October 24, 2003
New York New York

A depressing article in the New York Times about … well, it's impossible to describe it without completely taking sides and making major judgements. I'd say it is about the abject failure of the Prussian model of education if you don't have Prussians in charge of it.

"What goes on in these classrooms, that's the story of urban education," said a teacher from Brooklyn. "You've got kids playing dice in the back of the classroom. You've got kids listening to their Walkman, or writing rap rhymes. And rapping to girls. And also practicing gang signs. Now that's a classroom that's run by a teacher who doesn't care."

There were frequent references to "the back of the classroom." When I asked why, one teacher said: "There's a certain protocol to the room. If they sit in the back, the kids have specifically opted out of dealing with the classroom. They feel as though they can do whatever they want back there."

"They just slam their desks to the back of the room," said another teacher. "There might be 15 or 20 kids back there, with a space between their desks and the ones in the front of the room. The teacher just teaches the ones in the front."

"Remember," said a teacher from Manhattan, "these are just children. Teenagers. There is no reason to ever let them get out of control like that. But I would say that many of the teachers I've met don't care about their students."

The usual horror story only a bit more so in other words. This is New York after all – and in New York they don't do things by halves. Basically the out of control kids at the back are making it impossible for anyone at the front, teacher or pupils, to get anything done.

One of two strategies might work. One, the aforementioned Prussian model, the problem there being an insufficiency of Prussians, and more pervasively, the general unwillingness of the system as a whole to be Prussia. Not a wholly bad thing, I think you might agree.

Two, a "consenting" Prussian system. Teach only those who want the sort of schooling of this sort, and chuck out the rest. Have rules, and have near the top of the list of rules: and if you don't like all these rules, leave. That might then evolve into something better than Prussia, because then surely, other schools might spring up which might cater to those who don't care for Prussianism.

But the implications of Two are too scary for most people to want to face. In effect that would mean making the abolition of compulsory schooling official. (I presume that it's already an unofficial reality.) And if kids can choose not to go to school, what else will they choose to do? I'd say, make it legal for them for work for money, and in general confer upon them the legal rights and legal duties of adulthood. But the rich world's not ready to face that.

So, Three, bugger on with the shambolic mess now prevailing, is presumably the policy that will go on happening.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:50 AM
Category: The reality of teaching