Ask anyone who has worked in some of America’s failing public schools and nearly all of them will tell you the same thing: The biggest problem isn’t the quality of the teachers. It’s the behavior of the kids; angry, disruptive, disrespectful kids whose behavior is out of control. This is true not only in the poor schools in the inner cities, but in schools in the largely white rural parts of the US as well. The kids themselves are only partly to blame — students, after all, are what adults make them.
In the year I spent as a substitute teacher in some of the toughest schools in inner city Los Angeles, chronicled in my new book “Sit Down and Shut Up: How Discipline Can Set Students Free” (St. Martin’s Press), I was threatened and cursed by students more times than I could count.
One kid called me an “Urkel-looking motherf–ker.” That part was the kid’s fault (or maybe that of his parents). But what happened next wasn’t. I called the hall monitor and had him taken to the principal’s office. But soon after, he came back into my class with a note that read, “Okay to return to class.” There was no apology, no detention, no one called at home. He didn’t have to write a letter explaining why he’d erupted so angrily, and he most certainly wasn’t suspended.
This was the fault of the adults in the school. In the course of a generation, this behavior from kids — coupled with either no reaction or an overreaction by adults — has gotten worse.
It wasn’t always thus.
After a particularly difficult day, a teacher who had also attended the school as a teenager remarked to me, “This school was always tough, but we used to fight each other; [now] they fight the teacher.”
What happened between the time that teacher (and I) were kids to now to mark such a dramatic shift? I spent a year trying to unlock that mystery.
One culprit is the United Nations, and the notion of children’s rights.
My first encounter with the idea of children’s rights was at a middle school where the students were so unruly that at least a half-dozen teachers had quit from exhaustion, including the one for whom I was substituting. A group of kids was roughhousing and cursing as others were trying to complete work. Because of one student’s foul language and because he’d launched an eraser in my general direction, I threatened to hold him in for recess — a punishment teachers have been doling out to kids since recess was invented.
But he and his friends, none more than 5 feet tall, told me that I couldn’t do that because they “have a right to play.” Having schooled me to their satisfaction, they promptly went back to swinging from the rafters and ignoring anything else I said that day.
I thought it was a joke until the assistant principal reprimanded me when I tried to make good on my threat.
An international treaty called the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which was adopted in 1989, defined the notion of what a child is and is not entitled to. It would become the most ratified treaty in UN history. The treaty is smart and wise in many ways, insisting that children have a right to shelter and the right to be protected in war. My favorite part states that children have a right to a name. That’s both beautiful and sad: Imagine what it must be like to be a child and have never been given a name.
But it doesn’t end there.
The UN treaty insists that young people be given the right to freedom of speech and the right to practice their own religion or no religion as they see fit. (I shudder to think what would have happened had I told my preacher father that I had a right not to go to church when he was dragging me out of bed on Sunday mornings.)
Maybe you think that 30-year international law — which, by the way, the US never ratified — has had no impact on America’s public schools. Think again. Article 31 says, “State Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.” There it is: the right to play. Schools have taken it upon themselves to spread to these students that they have inalienable right to play, even when they misbehave — and the kids have taken it up with gusto.
Legislators in California have been trying to pass a children’s rights bill similar to the UN treaty, enshrining at the state level what Congress refused to do 30 years ago.
In another instance, I tried to send a kid to the office for being disruptive. Surely that wasn’t outlawed? Wrong again. An administrator chastised me that they don’t allow teachers to send disruptive students to the office. Instead, they “let the students decide when they want to take a break,” because, according to her, sending students to the office takes away the student’s autonomy.
The policy was specific to that school, not a politically organized desire to follow the convention, but the effect was powerful nonetheless — and poorly reasoned. Since when has a middle-schooler who is having the time of his life with his friends and ignoring everything a teacher says, suddenly stopped and thought, “You know what, let me step outside on a break and then go back in and focus on the homework I didn’t do last night”?
I don’t want to overstate the issue. There are more factors at play than just a UN charter — including the rise of charter schools and the elimination of basic forms of discipline like detention and suspension.
This is surely what led former dean of Harvard Law School Martha Minow to write that “advocates of children’s rights use the same rights . . . to place them in the same legal category as adults.” Turning kids into adults in this way, and allowing them to behave however they choose without reasonable consequences for those actions, turns children into slaves of their impulses. This is the opposite of freedom.