, but a great number of regular public school teachers are also dedicated. What the successful charter schools all have in common is that there is a commitment to a disciplined approach to learning and that disruptive behavior is simply not allowed. In most, but not all, cases, this also requires a commitment on the part of the parent/parents. Regular public schools don’t have those options, not with the feeling that every student, no matter how disruptive, has the “right” to an education.

The problem in the non-charter public schools is that essentially the only tool left to a classroom teacher to deal with highly disruptive students is to remove them. This solves the immediate problem, but not the underlying one, yet well-meaning people like the special counsel mentioned above don’t seem willing to accept that the basic problem doesn’t lie with the schools, but with the culture in which those students grow up, and in which they still spend most of their time. And until that problem is addressed, one way or another, there will continue to be problem students who get into more and more difficulties until they work their way from indifferent or non-learning school behavior to underemployment or prison… and all too many “reformers” will continue to blame the teachers or insist that those teachers undertake tasks that are impossible in most cases in the conditions under which they work.  Just like the problem students, too many “reformers” have exhibited a failure to learn.

6 thoughts on “Failure to Learn”

  1. Corwin says:

    As someone with over 30 years teaching experience I totally endorse everything you wrote.

  2. Lourain says:

    Ditto. Including the thirty years.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Your comment is appreciated; but will it be heard?

    “In most, but not all, cases, this also requires a commitment on the part of the parent/parents.”

    An important indicator of the significance of “school choice” is that those in a chosen school (including public charter schools) have support (parent(s)) with a more than minimal commitment to results, in contrast to those not taking such an interest.

    Those who oppose such self-selection effectively are saying that those willing to succeed must be penalized on behalf of those who are not.

    Bill Cosby pointed out some failures of “culture”, and his words were not received warmly in some quarters.

  4. AndrewV says:

    The trouble is you can’t call out minorities for their failures without being called a racist. If you call out the epidemic of single motherhood and how it is damaging these kids, you get branded both a racist and a sexist. Maybe we will see change when people are willing to accept honest, well intentioned, constructive criticism and act on the problems indicated.

    We also shouldn’t fail to mention there will be a certain percentage of teachers in every school system that need to be either coached up to an acceptable level or replaced, but it’s hard to deny the main fault is with the parent(s) of the child who is misbehaving.

    1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

      But the thing is, you find people (especially those who like to read the knee-jerk press) who actually believe that African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and other racial groups (sticking with Americans due to Modesitt’s… um… being American) are less capable of academic work or are less intelligent, and it’s patently untrue.

      The reason why you have a lot of minority children failing in schools is because the schools and the culture they are growing up in are either too disruptive or the children aren’t being supported in the right way. A lot of schools – and I reckon this applies to the US as much as my native UK – use a One Size Fits All approach to teaching, which contradicts everything about how children learn in different ways. Yes, some kids can read a book and learn it that way, but others can’t. And when those who can’t struggle, and when they struggle and aren’t helped, it leads to frustration (and anger), which then leads to rebellion. Yes, you can very well say these kids should seek help, but it is the duty, responsibility *and even the job of the establishment* to recognise these problems and try to solve them.

      You cannot take children from poorer or less fortunate backgrounds and put them through the same system as those who are from privileged backgrounds. It does not work. At all. I don’t believe these kids are less intelligent, I believe they’re in positions where they are not able – due to, say, the financial difficulties of the families they come from – to have that precious, pre-school education that all kids need.

      Yeah, there are success stories from the ghettos and the projects, but they are few and far between. Thousands of kids get pushed into a system that cannot accommodate them, because it is not flexible or aware enough to help them in the ways they need it. This then basically just perpetuates itself into a cycle of destruction, which is what we see.

      And that stuff about single parenthood is basically ridiculous. It depends on the quality of the parenting, not on the number of parents, and if a parent is balancing two jobs whilst raising kids, then the parenting is going to suffer. And that isn’t a fault of single parenting. It’s a fault of a society that doesn’t support those in need.

      It’s also worth noting that white children are capable of being just as disruptive and as prone to being overlooked by the education system as those from minorities. It’s a racial issue in the sense that minority groups are disproportionately poor, etc., etc.

  5. Wine Guy says:


    All children are capable of being disruptive, just as most all children are capable of following the rules. Too many parents have the ‘not my child’ attitude when it comes to proper discipline in the school and do not enforce rules at home, much less back up the teacher or principle when it comes to enforcing rules at school.

    I come from a lower working class background: if I pulled some of the things I see occur in my daughters’ classes, a call from the teacher (or, heaven forbid, the principle) would have had my parents grounding me without TV or bicycle privileges for 1-4 weeks AND extra chores to take up the excess time. Today? No way.

    As for ‘precious pre-school education,’ 20 minutes of reading to your child each day is not too much to ask of any parent. Too tired from work? Too bad. Not enough money to buy a book? The teacher would be delighted to send one or two home. Can’t read? Well, now’s the time to head to adult education classes and get cracking.

    My mom worked nights in the hospital and my dad worked the early shift (4a-1p): their phrase while my two siblings and I were growing up was ‘I can sleep when I’m dead.’ We didn’t have a lot of money, but we managed soccer, swimming, boy and girl scouts, and all three of us went to college and have turned into reasonable adults.

    We spend too much time either making excuses or listening to excuses: responsibility starts at home and a parent or parents need to set a proper example. ‘No one told me,’ ‘I didn’t know,’ and ‘It’s too hard,’ are all common excuses for ‘I’m too lazy to really look.’

    There are plenty of opportunities if a single father bothers to exert himself to find it: afterschool programs, helpful neighbors, etc. BUT it requires effort: like most opportunities, they do not just fall into a person’s lap.

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