(Editor's note: This column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
By Jerry Heverly
I want to make a prediction., A fairly pessimistic one. One that most readers won’t like.
I predict that the will of the People, as expressed through their legislators, will be thwarted by recalcitrant teachers.
I bring it up because I think this case illustrates the way that educational “reform” is sidetracked and ultimately defeated by the traditions and perquisites of teachers. I’ve seen this happen more than once. A lot more.
The issue here is what one commentator referred to as, “disproportionately harsh discipline meted out to Black and Latino boys.”
The state legislature is currently debating a slew of bills meant to address the issue of the African-American and Latino high school student dropout rate. At least eight bills have passed committee this month, all dealing in one way or another with this topic.
The statistics are clear. Black and Latino males don’t graduate at the same rate as other ethnicities, and the Legislature is convinced that one of the causes is the fact that these teens are punished, suspended, and expelled from California high schools at a rate that suggests that the schools are too ready to punish minority kids.
The most controversial proposal, from Sacramento Democrat Roger Dickinson, would forbid a school from suspending a student for “willful defiance,” a catchall phrase that is often used to characterize disruptive-but-non-violent offenses (for instance, refusing to turn over your cellphone when a teacher tells you to, or simply refusing to follow classroom rules).
What’s clear is that many state officials want to force schools to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions of Black and Latino students.
I’m not here to argue the merits of any of these bills. My intent is to forecast that none of these laws, if they pass, will change the fate of minority male students in California schools.
Teachers will not like these new laws one bit.
At faculty meetings that I have attended the most passionate speeches by teachers almost always concern the prerogatives of the teacher to remove problem kids from their classrooms.
Teachers get very testy when they think they are being forced to accommodate disruptive kids.
The teacher works behind closed doors, usually the only adult in the room.
The teacher is held responsible for the preservation of good order in the classroom.
If students misbehave, then teachers expect to have the option of sending those students out of the classroom. In severe cases, that can lead to a student being sent home for several days— i.e., suspension.
Administrators know that schools are suspending and expelling Black students at high rates. I assume that every administrator in our school would like to reduce the number of Black and Latino suspensions.
If it is the will of the People to reduce the number of minority suspensions, then I think the following will happen.
Schools will pledge to follow the state’s new guidelines.
They will promulgate new regulations designed to keep African-American and Latino kids in school.
Suspensions will decline dramatically.
And nothing fundamentally will change.
Instead, places will be found to warehouse these kids within the school property but out of regular rooms. They will be given work to do on their own.
Fewer suspension would not, however, increase the number of minority graduates because it wouldn’t address the reasons why kids drop out.
Top-down reforms are extremely difficult to do in the unique setting of a school building. A better, but slower, way to do this would be to start at the bottom, involving teachers and parents at the beginning of the process.
Only by involving individual teachers and parents in individual schools could there be any hope of real change.
Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive.
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