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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

We have met the real problems in our schools and they are us.

A well-established proposition that is totally left out of any discussion about education is that school is a damaging and destructive experience for many students.  For them, going to school is like going to the dentist every day, or being interned in a concentration camp, or being lynched.  The factors that make it so are beyond the ability of  teachers, administrators, and school boards to do anything about.

Those factors are generally matters inherent in the communities where the schools operate.  The term bullying hints at the problem, but raises a very simple-minded notion of the social and cultural attitudes and behaviors that make school such oppressive misery for some students.  The social and cultural attitudes that some students come to school with are often what determines the characteristics of a school and shapes the kind of experience that it has for some students.  The nature of a community has as much to do with the success of the school as does the quality of teachers and administrators. 

Cliques and factions form in most schools.  But in some, the degree of of malicious hostility and vicious discrimination that exists between factions is of such intensity that it forms the most prominent characteristic of a school  An objective of public schools was, and still is for most, to provide students with a sense of equality when they enter school property.  But parental attitudes, influence, and interference can make the attempts to enforce an atmosphere of equality and social justice futile.  The nature of a community cannot be stopped at the school house door.  

Any ranking of teachers on the basis of educational accomplishment by their students that does not take into account the nature of a community and its influence on the schools is an absurdity.  It ignores the biggest factor in academic success or failure.  When teachers devote much of their time and energy to moderating the hostilities of factions, there is not much opportunity to raise academic achievement.

In recent decades, the intrusion of social factors into the classroom has become pronounced.  It reflects the power of the media and popular culture to influence and shape young personalities, and it is related to the growing divisiveness of the adult population.   The belittling and demeaning debate over the quality of teachers is a misdirection away from dealing with the real issue affecting the quality of our schools and the academic competitiveness of our students.  

As a college teacher, I did not have to deal with students who really did not want to be there.  Those who were truly disaffected by college generally withdrew themselves or flunked out along the way.  The k-12 schools do not have the luxury of eliminating those students who bring bad attitudes and severe social pathologies to school.  They are required to deal with them.  But I was made fully aware of the nature of the schools from which my students came.  

An assignment that was designed to develop the critical evaluation abilities of students was for them to describe the attributes of their hometown and assess what were advantages and what were detractions. Most communities had the usual distribution of both, but some emerged as very unpleasant places to live.  And some schools came off as the worst place one would want to send a child.  Often, students found a refuge from the small-minded meanness they had experienced in their high schools when they came to college.  It was gratifying to see students transcend their hometown environments. 

For a time, my wife and I worked for a foundation that placed foreign exchange students in homes.  There are always some problems to be ironed out where adolescents are concerned.   That is routine.  But the problems that exist in some communities, and therefore its schools, are almost impossible to deal with.

One occasion that lingers in mind involved a couple who worked in Aberdeen but lived in one of the outlying small towns. Placement of the foreign students involves a series of interviews and background checks, and this family, with two high-school age daughters, seemed like they could provide an ideal experience for a young woman from Brazil.  About a week after the placement, we received a call from the foundation headquarters and were told to go get the young woman and see if we could find another placement for her.  She had called her parents in a frantic state of mind and asked them to get her home immediately.

We went to get her that evening and brought her to our house where she talked with our daughter about the reason for her extreme unhappiness.  And as is required when placements go wrong, we investigated and wrote a report on what happened.  Sometimes a student and the host family just do not hit it off.  But that was not the case here.  The problem was at the school.

The daughters of the host family were the targets of a clique that did not like them and constantly bullied them.  When the Brazilian woman went to school, the clique made overtures to her, but made it clear that their friendship would be conditional upon her participating in the rejection and harassment of the girls from the host family.  The daughters from the host family were good students who participated in school activities.  The reasons for the hostilities directed at them seemed inexplicable.

In preparing our report to the foundation, we had an interview with the high school principal, a guidance counselor, and a teacher in an attempt to determine what issues were behind this crisis in human relations.  They made clear that they were perplexed and frustrated by the situation, and they made some very guarded observations that the in-school cliques reflected attitudes within the town.  What they described was a "mean girls" syndrome in which the students were caught up in a furious competition for dominance and power.  The host family had a history of working its way out of very poor circumstances and the town regarded the fact that the parents had good jobs in Aberdeen as some kind of ostentation on their part. 

I made the comment that we would be able to move the foreign exchange student to a new host family, but the plight of the two girls from the host family worried me more.  The school personnel agreed that the situation was unfortunate, but as we were leaving the school after our meeting, the teacher came up to us and said that we should, perhaps, talk to the parents in the host family about transferring their daughters to a school with "better circumstances."  

We found a host home for the young Brazilian woman in Aberdeen where she was happy and soon was caught up in school activities.  We did not need to suggest to her original host family that their girls might be better off in a different system.  The incident with the Brazilian student convinced the family that their situation in the little town was no longer tenable, and with help from the school personnel and our recommendation, arrangements were made for them to transfer within a matter of weeks.  They ended up going to the same school with the Brazilian girl and remained friends with her.  Their parents moved shortly thereafter.  The situation seemed to have a happy ending, if one chose not to ponder what kind of experience other students in that small town school were having.  

Graduation ceremony.
The shooting and killing of three students in Chardon, Ohio, is a reminder of the desperation that some young people feel.  In a national ritual of denial, the media and commentators treat the incident as a singular anomaly.  But we remember Columbine, and the fact that incidents like this occur with regularity and are symptoms of a constant in our schools.  
What is becoming part of the curriculum. 
The student shooter from Chardon was in an alternative school for at-risk students.  That indicates that the school recognized some problems and was doing what it could about them. To fellow students, the boy's actions seemed incomprehensible, other than the fact that he became "goth" of late. 

Young people who are troubled are not finding solutions to their problems or resources for dealing with them in the schools.  The nature and emphasis in our schools is being determined by those with agendas of power, control, and diminution of teachers.  Our general popular culture as transmitted through the media is providing the solutions:  gangs, guns, and drugs.  As in South Dakota, teachers are being judged and held in regard in terms of how well they can turn classrooms into indoctrination centers devoted to conditioning, not learning.  

The alternative schools are evidence of how the problems in young people have been acknowledged in the past, but once they are a part of the educational bureaucracy, they become impotent and irrelevant to dealing with problems. During the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement and anti-war protest, as a journalist and then a professor, I was pressed into extra-curricular duty to provide help to young people who were struggling with school.  I was asked to devote some time in community centers by tutoring young people.  Later I did the same in an after-school program organized by members of the church I belonged to.  We did not save the world, but we did offer some young people recognition through efforts to give them alternatives to what they regarded as the oppression and hopelessness of school.   At least, a few saw alternatives and realized that a few people were trying to understand their frustrations and offer some positive direction.  

A distinguished and highly successful guidance counselor coached us in our efforts.  He stressed that kids have huge potentials, but they can't think past lunch.  When they congregate with their peers and react to problems, they tend to come up with destructive solutions that are suggested to them by their fads and their diversions, such as video games and cult movies.  For many students, schools have no authority regarding their circumstances or their shaping of goals.  Schools are not run by educators, but by members of the public with political agendas.  Schools are no longer the major influences through formative experiences for students, but they are the settings for crises.  

The salient fact about schools is that in many cases they are merely the places where cliques vie for power and control.  The "mean girls" are symptoms of the struggles of mean people to impose their values and political bigotry on others.  True teaching is, indeed, a subversive activity, and teachers who do not conform to the power factions will be maligned and eliminated.  

The real problem is a public that is too fucking obtuse to confront the facts, even if they are spread out in the dead bodies of innocent students.  As one Manhattan teacher put it, “How many times do we have to get kicked in the teeth before we realize we can’t work with these people?” And how high does the body count have to get before we realize that there is something terribly wrong?  And what is wrong is us.

If education is to count for anything,  real educators must expend their efforts in venues that meet students where they live, not where we, in effect, incarcerate them.  That is not to say that most teachers are not striving to provide genuine educational opportunities for their students.  But they do so in spite of, not because of, the support of their administrations and communities.  I, for one, am ready to go to work wherever opportunities for learning can be offered.  As for the people who presume to run our schools, it is time for teachers to recognize that you can't deal with them.  Educators have to create some new choices if they want to practice their profession.   


John said...

What blows me away and has no basis in reason is that instructors in college and vocational schools (in most states) do not require all the Mickey Mouse "certifications" required of secondary and elementary school teachers. Yet the US universities and vo-tech school schools are competitive on the world stage while our secondary schools rate second-world at best.

We desperately could use a real fast-track to get degreed former military folks into our classrooms. While not a panacea, generally these folks have the discipline, sense of mission and purpose, and civic welfare that our secondary schools desperately need.

David Newquist said...

At one time those certifications meant that the candidates had demonstrated competence in their subject areas and methods courses. Now, they are geared to reflect the level of indoctrination into management practices that are consistent with political agendas. Our teacher education programs and the status of teaching discourage the best students from going into it. Some institutions, such as Presentation College, are offering programs so that people with subject matter expertise and military experience can qualify for certification, but I am not sure if those programs will revitalize secondary education or serve to screen out those who can truly educate.

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