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What About Students Who Don't Want to be Students?


Dear Deb,

I was just sitting down to reply to your post and thought I would first scan my email. I opened the daily email from ASCD SmartBrief, which links to interesting stories about schools across the nation. There was a story from Pontiac, Mich., with this headline: “Teacher Recovers from Attack: Police Say 3 students Assaulted Northern High instructor, who has a fractured skull, a broken rib and an injured lung.” This incident occurred because the teacher told several students to leave the boys’ restroom. They followed him to his classroom and beat him up. The president of the Pontiac Education Association said, “Teachers are in a war zone, and we should be getting combat pay. Teachers are scared going into their jobs every day, in both the middle schools and high schools.”

Now, I do not mean to suggest this kind of violence is typical. Thank God, it is not. But what I do suggest is that there is a level of disrespect and misbehavior that has become commonplace in many schools. Readers say it is confined to urban schools, and they may be right. You say that if I go back to the “Little House on the Prairie” books, I will see that restless, school-averse, mischievous children were always part of the educational landscape. Huckleberry Finn didn’t like school; neither did Tom Sawyer. True.

I am reminded of my own historical research about the schools of the 19th Century and early 20th Century. Educational authorities then complained about students who were “wild” because they chewed gum or spoke out of turn. In one extreme incident, a boy was reprimanded for throwing stones at another boy after school. When you look at the actual behavior of students who were “out of line,” it seems awfully tame as compared with students today who look the teacher in the eye and say “— you.” Or who beat up their teacher or classmates in school with no regard to the consequences.

As one of our readers said, classrooms should be for students who want to learn. Those who don’t want to learn should not be allowed to make life impossible for the teacher and the willing students. Why not charter schools for the kids who hate school? Give them a chance, free of all the usual bureaucratic restraints, to show what they can do with the students who don't want to be students.

I don’t think this is really about progressive vs. traditional education. The John Dewey High School in New York City was "locked-down" on March 26 when a gun fell out of a student's backpack. This school has always been known for its progressive methods and curriculum, which has nothing to do with this student's decision to bring a gun to school.

As I have often insisted, there are many strands to the progressive education movement. Since I like you so much, I put you in the strand I admire, the educators who were trying to figure out (as you said in your last post) how to “reexamine the power and nature of the ‘academics’ so that they connect with the curiosity and interest of the young…”

The strand that I find objectionable (I wrote about this at length in "Left Back") was the progressivism that not only “watered down” the curriculum but made no effort to connect with the curiosity and interest of the young. They simply didn't want the children of working-class and poor families to have any contact with what we call the academic curriculum. They didn't consider these kids worthy. There were progressives like David Snedden of Teachers College (and commissioner of education in Massachusetts) who wanted the schools to focus on vocational and industrial education, except for the privileged few who were college-bound. There were progressives like John Franklin Bobbitt and W.W. Charters (the creators of the curriculum field) who tried to turn the curriculum into job-preparation only. There were progressives like those in the life adjustment movement of the 1940s and 1950s who thought that 60 percent of the population were unsuited to either an academic or a vocational education and needed only to be “adjusted” to their lowly station in life.

John Dewey’s own school at the University of Chicago was rich with academics. Teachers worked really hard, collaboratively, to connect deep understanding of history, literature, science, and mathematics to the lives of their students. When I read the curriculum of the Dewey School, I realize how much we have lost. The school did have a curriculum. It was academic, but brought to life by inspired planning and teaching. The Dewey School did not teach down to those who were restless. Of course, as a private university school whose students were mainly children of faculty, it did have a huge socioeconomic advantage.

If every school in the U.S. had the curriculum—the coherent, content-rich curriculum of the Dewey School in Chicago—and the well-educated, reflective, selfless teachers at that school, we would be in great shape.



You wrote: "If every school in the U.S. had the curriculum—the coherent, content-rich curriculum of the Dewey School in Chicago—and the well-educated, reflective, selfless teachers at that school, we would be in great shape."

I partially agree, BUT, there are other issues we can't ignore.


• The incarceration gap, where six times as many African Americans are behind bars compared to their white counterparts;

• The homeowner gap, where 72.7% of white Americans own their homes compared to 48.2% of African Americans;

• The healthcare gap, where 71.4% of white Americans are insured compared to 53.9% of African Americans;

• The earnings gap, where white Americans average over $20,000 more a year than African Americans;

• The poverty rate gap, where 8.7% of white Americans live at or below the poverty line while 24.7% of African Americans do so;

• The unemployment gap, where 5.7% of white Americans are unemployed while 13.2% of African Americans are without work;

• The happiness gap, where 72% of white youths say they are happy with life in general compared to 56% of their African American counterparts;

• The murder gap, where 49% of murder victims in the United States are African Americans, who make up 13% of the population.

Links here:


I am not arguing that we need great teachers, adequate facilities, and a curriculums that inspire, but if we don't do something about macroeconomic policy, teachers and schools, I am afraid, will be fighting a battle they cannot win.

Dear Diane:

I think Deborah Meier makes a good point about the past not always being as rosy as we remember it. Besides rowdiness in Little House on the Prairie, there are the street gangs, child homelessness, and violence of most in the early part of the twentieth century. The Chicago School of Sociology developed a great deal of data about the coarseness of childhood in the 1910s and 1920s in books like The Polish Peasant in Europe and North America (Thomas and Znanieki) , The Jackroller (Clifford Shaw), Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas (Shaw and McKay), etc. Cities were miserable places, particularly for children who ended their schooling early, as many many did.

And then there was of course the grinding poverty and child labor demanded of children in the rural areas of The South (particularly African-American sharecropping families) and elsewhere. It is no wonder that the vastly smaller population in schools of the 1910s was better behaved—only the better behaved attended. Any child with socio-economic disadvantages was on the street, in the factory, or on the farm. They were rarely in school in the first place, and thus no major problem.

We do of course have problems with weak academics and behavior problems in today’s classroom, as you write about in Left Behind. There is of course a lot to be learned from the past, but still, I think that there are fundamentally different problems today. The curricular and policy decisions made today will shape society thirty or forty years in the future. I believe that this society will be better if we demand high level literacy, numeracy, discipline, social skills, and cognitive skills of the vast majority of its citizens, not just a privileged few. You write about this in an interesting and engaging fashion in Left Behind.

But the question is how to do this? I agree with you that the feel good policies of the recent past are unlikely to create such a society. But, I also doubt whether reaching back to the distant past to simply resurrect Latin for all will create such a system, either.

Tony Waters


Your statistics reflect no real surprises and in the twenty-first century that's a very sad commentary on the wealthiest, most powerful country on the planet.

So, what do you propose we do about all these gaps?

Paul, I'd suggest that we chat off of this page so as to not clog up this blog.

philipkovacs at educatorroundtable.org

I have a few ideas...

simply didn't want the children of working-class and poor families to have any contact with what we call the academic curriculum.

Start with the assumption that, as a group, fewer working class and poor children will have the ability to achieve at a college prep level.

Add in the assumption that those who would be able to achieve were identified. (Likewise, wealthy kids who don't have those skills would be treated identically as working class and poor kids--in public schools, at least.)

Toss in the argument that there's absolutely nothing wrong with allowing kids to graduate with 10th grade skills (indeed, many kids aren't doing that well now).

And what exactly is your problem with not giving everyone a college prep education?

You seem to be putting all your eggs in the "class stigma" basket. Remove class, and what exactly is your problem with acknowledging that not all kids should go to college?

Cal--if we start by looking at what high achieving countries do internationally, there is surface support for your thesis of not preparing everyone for college. Most successful nations differentiate their curriculum around age 15, or 8th grade.

But in order to have an honest comparison, we are going to have to look at the level (and means of) differentiation that we adhere to in this country. Despite standards based reform, there are vast differences in the K-8 offerings, particularly based on geography and income. So, we offer a veneer of equality underneath which lurks broad differences, most easily measured in cost/pupil, teacher education and experience. And typically those with the most, get the most.

From eighth grade forward offerings get very diverse. There is little agreement about what constitutes English 9, 10, 11, 12--just that everyone gets 4 years of something. The same is frighteningly true for mathematics where not only is there no agreement about what makes up Algebra I, II, Geometry, etc (or the order in which they are taught), but the works are totally gummed up with an array of other offerings (integrated Algebra for instance, or Algebra I.5).

In fact, of the states that require exit exams, very few are comprised of "12th grade" material. We are graduating students with 10th grade skills (whatever they are). What we don't have in any meaningful way is any sense of career path (I know that there are some exceptions) for students who are not college bound. It is also worth noting that in countries (Finland comes to mind) with clear differentiation between high school paths, there is also an expectation of ongoing "adult education" (in our country this generally means GED courses, literacy, or some certification programs). What we do not (generally) do, is graduate non-college bound students with any credential that renders them employable, in any meaningful way. And, along the way to the meaningless degree for the non-college bound, we lose far too many.

So--I would agree with provision of different paths--assuming that we stop differentiating curriculum(and denying it) at the lower grades. But we have to be clear that this is not necessarily a less rigorous path, or a terminal one. And it should provide a meaningful education--not just an assumption of four years spent gaining two years worth of education.

What we do not (generally) do, is graduate non-college bound students with any credential that renders them employable, in any meaningful way.

That's because we have completely eradicated the value of a high school diploma by allowing students to graduate without any skills at all. Even in states that have an exit exam, the standards are so low that they aren't useful enough for employers.

What we need is a tiered high school diploma. I'll put an SAT equivalence just to give an example.

Basic (GED)--passes a test with 8th grade skills. 400 SAT scores in each subject.

Standard--passes a test with tenth grade skills. 500 SAT scores in each subject.

Tier 1: 550 SAT scores and one Subject test of 500 or higher.

Tier 2: 550 SAT scores and two Subject tests of 500 or higher.

Tier 3: 600 SAT scores and two Subject tests of 600 or higher.

Employers could then specify the type of degree they wanted. This could, arguably, eliminate a lot of nonsensical college. For example, secretaries and bank tellers don't really need to attend college, but they do need to be able to have solid academic skills (say, Tier 1).

Ideally, we would also set requirements for state colleges. In California, for example, in California, CSU students would need to have a Tier 1 Diploma; UC students a Tier 2.

This makes terrific sense except, of course, it's politically unacceptable. Instead, we'll continue to shovel incompetent and illiterate students into college, and eventually do to college what we've already done to high school--made it totally useless as a credential. We're already halfway there; most elite students go straight into grad school to differentiate themselves.

Charter schools for nonperforming troublemakers in k-8 might work, but the alternative schools at the high school level have not been very effective. Removing nonperforming troublemakers from the classrooms would be very helpful to teachers who want to teach and to students who want to learn. The charter schools would have to be the last chance for troublemakers. The students need to know that there are consequences for both good and bad results. As long as there are no consequences we will continue to lose generation after generation. Students must have a stake in their own education.

The following link describes a plot by third graders to harm their teacher. They brought a broken knife, handcuffs, duct tape, etc. It is similar to the scenario that Diane described above.

This link discusses the violence in Chicago schools.

Neither of the scenarios above is unique or an isolated incident. Violence and disrespect are common in our schools today. Part of the reason for this is that schools have become social service organizations rather than educational institutions.

Phil, I don't understand your point. Are you trying to excuse the behavior of the African Americans? As a previous blogger stated there are many more men in prison than women, so...what does that prove? Asians are doing better than whites and blacks therefore...?

Listing a bunch of statistics means nothing and if you are trying to excuse bad behavior because of poor circumstances, then how/why do some African Americans become successful?

African Americans are not the only ones who have endured hardships. Asians have suffered tremendous discrimination, exclusion, racism, and hardships, yet they have succeeded at the highest levels in businesses and classrooms. The Irish were indentured slaves, worked in coal mines, built railroads, and faced incredible discrimination, yet they have achieved immense success, too. Most Indians (South Asians) are darker-skinned than Latinos and African-Americans, yet are succeeding at the highest levels in society. Furthermore, many blacks and Latinos do better in the US than in Africa or Mexico/Central and South America. So are slavery, racism, and discrimination the culprit for lack of success or is it something else? (The Latinos were not slaves in the US and many of the blacks immigrated here and were not slaves either, so that negates the "legacy of slavery" argument.)

The following lists a few examples of people from poor and/or disadvantaged backgrounds who have succeeded: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Alberto Gonzales, Jaime Escalante, Norman Mineta, Edward James Olmos, Clarence Thomas, Oprah Winfrey, Chris Gardner (Pursuit of Happyness), Ben Carson (Gifted Hands), Jeannette Walls (Glass Castle), Bernard Kerik, the Three Doctors who wrote "The Pact,” and the list goes on. Millions of people have had to deal with tough circumstances, but they still behaved themselves, worked hard, and succeeded.

Life is hard, we all know, however that does not give the students and parent(s) the right to misbehave and ignore their school work. It is not what happens to you in life, but how you handle what happens. Just because you are in pain doesn’t mean you get to be a pain.

When Bill Cosby asked inner city students, who were not doing well in school, how much time they spent on homework per WEEK, their answer was less than twenty minutes. When he asked those same students how much time they spent playing basketball, their answer was 4-5 hours PER DAY. They created their own inequity and if they are not doing well in school, then it is their own fault!

Education is not a passive activity. You have to actively involved to succeed. Teachers and schools are doing everything they can to help students succeed, but many students reject everything. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink no matter how enticing you make the water.

Maybe if we did not promote “students” who were not doing the work, then we wouldn’t end up with students in middle school and high school who cannot do the work and who refuse to behave. We need to hold students accountable from the beginning of their academic career, so they develop the knowledge, skills, discipline, behavior, and habits to succeed at all levels. If the parents aren’t holding their children accountable and the schools aren’t holding the students accountable, then why would we think the students would learn how to behave, participate, work hard, and succeed?

Social promotion has been one of the worst and most harmful ideas ever! It is detrimental to the children, parents, teachers, schools, and society. Social promotion does not help anyone succeed; it only helps students drop out of high school.

No amount of money, statistics, community involvement, caring teachers, engaging lessons, outside motivators, merit pay, etc., will improve education and our schools until the students and parents are held accountable. Students and parents must have a STAKE in the educational process.

No, Cal, you still don't get it, because you are only looking hierarchically. Stretching 8 "grades" of skills out over 12 years does nothing but ensure something so boring (and useless) that any kid with miminum intellect will not hang around for the official confirmation of being on the lowest rung of the ladder.

Differentiating the curriculum means just that. It might mean plumbing, welding, culinary arts or some other specialized skill for which certification and experience are required. Actually we have pockets of models of the right kind of programs. We call them vocational education. (Mostly we try to get our kids with special needs into them). In many cases it will require an enhanced emphasis on mathematics, or science.

And, it is not (intended to be) a way to continue to provide less to the children of the lower middle class and the poor.

How has our sense of "vocation" changed over time? To what degree has "vocation" referred to a personal calling, and to what extent a predeterminted station in life?

The word itself means "calling," in a religious sense, but according to the OED, it began to cross over into the sense of "profession" or "occupation" as early as the sixteenth century.

To me, one of the most disturbing aspects of the Progressives was their assumption that they could determine children's abilities and vocations instead of giving them the means to make their own choices. The problem is not with the idea of vocation per se, but with the arrogance of those who believed they should dictate others' direction in life. Some proponents of IQ testing (described in chapter 4 of Left Back) believed that they were on the verge of developing an "exact science" that justified the segregation of students into different schools at a young age.

No one argues that all students are equally talented. Some students may be musically, others mechanically inclined; some may be drawn to literature, others to math, others to architecture. But how will they know until they have been exposed to a variety of subjects, in depth? How will they even be in a position to perceive the choices clearly?

There must be a way for schools to encourage and develop students' particular talents and interests while providing an excellent education for all. Vocational classes, in addition to an academic curriculum, would draw in some students who might not otherwise be interested at first. Many academically inclined students would learn from vocational classes as well, and gain perspective on other subjects. (I had one year of technical drawing in high school, and enjoyed it tremendously. It connected with math and physics, and was aesthetically satisfying.)

A "vocation" without choice is no vocation at all. (Well, one can go deeper into questions of free will, or the possible benefits of having fewer choices--for instance, in families where everyone played music--but those are separate questions.) An academic curriculum, combined with certain nonacademic classes, could indeed be the finest vocational education in the larger sense of the word. The troubling question remains: what about the students who just don't want it? This is a confounding problem, but no reason to give up on such a curriculum.

Are we ODing in education?

What if we allowed the $15,000 to $25,000 we spend per child per year in education and other programs to be used in other ways preferred by parents and agreeable to society? Like income supplements for parents if they choose to stay at home and rear their infant children? Like adult education in parenting. Like diversity in K through 12 education offerings? Like post K through 12 education independent of a degree?

Recognizing that the country's growth and development depends on a skilled workforce, if we can't produce what we need domestically, why not supplement what we do produce more openly from foreign sources that have surpluses in the skills we need and at lower costs, or free? Why not reward high achievers in the skills we need financially, be it with scholarships or plain income?

Put another way, why keep funding an educational system that doesn't meet minimal expectations?


You so rightly point out that the quality of classroom interactions greatly influences learning. Thank you for highlighting this very important aspect of schooling.

The reason our students now (and in the past) are so "restless" and "disrespectful" in class is that it is almost impossible (for adults or children) to learn well in a judgmental environment. Perhaps the quality of respect has gone down and today's students "act out" more. But unless we change the nature/organization of our classrooms so that our teachers are only seen as advocates, that "disrespect" (which is largely a function of disliking the judgmental attitude of the classroom) will continue.

No matter how much content we add to our schools, without a structural change in the classroom environment (from the teacher being an advisary to being an advocate) that "disrespect" will alsways hinder quality teacher-student interaction and thus student learning.

Erin Johnson

[Paul, I'd suggest that we chat off of this page so as to not clog up this blog.]

Withholding the solutions to these gaps from the public is unlikely to help eradicte them.

I suspect poor education accounts for some of the social ills. But good education cannot be gotten as long as the social ills prevail. It's a double feedback loop.


I find your ideas very interesting in general, but have a hard time believing that a "judgmental environment" harms kids or makes them disinclined to learn. To the contrary, I think we could be a little more judgmental. Perhaps I am misinterpreting your point.

Teachers are now discouraged from telling kids "that's correct," or “take another look at page 2.” All answers are supposed to be treated as valid. (I am not exaggerating. I have been told this in PDs.) How can a student learn under those conditions?

Once at a meeting we were going over students' "responses to literature." Two students described Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred" as "heartwarming." I questioned the accuracy of this particular adjective (as the poem is anything but heartwarming). Teachers shouted back that I had no right to impose an adult perspective on a child. If these particular children felt that the poem was heartwarming, well, that was their personal response, and I shouldn't interfere with it.

(I am willing to make a bet that the kids in question used the word "heartwarming" without giving it much thought--or else found it on the internet somewhere. “Heartwearming” does not often come from a child’s perspective, even a precocious child’s.)

Every day, my students surprise me with their ideas--genuine ideas, based on actual reading of the text. If something is way off, I say so, or ask a question to encourage the student to read more closely. That's being an ally, as far as I am concerned.

I do share your concern about the way the tests themselves change the teachers' roles--too often I have to stand before the class and read that dull test script without adding or subtracting one word. That's stultifying and unnatural. Once a year--not so bad. Ten times a year--not good. The problem there is not so much the judgment as the awful scripting and the time devoted to bland material.

If judgment is harmful, then why don't we get some giant stuffed animals instead of teachers?

Cal writes:

Start with the assumption that, as a group, fewer working class and poor children will have the ability to achieve at a college prep level.

Well, if you chose your starting assumptions carefully, you can build an argument for just about any conclusion you like...

But given the amount of social mobility there has been in the U.S. in the past 100 years, the assumption that poor and working class children are, as a group, less able, seems rather ad-hoc.

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