Between the Lines

First, Get Rid of the Toughs

by Jack Cashill

“The most powerful people in education today,” Martha Jackson wrote me, “are the least co-operative students.”

That one sentence convinced me that Ms. Jackson—name changed to protect her from reprisal—was insightful enough to merit at least a phone call. Her ensuing observations, humbly offered, are wise enough to deserve an article.

If Kansas City’s new super, Anthony Amato, wants a heads up on what’s wrong with the district schools, I’ll be happy to pass along Ms. Jackson’s actual bona fides.

As I learned, Jackson had just completed her seventeenth and final year as an employee of the Kansas City, Missouri school district. She had been a parent and volunteer before that and a paraprofessional before becoming a teacher. Her departure was only semi-voluntary and less than fully pleasant. It seems that Jackson fell short in the district’s one essential survival skill—“classroom management.”

Although Jackson does not disagree with the assessment, she regrets that such skills have become so critical. In college, she had learned to treat students with respect and kindness, an educational philosophy that suited her personality. That philosophy was tested and found wanting the very first day she set foot in Kansas City’s ironically troubled public schools. “I could not believe my eyes,” she remembers, “when I saw how raw power on the part of students was permitted to run rampant.”

In the classroom, she learned that to treat students kindly was to be “perceived as ‘weak’ and an ‘easy mark,’ therefore not worthy of respect.” The kids disrespecting Martha, by the way, ranged in age from only 10 to 12.

As Jackson tells it, the kids start kindergarten “as sweet as they can be.” By second semester, the latent bad apples have begun to turn “rotten.” This unhappy putrefaction Jackson traces to a fearful indulgence that “permeates the atmosphere.”

To help the teachers manage these wayward youths, the District offers something called a Behavior Intervention Support Team (BIST), the workings of which only bewildered Jackson at the time she most needed help.

“When a student calls another student a c—k s—r; starts to call the teacher that, then the next day spits on another student after having repeated his favorite word again,” she once wrote to her principal, “I’m at a loss as to what to do when I only get myself into ‘hot water’ by reporting such conduct to administration.”

It is future felons like this one, Jackson believes, who effectively run the school district. Teachers and administrators seem all but paralyzed in their presence. One day, for instance, she encountered in the lunchroom a high functioning autistic student, a fifth grader, walking step for step behind the principal. His teacher had booted him out of class, and with nowhere else to go, he had to follow the principal around for the day. This alone might seem strange, but what made the image memorable for Jackson was that the kid was maniacally repeating the word “bitch” as he walked.

Touching students, of course, is verboten. As might be expected, this policy occasionally devolves into silliness. She tells of an angry third grader, who ran out of his school building just as the president of the school board was walking in. The kid blew past the president and squatted blithely in the middle of always-busy Wornall Road. From that privileged perch he taunted his hapless elders—the principal, the teacher and even the school board president as they diverted traffic around him. This somehow struck the trio as wiser policy than hauling the kid’s sorry little butt out of the street. For that kind of dirty work they had to recruit the police.

Teachers and administrators have come to fear the parents even more than the kids. All too often parents have filled their little darlings’ heads with more self-esteem than those little craniums can tolerably bear. As Jackson observes, “The children are wise beyond their years in knowing their rights.” She recalls on one occasion a precocious little lad threatening a teacher with a lawsuit if she disciplined him. What made this threat notable was that the kid was a first grader. By fifth grade, threatening litigation is old hat.

Given their fear of lawsuits, administrators prefer carrots to sticks, especially if those carrots come out of the teachers’ pockets. As Jackson notes, teachers are encouraged to offer “rewards” for good behavior. “Such ‘rewards’ quickly degenerate into bribes,” laments Jackson, “and the children learn techniques of extortion.”

Unfortunately, the kids aren’t learning much else. In Jackson’s opinion, public education is being driven by college professors “under pressure to come up with something new to justify their existence, or at least their salary.”

The schools of education then use the classroom teachers as “guinea pigs” to test these sundry new and typically lame educational theories. Overwhelmed already with their everyday burdens, the teachers are then expected to implement these latest “innovations in education” with little training or even understanding. The innovations almost inevitably leave everyone stupider.

Something of a traditionalist, Jackson looks fondly back on her own education, grounded as it was in ad-dition and subtraction, times tables and long division, fractions and decimals, history and geography, phonics and spelling bees. Despite the vast inputs of money and all manner of innovation, Jackson knows that she got a much sounder education than these kids are getting today or that her younger colleagues got when they came through. Unlike many of the latter, she is not dependent on “grammar check” to write a simple memo. Indeed, she writes a much better memo than the administrators who managed her departure.

Today, Jackson reports, memorization is considered “bad” and mere knowledge “a lower order of thinking.” Students instead are encouraged to employ “reasoning” as a way of reaching “higher order thinking skills.”

This puzzles Jackson. “I can’t com-prehend the light esteem of knowledge,” she reports. “If one is not knowledgeable, one does not possess the tools necessary to do higher order thinking.” No matter. For too many of these kids, school serves as little more than a youthful training ground for a career making license plates.

Jackson recalls reading about the exploits of two of her more troubled former students from Gladstone Academy of the Arts and Sciences. They were listed under the category, “Kansas City’s Most Wanted.” They had wantonly crippled a man with a baseball bat. Another “charming but irresponsible” ex-student got high, killed four people in a car crash, and is now paying for his irresponsibility with eight years of his life. Other ex-students just show up in the obituaries, the cause of death discreetly masked.

As to the teachers, they survive but just barely. Jackson wonders how long the district will be able to recruit an adequate supply given “the demands of the job, the relatively low pay, and the abuse heaped on the teachers by students, parents, and administrators.”

One dramatic way to improve the teachers’ lives and the students’, says Jackson succinctly, is to “get rid of the toughs.” Jackson has no firm ideas on where to send them, but she knows they have got to go.

Such a move would not take much money really, just political will. In Kansas City, alas, that will seems to have gone the way of the times tables.

Jack Cashill is Ingram's Executive Editor and has affiliated with the magazine for 27 years. He can be reached at jackcashill@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.