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Discipline, Drabness, and Disengaged Students

Thomas Toch, the education correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, visited more than 60 public schools across the United States while completing his overview of the reform movement, In the Name of Excellence. In addition to providing rich detail to support his main conclusion--that the so-called "excellence movement," with its emphasis on increased academic standards, has failed to improve the schools--the book urges a larger agenda to carry the "struggle to reform" through the 1990's.

One missing ingredient, the author asserts in the following excerpt, has been a close attention to the human dimensions of learning:

School? It's just a getting out of the house thing. Kids don't come to learn, they just come," a junior at a California high school told me. At a Virginia high school I asked a senior if his four years at the school had been meaningful. He laughed, saying, "I'm just doing my time." Unfortunately, such attitudes are widespread among U.S. students; they pervade affluent suburban schools as well as their urban and rural counterparts. By one estimate, as many as two-thirds of the nation's public secondary students are "disengaged" from their studies.

Educators are quick to blame the problem on outside influences, such as apathetic parents, drugs, and television, and to be sure, such problems make teaching and4learning tougher. But there is little about public schools themselves that kindles an enthusiasm among students for being in school or encourages a commitment to the work they do while they are there. The vast majority of public schools simply fail to create a climate in which teachers want to teach and students want to learn. It is a problem at the heart of the poor performance of so many of the nation's public secondary schools. And it stands as a tremendous impediment to the goal of broadening public education's academic reach.

The many reforms that have been enacted in recent years to bolster academic instruction in the public schools will amount to little if students lack the motivation to learn. But to date, the widespread disinterestedness among students and the schools' contribution to the problem has received scant attention within the excellence movement. In its eagerness to strengthen the quality of academics, the movement has neglected this crucial human element of the crisis in public education.

The majority of the public junior and senior high schools in the United States are drab, uninviting institutions, almost prisonlike, with cinderblock walls and long, often ill-lit corridors that are commonly cordoned by heavy metal grates at the end of the day. The coldness and impersonality of such surroundings is heightened by the huge size of many schools. Only a quarter of the nation's822,000 secondary schools (those with no grade below 7th) enroll 1,000 or more students, but they enroll over half of all secondary students. Nor is it unusual to find high schools of 2,000, 3,000 or even 4,000 students, and junior high schools of 1,500 or more, especially in urban school systems.

In such schools, students are so many numbers in a computer, the principal a voice heard over a public-address system or a face glimpsed among the crush of bodies during "passing period" between classes. Guidance counselors, or "career technicians" as they are called in many schools, frequently must cope with case loads of 500 students or more.

In one instance, I was interviewing a vice-principal of a suburban Texas high school of 2,700 students when an awkward sophomore who had forged a note excusing himself from school arrived with his father. A secretary ushered them into the cramped office and handed the vice-principal a three-by-five card on the student from the school's files. The vice-principal glanced at the card and then began to ask the student why he had forged the note. "Why did you do it, why did you do it," she demanded repeatedly. Confused and intimidated, the student never did manage a coherent answer. The vice-principal, it turned out, had never seen the student before; all she knew about him was written on the three-by-five card. But that was enough for her to suspend the student for a week and to conclude the meeting by saying to the student's father, in the presence of his son and me, "Your son has a very serious problem," implying that he was a veritable juvenile delinquent. Earlier in the day the vice-principal had been introduced to the school's student-president in my presence; the student had been president of the student body for nearly a year.

There is a preoccupation--one is tempted to say obsession--with order in many secondary schools. Movement is controlled by elaborate pass systems. The location of students during the school day is tracked by computers, as is class attendance. In some schools students are automatically suspended when computers identify them as having excessive numbers of latenesses or absences from class. Administrators, many of them bulky former athletic coaches, keep up a continuous patrol of hallways and grounds, linked by networks of gasping and crackling walkie-talkies, like so many cops on the beat. Indeed, there is no more apt a symbol of the menacing atmosphere that pervades public secondary schools today than the echo in an empty corridor of the oddly disconnected sounds from a walkie-talkie.

Strangely, many administrators seem to relish their role as disciplinarians; they seem much more interested in controlling students than educating them. They speak proudly of "sweeps" to clear halls of students late to class and are quick to share their latest discipline statistics. A Florida principal sat in his office one afternoon and enthusiastically recounted to me shipping off a 7th-grader to the local juvenile-detention center earlier in the day for trying to extort $10 from a classmate. In Texas, I asked a high-school principal his reaction to the reform bill passed by the Texas legislature in 1984. His first comment was that he was frustrated by the law's ban on student suspensions.

Indeed, to many educators there seems to be no infraction too small to be punished by suspension. I visited a New Jersey high school that in a recent year suspended 32 students for refusing to take gym class and over 100 for swearing. A junior high school in the same city issued 4,200 suspensions, or nearly three per student, in the same year, including 7 for "discourteousness," 94 for "rudeness," and 60 for latenesses to school. ...

...[T]he repressiveness and anonymity of many public secondary schools has transformed them into joyless, uninspiring places. Rather than encourage the natural enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity of adolescents, many schools suppress it. Instead of suggesting to students that learning can be enjoyable and fulfilling, public schools often do just the opposite.


From In the Name of Excellence: The Struggle to Reform the Nation's Schools: Why It's Failing, and What Should Be Done, by Thomas Toch. Copyright 1991 by Thomas Toch. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press Inc.

Childhood's New Stresses--And Schools' Old Deficiencies

Richard Louv, an award-winning journalist and columnist for The San Diego Union, spent three years interviewing more than 3,000 children, parents, grandparents, teachers, and other professionals to sketch a portrait of the "new environment of childhood" he says is beginning to take shape in the living rooms and board rooms of America. His book, Childhood's Future, brings a message of hope to the grim evidence it also conveys on the breakdown of American family life.

In the following excerpt, the author discusses the life stresses of many of today's children and the difficulties schools have in ministering to them:

We watch the video images of the latest sniper and we say to ourselves, Where are all these crazy people coming from? Well, unlike automobiles, children always pass on abuse they've suffered, one way or another. From 1983 to 1987, according to fbi records, arrests of Americans under the age of 18 for murder jumped 11.1 percent, for aggravated assault 18.6 percent, and for rape 14.6 percent--compared with a 1 percent decline in the total number of teenagers in the United States since 1983. On it goes, from gen4eration to generation. According to a study by Johns Hopkins University, the leading cause of injury death among children under the age of 1 is homicide.

The common-sense alternative to perpetuating abuse and violence would be to establish a supportive system that helps parents and children from one end of the line to the other. In the daily life of children, the most important goal should not be surround-care, but surround-love.

Preventive approaches do not work with every mental illness, but early intervention can make all the difference for some balanced on the razor's edge. In the absence of support, some kids try to fix themselves, often with disastrous results. Psychiatrists and psychologists sometimes characterize adult drug or alcohol abuse as self-medication, but one seldom hears this characterization applied to child or teenage drug or alcohol abuse. How much of the substance abuse among young people is actually self-medication?

Indeed, though school psychologists and counselors can't do all the healing, they could do more of it if someone would let them. "We have fifteen hundred gangs in San Diego. Why? Because gangs give the kids the feeling of belonging and acceptance that they crave," said Barry Worthington, president of the San Diego City Schools Psychologists Association. He suggested that schools offer kids "places where kids could talk about their feelings and be heard. We don't allow kids to talk. We tell them to sit down and shut up." Teachers often make the crucial difference in a child's emotional health, but teachers are too often over-burdened. Said Worthington, "I've been in a classroom where a kid was sitting there with a belt-buckle mark in the middle of his forehead, and the teacher hadn't noticed."

Today, typical of school systems around the country, only 60 full-time psychologists are responsible for 115,000 students enrolled in the San Diego Unified School District. "Last week I dealt with four kids who talked about suicide," said Worthington. "A few days ago, one girl actually slashed her wrist in class. Yet school psychologists still don't have a place to work in the schools and aren't respected by the school administration. I've worked in the back of a boys' bathroom, in broom closets, on auditorium stages. As in most of the country, we're almost prohibited from doing real counseling because we're buried in paperwork. The district is making us into piece workers: 'How many tests did you give today?"'

"One girl told me that whenever she came to see me, she felt that she was bothering me because I was always testing and had so much paperwork to do. Sometimes I even felt guilty for taking the time to talk to her."

Later, this girl committed suicide on the way to school.

"Suicide is just aggression turned inward. These highly intelligent kids cutting themselves with razor blades to ease the aggression they feel. I've had kindergartners run out in traffic and try to kill themselves. Very few of these kids are actually mentally ill. Suicide isn't built into them. They're reacting to something in their family; the kids are losing their families and their families are losing them."

What about all the school counselors out there? Surely they're helping kids deal with their psychological stresses? Not necessarily. Around the country, school counselors are going the way of school librarians and school nurses (considered expensive frills by too many school boards), or they focus increasingly on academic guidance rather than on the emotional lives of children. In elementary schools, where they're needed most, counselors are almost nonexistent.

A few decent-hearted organizations have insisted that schools attend more to the emotional needs of children. The Kiwanis Club, for example, raises tens of thousands of dollars each year for a few pioneering counseling centers in elementary schools. In Coronado, Calif., the local Kiwanis Club pays the part-time salary of the one counselor working in Coronado's three elementary schools.

"Think what these kids could accomplish if their emotional health was dealt with in school a couple hours a day," said Dennis Buckovetz, president of the Coronado Kiwanis Club. "Seems to me that mental health has something to do with academic achievement."

How are the Kiwanians raising money to hire the school psychologist?

"Individual donations," said Buckovetz. "And we sell hot dogs."

Does attention to the emotional well-being of children now depend on how many hot dogs the Kiwanians can sell?

As fine as this effort is, the absence of a far wider public effort suggests a disturbing lack of public understanding of the forces shaping childhood today. Yet if a group as traditional as the Kiwanis Club can so clearly see the need to weave a new web, perhaps the rest of the country is not far behind.

From Childhood's Future by Richard Louv, a Marc Jaffe book, published by Houghton-Mifflin Company, Boston. Copyright 1990 by Richard Louv. Reprinted by permission.

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