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Education Ills: Connecting the dots

March 10, 2011

This morning’s news is interesting: at the same time they are talking about the Obama’s announcement of the big anti-bullying summit in September, hearings are underway that reveal up to 82% of our schools would be considered “Failing” under No Child Left Behind.

I’m sure virtually everyone thinks these things are completely unrelated.

But, the reality is that they are related because both issues stem from a common cause.

This is one of the things I point out in my presentations on education reform that I am frequently called to do.  In “Overcoming Failure to Educate,” I show how there is one root cause for nearly every problem in education today.  The types of things we’re talking about are classroom size, teacher recruitment and retention, the achievement gap, bullying and other anti-social behavior, and even academic achievement.

You might be thinking that this “common cause” is “money,” and you’d be wrong. None of this has to do with money…

As a matter of fact, if we dealt with the real root cause, we’d have plenty of money to do the things we needed to do in the classroom because we’re bleeding money right and left. You see, the common cause we’re talking about here is the problem with our kids social skills, character and behavior. Over the past 40 years, discipline in the classroom has been decreasing at steady and alarming rates. At the same time, we’ve been investing increasingly larger sums of money trying to educate our kids. Ordinary “disruptive” students in the class whose behavior isn’t checked can become the same students who don’t care about how they are hurting and taunting fellow classmates. Teachers who can’t deal with the discipline problems anymore bail out of the education system, regardless of what you pay them. Students that come from low-income, minority or non-native cultures may not know what they need to in the way of interpersonal skills to be able to participate equally with the mainstream in the classroom, and they then are unable to compete equally in the job market.

When repeated studies show that teachers are losing 20/30/40% or more of productive classroom time due to unruly and disruptive students, that ruins the learning environment for all students. It costs the school system hundreds of billions of dollars annually, not to mention the related side-effects.

Yet, what do we typically do?  We go to the end-result.  If students aren’t achieving, it must mean they need better curriculum, different assessments, longer school days or school year, or better teachers.  All of this will most certainly require more money.  To stop bullying we need better Zero Tolerance policies, more money for anti-bullying programs, or even tougher legislation.  Can you see the dollar signs?

However, improving classroom productivity by improving students’ social skills does not require more money because the money is already there…it’s just “lost” right now due to waste. And, as the recent research from the University of Chicago showed, implementing social skills education directly results in higher academic achievement as well as improvements in student behavior and reductions in discipline problems.

We’ve seen these results with SocialSmarts so I have first-hand experience with this. It’s not an anomaly either; results are consistent across a wide-variety of demographics, geographical regions, and types of schools. Our kids just have lost the ability to understand why school is a place where you sit still, are quiet as appropriate, pay attention and be respectful. As I’ve been quoted in the past, “Johnny will never learn to read if Johnny won’t sit down, hush up, and pay attention.”

I just don’t see too many people talking about the issue at the root cause level and I wonder why.  If we dealt with things where they start, we’d find we get a lot more done, more efficiently, and with better overall results.  Yes, we’ll have exceptions, but then we have the ability to deal with them as exceptions instead of the norm. I know governments aren’t know for their efficiency — that’s like saying “jumbo shrimp” — but these are our tax dollars and our children, for crying out loud.

Mr. Secretary of Education, I would love to take 1/2 an hour of your time, share what I have to say, and have you explain to me why I don’t have a valid point. But, the good news is I have more than a point…I have a solution.  I’m willing to let you in on it so maybe this administration can be successful in its education plans, instead of another one we look back on as a failure.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2011 1:20 pm

    I strongly support this idea of emphasizing social skills in the schools. Unfortunately, most of the solutions that are called “anti-bullying” are more likely to enable rather than to prevent bullying. That is, by focusing on identifying bullies, scrutinizing for zero tolerance, punishing perpetrators, etc. virtually nothing is done to help all students focus on respect, generosity, caring, and other positive character-building traits. Schools believe that if they have an anti-bullying policy, they don’t need to do anything else. But bullying is just one of many disrespectful acts that occur in classrooms.

  2. Zara permalink
    May 2, 2011 9:22 pm

    Classroom management is truly all many teachers have time for now. I am a parent and see it in my childrens’ classes. I’ve also taught art (in a non-inner-city school) so know how hard it is to get a group to focus on a project when several kids must always be sticking pencils in each others’ eyes, etc.

    But, you do need to put class size at the top of the list of solutions for this problem. Social skills curricula surely help (I didn’t look at the research), but in an age of inclusion, ESL, mass poverty, etc. social skills training will only go so far. I taught full classes and I taught half classes of the SAME KIDS, and I could happily do the latter, but not the former. Please don’t let our government and their billionaire friends off the hook for class size. Thanks.

  3. m.makower permalink
    May 6, 2011 8:35 am

    I agree with your premise that classrooms are suffering for want of social skills training for all students, but I don’t believe your analysis will gather mainstream support until you weave into it the unspoken issues surrounding race. I know, I can almost hear the whooosh of the deep breath in response to THAT topic. But no one can talk about “social skills” without sounding like we are speaking in code, unless we put race where it belongs in the context and the solutions. There has to be a two-way street that is not dominated by the usually white school adminstration and foisted upon students of color and their families, who make up an increasing proportion of public school populations. I read references to “urban” “minority” “demographics” etc. as well intended attempts to be inclusive and not offensive. Unfortunately, race is a difficult subject of conversation, but if we are serious and clear minded in our purpose of making schools work better for all, then we have to speak of “race” because the issues are imbedded and intertwined in schools. They are borne in parents, teachers and our children, and the hard edges will remain hard for the next generation and those to follow, unless we and talk about race. How? Not in we-they terms or general proclamations; we must speak personally, “I feel…” and listen from our hearts, There may be no better issue than the teaching of “social skills” to get at race relations and white privilege. Teaching social skills will require the cooperation of teachers and parents, more conspicuously than any other aspect of curriculum. Asking up front for visions of a high functioning classroom, discussing values about children’s behavior and the behavior of adults in the presence of children, is sure to surface many more points of agreement than difference. Making the refinement of students’ social skills a joint parent-teacher endeavor is not only the sole approach likely to succeed, it may just create the connection between school and home that is so often missing. We vastly underestimate the power of respect, acceptance, and love.

    • Corinne Gregory permalink*
      May 6, 2011 8:42 am

      I love your observations, makrocks, but could you be more specific? We know, for example, that schools which have a huge diversity have used the SocialSmarts program to enormous success. In fact, we hear that PARENTS are getting better jobs because of what their students have brought home. We also offer resources to parents for each of our courses, so we are getting engagement from “minority,” urban and “non-native” parents and caregivers.

      In reality, the biggest problem we’ve seen hampering wide-spread adoption of the concept is that it requires enlightened thinking on the part of educators and administrators. When the reasons for why education continues to under-perform continue to be blamed on external symptoms, telling someone that we can accomplish more even with less if we deal with a root cause issue isn’t exactly a popular opinion. But, you gotta keep trying because we know what the outcome is if we give up.

      Appreciate your comments and observations! Keep ’em coming!

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  1. An Open Response to Arne Duncan’s Open Letter to America’s Teachers « SocialSmarts Blog

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