Bad Students, Bad Schools

Tolerance for misbehavior -- especially by loud, unruly black students -- will doom Muir High School's attempts to raise test scores, wrote a white teacher to colleagues at the Pasadena school.

The problem isn't teachers or curriculum, wrote Scott Phelps. It's students who don't care about learning and make it hard for teachers to reach students who do care. Not surprisingly, Phelps was called a racist. Surprisingly, some people are actually talking about culture and classroom success. Many blacks "felt an odd sort of gratitude," the Los Angeles Times reports.

At a neighborhood meeting about the letter, Kitty McKnight, a former teacher, exploded after a district official suggested that the solution to Muir's discipline problems was more tolerance and commitment from teachers.

"I cannot sit and listen to this!" she shouted, rising from her seat. "Our boys are out of control."

Of course, there are many who make excuses for disruptive students. Like Assistant Superintendent George McKenna:

"Some of these kids deserve credit just for showing up" at school, given their chaotic home lives and troubled neighborhoods.

Credit for showing up and disrupting the school? I don't think so. The kids deserve a safe and orderly school staffed by people who believe they're capable of being serious students.

The Times quotes a mother, once kicked out of Muir, who went on to earn two masters' degrees.

Now she's an educational consultant and the mother of two boys who have generated more than their share of calls from Muir for fighting or mouthing off in class. Her boys are smart, but they are also boisterous and occasionally unruly, just as their mother was, she said.

"But that's no reason to give up on them," she added. "I know that teachers are frustrated, but every child is not going to fit the 'perfect student' mold."

Teachers say they're not asking for perfect students. They would settle for teenagers who don't saunter into class 30 minutes late, interrupt a test with a request to borrow lip gloss, or curse them out in the middle of a lesson.

They'd also like parents to make their children's school success a priority. Like the education consultant who's raised her sons to fight in school and mouth off in class.

Phelps should have focused on students' behavior, not their race. But his basic point holds: A good school sets and enforces standards of behavior for all students. No excuses.

I'm writing a book about Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school that's trying to prepare low-achieving Hispanic students for college. The founders believe in "culture before curriculum," and they're not talking about Cinco de Mayo. They mean that the school culture must value hard work, educational achievement and respect for others: Ganas, orgullo, communidad. Get the culture right, and then teaching and curriculum can make a difference.

Many of DCP students come from low-income families, troubled neighborhoods, the whole nine yards. They're not perfect students, but they learn pretty quickly that fighting and mouthing off aren't tolerated. Nobody gets credit just for showing up.


Why are middle-class black students lagging? In an upcoming book on black students in affluent Shaker Heights, Ohio, anthropologist John Ogbu blames black ghetto culture — and middle-class parents who let rappers be their children's role models. Ogbu talked to the New York Times:

"They are looking at rappers in ghettos as their role models, they are looking at entertainers. The parents work two jobs, three jobs, to give their children everything, but they are not guiding their children."

For example, he said that middle-class black parents in general spent no more time on homework or tracking their children's schooling than poor white parents.

Ogbu, a Nigerian immigrant, is a professor at UC Berkeley.

There is a new study that finds no difference between white, black and Hispanic students in what they say they feel about education. But their actions don't support their words.

Ogbu's "acting white" thesis rings true to me, though I'd also blame low expectations by principals and teachers.

Look at this Salon article, which sneers at National Security Advisor Condi Rice because, among other things, Rice invariably speaks standard English, like her educated parents.

Bilingual dreams All California students will be proficient in two languages by graduation, according to a proposed addition to the state's master plan for education. English is a second language for one in four California students. The Sacramento Bee reports:

The new master plan proposal focuses on performance, not years of instruction. Every student would begin instruction in a foreign language in early elementary grades and be expected to speak and read it fluently by the end of 12th grade.

Sure, it would be nice if all students were competent in two languages. But first we've got to make sure they all master one language -- English -- by 12th grade.

Mandatory Victimhood

If a student wants to work in a University of Michigan dorm as a residence hall associate, she's got to pass a class called Social Psychology in Community Settings, which is supposed to "enhance each student's ability to analyze ... differences and commonalties among cultural groups and group foundations of justice and injustice."  And if she wants to pass, she'd better claim to be a victim of oppression, says a student on No

...We had to go around and talk about at least one way in which we have been/are oppressed. When my turn came up, and I answered that I have never been oppressed, the instructor corrected me, saying that I must have been, as I'm female. I persisted, saying that being female has never been anything short of a blessing for me. The instructor was relentless, insisting that I was necessarily oppressed at one point in my life.

The instructor asked to speak with me after class. He was visibly shaken and angry. He told me that my classroom behavior was disruptive in the least (although I was never voluntarily disagreeing), and that I would be kicked out of class and would thereby lose my job and my housing for the next year unless I learned to be more cooperative.

As Erin O'Connor points out, the student now has a legitimate claim to oppression: She's been coerced by a male instructor into "accepting his understanding of her own experience." That's gender discrimination!


Ryan Clark writes:

I’m responding to the statement: "Whether or not someone can find a country on a map or not has nothing to do with whether or not he is good in geography." As a geography major I can tell you that geography has become more about geographic information systems, statistical analysis, math, logic and computer programming than anything else. The statement about geography only being about finding things on a map was relevant in the 1600s maybe, but is not really the case anymore. Not that this is any excuse for people not being familiar with our own country or with the world as a whole.

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

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