June 13, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #5: Mission and Discipline

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Williams
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Are America’s Schools Really Complete Failures?

Dear Mrs. Williams:

Thanks for your recent e-mail. I know exactly what you mean. It’s hard to read much of anything these days without finding an article by an academic or a speech by a politician asserting that public education is a complete failure. When I see talking heads and their guests talking about this as though it is unquestionably true, I’m amazed. Can they really believe what they’re saying, are they working a political agenda, or do they have something to sell?

I’ll put the answer as directly and simply as possible: No, America’s public schools are not complete failures. Specifically, Anytown High School is certainly not failing our kids, and certainly not your daughter, Brittany. By the way, Brittany should be reading Fahrenheit 451 this week. She’ll need to finish it for the test on Monday and to be prepared for her final critique. Has she told you that she will earn extra credit if she correctly identifies what most worried Ray Bradbury when he wrote the novel? Hint: It’s not censorship.

I don’t have statistics and studies to quote. I won’t fill pages with footnotes. I won’t claim that I am the world’s foremost education authority. I can only respond to you with experience, common sense, reason and logic. If the prophets of doom were correct, if American schools—all of them—were really utterly incompetent, wouldn’t we have seen the kinds of consequences of that complete failure long ago? If most people really can’t read and write, or if they can barely read and write, how is it that America has remained the wealthiest, most technologically advanced nation in history?

I suspect it’s something like the missing child hoax of the 80s. Remember the milk cartons, the TV shows, the overwhelming sense that hundreds of thousands of children were, well, were just missing? Reality finally caught up and the fervor was exposed as hyperbole. Relatively few children in America are ever actually missing, and not nearly the huge numbers the missing children advocates routinely flung about.

We all know that some schools are badly run. In fact, some school districts—including many obvious examples in major cities--are a horror show of incompetent management, bizarre priorities, and blatant corruption. But I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of American schools do a good job of providing a solid educational opportunity. I can’t say that enough: a solid educational opportunity. That’s all any school can do; that’s all any teacher can do. They provide the opportunity for kids to learn.

It’s a pleasure to teach kids like Brittany. Sure, she’s a teenaged girl and teenaged girls are a little goofy from time to time, but she likes reading and learning and she understands that she’s responsible for her education. You’re responsible too, and that’s why I was so glad to receive your e-mail. You’re always welcome in our classroom. I love to have parents stop in to see what we are doing, to find out for them selves what is really going on. Just call ahead so you don’t end up watching kids take a test or write an essay, but if you’d like to do that, you’re certainly welcome.

We all know about the big school districts that have enormous dropout rates, very low academic achievement, continuing scandals and outrages, horrible teachers, and all kinds of other problems. I’ll just note that all of those districts have certain characteristics in common:

(1) The cities in which they are located are virtually always controlled by Democrats and have been for many, many years.

(2) The school boards are also controlled by Democrats.

(3) School board seats are tickets to big money.

(4) The schools, from the top down, have lost sight of the essential—the only--mission of education and are far more concerned about social experimentation.

(5) The inmates run the asylum. There is little or no discipline in the schools.

(6) The schools are unionized and there is substantial collaboration between union bosses and school board members on union objectives. Money often changes hands.

You’ll notice that this is not the case in most American schools. It certainly is not the case at Anytown High School. Our school board members are not paid, and we have no unions. We have our problems with those who want us to be social laboratories rather than schools, but we resist that sort of thing quite well. And most importantly, in our schools, the adults are in charge, and those adults are responsible or they’re gone. It is certainly not impossible to fire bad teachers here, and it’s really not impossible to fire bad teachers in most American schools.

I’ll just spend a little time on two significant and related issues. When any school pays proper attention to these issues, they are very likely to succeed. When they don’t, failure is virtually inevitable. I’m talking about mission and discipline. Every parents needs to ask questions about these issues, and they need to get the right answers. If they don’t, they have reason to be worried.
The mission is simple. Every school exists to provide the best possible educational opportunity for the kids it serves. That’s it. No idiotic jargon, no slick Power Point presentations, nothing but hard work, excellent, consistent preparation, and clear expectations. It’s very old fashioned. Hire good teachers, make sure they have what they need to teach their disciplines, and get out of their way. Don’t take kids out of the classroom for any reason, or for no reason. Kids are there to learn, teachers are there to teach, and everybody else involved is there to support that simple mission. When schools become bus stations that kids occasionally pass through on the way to this field trip or that event, the mission is lost.

The second, related issue is discipline. Kids need structure. They need to know that when they misbehave, there will be immediate and sure consequences. There will be no arguing, no whining, no escape. Violate the rules and there will be consequences.

By that I don’t mean the kind of “zero-tolerance” idiocy in schools that expel elementary students who bring a toy soldier with a ½” plastic gun to school. Zero tolerance all too often means zero-reasoning on the part of school administrators and is usually a sign of a school more interested in social experimentation than in teaching and learning.

Let me give you an example of how an effective discipline program works. It must be written down, must be graduated, and must have multiple options. But the entire point is that teachers must be able to control the learning environment. Kids must do what they ask. If they don’t, there must be immediate, inevitable consequences. If teachers aren’t in control, the opportunity for learning is going to be, at the very least, damaged, and sometimes, destroyed. If students directly challenge a teacher they must be immediately removed from the classroom and must not return that day. If they swear at a teacher, the same thing must happen. If they refuse to do as a teacher asks, the same thing must happen.

Students who assault teachers must be immediately removed, suspended, criminally prosecuted and expelled. After all, if students can get away with beating teachers, everyone is in a “B” movie, not a high school. It would be hard to imagine any behavior that is more destructive to the mission than that.

At the beginning of every school year, I tell all my kids that there are very simple rules in my classroom: They are not allowed to be rude or stupid. They are allowed to be kids; I expect them to be kids, but they simply can’t be rude or stupid. If you think about it, that pretty much covers everything. I explain that I won’t jump up and down, I won’t raise my voice, I won’t turn red in the face, I’ll merely tell them not to act rudely or stupidly, and if they don’t comply, there will be consequences, consequences appropriate to them and to the occasion. I don’t take it personally, and I’ll be just as happy to see them the next day as always. I explain that I always say “please” and “thank you,” and that should I suddenly stop saying those words to them, they should take that as a dire warning. Some always have to see if I’m kidding. They quickly discover that I am not.

Of course, this only works because my principal understands the mission and the necessity of discipline. Without discipline, the mission will fail. He absolutely backs me up because he knows that I use good judgment, and that if I tell him a student did a thing, he can be sure that it happened just as I explained. He’s a good man, my principal. You should consider yourself fortunate that Brittany attends such a school.

An important part of discipline is organization. A well-organized classroom is a busy classroom, a classroom where kids have little or no time to get into trouble. Something as simple as good organization can make an enormous difference.

I wish you could be present on the day I tell the kids I care nothing at all for their self-esteem! The gasps! The looks of shock and horror! I explain that self- esteem is nothing more than feeling good about oneself whether those feelings are justified or not. It’s all internal and relative. What I care about is self-respect, which is earned positive feelings about one’s growth, accomplishments and character. Self-respect is external and judged by objective criteria, criteria established by others. Write an excellent essay and you’re worthy of self-respect. Self-esteem is worthless.

You see, when kids understand that difference, life ceases to be all about them. They really do have to perform and grow. To have genuine self-respect, they have to demonstrate, every day, character and responsibility, particularly responsibility for taking advantage of their educational opportunities. That simple, yet vital, understanding is the first epiphany--a light bulb moment, a sudden burst of insight or understanding—I lead them to experience each year.

Whew! I got a little carried away. As you can see, I’m passionate about this. But it really is that simple. In every school district, in every school that is genuinely failing, I have no doubt that you’ll find that they’ve lost track of the mission—perhaps they never had it--and that there is little or no discipline. They really do go hand in hand, for good or ill.

Thanks again for getting in touch, and please don’t hesitate to call whenever you have a question.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at June 13, 2011 11:09 PM

Wow. That's amazingly on target. Kind of places the whole "crisis" in perspective, knifes "therapeutic education" and its self-esteem fetish in the gut, and gets the point across firmly but amiably.

I give it an A.

Posted by: David Wilson at June 14, 2011 10:53 AM

Zero tolerance is a big part of the problem. It means "no exceptions." When a school says that, they are literally saying "no child is exceptional."

Posted by: Phelps at June 14, 2011 01:04 PM

Great letter. I'm struck by the almost hidden message in this. There's definitely a crisis of education in the western world. We have a similar issue here in the UK. State education is all about ticking boxes and producing clone children who fit into corporate culture... what happened to free thinking??? I choose to send my kids to an alternative school, hopefully they'll grow up equipped to deal with themselves as well as the world around them.

Good work!

Posted by: Confidence Course at June 15, 2011 01:44 AM

Fewer than a quarter of American 12th-graders knew China was North Korea's ally during the Korean War, and only 35% of fourth-graders knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, according to national history-test scores released Tuesday...

Why we cannot trust teachers and the teaching profession to operate in an environment without third party testing. I am sure that the teachers unions would claim that these test results are meaningless too, since the kids involved probably can put condoms on bananas and recite Obama's promises. But they don't know what it means to be American or how dangerous it is to rely on China. It is a more dangerous world for freedom BECAUSE OF THE TEACHING PROFESSION AS CURRENTLY CONSTITUTED.

Posted by: smarty at June 15, 2011 09:22 AM

Dear Smarty:

Thanks for your comment! I suspect strongly that if you asked adults over 50 the same questions, you'd get about the same results. The point is that education is not about memorizing facts or learning to pass specific tests, it's literally about building the kinds of neural connections in the brain that enable us to be flexible and able to adapt to the world, to truly be successful in a variety of endeavors.

It is human nature that some will take full advantage of their educational opportunities to do just that. Most will take partial advantage, and some will take little advantage. Questions like those you cite merely reflect this simple fact of human nature and do not in any way indicate the need for mandatory high stakes testing which can't accomplish what you imply needs to be accomplished.

Let's also keep in mind that the role of parents in educating their children is of great importance too. I see a given kid less than five hours a week for less than one year of their lives. I suspect their parents have a much greater influence on them that do I.

Thanks again!

Posted by: Mike Mc at June 15, 2011 10:35 AM

Teachers cannot ignore teaching facts though. They love focusing on intangibles, but leave out facts. They want kids to express themselves, but they don't give them any knowledge to base their thoughts on. And I don't think that the people with the lowest SAT scores on campus (teachers) are the most qualified to worry about "building neural pathways" when too many of them don't have deep knowledge of their specific subject matter.

And yes, parents have a huge role, and incompetent parents need to be called out.

Posted by: Smarty at June 15, 2011 01:12 PM


The strength of your extremely admirable and cogent argument resides in your sweeping generalizations. Way to go!


Posted by: Humbert at June 15, 2011 01:57 PM

Dear Smarty:

While this particular post didn't focus on that issue, the teaching of facts and knowledge which must be retained for life is indeed a part of good teaching and any proper educational opportunity. But again, the sort of tests you mention tend not to measure what many think they measure and are not a solution for any of the problems you've raised.

I can't teach students to write well unless they know certain facts about the building blocks of language, grammar, writing styles, argument, logic, and yes, a body of knowledge about the topic about which they write. For me, ability demonstrated through performance is the goal. I want what works, not what plays in a legislature or in the media.

Thanks again for your interest and attention!

Posted by: Mike Mc at June 15, 2011 05:15 PM


The best thing a teacher can do for a child is to teach that child how to learn, and how to keep learning throughout life. A good teacher foster a love of learning, and a desire to keep on learning even into the last few years of life. Facts are sometimes necessary, but the willingness to discover new facts, and new aspects to old facts learned so long ago.

More so the willingness to learn anew what had once been learned before; to learn new facts about old facts long known. That is the purpose of education, not the stale and rote memorization of facts.

When I was a child we leaned that America won the War of 1812. When I was older I learned that the War of 1812 ended in a draw. A year now from the bicentennial we have come to the conclusion that we lost the War of 1812 and the only reason the British agreed to the Treaty of Ghent is because Britain was all worn out after the Napoleonic Wars.

We learned better because people wanted to learn; learn things we had once ignored as being unimportant. So it is that one fact gave way to another, and a more complete fact than we had had before.

So it's not just about the facts, but about how we learn what we learn, and how we use what we learn. All testing does is measure what we know, as presently constituted testing does not test for how children know what they know, for how they learn. Is it even possible for us to test for the ability to learn? It may be, it may not be, but before we can know either way we must first devise ways to test for the ability to learn, and that is going to take hard work on our part.

Knowing things is but a part of education, how we know what we know and how we learned is by far the biggest part of a good education, and that is my opinion on the matter.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at June 15, 2011 08:09 PM