Teach the “Unteachable”

The Secretary of Education, representatives for the Civil Liberties Union, and others are rightly outraged by the recent release of a report from the Department of Education, showing that overall, black students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their white peers.

How can a child who is not in school get an education? What becomes of children who do not therefore get educated, and what does this portend for our communities and the future of a pluralistic society?

At the same time, it is heartbreaking to hear the tales of students like Jada Williams, eager to learn, yet equally deprived from an education because she moves from one chaotic classroom controlled by disruptive students to another. And when Jada issued a plea to be taught, she was instead relegated to a warehouse school for problem students, where even less learning was possible.

So what do statistics and stories like this tell, and what’s the answer?

Are teachers and administrators racist, doling out unequal treatment to black and Hispanic children?
The New York Times headline reporting the statistics would seem to imply as much: “Black Students Face More Discipline, Data Suggests.”

Are black children truly three and a half times more inclined to gross misconduct, the only answer to which is suspension or expulsion? After all, black children are about three times more likely to be born to a single mother, and Hispanic children about twice as likely, than whites, and thus statistically far more likely to live in poverty and have less supervision and discipline.

Or is a large part of the problem that black and Hispanic children are disproportionately relegated to schools whose teachers and administrators are less competent, incapable of controlling their students, and thus disproportionately resort to the extreme of suspension and expulsion?

The data also showed that schools with a lot of black and Hispanic students were likely to have relatively inexperienced, and low-paid, teachers.

The good news is: We don’t have to know the right answer!

We don’t have to address the issue on a sociological level. We don’t have to wait to first change these children’s home lives or socio-economic situations in order to provide them a bright future!

Here’s some inspiration from the movies: “Dangerous Minds” portrayed the true story of former U.S. Marine LouAnne Johnson, who turned a classroom of mostly African-American and Hispanic students from East Palo Alto, a pocket of crime and poverty in the otherwise idyllic Silicon Valley area, from violent, profane, inattentive, dead-end kids to engaged students with hope for a future. “Stand and Deliver” portrayed real teacher Jaime Escalante inspiring his lower-class, drop-out prone students to excel, eventually involving over 400 students in his East Los Angeles public high school math enrichment program, and establishing an AP Calculus program that produced better results than Beverly Hills High.

Unfortunately, exceptional teachers like Jaime Escalante most commonly find their fellow unionized teachers jealous of their success, complaining that a teacher who achieves such exceptional results makes their own failings look bad. The surprising documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” and high profile pronouncements increasingly coming from “left/liberal” public figures such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and others, similarly indict the capture of American public schools by teachers unions for the failure of American students.

But these are among the most powerful vested interests, and waiting for a change from within could be a very long wait, indeed. Meanwhile, millions of children continue to learn no discipline, much less gain an eduction—both of which they will need to succeed or even support themselves in the 21st century—while the voices of thousands like Jada’s continue to be drowned out in the cacophony of their public school classrooms.

In one thing, let us agree across the political spectrum: it is unacceptable that public school teachers and administrators throw up their hands, declare failure, and kick kids out to face dead-end lives.

Beyond those rare teachers whose stories are turned into movies are many, many individual teachers, and numerous independent and parochial schools, working with the same populations yet managing to educate, graduate, and produce individuals with strong prospects for success in college and the world at large. Private “military-type schools” of all different ilks take “incorrigbles” and turn out disciplined graduates.

The Independent Institute’s Independent Scholarship Fund provides children in the Oakland/East Bay—home of one of the worst school districts in the country, with a drop-out rate double that for California as a whole (a state itself ranking nearly dead last in the Nation’s Report Card)—private vouchers allowing them to attend any of the more than 300 private schools in the East Bay. These children come from some of the worst neighborhoods and have already experienced some of the most terrible things that can happen in anyone’s life, yet they excel in these schools, and 100% of the high schoolers graduate and go on to attend college.

All that it would take to end these tragic drop-out, arrest, suspension, and expulsion statistics would be to end the fraudulent public school monopoly, abolish the Department of Education, quit sucking resources to Washington and state capitals to be expropriated to the politically connected. As has been done successfully with other former socialized property in Europe, turn over ownership of public schools to members of the community, who can then be free to run them, sell them, or license them to for-profit, non-profit, Parent/Teacher ESOP structured schools (see, for example, our book, Can Teachers Own Their Own Schools?, or whatever other myriad offerings educational entrepreneurs devise. We would soon see a rich variety of educational alternatives better suiting every kind of learner: from the highly-motivated and bright to the tough disciplinary cases, disabled, and less-gifted learners.

As we have seen in every other sector of our society, productivity multiplies under competition. Let’s quit buying into the myth of the common school, and educational entrepreneurs would soon do as students such as Jada, stuck in chaotic drop-out factories, beg: “Find a more productive way to teach the so-called ‘unteachable’”.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Chairman and Chief Executive of the Independent Institute.
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