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Bruno: The Kids Are Probably Still Alright

Motivation2jh1EdWeek teacher blogger Kelly Flynn thinks educators and reformers should be talking more about student behavior and motivation, based in part on a "quick scan" of this report from the National Center for Education Statistics, which she says shows that: "school personnel spend an inordinate amount of time struggling with every single day: insubordination, student and teacher victimization, fighting, weapons, theft, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, gang activity, drugs, alcohol, tardiness, and an astonishing rate of absenteeism."

These are undoubtedly important issues, but I tend to be skeptical about "kids-these-days" sorts of arguments.So is it really the case that there are, as she says, a  "growing number of students who don't learn because they don't want to"?  I think a deeper look at the very same report suggests the answer is "no".  

The data seem to suggest, in fact, that by a variety of measures school safety has been improving.  High school students are less likely than in the 1990s to say that drugs are available to them at school, to have been in a fight on or off school property, to have used alcohol anywhere, or to have brought a weapon to school. Students are reporting fewer crimes at or away from school and they are less afraid at school than at any point since at least 1995. For the 2008-2009 academic year, homicides at schools were down by over half compared to 1998-1999.

It's not obvious that kids are giving their teachers a harder time, either.  Compared to 1994 teachers aren't any more likely to have been physically attacked by a student and are less likely to have been threatened with violence. Teachers today seem to be less likely to agree that misbehavior or truancy interfere with their teaching, and the decline is greatest among those likely to have the most perspective: teachers with 20+ years of experience. Teachers - and, again, especially veterans - also have more faith that their colleagues and administrators are enforcing school rules.

None of this is to say that school safety and student motivation couldn't be better in a lot of ways, and Kelly may be right that stakeholders are often uncomfortable talking about these issues. Reports of the ongoing moral decline of the youth and their parents, however, seem to have been greatly exaggerated. - PB (@MrPABruno) (Image source)


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In places like NYC, violence is lower than any time since the 19th century, and the murder rate has declined dramatically since the 60s and 70s. Murder dropped dramatically in the Great Depression, also. But in 1994, the peak of crack and gangs was vivid, and the child victims were still in school. Perhaps there has been improvments in enforcing rules (as opposed to the absurdity and cruelty of zero tolerance). But, that's not the question. Twenty years ago, schools had not been deputized to fight poverty. Schools cannot systematically change kids' life trajectories without being given far more power to establish safe and orderly environments. And even though I don't have an answer, we can't create respectful learning environments without conversations on distractions from personal electronic devices.

It's not obvious that kids are giving their teachers a harder time, either. Compared to 1994 teachers aren't any more likely to have been physically attacked by a student and are less likely to have been threatened with violence.

Saying that student behavior and school safety have improved since the '90's is not saying a lot. I agree with John that there needs to be structured intervention for students who are disruptive because the level of disruption is far, far above what can be managed in an effective learning environment in far too many schools.

@John & EB - I don't disagree with the idea that student behavior can and should be better. (In fact, I said so in the post.) I was was specifically addressing the claim that it's *getting worse*, which I think it demonstrably is not. It is, in fact, improving at a significant rate, as far as I can tell.

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