At the KIPP charter middle school in Washington, D.C., the school year starts with a summer session devoted to teaching students how to pay attention, remain quiet and "assign" themselves to do the right thing.

Establishing an orderly, respectful, learning-centered culture is job one. Jay Mathews reports in the Washington Post:

"Eyes tracking on me," Johnson said. "There is something really important I am going to teach you today. It is called 'Ready on 5.' " For the first of what would likely be thousands of times, the new Kippsters heard a teacher say: "Ready on 5, 4, 3, 2, 1." Johnson explained that by the end of the countdown, they were expected to be in the ready position: "eyes forward, hands together, elbows on desk."

And there was more. "Do not get out of your seat at all unless I give you permission," she said. "Work silently." She directed them to a chart on the wall showing the proper signals for various desires -- thumb up for a comment, all fingers up for a question, one finger up for a new pencil and a fist up for permission to go to the bathroom. The students worked on memorizing the school credo: "If there is a problem, we look for a solution. If there is a better way, we find it. If a teammate needs help, we give. If we need help, we ask."

. . . In Little's math class, the fifth graders heard an explanation of the signs around the school saying "ASSIGN YOURSELF." "It means," Little said, "just in case you forget, do the right thing without being told. You are in middle school now. You are about to be an adult. Adults do things without being told. I am an adult. I am teaching you now, and Ms. Schaeffler didn't tell me, 'Ms. Little, you should be in teaching now.' "

By contrast, many schools are so disorderly and dangerous that even the good kids can’t learn.

Disorder scares students, says a New York University study.

“Disorderliness is the secondary school’s version of ‘broken windows,’ a visible sign that no one cares,” say Tod Mijanovich, M.P.A., and Beth Weitzman, Ph.D., of the university’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “It serves to signal to students a lack of consistent adult concern and oversight that can leave them feeling unsafe.”

One third of public school students -- urban and suburban -- said their classmates get away with anything. Only 18 percent of private school students said classmates were out of control.

When nine-year-old Daquan Wilson goes to recess, lunch or the bathroom, his bodyguard goes with him. Daquan was attacked in June by three bullies; they served a two-day suspension. At the start of the school year, the principal assigned a lunchroom aide to protect Daquan from the two bullies who still attend his Philadelphia-area elementary school.

Discipline has disappeared in British secondary schools, writes teacher James Mcleod in Prospect magazine.

. . . a pupil who had been excluded for two days wandered into my classroom and in full view of the class made rude gestures at me; I was referred to as "a thing" by a 13-year-old girl; another pupil told me to "shut my f---ing mouth"; there were many instances of students telling me to shut up, go away and mind my own business; a 15-year-old boy became so enraged after being asked to stay five minutes into break that he went to the back of the room and broke the lock on the double doors, shouting, "Just let me out of this f----ing room! For f----'s sake let me out!"

School officials blame bad parents and "culture." Young, poorly trained teachers don't help either.

The NUT (National Union of Teachers) recently endorsed a call for "bouncers" who could "come in if a child became uncontrollable, to take them out to calm down." This already happens in France, where many schools have "discipline managers" who are called to remove students from class.

When principals set clear expectations and enforce rules -- the "broken windows" theory once again -- students calm down and start learning.

Also from England comes this terrible story: After reporting a friend's father had molested her, a 13-year-old at a "good" school was bullied for months by the ex-friend's vengeful older sister and her followers. The school did nothing to protect the victim, her father complains. The bullies won: The victim transferred to a private school.

Broken Pipeline

Only 70 percent of high school students earn a diploma , concludes a Manhattan Institute study. Fewer than half who graduate are minimally qualified for a four-year college. That is, they've taken a college-prep sequence of classes and they have basic literacy skills. The numbers are far worse for black and Hispanic students; barely half earn a diploma.

One implication of the study is that virtually all students who are minimally college ready -- diploma, college-prep classes and basic literacy skills -- go on to college. Blacks, who make up 9 percent of college-ready 18-year-olds, make up 11 percent of freshmen; Hispanics, also 9 percent of the college-ready pool, are 7 percent of the entering class.

More financial aid and affirmative action policies won't budge the numbers, the study concludes. Better academic preparation would enable more students to enroll in four-year colleges -- and maybe even to earn a degree.

Hey, Big Spender

The U.S. ranks at the top worldwide in school spending -- but student achievement is just average.

"There are countries which don't get the bang for the bucks, and the U.S. is one of them," said Barry McGaw, education director for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which produced the annual review of industrialized nations.

The United States spent $10,240 per student from elementary school through college in 2000, according to the report. The average was $6,361 among more than 25 nations.

Australia, Finland, Ireland, Korea and the United Kingdom combine high performance and moderate spending.

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Letters

Stephen Scott, from Waco, Texas:

Like Erin Bangert, I am a social studies teacher, and I stand in amazement at how we concentrate on the plight of slavery and treatment of American Indians.

Many social studies teachers are coaches. Not all are bad -- I'm even dating one -- but for the most part, unfortunately, most coaches are concerned more about their sport than about teaching in the classroom.

I was glad that one student told me that my social studies class was his hardest class.

Pat Titus, associate professor Riverside Community College:

I teach psychology and counsel students at a community college in California. About six years ago, we implemented mandatory testing and placement of all entering students. We have yet to see an improvement of the test scores of entering students. In fact, this year scores dropped again. About 80 percent of these students are reading no higher than the 5th to 6th grade level. Their math and writing performance are not much better. However, their self-esteem is through the roof. When I explain to them what their scores mean, they get very upset until it sinks in. As one student commented, "I was an "A" and "B" student in high school and now I realize I was lied to."

Anecdotally, we are seeing more home-schooled students and the majority of these are performing at or above grade level.

Kevin L. Allen, Olympia, Wash., says:

As the son of a retired teacher, I can tell you exactly what the problem is.  Teachers lost authority because parents didn’t want teachers disciplining their "little angels." Now, all the teacher can do is present the material, assign homework and provide testing.

Parents should look in the mirror!  Are they making sure their "little angel" is doing homework and preparing for tests?

Dave Brown, Ankeny, Iowa:

As a teacher, I routinely read articles in which educators are labeled "lazy," "incompetent" and the like. Some in my profession fall into this category, but that is true of any profession. The majority of teachers are competent, outstanding individuals who care deeply about their students and their profession.

I teach instrumental music in a small district in central Iowa. I have a Bachelor of Music Degree in Education, and will complete the coursework for a Master of Music Degree in Education in June of 2004. I have spent several thousand dollars for my graduate degree. I'm not complaining, I'm merely stating a fact.

My day begins well before the students arrive and ends well after the students leave. Much like other professions, I bring work home with me to do in the evenings and on the weekends. Again, I'm not complaining, I'm merely stating facts.

Unfortunately, these are the facts that many people don't consider when calling teachers "incompetent" and "lazy." There are a lot of great teachers in the world. When people make blanket, derogatory statements about educators, they negate the accomplishments of the majority of teachers that work hard and do a good job.

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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