Child’s Public School Apocalypse
“Apocalypse” means “unveiling.” In this space before, I have written about what a revelation it was to me to go off in 11th grade to a public school for gifted kids, and to experience for the first time a class where the teacher didn’t have to spend half her time trying to get the kids to shut up and pay attention. I had come from one of the best normie schools in the state, and still, the teachers had to be disciplinarians as much as pedagogues. This was the normal state of things. I was genuinely shocked by how much material we could cover in class when the poor teacher wasn’t compelled to ride herd on kids who didn’t want to be there, and who didn’t give a flip about learning.
Well, today’s New York Times publishes something that would never, ever get into the paper if it had been written by an adult. It was written by Veronique Mintz, an eighth grader in a New York City public school. She says — are you ready for this?:
Talking out of turn. Destroying classroom materials. Disrespecting teachers. Blurting out answers during tests. Students pushing, kicking, hitting one another and even rolling on the ground. This is what happens in my school every single day.
You may think I’m joking, but I swear I’m not.
Based on my peers’ behavior, you might guess that I’m in second or fourth grade. But I’m actually about to enter high school in New York City, and, during my three years of middle school, these sorts of disruptions occurred repeatedly in any given 42-minute class period.
That’s why I’m in favor of the distance learning the New York City school system instituted when the coronavirus pandemic hit. If our schools use this experience to understand how to better support teachers in the classroom, then students will have a shot at learning more effectively when we return.
I have been doing distance learning since March 23 and find that I am learning more, and with greater ease, than when I attended regular classes. I can work at my own pace without being interrupted by disruptive students and teachers who seem unable to manage them.
Students unable or unwilling to control themselves steal valuable class time, often preventing their classmates from being prepared for tests and assessments. I have taken tests that included entire topics we never mastered, either because we were not able to get through the lesson or we couldn’t sufficiently focus.
Mintz offers “lessons learned,” but they are the wrong lessons — lessons that would add more work to already heavily burdened teachers, while requiring nothing of these brats who refuse to behave. Anyway, they won’t work. The “lessons” reflect the mindset that says the problem is with the teachers and the pedagogical system, when the fact is, it’s with these kids who have no respect for their teacher and fellow students, and no self-discipline.
The real lesson from Mintz’s experience is that her parents need to get her out of that school and into either a well-disciplined private school, or some kind of homeschooling, perhaps online. Many years ago, after my wife began homeschooling our kids, my sister, who was a (very good) public school teacher, expressed skepticism that they could learn as much as they could in a classroom. Out of the sake of politeness and maintaining family comity, I didn’t say the blunt truth: that they are in fact learning a heck of a lot more, because unlike you, their teacher doesn’t have to stop every four or five minutes and tell kids in the class to settle down. (I had once visited my sister’s classroom, and this was true.) The prejudice she had, and a lot of people have, is that any non-standard form of education has to be substandard.
I doubt Veronique Mintz meant to raise this issue, but it’s one that nobody likes to talk about: what if the problem is not the system, but the kids, and the families that send them to school without the character qualities necessary for their success?
When I was on the editorial board at the Dallas Morning News, my colleagues cared a lot about school reform. Really passionate folks. Once we were doing election season interviews with school board candidates. We had one session between incumbent Lew Blackburn, an African-American man representing some of the poorest school districts in the city, and his challenger. I don’t remember the specific question one of my colleagues asked, but it had something to do with testing, and the district’s very poor results. Blackburn’s response was something to the effect of (I paraphrase), “What do you expect? These kids come from poor families. Lots of them only have one parent. Those with two parents, the mom and dad are often both working long hours.” After the meeting, some of my colleagues were really hot at Blackburn. They couldn’t believe that he was so fatalistic.
I remember thinking, though, that Blackburn, who may or may not have been a deadhead in his job, understood something about human nature that us middle class people do not. What made me think that is all the stories I had from friends in Texas and Louisiana who taught in public schools serving poor populations. These were all idealistic liberals whose ideals were taking a hellacious beating in the real world. One of them, a Dallas man who had been teaching for only a few years, but who had already won an award, told me that one of the most important lessons he learned was to keep his little girl out of public schools if he possibly could — not because of the teachers, but because of the children of the public.
Education is not a mechanical process (inputs + process = outputs), but an organic one. It requires students, teachers, and parents working together, in harmony. The role parents play is to create a habitus in which the student is prepared to learn, and to acquire the self-discipline to participate in the process. If parents do not or cannot do that, the system breaks down. I have heard this from public school teachers and private school teachers alike (the private school version is: “These parents think that if they’ve written a tuition check, they’ve done all they have to do.”) A friend who teaches at a very poor rural school here in Louisiana told me at length that the biggest obstacle to his students learning is the culture they bring with them into the classroom. It is a culture of natural hatred of authority, of chaos, and in the worst cases, contempt for schooling. He said that when you meet the parents of these kids, you know exactly where it comes from. He told me that he does his best to single out the few kids in each class who really do want to be there, and tries to give them extra attention, but the whole thing feels hopeless.
I haven’t talked to him in four or five years. I wonder if he’s still there. Another friend who taught in a similar school in a very poor part of Louisiana became so depressed after several years there that she transferred to a different school to save her teaching vocation. She told me that she had deliberately chosen to go teach in a school with poor kids, to help them as she herself had once been helped as a single mother. In all the years she spent there, she said, she found not one student who cared about learning. She saw these kids as victims of a local culture — family and community — that shackled their children’s minds before the kids ever set foot in the school.
Another story: I have an old friend, long retired from public high school teaching, who is very much on the political left. She calls herself a socialist. She once told me that our egalitarian model of schooling does not work. She said that the presence of so many high school kids who do not want to be there exacts too great a cost on those who do. They should be put out of the school, she said. We should find some other form of education for them — a school where they can learn a trade or something.
Anyway, if you read Veronique Mintz’s essay, you’ll see that the conclusions she has drawn are completely unrealistic, and dodge the real social and pedagogical issues her dilemma raises. The best thing for her to do is to convince her parents to let her do “distance learning.” Yes, she will miss out on the “socialization” that occurs in a standard high school. This is a feature, not a bug! The socialization she’s now getting is teaching her anger and cynicism. The main problem is not the system; it’s society and culture.
I wonder how many more Veronique Mintzes there are who, thanks to the lockdown, are now having the scales fall from their eyes about their schooling.