January 18, 2013

MAINE COMPASS: Schools should be able to 'fire' students who don't want to learn

John Neal

I write to encourage the end of compulsory education for Maine students older than 14.

As a high school teacher in Maine's public schools since 1978, I believe every Maine student should have access to a quality education. When youngsters refuse to take advantage of that opportunity, however, instead choosing to make life harder for teachers and administrators, and learning harder for other kids, schools should be able to tell them to leave.

Most assistant principals will tell you that they spend 95 percent of their time with the same 5 percent of kids who repeatedly break the rules, disrespect the teachers and interfere with learning for the vast majority of students who are there to better themselves.

Imagine how much better the education would be for those kids if the assistant principal could bring his/her knowledge and experience into the classrooms, observing and assisting teachers to deliver higher-quality instruction.

How much more would dedicated students be able to learn if their teachers' time wasn't constantly being stolen by problem kids?

We have kids who come to school only because it's a warm place to get free meals and visit their friends. They don't even take a pencil to class, never mind textbooks or homework.

They bring down school test scores while they progress through the grades without learning. Their teachers abandon the current curriculum to remediate them, but look bad because these "students" fail by their own choice. Meanwhile, kids who want to learn have to wait while their teacher tries to reach kids who don't care.

Any employee who refused to work and just made trouble would be fired. Schools should be able to "fire" those kids who have made it obvious they have no intention of participating in education in any meaningful way.

I am not talking about kids who, despite their best efforts, struggle in school. Anyone who wants to try in school should be welcomed, regardless of disability. Capable kids who refuse to lift a finger toward their own education, or who repeatedly misbehave, however, should be fired.

Obviously, the decision to terminate a child's education is serious and cannot be made capriciously or in haste. A youngster must demonstrate over time, his or her unwillingness to try or to behave.

Furthermore, education should remain compulsory for younger children, who cannot understand the implications of their choices. After youngsters reach age 13, however, they should become accountable.

Disciplinary referrals would be documented from that point onward; students who amass more than 10 per year, or who commit vandalism or violence, should be expelled. Teachers also should document student apathy. Again, after 10 instances of refusing to participate or complete assigned work, students should be referred for intervention. After two years of continued refusal to work, a youngster should be expelled.

One of education's biggest problems, of course, is parents who are not parenting.

Once a teenager is home full-time, their parents will become much more committed to their child's education. Also, high school will look much better to a kid who has done menial labor for minimum wage.

Therefore, we also must have a process whereby disaffected youngsters can return to school if they have a change of heart. After a year of dismissal, students should be eligible to petition to return, but on a much shorter leash -- either do the work and live by the rules, or they're gone. Students dismissed for a second time would not be allowed to return, although maybe they could petition another high school to take them or enroll in a GED program.

There is, of course, room for debate about the particulars of these proposals; perhaps the age of accountability should be higher, or a different number of infractions committed before dismissal.

By the end of the freshman year in high school, however, kids need to actively demonstrate their commitment to learning.

If, instead, they repeatedly demonstrate their unwillingness to learn or to live by the rules, schools should be able to tell them to leave.

If this were the case, test scores would rocket upward, because only committed students would be tested. Quality kids also would get more time with teachers, driving scores even higher.

By ending compulsory education, we would have a more accurate picture of teacher effectiveness, while providing the majority of committed, hard-working Maine youngsters the very best opportunity for the highest-quality education possible.

John Neal, of Greene, a composer and conductor has taught for 34 years in four Maine high schools, Bates College and the University of Southern Maine.

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