John Neal: Disruptive students hurt education process

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As a high school teacher in Maine’s public schools since 1978, I write to encourage the end of compulsory education for Maine students over the age of 14.

Every Maine student should have access to a quality education, but when youngsters refuse to take advantage of that opportunity, instead, choosing to make life more difficult for teachers and administrators and learning troublesome for other students, schools should be able to tell them to leave.

Any assistant principal could relate that they spend 95 percent of their time with the same five 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. Week after week, year after year, the same kids are in the office being disciplined, and schools must continually put up with them.

Imagine how much better the education would be for kids who care about it, if the assistant principal could bring his/her knowledge and experience into the classrooms, observing and assisting teachers to deliver higher-quality instruction. But no, their time is wasted by the same kids, over and over again.

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How much more would dedicated students be able to learn if their teachers’ time wasn’t constantly being stolen by disruptive kids who refuse to follow the rules or make any effort toward learning?

We have kids who come to school only because it is a warm place to get free meals and visit their friends. They don’t even bring a pencil to class, never mind textbooks or homework. They do nothing except disrupt learning for others and bring down school test scores.

Meanwhile, they progress through the grades without learning anything, so their teachers have to abandon the current curriculum to remediate them — when they have no interest in learning.

So, the teachers look bad because these “students” are failing — by their own choice. Meanwhile, kids who want to learn have to wait while their teachers work even harder to try and reach kids who don’t care.

Any employee, anywhere, who refused to work and just made trouble would be fired, which is exactly what schools should be able to do.

“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. But otherwise capable kids who refuse to lift a finger toward their own education, or who repeatedly misbehave, 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, their unwillingness to try or behave. Furthermore, education should remain compulsory for younger children, who cannot understand the implications of their choices. However, once a youngster reaches age 13, they should become accountable.

Disciplinary referrals would be documented from that point onward; students who amass more than 10 a year, or who commit vandalism or violence, should be expelled.

Additionally, teachers should document student apathy. Again, after 10 instances, school-wide, 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 a whole lot 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, there must also be 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 your work and live by the rules, or you’re gone; and this time there will be no coming back.

Students dismissed for a second time could either 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. But by the end of the freshman year in high school, 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 that were the case, test scores would rocket upward, because only committed students would be tested; also, quality kids would get more time with teachers, driving scores even higher.

By ending compulsory education, there would be a much 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 is a high school teacher, a music composer and conductor. He lives in Greene.

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