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Teachers as Targets

As a Teach for America volunteer, Joshua Kaplowitz had idealism -- but no classroom management skills --when he was hired to teach fifth grade at a Washington, D.C. school.

Most of his students wanted to learn, but the disruptive minority made it impossible. Some parents refused to believe their children were acting up; others promised to beat them. The principal sabotaged his attempts to enforce discipline -- especially when he rocked the boat by giving students the grades they’d earned.

I submitted my report cards to (Principal) Savoy, who insisted that my grades were “too low” and demanded that I raise them immediately. I offered to show her all of my students’ work portfolios; but she demurred, informing me that the law obliged me to pass a certain percentage of my students. I paid no attention, gave my students the grades they deserved, and patiently explained to every parent that their child’s grades would improve once he or she started behaving in class and doing the assigned lessons. For this, Ms. Savoy cited me for insubordination.

The principal transferred Kaplowitz to a second grade class in the middle of the year. Students were even wilder. He was told that district policy forbids teachers to touch a student, even to break up a fight. He was supposed to call the office, ask for a security guard and wait.

Believe me, you have to be made of iron, or something other than flesh and blood, to stand by passively while some enraged child is trying to inflict real harm on another eight-year-old. I couldn’t do it. And each time I let normal human instinct get the best of me and broke up a fight, one of the combatants would go home and fabricate a story about how I had hurt him or her. The parent, already suspicious of me, would report this accusation to Ms. Savoy, who would in turn call in a private investigative firm employed by D.C. Public Schools.

. . . With such a weak disciplinary tone set by the administration, by late February the whole school atmosphere had devolved into chaos. Gangs of students roamed the halls at will. You could hear screaming from every classroom--from students and teachers alike. Including me, four teachers (or 20 percent of the faculty) were under investigation on bogus corporal-punishment charges ...

Then a mother sued for $20 million, claiming Kaplowitz had assaulted her child; he'd nudged the boy out the door when the kid demanded to go to the bathroom. Kaplowitz was acqutted of misdemeanor assault charges after a six-day trial , but the mother got a $90,000 settlement, a reward for raising an emotionally disturbed child.

Read this City Journal article. And weep.

Kaplowitz now believes mainstream schools should be reserved for students who are capable of behaving, with disruptive students sent elsewhere. He feels guilty about the good kids who didn't get to learn much because he was so busy with the punchers, pencil throwers and screamers.

I think he's right. When discipline is enforced, most kids will behave. A few have very serious behavior problems, usually due to seriously bad parents, and need to be in a special environment. Letting them destroy a school does them no favors and is disastrous for the majority of students.

Kaplowitz doesn't say what he's doing, except that he's no longer a public school teacher.

When the going is tough, teachers go

Given a choice, many teachers will leave a high-poverty, high-minority school for a school where students have fewer problems and parents are more supportive. Surprised?

Three Georgia State University professors found that during the late '90s, white elementary school teachers in Georgia were much more likely to quit at schools with higher proportions of black students.

After the 1999-2000 school year, 31 percent of white teachers quit their jobs at schools where the student population was more than 70 percent black, and those who changed jobs went to schools that served lower proportions of black and poor pupils.

The professors can't figure out why.

During the late '90s, there was a rapid increase in elementary school construction in Georgia, and the state mandated smaller class sizes. This created more jobs and made it easier for all teachers, both black and white, to switch schools. But it still doesn't explain why black schools got hit the hardest by teacher turnover, (researcher Ben) Scafidi says.

I'll help you, professor. It's because low-income, high-minority schools are tougher teaching environments -- for all teachers, but especially for middle-class whites.

As a result of high turnover, the toughest schools are staffed by a large number of inexperienced teachers, a handful of dedicated survivors and burn-outs. Paying more money won't help, as the study showed. Making it possible for teachers to be effective is the only way to retain decent teachers.

Un-reality Sitcom

The O'Keefes, a midseason replacement on WB, portrays homeschooled children as weirdos who've sacrificed social interaction for unwholesome braininess. So they go to public school to learn how to be real kids.

Despite a ban on all things pop culture, teenagers Danny (Joseph Cross, Jack Frost) and Lauren (Tania Raymonde, Malcolm in the Middle) and younger brother Mark (Matt Weinberg) are growing increasingly curious about what lies beyond the walls of their school/dining room. They can speak six languages, but are unable to converse with kids their own age. The answer lies in their father's worst nightmare -- public school.

This is allegedly "based on a true story." I noticed that the co-producer is Mark O'Keefe, which is the name of the younger boy. I bet it's very, very loosely based on a sort-of true story.

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 JoanneJacobs.com 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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