Education Opinion

When Schools Are Scary

By Diane Ravitch — March 25, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Debbie,

Since I don’t imagine that any state or school district plans to roll back its school attendance requirements—no more than you intended your bored student to leave school and go home—I am not going to debate whether school is or is not a scary place for most kids. These days, it seems to be more a scary place for the grown-ups, because they have so little “control” over the kids, especially the adolescent ones. I do not use the word “control” to refer to corporal punishment, which has rightly been prohibited almost everywhere in this nation. No, I speak instead of the informal mechanisms that make the classroom a place where teaching and learning can proceed in a respectful atmosphere.

Many young people don’t respect adults. They don’t respect authority figures. They don’t respect their parents, or officers of the law, or teachers, or principals, or the grown-up in the store who chastises them for bad behavior or shoplifting. Our popular media have carried the celebration of bad behavior to an extreme, and authority figures are ridiculed or made to look ridiculous by the overgrown adolescents who write the television programs.

Add to this lack of respect—not by all students, but by enough to affect the tenor of the classroom for all students—the addition of students with severe emotional or social problems, students who demand lots of attention from the teacher. It is a wonder that anyone learns anything.

I recently read Dan Brown’s book, “The Great Expectations School.” This is not the same Dan Brown who wrote “The Da Vinci Code,” but a young man who decided to enter the Teaching Fellows program in New York City and landed a job teaching a 4th grade class in the Bronx. Poor Dan! He tried so hard, but he was constantly struggling to teach despite the constant fighting, cursing, and disorder caused by a handful of unruly students.

Do other countries have these problems? I don’t think so. An image comes to mind, an experience I had a few years ago. I was in Siena, Italy, touring a beautiful small museum. A group of students about 14 or 15 years old arrived with their teacher; they sat in a circle around her as she explained the meaning of the tapestries on the walls. They sat entranced, listening carefully. I assume she had prepared them beforehand. No one appeared to be bored or incarcerated. Fast forward a month later, when I went to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. A similar group arrives with their teacher. She was trying to explain the great art before them, but she couldn’t get their attention. They were loud, running wildly in circles, completely ignoring her. The guards were called to try to corral them.

Maybe I just stumbled upon a wonderful teacher in Italy and an inexperienced teacher in New York City. Maybe. Maybe not.

How can anyone hope to teach in a school, a class, or a society where disorder is tolerable? And where efforts to establish it are treated as equivalent to incarceration?

Oh, and by the way, I referred to the rule against pizza parties not as an example of out-of-control bureaucracy, but rather to ask you how meaningful school “autonomy” or “empowerment” actually is when the central authorities are still reaching deep into every school’s activities and making rules that are utterly senseless.


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