Friday, March 28, 2008

Toxic Truths: A Closer Look

As a follow-up to my previous post, Toxic Truths (which you might want to read first; this is a very long post), I'd like to examine each of the individual concepts separately, to show precisely how parents and educators have convinced themselves and others to believe the opposite, how such belief manifests itself in school and in the classroom, and why it is ultimately counter-intuitive and counter-productive.

Before I begin, allow me to reiterate that any criticism of student behavior and attitudes which might come up here is intended as an indictment of the adults who accept, enable and encourage such behavior by teaching kids that it's OK, neglecting to teach them that it's not, or giving them the benefit of the doubt when their behavior or its propriety come under dispute.


- Not all children are smart.
- Not all children are talented.

These two basically go together. This was part of George Carlin's riff which I cited previously; the idea that "every child is special." What this morphs into is the idea that children who perform poorly in school, or in particular subject areas, must be good at something, so it's our job to find what each individual child is good at, create a curriculum and standards based on that for that one child, and be sure to compliment the child as often as possible on how good he is at that particular thing.

Perhaps another way of putting this, albeit a blunt and over-simplified way, is that if the child's schoolwork is poor we still have to say that it's good, so we have to find something good about it or, barring that, make something up. There is certainly nothing wrong with praising a child for what he does well and criticizing what he does not do well, but that's not what I'm referring to here. Somehow we've bought into the idea that every child must be smart and talented, so if that is true and they nonetheless do poorly in school, then there must either be something wrong with the assignment, something wrong with the instruction, or something wrong with how we assess their performance. This, inevitably, leads us into subjective standards, which I discussed at length in Raising Grades, Not Achievement.

Let me be as clear and straightforward as I can possibly be: A lot of kids are very, very stupid. Many of them don't know anything, can't do anything, are not interested in anything, and have no desire to do, or to be, anything. There are a lot of kids out there who have no intellectual assets whatsoever. I'm sorry, but it's true.

- Some children are smarter than others.
- Some children are better than others at certain activities and skills.

It might seem that these two belong with the first two, but collectively they express a separate concept. There's a difference between the idea that "All children are smart and talented" and that "Every child is just as smart and talented as every other; no one is 'better' than anyone else." This is another driving force behind the subjectivizing of academic standards. We cannot allow any child to perceive that we, as adults and as educators, think that some other child is "better" than she is in any respect. This is why, as Carlin pointed out, there is no more dodgeball in elementary school playgrounds, and why there are Little Leagues in this country where every game ends in a tie (by virtue of the trailing team being summarily awarded the difference in the score).

It's ironic, really (some would say hypocritical), that we go so far as to subjectivize academic standards and instruction in order to promote the uniqueness and individuality of every child, yet simultaneously enforce this contrived and phony "equality" to make sure not that everyone is treated equally, but that everyone is made equal by fiat. My favorite literary exploration of this phenomenon is Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." It has also been satirized on The Simpsons and was the main undercurrent of the animated film The Incredibles.

Here are the facts: Some kids are better than others. Different people have different degrees of brain power, different abilities and different degrees of skill within those abilities. That's simply how life works. Human beings are the most diverse creatures on the planet. Even if it weren't hypocritical to enforce this egalitarianism and promote individuality at the same time, it would still be absurd to pretend that all kids are "equal" in this way, to remove competition from their lives and thereby remove any and all incentive they may have to improve themselves and learn.

- Very few children are legitimate "A" students.

Kids I know from Camp Pontiac, who go to school on Long Island and other suburbs, tell me that most or nearly all of their classmates get A's or A+'s in any given class, or straight-A's in all their classes. Take a look at this article from 2006: ". . . of the 47,317 applications [UCLA] received for this fall's freshman class, nearly 21,000 had GPAs of 4.0 or above. . . The average high school GPA increased from 2.68 to 2.94 between 1990 and 2000. . . Almost 23 percent of college freshmen in 2005 reported their average grade in high school was an A or better. . . In 1975, the percentage was about half that."

Some of this has to do with the self-esteem movement and some of it has to do with competition over college admissions and related parental lobbying, and teachers and administrators caving in thereto. One Long Island high school junior told me, "There's a lot of pressure on kids to get A's, and there's a lot of pressure on teachers to give A's." So now we are at the point where A's are being given because of pressure, not earned because of merit.

I've been saying for years that an A is not an achievement if everyone in the class gets one. An A should be the highest grade in the class; whoever produces the best work should get an A. Everyone else should get something less than that, on a sliding scale. Of course, if you have an objective test and everyone gets all the answers right, that's one thing. But on performance-based assessments, not every product will meet the standard of excellence. That cannot happen. This is one reason why teachers and administrators like to either avoid performance-based assessments, or avoid actually assessing them objectively, which I discussed in detail
in Raising Grades, Not Achievement.

Regardless of the type of assessment used, I find it impossible to believe that such a high percentage of any random selection of youths of any background can actually, seriously be called high achievers. The whole point of having a grading system which distinguishes an A from a B, a B from a C, and so on, is to distinguish excellence from mere competence; to distinguish those with exceptional skills who produce exceptional work from those who are merely adequate. One cannot strive for excellence if whatever he does will be labeled as excellent regardless of its objective quality.

Whether we want to believe this or not, most people are merely average. Very few people are exceptional, otherwise the word would have no meaning. Students whose work is merely average or adequate should get a C, not an A. Above-average work should get a B. Those who meet the bare-minimum requirement and nothing more should get a D. Only truly exceptional work, and nothing less, should get an A. The only alternative is to abolish the A-B-C-D-F and numerical grading paradigms altogether in favor of one which allows everyone to be labeled as excellent without the system defeating its own purpose.

- Smarter children should get better grades.

A few years ago while I was coaching baseball, I had a conversation with my players at the batting cage about the difference between objective and subjective grading standards, arguing as I always do that a C paper is a C paper no matter what the student's individual ability or intelligence. One of the boys, a ninth-grader, said to me honestly and sincerely, and not at all in an obnoxious manner, that this "would give an unfair advantage to the smart kids."

My response was simple: You're darned right. Except for the "unfair" part. Smart kids should have an advantage in school. Why? Because they're smarter, that's why. They can remember more information, solve problems more efficiently and intuitively, make connections more readily, express themselves more clearly and accurately, and generally produce higher-quality work. There is no logical reason why students who have these abilities should not get higher grades than those who don't. Smarter kids who produce work which meets a higher standard than that of their peers should have that higher standard reflected by higher grades.

What about the kids who are not so smart? Well, obviously, they have to work harder to keep up, and endeavor to improve themselves so they, too, can eventually meet those higher standards. There's nothing wrong or unfair about that. And they may not ever get straight-A's. I'm sorry, but that's how it goes. That's not unfair; that's life. To use a baseball analogy, if a child can only hit the ball 150 feet, and the fence is 250 feet away, they will not move the fence 100 feet closer when he comes up to bat, nor award him a home run if he hits it 151 feet into the outfielder's glove. That would be absurd; absurd to do it, and absurd for the child or parent to expect it. The child has either got to get stronger and improve his swing so he can hit it that far, or learn to hit line drives to the gap, bunt his way on, steal bases, etc.

I'll tell you something else: It is possible for a person to actually become smarter. There are things people can do to exercise and develop their intelligence and learn how to solve problems, process and retain information, and express themselves with precision. And here's a hint: giving them A's in school regardless of the quality of their work is not the way to do it.

- A child's grade should be an objective measurement of his actual ability and performance.

I have often found myself wondering where children and parents think their grades come from; what they think that number or letter means. Just as they decide for themselves what the rules and standards are, as discussed previously, students often decide for themselves what grade they should get and what it will be based upon, and jump to inductive conclusions when the grade they actually receive is less than that. Usually they complain as if they believe the grade is or should be based on only one single thing. For example, a student will indignantly wonder out loud how she could possibly have received a lower grade than the boy sitting next to her, when he comes to class late every other day. Another will point to his most recent notebook or essay grade and demand to know how his report card grade could possibly be lower than that. Others will assume that they failed because of a single missed assignment or minor behavioral infraction, or that the grade reflects nothing more than the teacher's subjective personal dislike of them.

(Do I really need to explain these?)

What's basically going on here is that the child and/or parent decides in advance what grade the child should get, and then, when the grade turns out to be lower, works backward from there in deciding what it must have been based on. This is inevitably followed by an indignant claim that the teacher "can't" base the grade on that alone, and a demand that the grade be based on something else and increased.

Another phenomenon I've been seeing is the determination of grades (or, more to the point, passing or failing status) based on administrative or procedural anomalies. One example, discussed at length in Hypothetical, is the idea that if a teacher does not inform the parent in advance that the child is in danger of failing, then he cannot fail and his failing grade must be overturned. A colleague told me recently about a policy in his former school, where if a teacher's course differed even slightly from the contract given to students at the beginning of the year (for example, if he gives four quizzes when the contract said there would be five), then the student had to pass.

Between all this and the ubiquitous entitlement grading model (discussed at length in Fish Story), it seems that parents and educators have sought and found every possible factor on which to base a student's grade other than the one thing that it should be based on: the student's performance, in its entirety. Nothing more, nothing less.

- Children who cannot do the course work or who cannot understand the course material should fail the course.

Today's students actually believe that they should pass if they can't do the work or understand the material. They can't fathom why they would receive a failing grade on a reader-response notebook in which they wrote no responses because they "didn't understand the book." I've discussed this tortured logic in previous posts, and again it essentially traces back to the subjective-standard argument: the standard, i.e. the starting point for assessment, should reflect the individual child's ability, as opposed to the grade reflecting the child's ability in relation to an established, universal, objective standard. As I've pointed out repeatedly, the former leaves the child with no incentive to learn or improve.

The idea that a student should pass a course whose requirements he cannot meet, because he cannot meet them, may be one of the most absurd and counter-intuitive notions I've ever heard. It's mind-boggling that so many people actually believe it.

- If a child makes a conscious choice not to complete and submit required course work, he should expect to fail the course.

I have had students in the past who, in the same breath, refused to do the work and insisted that they should not and could not fail the course as a result. One girl in particular whom I will never forget, in the most noxious, sneering voice imaginable, said to me, "No, I'm not doing your stupid reading notebook, and you can't fail me, because you're a psycho." (Fortunately this sort of extreme behavior is rare. This individual was one of the five or six most despicable kids I've ever met in all my years of teaching; a true sociopath. She and two others like her were in the same class in the Long Island school where I taught in 2001-02. It makes me ill just to think about them.)

There are a million reasons why kids don't do their work, but regardless of the reason, they either don't perceive the risk in making that choice or don't care about the consequences. Some kids who don't do their work do expect to fail. The ones who don't have somehow been conditioned to believe that work is optional, that they cannot fail the entire course based on one missed assignment (regardless of the accumulation thereof), or that they will somehow eventually be accommodated as long as they had a "good reason" not to do it (e.g., they "didn't like it" or it was "too hard"). The trouble is, they often turn out to be right. Adults in schools bend over backward to make sure that kids do not suffer for their poor decision-making. Parents and administrators force teachers to make accommodations, reverse their decisions and defy their own policies. Students don't perceive risk because in many cases there is none.

I had a dispute once with my supervisor at that Long Island school, who insisted that the kids weren't doing their work because "they don't get it," meaning that I must not have adequately explained the requirements. Their forbearance was therefore proper and acceptable, and they certainly should not fail the course because of it. I replied that they didn't "get it" because they knew they didn't have to. It is far easier and less time-consuming to simply say "I don't get it" than to actually undertake and work through the task. If "not getting it" means you don't have to do the assignment, then you have no incentive to "get it;" in fact, you will actively try not to "get it." She disagreed, without explaining why.

- Children with long-term absences who do not actually attend school, do course work, take and pass exams, etc. should not pass their classes.

In that same Long Island school, I was forced to pass a student whom I had seen maybe twice the entire year. She was out with either a long-term illness, injury or family problem (I can't remember which) and had not done any of the coursework. But I was told to pass her because it was "not her fault" she was out, and she should not be "punished" for it (again, the false perception of academic failure as punitive action; see Redefining Failure). At my current school last year, I actually had a student insist, loudly and with great indignation, that he could not fail the first marking period because, in his words, "I wasn't here!!"

While I won't go so far as to suggest that this policy encourages kids to injure themselves or become gravely ill, we need to get away from the idea that just because a situation is not the child's "fault," we should pretend it doesn't exist and create an artificial outcome for the child's benefit. This has nothing to do with sensitivity; it's simple logic. There is no rationale for declaring that a child who has not actually taken a course, has not actually completed the coursework and thus not actually demonstrated proficiency in the course materials and skills, has in fact done so, because she was deprived of the opportunity by circumstances beyond her control.

We want kids to pass their classes, but we also want them to learn. If the latter is not a precondition of the former, if indeed they have nothing to do with one another, then what's the point?

- If a child receives a low or failing grade on an assignment, project, exam, or overall course, it means that his work is insufficient or substandard and needs to improve.
- If a child wants a higher grade, he must produce better work.

It is stunning to me how these have become foreign concepts to kids and parents. The last thing in the world anyone thinks of when a child receives a low grade or fails a course is that his work may not be very good, or that he might have chosen not to do it. Either the standards are too high or insufficiently clear, the assignments are too difficult or too numerous, the weighing of different elements into the average is wrong or unfair or ill-defined, the teacher is either incompetent or is persecuting the student because he doesn't like her . . . the list is endless. I've had many students who do little or no work at all, or who cannot write a single clear, correct sentence in an entire essay, and then are shocked - shocked - to receive a low or failing grade.

In addition, the last thing anyone ever thinks of in terms of how to get a better grade is to work harder or produce better results. Complaining, arguing, procedural nitpicking, parental or administrative lobbying, transferring to another teacher's class, and in some cases threats and blackmail, seem to be the preferred methods.

To students who complain about their grades, I always say the same thing: You want a better grade? Do a better job. They have no idea what I'm talking about.

- If a child wants an "A", his work must be the best in the class.

See above discussion on what an "A" means, or should mean.

- Teachers are experts in their respective subject areas, in pedagogy, assessment and measurement, and they should be treated as such.

Here we get into an entirely different area, one which I have touched on earlier and may discuss in greater detail later. A good deal of what I've discussed above concerning grades is also affected by the fact that people in general do not trust teachers anymore. No one seems to believe that teachers know their subject matter, know how to assess and measure student performance against objective standards, or even essentially know how to teach.

What I'm talking about here goes beyond the simplistic blame-the-teachers mentality that the public and the media employ to explain the decline in the quality of schools and the academic performance of students. Of course there are incompetent teachers out there, but I would venture to say there are probably not very many. The certification requirements in New York are substantial, not the least of which is an undergraduate major and standardized content exam (i.e., demonstrated expertise) in the certified subject area. Teaching is a demanding profession and those who are not up to the task typically do not last very long. No; what I'm talking about here is what happens after the child under-performs and is dissatisfied with a grade.

If it was generally understood that teachers are experts in their respective subject areas, as well as in pedagogy, assessment and grading, we would not have all these challenges to grades and all this caving in to parental pressure. We would not essentially allow parents to decide for themselves what grades their children should receive, let alone allow them to pressure and threaten us into giving them what they want. Teachers and administrators who give students the grades their parents demand instead of the ones they have earned are essentially ceding their expertise to the parents. In other words, I can't be considered an expert if the parent and the child know better than I do what grade her paper should get. I'm supposed to be the expert; I'm supposed to know the difference between an A paper and a B paper. And on top of that, I've been doing it for years. I read scores of papers at a time, hundreds of them every semester, many thousands in my career. I think I can tell by now the difference between the A, B, C, D and failing papers.

It's rather like the 4th Amendment warrant requirement; the police need a neutral magistrate to determine if probable cause exists. The police (and, for that matter, the defendant) have too much of an interest in the outcome to make that determination for themselves. If I'm the judge, I'm supposed to be able to tell the difference between probable cause and mere suspicion, and more importantly, I have no stake in the outcome, which is why I get to make the decision.

I would argue it is extremely difficult for children to learn if their grades are pre-determined by their parents, who are indisputably interested parties. They are much better off being evaluated by a neutral, expert instructor.

Of course, students and parents don't believe teachers are "neutral" either...

- Children who misbehave should be punished.

This goes without saying. Or so one would think. There really is very little that a school or a teacher can do to punish misbehavior, even egregious antisocial behavior. Practically anything one could think of is somehow construed as "corporal punishment" (including a favorite of my elementary-school teachers, writing 25 or 50 times "I must not..."). The only punishment left is suspension from school or in-house detention, which as any student will tell you, is no punishment. Especially when they're absolved for whatever class work or exams they miss; after all, it's "not their fault" they weren't in class that day.

In early 2003, when I was teaching at that despicably corrupt, fraudulent Queens "Arts" school, a group of students stole hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise from theme-park gift shops while on a school-sponsored performance trip in Florida. The parents of these children insisted that the school should not punish them at all. The principal (vile creature that he was) reluctantly meted out a nominal punishment, which in part excluded these children from Spring performances, but in the end even that relatively minor sanction was lifted.

I must confess I can't think of a disciplinary and punishment scheme which would be effective at maintaining order in the schools but which would not ultimately rely on the good faith of educators to avoid abusing their authority. I guess the question is, all else being equal, who should get the benefit of the doubt, the adults or the kids?

- Teachers should be annoyed, and should express that annoyance, when children misbehave.

This obviously refers to something that kids are guilty of more so than anyone else, although again the parents and administrators enable it. Children seem to believe that the teachers owe them "respect" but they do not owe their teachers any sort of deference. I've actually had students tell me that: "You have to respect me, but I don't have to respect you." They do not feel obligated to behave in any particular way nor to treat teachers in any particular way, but the teachers must be careful what they say and how they say it.

Two years ago I politely asked a student twice to get out of the doorway, where she was standing, holding the door halfway open, having a conversation with someone in the hallway, after the class period began, and take her seat. After being ignored both times, I had to raise my voice and instruct her, rather more forcefully, to comply. This produced a melodramatic tirade from her about how "No one talks to me like that" and "I'm not your child" and "Don't you disrespect me" and on and on and on. (For the record, this was another one of the "five or six..." mentioned above.)

This is the sort of thing I should not have to explain. No one is entitled to a polite response to an antisocial act, particularly when that act is repeated. Kids need to get over themselves.
I'm not going to waste time pondering the adolescent concept of "respect," which is simplistic and one-sided, nor explaining in any great detail the reasons why students do, in fact, owe teachers their respect, deference and best behavior. Suffice it to say that it's almost impossible for learning to occur, let alone for the schools to function, otherwise. A teacher has every right to be annoyed when children misbehave or interfere with their teaching, and every right to scold them when they do.

How can so many people be so wrong about so many things that are so important when it comes to school? How did we reach this nadir? Make no mistake: This is why our school system is failing. It's not a lack of funding or the influence of teacher's unions or the absence of Christian prayer in the classroom. It is a fundamental misunderstanding on nearly everyone's part of what teachers, students, parents and administrators are supposed to do with respect to the education of children; what their respective roles are supposed to be. And the schools will never be fixed as long as people think this way. Never.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Toxic Truths

I know that a good deal of my writing here, particularly the last two entries, revolves around kids; their behavior, their approach to school, their various personality disorders, etc. I want to make it clear, however, that as an educator my primary complaint is not with the kids but with the adults; parents, administrators, and also teachers who follow their lead, who enable and encourage these unproductive, irrational, even sociopathic behaviors instead of addressing and correcting them. This doesn't mean that I don't think students should be held accountable for their actions and choices; quite the opposite. It's precisely that lack of accountability that is a primary problem. As I mentioned in an earlier post, adolescents have always been selfish, narcissistic and dishonest. It is our job as adults to teach them that selfishness, narcissism and dishonesty are wholly undesirable character traits in a civilized society.

What happens instead is that adults feel the need to "validate" the children's "feelings" and "opinions," to provide "encouragement" (in the form of obsequious praise) instead of criticism and discipline, and avoid at all costs any suggestion that any child is anything less than utterly marvelous. I've been over this again and again, so there's no need to re-hash it here. I will not go so far as to say that kids cannot be faulted for their appalling behavior and irrational decisionmaking (I have, after all, a giant sign in my classroom that reads "IT IS YOUR FAULT"), but I just want to remind the reader that my ultimate goal here is to rehabilitate the schools, not the children.

That said, there are a number of things which are indisputably true about kids and about education, but which the adults in the school system are afraid to say, afraid to think, afraid to believe, and most importantly, afraid to base their academic policies on. Among them:

- Not all children are smart.

- Not all children are talented.

- Some children are smarter than others.

- Some children are better than others at certain activities and skills.

- Very few children are legitimate "A" students.

- Smarter children should get better grades.

- A child's grade should be an objective measurement of his actual ability and performance.

- Children who cannot do the course work or who cannot understand the course material should fail the course.

- If a child makes a conscious choice not to complete and submit required course work, he should expect to fail the course.

- Children with long-term absences who do not actually attend school, do course work, take and pass exams, etc. should not pass their classes.

- If a child receives a low or failing grade on an assignment, project, exam, or overall course, it means that his work is insufficient or substandard and needs to improve.

- If a child wants a higher grade, he must produce better work.If a child wants an "A", his work must be the best in the class.

- Teachers are experts in their respective subject areas, in pedagogy, assessment and measurement, and they should be treated as such.

- Children who misbehave should be punished.

- Teachers should be annoyed, and should express that annoyance, when children misbehave.

None of this is complicated, none of this is unreasonable or unfair, and none of this should be controversial. Yet most if not all of these concepts are entirely lost on educators and parents (or, alternatively, they are lost on parents so educators are required to disbelieve them). Not only do these ideas seem to be entirely foreign to some people, they actually find them offensive and wrong. These ideas have in fact become so toxic that to even suggest one of them, particularly to a parent, is to invite a spark of outrage and indignation.

The argument is always that if we make the children "feel bad," they might "turn off to learning" and "give up" because we'll "make them think that everything they do is wrong." So we take each of the principles cited above, make ourselves believe that the opposite is true, and act accordingly. However, what is also lost on these people is that if we dismiss, ignore or reverse these principles in the name of protecting the children's feelings and trying to prevent them from "turning off" and "giving up," then we make it OK for them to "turn off" and "give up." We teach them to feel sorry for themselves.

In 2002, when I was teaching on Long Island, I had a student turn in an essay a month late, which I was compelled by my supervisor to accept even though I had given the students a specific "grace period" in which to submit late essays which had long since expired. The essay was marginal at best; minimum competence, nothing more, a 3 on the English Regents rubric. I gave it a 65 (I was forbidden from using letter grades in that school), minus 10 points for being late, 55. My supervisor, though, would not allow me give the student a 55. "We don't want the kid to feel bad. We don't want her to think that no matter what she does, she's going to fail." I am not making this up; these were her exact words. A grown woman, an English Department chairperson with over 30 years' experience, was actually legitimizing the self-indulgent overreaction of a 15-year-old, and on top of that, one which had not actually occurred.

This woman preferred to teach this child that she could just ignore an assignment deadline and hand in the assignment whenever she wanted; that a due date is merely a suggestion, and there will never be a penalty for not following instructions or meeting deadlines. Better to send a message that laziness, procrastination and self-indulgence are perfectly acceptable than to even risk having the student "feel bad." It never occurred to this woman that a penalty for lateness might give the student an incentive to hand in the next assignment on time.

And we wonder why our children are not learning; why they get to college or the workplace with such poor reading, writing, thinking and problem-solving skills (not to mention why so many kids are so despicable).

Did it ever occur to anyone that it might be a good idea to teach kids that "turning off," "giving up" and engaging in reactionary self-flagellation is NOT the proper response to adversity? That such an inductive overreaction is unreasonable and wrong? That if you do decide to "turn off" and "give up," you should understand and bear the consequences of that decision? Do we seriously want kids to believe that the proper thing to do when things don't go their way is to concede defeat, feel sorry for themselves, then try to make someone take pity on them and change the circumstances or un-do the outcome? Or do we want kids to regard low grades, penalties and disciplinary actions as opportunities to recognize and improve upon important academic, social and professional skills? Meaning, do we want them to LEARN? Wouldn't it be better for everyone in the long run if we taught kids that the proper response to adversity is not self-indulgence, but perseverance?

What a concept.

When I hear people talk about the need to "get back to basics" in education, I never know what they mean by that (neither, of course, do they), or what the "basics" are supposed to be. How about these "basics," for starters?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Incapacity, Part Deux

I had another row today with a student in the SAVE room; not an unpleasant one, necessarily, but an exasperating one nonetheless. This one was with a student who refused to hand over her cell phone, which when I see students using them in class I ask them to place in a small cardboard box to retrieve at the end of the period. When she refused to place the phone (a Blackberry, actually) in the box, I immediately informed the school's head Dean of Security, who was standing just outside the door, and he immediately imposed a three-day suspension.

I don't want to go through the whole incident, not that it was terribly upsetting (it wasn't) but it involved a rather protracted and ultimately unproductive conversation between myself and the student about the nature of her rights and my authority. I really made an effort here to have a calm, rational discussion about this and demonstrate to the student why she was wrong without resorting to "because-I-said-so" scolding. It did not devolve into a shouting match and the tenor of the discussion was generally civil, and the other students in the room seemed genuinely intrigued. (The ones who knew me warned her not to debate me...)

Her argument, essentially, was that her rights were unlimited and my authority was nil. Who am I, she asked, to take her cell phone away? I'm just a teacher; I'm no better than she and I can't tell her what to do just because I have a title and somebody made up a rule. I, naturally, being a law student and what-not, tried to explain how rights and authority work, how and why teachers and other school officials derive the authority to make and enforce school rules, how a person's autonomy does not always trump every other interest, etc. In the process I went through a great many of the points I've made in previous posts about these issues, both in general and with particular respect to cell phones. No matter what I told her, she returned time and time again to either or both of two fundamentally-flawed arguments: (1.) That laws, rules and regulations are entirely arbitrary ("some person" just "made them up"); and (2.) that her own rights are unlimited, not derived from anything, and not subject to any authority.

I don't want to start a lengthy dissertation here about the law- and rule-making process, the reciprocity of rights and obligations, the meaning of minority status, or the various analogies to traffic and criminal laws I used in a conscientious attempt to illustrate the fallacy of what she was saying. The bottom line is, at the end of the day, there were two simple facts that she could not and would not accept: (1.) the Chancellor has authority to make school rules and I, as a teacher, have authority to enforce those rules; and (2.) she does not have the right to carry or use a cell phone in school.

I wonder sometimes why I expend the time, not to mention the physical and intellectual energy, to explain legal principles such as the fundamental nature of rights and authority to these self-indulgent, nihilistic children. Maybe there's some small flicker of idealism left in me which still believes that somehow, logic and reason will prevail. This child clearly preferred to be suspended from school for three days, and have that suspension become part of her record, than give up her cell phone for 45 minutes. And why? She kept talking about "not giving [me] the satisfaction" of taking and holding her cell phone. Whether and to what degree such action would actually satisfy me is unworthy of discussion, but even if it was, this seems at best to be a wholly irrational choice.

One of the things I told her during our discussion was that "a person has only those rights which he can enforce." This student claimed an absolute, unlimited right to use her cell phone in school. Of course, this "right" cannot be enforced because it doesn't exist; Judge Stone declared as much in Price v. N.Y. City Bd. of Educ., 2007 N.Y. Slip. Op. 27214, 16 Misc. 3d 543; 837 N.Y.S.2d 507 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. 2007) (see this entry). It cannot be enforced because no court or other authority will enforce it. The student is therefore left with only two choices: Obey the rule, or risk and accept the consequences of not doing so. Yet despite the disciplinary result of her action, she still insisted that she had the right. Her idea of "enforcing" the right was simply to ignore the rule and do it anyway. (I'm certain she didn't think of it that way; after all, one can't believe one is "enforcing" a right without acknowledging the authority against which one is enforcing it, let alone that from which it derives). Accepting a three-day suspension seems like a peculiar way to enforce a "right."

As I said, I don't know why I try so hard to explain these things to kids. I really want them to understand why things are the way they are, which I suppose is the ultimate purpose of education. A futile as it is, I expect I'll continue to try.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


One of the reasons why, at least in theory, children have lesser rights and obligations than adults is that they lack the capacity to appreciate the risks attendant to their acts and forbearances. The law treats minors differently than adults primarily for that reason. In New York, for example, when a child commits a crime, he is generally tried in Family Court and, if found guilty, adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent rather than a convicted felon. For teenagers tried for certain crimes in Supreme Court, a judge can vacate the conviction and substitute a youthful offender finding. Both juvenile delinquents and youthful offenders receive lesser sentences, sealed records, and eventual expungement (absent recidivism).

Incapacity is not strictly a defense to a crime, but it is a mitigating factor in establishing mens rea, i.e., the mental culpability attendant to the criminal act, or actus reus. In terms of civil liability, incapacity again is not a complete defense, i.e., one cannot escape civil liability based on incapacity any more than a criminal can avoid some sort of punishment (i.e., commitment to a state psychiatric facility) if he is, for example, legally insane.

Many civil cases, such as contract and property disputes, require courts to balance the equities and determine, in the face of competing interests and claims, which one is more important and why. Civil litigants come to court each claiming that his interest should outweigh that of his opponent, but obviously both cannot win; in the end, one interest must be subordinate to the other. The court will look to, among other things, legal precedent, social convention, public policy and basic fairness to determine which interest the courts, and by extension society, will protect and which it will not.

One thing which is indispensably true of adolescents is that many of them lack the capacity to perceive or appreciate countervailing interests. This is really just another way of saying what I've probably written before, that teenagers can't tell the difference between what they want and what they are entitled to. To a teenager, there is no difference; wanting something, or having an interest in it, is enough for that thing to translate automatically into an absolute right, and there can be no convincing them otherwise. If they want something, or to be more precise feel a desire to do something, then they may do it, regardless of the situation or context. No mechanism in their minds will cause them to consider that it might be better to refrain from that behavior, because it might be more important that they not do it, or that they do something else, at that particular moment. They do not perceive that there are other interests besides their own that exist, and that may outweigh their own immediate wants.

Allow me to illustrate.

For one period per day, I am assigned to supervise the in-house suspension room (called the "SAVE room," though I don't know what SAVE stands for) at my school. Students who are not in proper dress code, who are thrown out of class, etc. are placed in the SAVE room by the Deans, with instructions to obtain and complete work from their teachers. Students assigned to the SAVE room are, for obvious reasons, required to stay there during the actual class period; they may not come and go as they please, nor wander about the building as if they have the period free.

A few weeks ago, about halfway through the class period, I had a student ask me if she could leave the SAVE room to get a newspaper. I initially told her no. I'll try to reconstruct the rest of the conversation (T=me, S=student):

S: Excuse me, can I go get a newspaper?
T: Why do you need a newspaper?
S: Because I need to occupy myself.
T: Do you have work from your teachers?
S: I'm done.
T: [picking up a book of Greek myths from the table] Here, you can read this.
S: Excuse me! Can I go get a newspaper?
T: [pointing to the bookcase in the back of the room] There's a whole shelf full of books back there; you can find something to read on there.
S: Excuse me! Can I go get a newspaper?
T: No, you may not.
S: Why?!
T: Because you are required to be here. You are not allowed to be wandering around the building socializing; this is not a free period.
S: I'm not going to walk around the building, I'm just going to get a newspaper and come right back.
T: Well, there is plenty of reading material here.
S: Excuse me! Can I go get a newspaper?

This went on for another minute or two, and the student again swore up and down that she would go straight to get the newspaper and come right back. Finally, begrudgingly, I told her, "Fine. You have two minutes. Go," and started my chronograph.

Needless to say, fifteen minutes later, she still had not returned and I informed the Dean. The next period, the Dean brought the child by my classroom to give me a sneering, insincere "apology." I asked her for what she was apologizing, and she said, "For coming back late." Never mind that she had not actually come back to the SAVE room at all. I asked, "Is that all?" and she replied, "Yeah, that's all, I didn't do nothing wrong!"

Despite its futility, I attempted to explain to this child that she had, indeed, done several things wrong. In addition to being unable to take no for an answer, she had actually done the very thing which she had promised not to do, the very thing I had intended to prevent her from doing by denying her permission to leave in the first place, not to mention lied to me about her intentions. When I asked her why she had persisted in asking to leave after I told her no, all she could say was, "I wanted to get a newspaper." As if that, in and of itself, and nothing else, was enough. The child had no perception at all that any interest (least of all school safety and discipline) existed but her own immediate desire.

After explaining that her mere desire to do something did not entitle her to do it, I asked her why she had gone and wandered about the building after she had promised not to do so, and why she had lied to me. She replied that these actions (hers particularly, and as a general matter) were "not a big deal," or words to that effect. Students often justify inappropriate or impermissible behavior by minimizing its importance, another symptom of their incapacity to perceive or appreciate countervailing interests. (Ever seen a child damage or destroy someone else's property, then get annoyed with the owner for being upset and say "It's just a ____," implying that the destroyed item has minimal or no value?) I replied to this contention as I always do: "That is not your call to make. You do not get to decide what is a 'big deal' and what isn't. You don't get to make that decision. You do not get to substitute your judgment for mine. When you have the responsibilities I have, then you can make those decisions. Not until then." I told her bluntly that what she had done was dishonest, selfish, arrogant, insulting, and wrong.

This anecdote, I'm sad to say, is hardly atypical. I have observed in recent years a troubling epidemic of children making up their own rules, deciding for themselves what they may and may not do. Kids cannot take no for an answer and cannot accept this simple, logical premise: If you have to ask permission to do something, then by definition you are not entitled to do it. Having to ask permission implies and necessitates the possibility, if not the likelihood, that such permission will be denied. The same thing happens when a student hands me a permission form for a school trip, which all of their teachers must approve. There are spaces on these forms for teachers to check, labeled "A" and "D" (Approve or Deny). When a student hands me the form, I look up his grade average on the computer; if he is failing, I check "D." The student then pitches a fit, unable to understand why I would do such a thing, unable to understand the simple premise cited above.

I count myself fortunate to be in a school where I can tell students things they don't want to hear without being put through the wringer by parents and administrators. By and large, my colleagues and administration understand these things and, for the most part, feel the same way. The parents here are generally supportive as well, although there are always exceptions (see, e.g., this blog entry). But I have been in places where I could never do this, where I could never tell students the truth about themselves, where I could never hold students accountable for their actions or forbearances, nor enforce any reasonable rules in any reasonable way, because at the end of the day, the parents and administration in those places always gave students the benefit of the doubt. This was true in the Long Island school where I taught briefly in 2001-02, and the corrupt, fraudulent so-called "School of the Arts" in Queens where I taught the year after that.

An unfortunate by-product of the adolescent incapacity to appreciate countervailing interests, and to distinguish desire from entitlement, is that they also cannot tell the difference between when a teacher is being fair and reasonable in enforcing a particular rule against the student's desires, or pointing out inappropriate behavior, and when the teacher is being "rude" or "mean." Students accuse me of being "rude" all the time, whenever I deny a request, bring attention to their own inappropriate behavior, express annoyance therewith, or otherwise tell them things they don't want to hear. For example, recently a student, whom I don't know and is not in any of my classes, walked into my classroom near the end of the last period of the day, while I was still teaching my lesson; she did not knock, excuse herself or ask permission to enter, she just came right in and called out a question across the room to one of my students. I said to her something to the effect of, "Would you please wait outside until class is over?" To which she replied, "Why you gotta be so rude?!?!"

Is it really worth it, in a case like this, to try to explain to a child that barging into a teacher's classroom, interrupting a lesson, and shouting out loud across the room, is rude? That if you do such a thing, the teacher has every right to be annoyed with you and express that annoyance? Again, the student demonstrates an incapacity to perceive countervailing interests; her interrupting my class is not "rude," but my taking exception to her doing so is "rude."

All of this would be moot if parents and administrators everywhere understood this incapacity, attempted to teach kids how to behave properly and respect legitimate authority, and allowed teachers to do the same. Instead, kids are taught to indulge their "feelings," express their "opinions" and assert their "rights;" that whatever they do or say is perfectly fine and will be acceptable. As far as I know, adolescents have not changed much in recent decades. They have always been selfish, narcissistic and dishonest, but the difference is that once upon a time their parents knew better, and attempted to teach them not to be selfish, narcissistic and dishonest. My parents always gave my teachers the benefit of the doubt, even when I honestly believed that the teacher was being unfair or unreasonable. Not anymore. Parents give kids the benefit of the doubt, despite their incapacity. Selfishness and dishonesty, the two behaviors which my parents could absolutely not tolerate, are now encouraged.

Children and teenagers will always act in their own immediate interests, because they only know how to act in their own immediate interests. Moreover, they typically do not remember things as they actually happened; they remember and retell them in such a way as to cast themselves as blameless, innocent victims of arbitrary persecution. I've been working with young people since 1989, teaching in public schools since 1997, and have yet to hear one admit to wrongdoing unless and until he has no other choice, until he can no longer lie about it and be believed. Even then, he may finally admit to the behavior, but will characterize it as proper and justified based on some wholly irrelevant circumstance, such as another person's behavior, extraneous hardship, perceptions of past persecution, etc. And I've never heard a sincere apology or genuine remorse, never had a student feel badly about upsetting me or making me angry, or acknowledge that the behavior which did so was wrong or inappropriate. To a teenager, the wrong lies not with herself, but with the adults who witnessed or discovered the behavior, reacted to it, and punished her for it.

Nonetheless, their parents will likely believe and accept everything the children tell them, uncritically and at face value. And administrators, of course, give the parents the benefit of the doubt. (Remember the principal who let the students get away with plagiarism because I "must have made the work too hard"?) Ask any high school principal what parents have told him that their children told them a teacher did or said; you'll find most of it is not even believable, let alone true. Yet no one gives the teacher the benefit of the doubt. As if it is not tough enough being a teacher; in many situations involving teachers, students, parents and administrators, the teacher is the one whose interests matter the least, the only person whom no one believes, respects, or trusts.

In many respects, I wish I had not become so jaded about kids. I would never have become a teacher if I felt this way about them in 1997, and in spite of all this I'm sure I will miss the profession, and many of the young people I've met, when I ultimately leave it. Obviously not all of the students I have taught are like the ones I've described here, but as much as I wish they were the exception rather than the rule, I cannot in all honesty and conscience say that that is so. I have seen too much dishonesty, too much cheating, plagiarism, theft and outright, bald-faced, shameless lying, too much selfishness, narcissism, petulance, peevishness, paranoia, recklessness and self-indulgence, too many foolish, irrational, inefficient, counter-intuitive and just plain dumb choices, too much appalling, anti-social, nihilistic, uncivilized behavior, and far too little conscience, empathy, humility, impulse control, social graces, common sense, or even basic decency. If all this is the description of a typical American youth, then we have all failed.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Carlin Nails It...Again.

This weekend one of my all-time favorite performers, comedian George Carlin, did his umpteenth HBO special, entitled It's Bad For Ya. While it was not all vintage Carlin, it was substantially better than his last effort, Life is Worth Losing, and of course he took time to riff about some of my favorite subjects, which he tackles in nearly every show: language, religion, and what has become a recurring motif in his work, children. He did his first bit on children in You Are All Diseased, where he admonished parents to stop over-protecting, over-managing and over-valuing their children to the point of ruining their character for life.

In Saturday night's show, he did a segment called "child worship," and while I had hoped he would spend more time on this topic, here is some of what he had to say:

...Next stop, grade school, where the child won't be allowed to play tag because it encourages victimization. And he won't be allowed to play dodgeball because it's exclusionary and it promotes aggression. Standing around is still OK. But it won't be for long, because sooner or later some kid is going to be standing around and his foot will fall asleep and the parents will sue the school, and it'll be goodbye, standing around.

Fortunately, all is not lost, because we know that when he does get to play, whatever games he is allowed to play, the child will never lose. Because in today's America, no child ever loses. There are no losers anymore. Everyone's a winner. No matter what the game or sport or competition, everybody wins. Everybody wins, everybody gets a trophy, no one is a loser. No child these days ever gets to hear those all-important, character-building words, "You lost, Bobby. You lost, you're a loser." They miss out on that. You know what they tell the kid who lost these days? "You were the
last winner." A lot of these kids never get to hear the truth about themselves until they're in their twenties, when their boss calls them in and says, "Bobby, clean out your desk and get out of here; you're a loser."

Of course, Bobby's parents can't understand
why he can't hold a job; in school he was always on the honor roll. Well, what they don't understand is that in today's schools, everyone is on the honor roll. Everyone is on the honor roll because in order to be on the honor roll, all you need to do is to maintain a body temperature somewhere roughly in the 90's.

Now, all of this stupid nonsense that children have been so crippled by has grown out of something called the
"self-esteem movement." The self-esteem movement began around 1970, and I'm happy to say it has been a complete failure. Studies have repeatedly shown that having high self-esteem does not improve grades, does not improve career achievement, it does not even lower the use of alcohol, and most certainly does not reduce the incidence of violence of any sort, because as it turns out, extremely aggressive, violent people think very highly of themselves. Imagine that; sociopaths have high self-esteem. Who'da thunk?

The self-esteem movement revolved around a single idea: that
every child is special. Boy, they said it over and over and over, as if to convince themselves. "Every child is special." Every child is clearly not special. They're incomplete; unfinished work, and I never give credit for incomplete work.

But let's say it's true, that every child is special. What about every adult? Isn't every adult special too? And if not, then at what age do you go from being "special" to being not-so-special? And if every adult is special, that means we're all special, and the whole idea loses all its meaning.

It's all bulls***, people, and it's bad for ya.

Thanks, George.