Thursday, June 12, 2014

School violence and education reform: Potentially deadly connection overlooked

I have been saying this for decades, perhaps I should have been shouting it: There may be, probably is, a connection between school violence and ill-advised aspects of education reform.


Don't get me wrong: I have always been a supporter of better education, better methods, science-based instruction and the implementation of best practices, however, so-called school reform or education reform does not always go hand in hand with good education, when defined as what is best for students.

The basic premise of the reforms of the past thirty years has been flawed, the premise being this: Raising the bar (often paired with cutting the budget) is the cure for bad education. No, not true. Bad thinking!

The assumption is this: Schools have not been expecting enough of the teachers and students. Put more pressure on the kids and teachers and you will see a marvelous transformation: Higher achievement, more success, enhanced industries, happier employers, satisfied universities and more. Problem is, it just is not so.

The so-called raising of the bar can be expected to help maybe 15 to 25 percent of students, and to harm an equal number, but once the chant caught on, it was popular with politicians and various groups with their own agendas, and it fulfilled a need: The need to place blame on someone for a range of popular discontent with the schools.

The schools were the great hope, and at the same time, the great Satan: You failed college? Must be the school system's fault. Didn't get a raise? School system's fault.  As an employer, you hired people at minimum wage, then found that they lacked training and academic work: Must be due to the bad schools. Your kid went out of control, took drugs, got drunk, got in fights, the solution was the same: Raise the bar, expect more, put on more pressure to "succeed," whatever succeed meant to you.

Social stress
Although I think this reasoning has been wrong all along, I also believe there is adequate evidence that many if not most of the school murders that have occurred in the past thirty years have had their roots in social isolation and or school stress.

The above seems self-evident to me: The people who kill others wantonly, are not happy campers! They are failures on one level or another or else they view themselves as outsiders, as failures.

Purveyors of our culture, sometimes referred to as the "movers and shakers," use "the pursuit of excellence" as a license to put undue stress on many individuals, which may aggravate that problem, in my opinion.

For every student that goes bonkers and starts killing people, you can safely bet that there are dozens, if not hundreds, who are having the same kinds of self-image problems, the same problems "fitting in," the same trouble accepting oneself as "okay," the same difficulty viewing oneself as successful, and too easily, our school philosophies can reinforce that isolation.

We have turned the educational system into a mandatory system of self-reproach, based upon the official implementation of so-called "bench-marks." The state of Oregon set standards so high that, even after 25 or maybe 30 years of implementation, no student had ever passed the advanced benchmarks.

I live in one of the towns that I believe has some of the best schools in America: Richland, Washington, yet I read just the other day that our schools lost their good standing with the federal government for supposed school failure. The only school in the Tri-Cities to rank Exemplary is Ruth Livingston Elementary. Overall, 41 of the 60 schools in the four area districts are rated no better than fair. (http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/press/press-releases/few-tri-cities-area-schools-rank-high-new-report)

Ours is a very competitive society, so when the best public schools in the country, perhaps among the best in the world, are rated as failures, what kind of message does this send to our students and teachers?

The typical administrative response has been two-fold: to prune off the supposed dead wood -- fire teachers, hire new ones, change administrators, implement new programs based upon the same flawed assumptions. The other strand has been to hire specialists in school safety, implement programs geared make students more compassionate and so-on. We try to teach kids social skills and loving, caring, groupie attitudes, and perhaps that works for some students.

Nonetheless, don't look for school violence to abate until we back off on our false notions about what can be achieved, given the resources that we have. Until we acknowledge that "the same high standards for all" was a farce, we are bound to keep putting more and more pressure on those within the system. People who are already under stress cannot handle the added pressure. Some react with self-destructive behaviors: Others explode in acts of violence upon other people.

I hate to find myself in the position of promoting perpetually new reform movements, but perhaps the time has come to have a new school reform, one designed to undo the ill effects of the ill-advised school reforms of the past thirty years. We should keep what works, and recognize what does not.

Clearly, deadly school violence should be a ref flag for anyone interested in improving schools.

Replacing the slogan, "same high standards for all," with another slogan: "Appropriate levels of difficulty for all" might be a place to start.

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