Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Ultimate Silliness: Holding Teachers Accountable For Kids Who Aren't There

In the School District of Philadelphia's public high schools absenteeism averages nearly 20%; and the 14 worst high schools average nearly 30%.1 That means almost 1/5 of high school youngsters are absent on any given day. And we aren't even counting the large number of kids who come in an hour or more late. Yet their teachers are held accountable when absent kids score poorly on high stakes tests. Indeed, the entire school is held to account by No Child Left Behind.

NCLB requires that states and districts include at least 95% of all students, (including the disability subgroup) in assessment results in order to meet the accountability requirements. The 5% is supposed to allow for absenteeism and other events not under the school’s control."2

Plainly, the law presupposes that no more than 5% of the youngsters in any school will be chronically absent. Yet the earlier noted 30% absentee rate alone gives the lie to this. The fact is that there are many schools where this 5% allowance for intervening variables is so low as to be laughable.


2. Accountability for Assessment Results in the No Child Left Behind Act, National Center on Educational Outcomes,

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When Should Teachers Lie?

Imagine a high school science teacher being asked about evolution by a youngster from a religiously conservative family. The student might say something like this: “My church teaches, and my family believes, that the earth is just 6,000 years old. But the text claims that the earth is nearly 800,000 times older. What am I to think?”

Clearly the claim that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old lacks scientific credibility, and our teacher knows it. How, then, should he or she respond?

Here are some possibilities. You decide how our teacher might best respond and still honor her profession.

1. “A 6,000 year old earth is not supported by scientific evidence.”
2. “The Biblical account might best be understood as an allegory.”
3. “Which account do you think is more credible?”
4. “That’s a question for your parents and pastor.”
5. “If you believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, it is - for you.”
6. “Your parents and pastor are correct.”

Answer 1 is the unvarnished truth, 2 offers an alternative, and 3 begs the question. Regarding 4, the student knows what his parents think; he wants an answer from the teacher. Answer 5 is evasive, though it’s possibly wise. Response 6 is a lie, pure and simple. Which of these responses can our high school instructor choose and still properly call themselves a teacher?

Given teachers’ compensation and often shoddy treatment, it might be na├»ve to expect them to take risks for honesty’s sake. But you’re not asked to decide what is prudent here. You’re only deciding what this teacher must do to remain true to the essential nature of teaching.

Does anything change if we reduce the grade level? Let’s take this inquiry to first grade. Six-year-olds frequently ask their teacher if Santa Claus is real. Here are some possible responses.

1. “No, Santa Claus is not real.”
2. “Santa Claus represents the spirit of giving.”
3. “Do you think Santa is real?”
4. “That’s a question for your parents.”
5. “If you believe in him, he’s real for you.”
6. “Certainly he’s real — I’ve seen him myself.”

Which of these answers can our teacher give without betraying his calling? Can you think of a better one?

A wide range of vital topics are shunned or rendered harmless by educators wishing to avoid becoming the target of no-nothing parents, civic “activists,” opportunistic politicians, or self-appointed guardians of public morality. What inevitably suffers are truth and relevance. This is why public schooling is often devitalized, immaterial, and boring. This also is how teachers become irrelevant, neutered apologists.

Admittedly, one person’s truth is another’s foolishness. Nevertheless, education without candor is no education at all. Moreover, a teacher’s character, including his or her honesty, is what students remember after they’ve forgotten everything else.

1. “College Suspends Ellis for War Lies.” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 18, 2001, p. 4.
2. “California Children See How a Steer Is Slaughtered.” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 5, 2001, p. 6.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at

Monday, January 5, 2009

School House or Mad House: Reconsidering Corporal Punishment

Educators and other school officials have a non-negotiable obligation to maintain a safe school in which those who want to can learn. This is an irreducible minimum which must take precedence over well-intentioned efforts at social reclamation, racial pride building, AIDS prevention, or whatever.

This means that serious disruptions, bullying, extortion, and predation, must not be tolerated under any circumstances. If this can be accomplished without administering corporal punishment, so much the better. After all, the physical punishment of children has weighty opposition. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers all oppose or strongly discourage corporal punishment of children and the United Nations has initiated a world-wide program to eliminate it.

But what if educators with thirty plus impoverished kids per class do not command the resources necessary to maintain order without this option? For 6000 years such punishment was readily, available. Make other kid's lives miserable or learning impossible and it would cost you a red behind. These days, most school districts, even entire states have ruled this consequence out.

What has taken its place? Sermonettes, ineffectual detentions, forced transfers, or trying to teach the malefactors conflict resolution techniques. Unfortunately, the recipients of these remedies typically continue to lay waste to everyone's safety and learning.

Suspension is the worst that usually happens to school kids who specialize in making other people's lives insufferable. For many kids this sanction is a joke — time off to run the streets. With corporal punishment banned by people who escape the price of its banning, school officials command few if any sanctions that impress hooligans. As one young hoodlum assured a more novice delinquent in the presence of a Philadelphia teacher friend of mine, "Don't worry, they can't do shit to you here."

Sure, corporal punishment might well damage children thus corrected. It also might encourage them to think that might makes right or that violence is the best way to resolve conflicts. (They probably think that anyway.) But even if it always damages aggressors in one way or another, that, by itself, is not decisive until the rights and safety of others have been factored in.

Put simply, educators absolutely must nor forget about the rights of victims. Children who are being subjected to merciless bullying, for example. Don't they have rights and feelings? Remember, children are compelled to attend school by force of law, and that means that they have an absolute right to safety once they are there.

Teachers have similar rights. They must be free of the threats and assaults of disturbed or malevolent youngsters; and sociopaths, whatever the origins of their behavior, must not be permitted to destroy lessons much less the peace and happiness of others. And for this to happen, school officials must command meaningful sanctions that tough kids respect.

In the best of all possible worlds, corporal punishment would never have to be inflicted on anyone for any reason. And much can and should still be done to make schooling more palatable and more effective for a broader range of kids. This would reduce misbehavior. But the world is far from perfect, school resources are strictly limited, order is absolutely necessary for reforms to take hold and the right of the innocent to safety and security must take precedence. Meaningful penalties, then, still are required.

Is corporal punishment the answer? Is it the only practical way to make inner-city schools safe places where kids can learn. If so, it must be scrupulously fair and carefully controlled or abuse is guaranteed. But let's reiterate the main point. Without meaningful sanctions of some sort incivility and social predation simply take over.

It is sadly certain that present day sanctions are so weak that they insure that good kids, kids who want to learn, are being compelled to attend mad houses rather than school houses.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at