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News and stories from the campaign to reclaim individual responsibility and liberate Americans from bureaucracy and legal fear.

Blog — Education

A Ray of Hope: Mutual Bureaucratic Disarmament in the Proposed NYC Teachers’ Contract

A retroactive raise is what made the headlines of the proposed new NYC teachers’ contract. But the exciting breakthrough is the potential for abandoning the bureaucratic swamp that has made it impossible to fix NYC schools. 

Some school reformers will be excited that it will be easier to get rid of poor performers—requiring, according to news reports, poor evaluations in two separate schools. This is indeed important. It is impossible to build and maintain a culture of excellence when poor performers are in the classroom next door. One bad apple, studies show, can spoil the barrel.   

But the revelation of the new deal is the idea of mutual bureaucratic disarmament. For decades, the City and the union have done battle by imposing on each other more rules and requirements—for example, detailed requirements, sometimes minute by minute, on how a teacher must deliver a lesson plan, and requirements on exactly how many minutes per month a teacher has to listen to a principal.  

A study by Common Good a few years ago found that there were so many rules for NYC schools that no one had collected them in one place. Even the more rudimentary choices—say, removing a disruptive student from a classroom—are subject to dozens of rules and procedures that effectively remove a teacher’s authority to maintain order. Common Good constructed bubble charts of steps and procedures for basic choices that were five feet long.

All this bureaucracy makes schools unmanageable. But it also does something far worse. Bureaucracy kills the human spirit. It’s that simple. A teacher who is forced to trudge through mindless protocols cannot possibly be enthusiastic. Inspiring students is impossible when the teacher is forced to act like a bureaucratic robot.  

The myth of bureaucracy is that it makes sure things are done properly. But people can only think of one thing at once. Focus on A, as sociologist Robert K. Merton put it, and you cannot see B. Forcing teachers (and principals, and students) to focus on thick rulebooks just snuffs out the candle of human inspiration. What kind of role models are teachers who are forced to act like robots instead of moral models of maturity and fairness?

For decades leaders in schools have been stuck in a downward spiral of bureaucratic warfare. Good principals succeeded by ignoring the rules. New NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina famously built a culture of excellence at PS 6 by, among other things, ignoring the bureaucracy. (I profiled her in my book The Collapse of the Common Good.) Union leader Michael Mulgrew is not one to give an inch, but in many different settings, in conversations with me and others, he too has highlighted how bureaucracy had become the worst enemy of teachers.  

The devil of every deal is in the details. But extra money to teachers is a bargain if New York City can unleash human energy and enthusiasm in its schools. Bureaucracy can’t teach.

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Scrap Zero Tolerance Rules

Howard’s Daily by Philip K. Howard

A learning environment in schools requires safety and order. "Zero tolerance" rules, which first surfaced in the early 1990's, were intended to guarantee safety. School cultures had corroded in the wake of the "due process revolution," and absolutist rules were intended to shore up principals’ authority to act promptly in the face of violent or anti-social behavior.

But the rigid legal approach exemplified in zero tolerance rules has instead fostered a downward spiral of cynicism and legalisms. The worst offenders still argue over discipline—can you prove it? Meanwhile, every few weeks, there are news reports of children suspended for harmless activities: for example, the first-grader suspended for kissing a girl’s hand, or the seventh-grader suspended because she had "possession" of a pill for one second (before she immediately rejected it), or the honors student expelled because a kitchen knife was in the bed of his pickup truck (it had fallen out while he was helping his grandmother move), or the second-grader suspended because he munched his pop tart into the shape of a gun.

Zero tolerance rules have become a standing joke—a reflection of educators’ lack of authority, not a useful tool of school order.

Now comes the Florida legislature with a bill, sponsored by the National Rifle Association, to supposedly solve the unfairness of rigid zero tolerance rules. Its first flaw is that the bill fights the scourge of "overlegalization" with more legalisms. It requires every school to come up with a detailed code of conduct. Its second flaw is that it is transparently designed to serve the NRA agenda, not the unfairness of rigid rules. Here is an excerpt of the NRA’s mono-minded proposal:

Simulating a firearm or weapon while playing or wearing clothing or accessories that depict a firearm or weapon or express an opinion regarding a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is not grounds for disciplinary action…. Simulating a firearm or weapon while playing includes, but is not limited to:

1. Brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food item to simulate a firearm or weapon.
2. Possessing a toy firearm or weapon that is 2 inches or less in overall length.
      

I especially like the reference to the Second Amendment—do children worry about a constitutional right to bear arms?

Let’s start again. Fairness almost always requires context. Unilaterally kissing a girl may be excusable in a kindergartner but not in a high school senior. Brandishing a switchblade is different than accidentally leaving a kitchen knife in the bed of a truck. Making a drawing of a gun is different than bringing a gun. That’s why zero tolerance rules are counterproductive, fostering a culture of legal argument instead of being tethered to community norms of right and wrong.

Fairness, in other words, always requires human judgment. Educators must get their authority back. That doesn’t mean they can do anything they want. It is easy to have, say, a teacher-parent committee, or even a student committee, to look at charges of unfair discipline. But only in the most extreme cases should school discipline end up in a legal proceeding. Students are being sent home, not to jail. 

As a first step to a solution, instead of using the silliness of zero tolerance as a vehicle to advance one agenda, it would be more constructive to come up with a model statute that restores common morality to disciplinary decisions. Several years ago, Texas repealed its zero tolerance regime, requiring instead that educators consider factors like a student’s intent when making disciplinary decisions.

Here is my proposed model statute:

"Notwithstanding any rule, including zero tolerance rules, a principal shall have no legal obligation to discipline a student where circumstances are such that the principal believes discipline would be unjust or unfair."

A statute like this would obviate the overreactions to students playing cowboys or soldiers, and also all other rigid overreactions. Bad law should be fixed, not used as a vehicle for self-interested propaganda.

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One Clear Advantage of Charter Schools

Mayor de Blasio’s threat to pull public support of charter schools has elicited powerful reactions, none more so than Peggy Noonan’s column this past weekend: "When a school exists for the students, you can tell. When it exists for the unions, you can tell that too."

The controversy centers on whether charter schools should pay rent or no longer be "co-located" within public schools. To review the bidding, charter schools in NY are privately-run schools that receive roughly the same stipend as the public school district spends. Since the public budget calculation excludes the free rent of existing schools (as well as unfunded pension costs), it’s hard to see why charter schools shouldn’t be kept at parity by getting free rent as well. 

De Blasio’s objection to charter schools seems to be that they are "privileged": they receive supplemental outside funding, often from wealthy people, and tend to attract children of parents seeking a more rigorous educational environment. Many charter schools operate longer hours, more days, and with a longer school year. They also are liberated from the constraints imposed by central public bureaucracy and by the teachers’ union. 

The huge advantage of charter schools is that everybody involved—teachers, parents, yes even funders—have a sense of ownership. The operative question, at all times, is this: "What’s the right thing to do?" If something isn’t working, administrators and parents and teachers can get together and talk about how to make things better. If there’s an opportunity, they have the authority—the freedom—to make exceptions.  

This ownership of daily choices brings with it human power exponentially greater than found in most rote organizations. My youngest daughter teaches first grade in a charter school in the middle of Brooklyn. She leaves just after 6 am and doesn’t get home til after 7. She is bursting with stories about her students. Last year most of her first graders, all from the projects, were reading well above grade level.  

Not all charter schools achieve better academic results than public schools, and charters are (appropriately) subject to periodic re-accreditation. But charter schools almost can’t help but be better in instilling social values of right and wrong. Basic values needed to be a good citizen and hold a job are fostered by a school culture run by human values instead of mindless compliance with thick rulebooks.  

It is correct, as Mayor de Blasio surmises, that charter schools therefore enjoy advantages over public schools. People in charter schools are energized about their ownership of daily choices. But is the solution to impose extra financial burdens on them? Dragging the best down is perhaps not the optimum public policy (as in Vonnegut’s short story "Harrison Bergeron," in which the intelligent get zapped whenever their brains start thinking too much). Maybe the correct policy is to reorganize public schools so that they, too, enjoy the freedoms and energy of charter schools. I bet even the union teachers would like it.

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Let Kids Play

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

Notions of "appropriate" play are thrown out the window in this amazing video footage from New Zealand. Kids run around, tackle each other in a game called "bullrush," ride scooters over ramps, climb trees, and—gasp—point sticks like guns. Then they go back to class where, the principal says, they are able to focus on schoolwork. (Thanks to David Webb for finding this video.)

In America, by contrast, schools ban games like tag, or even running at recess. So it’s hardly surprising that there’s an epidemic of ADD. Playgrounds are stripped of any implements that might involve risk—such as merry-go-rounds and jungle gyms. Small wonder there’s a crisis of obesity when it’s more challenging to play video games on the sofa than to go to a playground with no challenge at all.  

Child development experts repeatedly say that it is vital for children, for mental as well as physical development, to deal with normal risks of childhood. (I compiled much of this material in "The Freedom To Take Risks" chapter in Life Without Lawyers.) Coddling children makes them less safe in the long run, because they will be less able to deal with real risks later in life. As the New Zealand principal points out, learning how to handle risk early on makes a young student less likely to take too much risk when he gets a driver’s license.

Letting kids in America play again requires an organized effort. Today, the most innocent accident can mean an expensive lawsuit. That’s why the school board in Broward County, Florida banned running at recess. And, worse, American culture has changed. Parents and educators no longer have an instinct for what's an appropriate risk. Avoiding risk has become an obsession. Safety is only half an idea; the question is what we’re giving up to get it. If children are raised without skills to cope with life, we are increasing risk, not reducing it.

Perhaps what’s needed is a presidential commission on the appropriate risks of childhood. By restating common sense principles, America could then empower judges (as well as parents) to affirmatively embrace healthy risks so that kids can, well, go back to being kids again.

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The Bureaucratic Canary Is a Person

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

"Andrea Rediske’s 11-year-old son Ethan, is dying. Last year, Ethan, who was born with brain damage, has cerebral palsy and is blind, was forced to take a version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test…. Now his mom has to prove that Ethan, now in a morphine coma, is in no condition to take another test this year." This is the lead in a blog entry from yesterday by the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss.

The federal special education law known today as IDEA was enacted in 1975 to remedy the abuses of special needs children locked up in cruel institutions like Willowbrook. But laws tend to take a life of their own, and the broad legal mandate for special education—requiring "free appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment"—leaves little room for judgment or balance. 

Over the past 40 years, special education has become a bureaucratic jungle—where everyone is so tangled in legal vines, and scared of legal claims, that there is no room to do what’s right. Last year in Florida a 9-year-old boy who is blind and born with only a brain stem was forced to submit to a test where instructors asked him to identify pictures. As a school board member commented: "He’s blind. And they’re showing him pictures of a giraffe, a monkey and an elephant—and asking him which one is the monkey…. I'm watching all this and just about to lose my mind."

The absurdist quality of testing children in a coma or born without a brain exposes a regulatory system that has lost the oxygen of common sense. All kinds of bad choices emerge from the self-contained bureaucracy. Some principals say they spend as much as half their time dealing with special ed legal demands. The learning of other students is compromised when uncontrollable, sometimes violent, children, are mainstreamed based on their parents’ legal demands. Wealthy parents have the legal right to demand school districts pay for private schooling—sometimes at a cost that exceeds $100,000 per year. 

How much does all these special ed entitlements and bureaucracy cost? Special ed now consumes over 25% of the total K-12 budget in America, for a tiny proportion of students who actually need it. Meanwhile, there’s almost nothing in programs for gifted students—less than 1%. Nor is there any material budget for pre-K education, which is why New York Mayor de Blasio campaigned for new taxes on the wealthy—which would almost certainly drive some taxpayers out of the jurisdiction. Who made the decision that this special ed spending is the right balance of school budgets? No one. No one is even asking the question. 

Gosh, say defenders of the status quo, we wouldn’t want to go back to the bad old days. But our choice isn’t between cruel neglect and bureaucratic excess. The goal is always balance. As I described in my last book (Life Without Lawyers), countries such as Denmark provide robust special education services in the context of balancing the needs of all students. The difference there is that officials have the responsibility to use their judgment in each situation, not follow mindless mandates.

America’s special ed system is not just unwise, or inefficient, or absurdist. It is immoral. It is immoral not in its broad goals, but in its implementation. It is immoral to give disabled students a Rolls-Royce budget and give all other students what’s left over. It is immoral to treat grieving parents as bureaucratic boxes on a checklist.  

In a recent e-mail seeking relief for her dying son from Florida’s assessment requirements, Andrea Rediske wrote: "Every day that [the special ed teacher] comes to visit, she is required to do paperwork to document his ‘progress.’ Seriously? Why is Ethan Rediske not meeting his 6th-grade hospital homebound curriculum requirements? BECAUSE HE IS IN A MORPHINE COMA. … This madness has got to stop."

The IDEA is expected to be reauthorized as soon as next year. It’s not hard to figure out why there’s no political champion for overhaul. Who wants to incur the wrath of special ed parents who, understandably, want everything possible for their children? But this madness has to stop.

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For Better Schools, Overhaul School Discipline

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

Unfair school discipline is good for no one and corrodes school culture, as today’s Washington Post feature suggests.

Schools should indeed have alternative settings so that disruptive students are not just cast onto the streets. But the core defect is solved not by tweaking the elaborate legal code—such as notoriously rigid "zero tolerance" rules—but by scrapping most legal controls.

The focus on racial disparities in discipline ignores the greater harm of racial disparities in learning—how can anyone learn when there's chaos in a classroom? America needs a complete overhaul of the school discipline system, giving back teachers and principals the authority to act immediately when confronted by disruption and to achieve fairness by using their judgment in context, and safeguarding against unfairness by human checks and balances—say, a student-parent complaint committee. 

Formal legal due process in schools has proved to be a disaster, like pouring legal acid into what is supposed to be a culture of learning and sharing. (See Judging School Discipline by Professor Richard Arum.)

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Should bullies get three months in jail?

by Lenore Skenazy

It's hard to think of anyone in favor of bullying, but this seems truly overboard: A proposal in Australia to prosecute kids as young as age 10 for bullying. According to The Daily Telegraph:

CHILDREN as young as 10 could be criminally charged as part of a radical proposal to overhaul Australia’s approach to bullying.

A symposium organised by the National Centre Against Bullying and the Australian Federal Police will next week consider how laws should be strengthened to fight bullying and cyberbullying.

It’s hoped that as a result of its recommendations, Australia will become the first country in the world to have unified national laws to address bullying.
NCAB chairman Alastair Nicholson, the former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, said the law does not define bullying, cyberbullying or clarify the legal duty of schools, teachers, parents and carers.

He said a summary offence for bullying with a maximum penalty of three months jail would help educate people and act as a deterrent to offenders.
“I think there is a real need to examine the way the law operates, if only so that people know where they stand,” he said.
But bullying shouldn't be handled by the police and courts unless it involves things the police usually deal with, like actual crimes, not just rotten behavior.

The "school to prison pipeline" is already getting clogged with merely disobedient kids now trailing rap sheets, thanks to more and more police, not principals, mediating school scuffles. And besides, says Susan Porter, author of Bully Nation: Why America's Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone: "Laws, by definition, are intended to deal with situations in a uniform way. If there’s one thing we know for sure about children is that they are not uniform, nor do they respond in uniform ways to consequences."

Kids develop in different ways at different times, and even swing between being bullied and being the bullies. Defining them as one or the other isn't the job of the cops unless the kids are breaking a law. (And a real law, at that. Not a "Zero Tolerance" edict issued by some bureaucrat who sees bullying in every schoolyard scuffle.)

As for three months in jail? THREE MONTHS? "These laws are at best misguided," says Porter. "At worst they will hurt the very people we are trying to protect and educate: children."

Draconian laws don't make kids safer. They just make lawmakers look like bullies, eager to pounce on defenseless kids.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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University buys bulletproof whiteboards for its professors

by Lenore Skenazy

Reading and writing and richocheting? University of Maryland at Eastern Shore just spent $59,800 on bulletproof whiteboards for its classrooms. This begs a whole lot of questions:

whiteboard

  1. Who gets to stand behind the shield? The professor? Or the kid who writes the most convincing, "Why I Deserve the Shield More than My Professor" essay?
  2. What do you want to bet the kid who writes the most convincing essay somehow ends up failing the class?
  3. Exactly how does a bulletproof whiteboard help even the person holding it? Weren't shields invented back when all you had to do was not get skewered by a lance? So, you could hold it in front of you but still peek around or over it? I mean, if you can't peek, how can you see where the enemy is?
  4. Alternatively: If you DO peek, and now your enemy has a gun and not a lance, doesn't that mean your head is as unprotected as a pumpkin on a spike?
  5. Who's the president of this university -- Ben Hur?
  6. Why are we even talking about a single shield making sense in a classroom full of students?
  7. More to the point, why are we even talking about this, period? As tragic and senseless as the Sandy Hook shooting was, the bigger picture is that America is really safe. Not perfectly safe -- nothing is. But the homicide rate is back at the level it was in (wait for it!) 1906.
  8. No one bought white board shields in 1906.
  9. Then again, no one watched CNN.
  10. Then again, no one does now either.
  11. Lists usually end at 10, so consider this more of a footnote: Shields for shooters are as weird and worst-case-scenario as buying helmets for all the students -- excuse me, for all the professors -- just in case of a falling meteor.
  12. Final final note: Which did happen last year, too. But somehow we manage to keep that danger in perspective.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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Miriam Kurtzig Freedman: Rethink special education

In the Wall Street Journal, school attorney Miriam Kurtzig Freedman takes on the thorny issue of special education--the $100-billion-dollar program that needs a closer look:

Very little work has been done to establish how inclusion [of special education students in regular classrooms] affects regular students—whether they are average, English-language learners, advanced, poor or homeless. Studies seem to support the social benefits of mainstreaming for children with disabilities and possibly for regular-education students, but what about the effect on their academic progress?

Teachers may tell you (privately) that inclusion often leads them to slow down and simplify classroom teaching. Yet the system is entrenched and politically correct. Many parents remain silent. Some quietly remove their kids from public schools.

Can this be anything but very bad for America? Our schools thrive only with a diverse student population and engaged parents—not with the departure of those who choose to leave.

New thinking on special ed is desperately needed. As Philip K. Howard wrote in The Atlantic:

Today, special ed consumes 20 percent of the total K-12 budget in America. Programs for gifted children get less than half of one percent, and pre-K education gets almost nothing. Is this a sensible allocation of education dollars?

Read Freedman's full piece here, and read more about Common Good's education proposals here.

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School lockdown overboard

By Lenore Skenazy

Oh no -- there's a stranger walking into that school! Dozens of them in fact! We can't have THAT, can we?

Well, we always have. It's called voting. And yet, more and more schools are saying no to the age-old tradition of hosting elections in the school gym. It's a "risk" they say they cannot take.

Except that, as far as I can tell, it has never posed any risk at all -- and still doesn't.

Vrouwenkiesrecht / Votes for women

This article from the Press-Citizen details how Election Day has already changed in Iowa. Only 7% of voting is still done in public schools. "The pressure to move polling places out of schools intensified following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.," writes the reporter, Emily Schettler. And yet -- what is the connection? One terrible thing happens in one place and suddenly all voters in all schools are regarded as potential terrorists?
The article adds that although there haven't been any serious problems in Iowa during elections "officials pushing the moves say they want to avoid future issues."

Which, in case you hadn't noticed, is an argument you could use to outlaw absolutely anything. "While there haven't been any problems with kids tripping on shoelaces, we want to avoid future issues by requiring velcro." "So far, no children have violently collided during Square Dance instruction, but we want to..."

Already one county has had to spend $8000 for polling space, since the schools -- free and paid for by our taxes -- were no longer available.  So now kids are missing out on a nice chunk of change that could be used for, I don't know, maybe copies of the CONSTITUTION? And they don't even get to see adults exercising the inalienable right that makes America such a beacon of fear.

Er...freedom.

As we've discussed before: There's safety and there's sanity. Ideally the two go hand in hand. But when it comes to kids and schools, it feels like they aren't even allowed in the same building.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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