Equity & Diversity Opinion

Kelly Flynn Tackles the Learning Problem that Dare Not Speak its Name

By Anthony Cody — February 11, 2012 4 min read
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Guest post by Kelly Flynn.

It’s an unspoken pact: teachers will not talk about the biggest roadblock to teaching and learning. They’ll talk about all sorts of other things, things you’ve heard a million times before: that it’s hard to teach a hungry child, a frightened child, or a sick child.

They’ll also talk about the students they love, kids who have succeeded in spite of deplorable home lives and serious learning disabilities, kids who are kind, empathetic, funny, and wise.

But they refuse to talk about the elephant in the room because it has become politically incorrect to do so.

And that elephant is this: bad behavior, student apathy, and absenteeism are the real reasons schools “fail.”

If every child listened in class and did their schoolwork, most would be successful learners.


But they don’t, and there are hundreds of reasons why. In media reports, those reasons hide behind the more general term of “poverty.” And yes, sometimes a child who grows up in poverty has never been taught how to behave. And sometimes students are apathetic because they are hungry, or frightened, or sick. Poverty manifests itself in schools in hundreds of devastating ways. But “poverty” has become a catchall term, so overused in reference to education that it’s lost its power.

For readers the word “poverty” has different connotations, depending on their worldview. Some equate poverty with laziness. Some think poverty is a choice. And still others think no further than “there but for the grace of God go I.”

So it’s important that we take bad behavior and apathy out from behind the label of poverty and address it for what it is: the direct result of parental choices and societal influence.

Because there’s an entire stratum of students who are not poor, yet don’t behave because they’ve never been expected to. Thousands of students, and sometimes their parents, are at war with their teachers and their schools every day.

At parent/teacher conferences, when faced with an indisputable transgression on the part of their child, I heard dozens of parents say, “I know, I can’t do anything with him either.” But just as many parents adamantly stuck up for their children with the claim, “It’s not my kid’s fault.”

When teachers attempt to discuss disruptive, violent, mean kids, they walk a razor-sharp line between professional discourse and whining. One wrong step and their careers are in shreds. They know this.

So they don’t talk about it. And thus no one acknowledges -- least of all the corporate reformers who create education policy in this country -- that Johnny is hyped on caffeine, strung out on drugs, glassy-eyed from video-gaming, has no self-control, talks back, uses foul language, neglects to bring materials to class, refuses to do schoolwork, or is rude beyond belief. No one acknowledges that as a society we are not only at a loss as to how to discipline kids, we often enable their bad behavior.

The idea that more testing is going to solve anything is ludicrous.

A quick scan of the education blogosphere on any given day turns up dozens of articles about education reform: teacher quality, merit pay, tenure, professional development, Common Core Standards, Gates-funded teacher evaluations, charter schools, vouchers, scripted lessons, differentiated instruction, and most strenuously, standardized testing. The list is endless.

A quick scan of “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2010" at the National Center for Education Statistics website turns up student issues that school personnel spend an inordinate amount of time struggling with every single day: insubordination, student and teacher victimization, fighting, weapons, theft, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, gang activity, drugs, alcohol, tardiness, and an astonishing rate of absenteeism.

So why don’t schools just make kids behave?

They try. Every school has a student code of conduct that clearly outlines discipline procedures. But there are few effective discipline options available to school personnel and some days the sheer volume of infractions threatens to overwhelm understaffed schools. When I first started my teaching career, kids trembled at the thought of a call to their parents. Fifteen years later, a kid in trouble was more likely to demand, “Get my mom on the phone. She’ll take care of you.”

It would be unprofessional and inappropriate to discuss particular students’ behavior problems with anyone. We know that. But at some point this national education conversation has to acknowledge the growing number of students who don’t learn because they don’t want to. The ones who choose, every minute of every day, to be non-learners, the ones who have checked out mentally, and often physically, of the entire learning process.

You can’t force someone to learn something. You can’t force someone to try to learn something, either.

If disruptive behavior, student apathy, and absenteeism were taken out of the equation, if students came to school healthy and well fed, rested and eager to learn, and simply tried their best, then we would see a true education miracle.

Instead of attempting to improve student learning by asking how we can make better teachers, maybe the question we should be asking is, how can we make better students? What do you think?

Kelly Flynn is the author of Kids, Classrooms, and Capitol Hill: A Peek Inside the Walls of America’s Public Schools (second edition to be released later this year with a foreword by Nancy Carlsson-Paige). Connect with Kelly at her website, on Facebook, and Twitter. And for a giggle, check out the Flanigan O’Malley book trailers!

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.