Tuesday, June 28, 2005

No Point Left Un-Countered

If legislation was passed requiring television commentators to report if their editorials were “persistently insipid,” would Mark Hyman pass that judgment on himself?

Okay, that’s probably not a fair comparison, but it’s one that can’t help but come to mind when hearing
Hyman’s latest commentary on violence in schools. Using information gleaned from an article appearing in the libertarian Reason Magazine, Hyman criticizes schools for not fully reporting violence in their hallways (as mandated by the “No Child Left Behind” [sic] legislation). Only 26 of more than 91,000 public schools reported themselves as being “persistently dangerous.”

As Hyman himself points out, schools falling into this category that do not make improvements will lose federal funds. So surprise, surprise: hardly any schools self-report themselves as “persistently dangerous.”

In addition to the silliness of having schools report on themselves, there’s the additional problem of meaningless language (I know—it’s shocking that empty words would appear in anything coming from the Bush administration, isn’t it?). “Persistently dangerous”? It’s hard to get too upset with schools for not labeling themselves with a term that is entirely subjective. Would this term apply to a school like Columbine, which might have only had one “violent incident” during a school year, but which ended up with several students and teachers dead? Or would it apply to a school that had shoving matches and fistfights on a near daily basis in the hallways, but that never had to send a student to the hospital (or the morgue)? Would it apply to both? Neither?

Who knows? Probably not the school administrators themselves, and certainly not Hyman. Yet Hyman places the blame for the underreporting on the schools, not the ill-conceived and poorly worded legislation.

In fact, Hyman touts “No Child Left Behind” as an example of admirable lawmaking:

The No Child Left Behind Act has its critics, but this much is
certain. It strives to provide more information to parents, community leaders
and school officials in order to make better informed decisions on school
performance. Covering up violent incidents will not only hamper student
performance - it will also allow our children to face persistent danger.

It’s the last sentence that’s most troublesome. Why will not reporting violence at school “hamper student performance” and place children in “persistent danger”? That might sound like a reasonable assertion at first glance, but remember that schools are punished if they are consistently labeled “persistently violent” by losing federal funds.

One might expect that schools that are failing in this way would get extra help to solve the problem—from additional funding for security to money to help make the schools themselves more pleasant places to be (the “broken window” thesis of criminality being that small changes in the quality of one’s surroundings can have a big impact on the likelihood of criminal/violent behavior). But the legislation punishes schools for admitting problems rather than providing help. Is it any wonder schools don’t pipe up when asked if they consider themselves “persistently violent”?

Not only does such silence from school administrators seem understandable in terms of self-interest, but it may in fact be the ethical thing to do. If you are an administrator of a school faced with violence (and keep in mind that your school is probably not well off to begin with if this is the case), is it better to dutifully report this to the government and have your funds slashed even more, or is it in the best interest of your students to hang on to dear life to every dollar you have in order to do what you can for them?

I’m not suggesting that the answer to this question is obvious. I simply point out that it’s a legitimate question to ask. Implying that school administrators are dishonest for not reporting violence when doing so materially endangers their ability to provide for their students is more than a little unfair. In point of fact, it is the use of fiscal punishment of schools that are already at risk that will “hamper student performance” and place students in “persistent danger” by taking away what little means these schools have to provide for the education and security of their students.

“No Child Left Behind” might have decent motivations behind it, but it fosters a climate of fear and competition among schools, and feeds into the idea that we should be concerned about the schools our own children attend, but not those attended by the kids of our fellow Americans. It’s vitally important for the wellbeing of the entire nation that the public school system, from the Bronx in New York to Beverly Hills 90210, is healthy and providing a genuine education with adequate facilities and teachers to America’s children. Allowing schools already in danger to fall into the abyss is a guarantee of a future society that is, no matter where you live, “persistently dangerous.”

And that’s The Counterpoint.


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