Education’s Failing Grade

Education’s Failing Grade

In 2016, Minneapolis scholar Katherine Kersten reported that public schools were the most dangerous places in St. Paul, MN. The use of obscene language, overturning of furniture and trash cans, and fistfights had become common in grade schools, she noted, and even worse behaviors—including physical attacks on teachers, death-threats, and multi-student riots—were occurring in high schools.

When I read Kersten’s report, my mind flashed back to my visit to Singapore in the late 1980s, not because my experience had anything in common with what Kersten described, but because it was so dramatically different!

Singapore’s Curriculum Development Institute (CDI) had requested my help in emphasizing critical thinking in school curriculums. In my initial meeting with developers and teachers, they expressed concern that their students’ deep respect for adults made them too deferential to discuss and debate issues productively. I suggested I begin my work by observing some classes and having discussions with students.

My first visit (to an elementary class) was done with the school principal. Before we entered I saw, through the glass, students actively engaged in small group work. As soon as the principal opened the door, all activity stopped, the students rose and said as one, “Good morning, principal, good morning sir,” then sat down and continued their work. We stayed in the room so I could observe students’ behavior while working together, the way they responded when called upon individually, and the teacher’s method of leading them. The students were diligent, enthusiastic, and respectful of the teacher and one another. (The teacher’s performance was also excellent.)

When I engaged high school students in discussion, I found them bright and lively. But what was even more striking was their eagerness to speak with me. They held eye contact and listened carefully when I spoke. I had the distinct impression that their attitude, if verbalized, would have been, “Here is a person who has knowledge to share with me and I am privileged to receive it.”

I left those early occasions, and later ones, wondering why is it that respect for others and love of learning are so evident in these students and so lacking in increasing numbers of American students?

My question was answered in part on the evening several of my hosts took me to a community college production of a Broadway play. Before the curtain rose, the director announced, “We have a distinguished guest with us tonight, Professor Vincent Ruggiero, who is helping us improve our education system.” When he finished, the entire audience of parents, students, and friends rose, turned to where I was sitting, and applauded. I was as stunned as I was humbled. At that moment I realized clearly that the students respected others and loved learning because their entire culture valued those attitudes.

Thereafter, as I worked with the curriculum developers, I repeatedly assured them that, though there was much I could share with them about teaching critical thinking, they already had the fundamental ingredient in learning—respectful, eager students. I also reminded them, more than once, “Count your blessings.”

Why were there fewer blessings to count in St. Paul’s schools? Kersten blames an initiative called “Strong Schools, Strong Communities.” The initiative is aimed at reducing suspension of black students. It attempts to achieve, in Kersten’s view, not fairness but “equity”—that is, “racial statistical parity,” and to do so “regardless of students’ actual conduct.” Accordingly, students are no longer suspended for “continual willful disobedience” but instead sent for a visit to a behavior “specialist”; and their teachers are directed to address their own “white privilege” and develop “a true appreciation of students’ cultural “differences.”

To provide guidance in the implementation of the initiative, the superintendent of schools hired an outside group at a cost of over two million dollars. Moreover, the Obama administration wanted other cities and states to follow St. Paul’s example. Kersten quoted Arne Duncan, then-Secretary of State, as saying that the differences in discipline for racial groups were not the fault of students but of teachers and, therefore, “It is adult behavior that needs to change.”

Kersten challenged that claim by citing a 2014 Journal of Criminal Justice national study, which concluded that “the racial gap in suspensions was completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student.” In Kersten’s view, the behavior problem in St. Paul schools can be explained by the fact that “87 percent of births to black, U.S.-born mothers in St. Paul are out-of-wedlock, compared with 30 percent of white births.” She warns that continuing to “ignore family breakdown and excuse disruption and defiance as mere ‘cultural differences’” will result in poorer quality education for all students.

Kersten’s report may not be politically correct, but it more than meets the tests of logic and experience. It is absurd to expect teachers to succeed in the classroom without the respect and cooperation of their students. It is likewise absurd to expect students to achieve those qualities magically—they either learn them in the home or they do not learn them at all. And with few exceptions, only homes with two parents, both of whom have learned respect and cooperation themselves, can teach those qualities to their children.

That sequence of events is standard in Singapore, as in most other Asian countries. Young people learn early that they must avoid behavior that dishonors their parents, grandparents, and indeed their ancestors. This has been the case generation after generation for hundreds, even thousands of years. It explains the outstanding scores of Asian students in international competitions, as well as their superior performances in schools and colleges, in America as well as their countries of birth. It is not uncommon for students who came to the U.S. in middle school with only modest English language skills to be valedictorians or salutatorians five or six years later.

Elected officials in municipalities, states, and the federal government should keep these realities in mind when considering how to improve education. To ignore them will be a disservice to all students, particularly the ones they claim to be most concerned about.

Copyright 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero