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11.3 Issues and Problems in Elementary and Secondary Education

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe how schooling in the United States helps perpetuate social inequality.
  2. Explain the difference between de jure segregation and de facto segregation.
  3. Summarize the evidence on the effectiveness of single-sex education.
  4. Describe the extent of school violence and the controversy over zero-tolerance policies.
  5. Discuss how and why social inequality in the larger society manifests itself in higher education.

The elementary (K–8) and secondary (9–12) education system today faces many issues and problems of interest not just to educators and families but also to sociologists and other social scientists. We cannot discuss all these issues here, but we will highlight some of the most interesting and important.

Schools and Inequality

Earlier we mentioned that schools differ greatly in their funding, their conditions, and other aspects. Noted author and education critic Jonathan Kozol refers to these differences as “savage inequalities,” to quote the title of one of his books (Kozol, 1991).Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York, NY: Crown. Kozol’s concern over inequality in the schools stemmed from his experience as a young teacher in a public elementary school in a Boston inner-city neighborhood in the 1960s. Kozol was shocked to see that his school was literally falling apart. The building itself was decrepit, with plaster falling off the walls and bathrooms and other facilities substandard. Classes were large, and the school was so overcrowded that Kozol’s fourth-grade class had to meet in an auditorium, which it shared with another class, the school choir, and, for a time, a group of students practicing for the Christmas play. Kozol’s observations led to the writing of his first award-winning book, Death at an Early Age (Kozol, 1967).Kozol, J. (1967). Death at an early age: The destruction of the hearts and minds of negro children in the Boston public schools. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Kozol (1991)Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York, NY: Crown. later traveled around the United States and systematically compared public schools in several cities’ inner-city neighborhoods to those in the cities’ suburbs. Everywhere he went, he found great discrepancies in school spending and in the quality of instruction. In schools in Camden, New Jersey, for example, spending per pupil was less than half the amount spent in the nearby, much wealthier town of Princeton. Chicago and New York City schools spent only about half the amount that some of the schools in nearby suburbs spent.

These numbers were reflected in other differences Kozol found when he visited city and suburban schools. In East St. Louis, Illinois, where most of the residents are poor and almost all are African American, schools had to shut down once because of sewage backups. The high school’s science labs were thirty to fifty years out of date when Kozol visited them; the biology lab had no dissecting kits. A history teacher had 110 students but only twenty-six textbooks, some of which were missing their first one hundred pages. At one of the city’s junior high schools, many window frames lacked any glass, and the hallways were dark because light bulbs were missing or not working. Visitors could smell urinals one hundred feet from the bathroom.

Contrast these conditions with those Kozol observed in suburban schools. A high school in a Chicago suburb had seven gyms and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Students there could take classes in seven foreign languages. A suburban New Jersey high school offered fourteen AP courses, fencing, golf, ice hockey, and lacrosse, and the school district there had ten music teachers and an extensive music program.

From his observations, Kozol concluded that the United States is shortchanging its children in poor rural and urban areas. As we saw in Chapter 2 "Poverty", poor children start out in life with many strikes against them. The schools they attend compound their problems and help ensure that the American ideal of equal opportunity for all remains just that—an ideal—rather than a reality. As Kozol (1991, p. 233)Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York, NY: Crown. observed, “All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America. Whether they were born to poor white Appalachians or to wealthy Texans, to poor black people in the Bronx or to rich people in Manhasset or Winnetka, they are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly.”

Although the book in which Kozol reported these conditions was published more than twenty years ago, ample evidence (including the news story about Baltimore’s schools that began this chapter) shows these conditions persist today. A recent news report discussed public schools in Washington, DC. More than 75 percent of the schools in the city had a leaking roof at the time the report was published, and 87 percent had electrical problems, some of which involved shocks or sparks. Most of the schools’ cafeterias—85 percent—had health violations, including peeling paint near food and rodent and roach infestation. Thousands of requests for building repairs, including 1,100 labeled “urgent” or “dangerous,” had been waiting more than a year to be addressed. More than one-third of the schools had a mouse infestation, and in one elementary school, there were so many mice that the students gave them names and drew their pictures. An official with the city’s school system said, “I don’t know if anybody knows the magnitude of problems at D.C. public schools. It’s mind-boggling” (Keating & Haynes, 2007).Keating, D., & Haynes, V. D. (2007, June 10). Can DC schools be fixed? The Washington Post, p. A1.

Large funding differences in the nation’s schools also endure. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for example, annual per-pupil expenditure was $10,878 in 2010; in nearby suburban Lower Merion Township, it was $21,110, or 95 percent higher than Philadelphia’s expenditure (Federal Education Budget Project, 2012).Federal Education Budget Project. (2012). K–12: Pennsylvania. Retrieved January 2, 2012, from http://febp.newamerica.net/k12/PA.

Teacher salaries are related to these funding differences. Salaries in urban schools in low-income neighborhoods are markedly lower than those in schools in wealthier neighborhoods (Dillon, 2011).Dillon, S. (2011, December 1). Districts pay less in poor schools, report says. New York Times, p. A29. As a result, teachers at the low-income schools tend to be inexperienced teachers just out of college. All things equal, they are less likely than their counterparts at wealthier schools to be effective teachers.

Jonathan Kozol has written movingly of “savage inequalities” in American schools arising from large differences in their funding and in the condition of their physical facilities.

People Making a Difference

Teaching Young Students about Science and Conservation

Since 1999, the Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI) has taught more than 40,000 public school students in a low-income San Diego neighborhood about the ocean and the environment. Most of the students are Latino, and a growing number are recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and East Africa. By learning about ocean science, the students also learn something about geology, physics, and other sciences. ODI’s program has grown over the years, and it now services more than 5,000 students annually in ten schools. To accomplish its mission, ODI engages in several kinds of activities.

First, ODI instructors teach hands-on marine science activities to students in grades 3–6. They also consult closely with the schools’ teachers about the science curriculum taught in the schools.

Second, ODI runs an after-school program in which they provide marine science–based lessons as well as academic, social, and college-entry support to approximately sixty students in grades 6–12.

Third, ODI takes about twenty high school students every summer to the Sea of Cortez in Baja California, Mexico, for an intensive five-week research experience at a field research station. Before they do so, they are trained for several weeks in laboratory and field research procedures, and they also learn how to swim and snorkel. After they arrive at the field research station, they divide into three research teams; each team works on a different project under the guidance of ODI instructors and university and government scientists. A recent project, which won an award from the World Wildlife Fund, has focused on reducing the number of sea turtles that are accidentally caught in fishing nets.

The instruction provided by ODI has changed the lives of many students. Perhaps most notably, about 80 percent of the students who have participated in the after-school or summer program have attended a four-year college or university (with almost all declaring a major in one of the sciences), compared to less than one-third of students in their schools who have not participated in these programs. One summer program student, whose parents were deported by the government, recalls the experience fondly: “I have learned to become independent, and I pushed myself to try new things. Now I know I can overcome barriers and take chances…I am prepared to overcome challenges and follow my dreams.”

In 2011, ODI was one of three organizations that received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. Several ODI officials and students traveled to the White House to take part in various events and accept the award from President Obama. As this award attests, the Ocean Discovery Institute is making a striking difference in the lives of low-income San Diego students. For further information, visit http://www.oceandiscoveryinstitute.org. (Full disclosure: The author’s son works for ODI.)

Source: Ocean Discovery Institute, 2011Ocean Discovery Institute. (2011). Believe: A PEN in the classroom anthology. San Diego, CA: Author.

School Segregation

A related issue to school inequality is school racial segregation. Before 1954, schools in the South were racially segregated by law (de jure segregationSchool segregation stemming from legal requirements.). Communities and states had laws that dictated which schools white children attended and which schools African American children attended. Schools were either all white or all African American, and, inevitably, white schools were much better funded than African American schools. Then in 1954, the US Supreme Court outlawed de jure school segregation in its famous Brown v. Board of Education decision. Southern school districts fought this decision with legal machinations, and de jure school segregation did not really end in the South until the civil rights movement won its major victories a decade later.

Meanwhile, northern schools were also segregated; decades after the Brown decision, they have become even more segregated. School segregation in the North stemmed, both then and now, not from the law but from neighborhood residential patterns. Because children usually go to schools near their homes, if adjacent neighborhoods are all white or all African American, then the schools for these neighborhoods will also be all white or all African American, or mostly so. This type of segregation is called de facto segregationSchool segregation stemming from neighborhood residential patterns..

Many children today attend schools that are racially segregated because of neighborhood residential patterns.

Today many children continue to go to schools that are segregated because of neighborhood residential patterns, a situation that Kozol (2005)Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York, NY: Crown. calls “apartheid schooling.” About 40 percent of African American and Latino children attend schools that are very segregated (at least 90 percent of their students are of color); this level of segregation is higher than it was four decades ago. Although such segregation is legal, it still results in schools that are all African American and/or all Latino and that suffer severely from lack of funding, poor physical facilities, and poorly paid teachers (Orfield, Siegel-Hawley, & Kucsera, 2011).Orfield, G., Siegel-Hawley, G., & Kucsera, J. (2011). Divided we fail: Segregated and unequal schools in the Southland. Los Angeles, CA: Civil Rights Project.

During the 1960s and 1970s, states, municipalities, and federal courts tried to reduce de facto segregation by busing urban African American children to suburban white schools and, less often, by busing white suburban children to African American urban schools. Busing inflamed passions as perhaps few other issues did during those decades (Lukas, 1985).Lukas, J. A. (1985). Common ground: A turbulent decade in the lives of three American families. New York, NY: Knopf. White parents opposed it because they did not want their children bused to urban schools, where, they feared, the children would be unsafe and receive an inferior education. The racial prejudice that many white parents shared heightened their concerns over these issues. African American parents were more likely to see the need for busing, but they, too, wondered about its merits, especially because it was their children who were bused most often and faced racial hostility when they entered formerly all-white schools.

As one possible solution to reduce school segregation, some cities have established magnet schools, schools for high-achieving students of all races to which the students and their families apply for admission (Vopat, 2011).Vopat, M. C. (2011). Magnet schools, innate talent, and social justice. Theory and Research in Education, 9, 59–72. Although these schools do help some students whose families are poor and of color, their impact on school segregation has been minimal because the number of magnet schools is low and because they are open only to the very best students who, by definition, are also few in number. Some critics also say that magnet schools siphon needed resources from public school systems and that their reliance on standardized tests makes it difficult for African American and Latino students to gain admission.

School Choice: Education Vouchers and Charter Schools

Children who attend a public school ordinarily attend the school that is designated for the neighborhood in which they live, and they and their parents normally have little choice in the matter. One of the most popular but also controversial components of the school reform movement today is school choicePrograms in which parents and their children, primarily from low-income families in urban areas, receive public funds to attend a school different from their neighborhood’s school., in which parents and their children, primarily from low-income families in urban areas, receive public funds to attend a school different from their neighborhood’s school. School choice has two components. The first component involves education vouchers, which parents can use as tuition at private or parochial (religious) schools. The second component involves charter schoolsPublic schools built and operated by for-profit companies and to which students normally apply for admission., which are public schools (because public funds pay for students’ tuition) built and operated by for-profit companies. Students normally apply for admission to these schools; sometimes they are accepted based on their merit and potential, and sometimes they are accepted by lottery. Both components have strong advocates and fierce critics. We examine each component in turn.

Education Vouchers

Advocates of school choice programs involving education vouchers say they give low-income families an option for high-quality education they otherwise would be unable to afford. These programs, the advocates add, also help improve the public schools by forcing them to compete for students with their private and parochial counterparts. In order to keep a large number of parents from using vouchers to send their children to the latter schools, public schools have to upgrade their facilities, improve their instruction, and undertake other steps to make their brand of education an attractive alternative. In this way, school choice advocates argue, vouchers have a “competitive impact” that forces public schools to make themselves more attractive to prospective students (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2011).National Conference of State Legislatures. (2011). Publicly funded school voucher programs. Retrieved January 2, 2012, from http://www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=12942.

Critics of school choice programs say they harm the public schools by decreasing their enrollments and therefore their funding. Public schools do not have the money now to compete with private and parochial ones, nor will they have the money to compete with them if vouchers become more widespread. Critics also worry that voucher programs will lead to a “brain drain” of the most academically motivated children and families from low-income schools (Crone, 2011).Crone, J. A. (2011). How can we solve our social problems? (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Because school choice programs and school voucher systems are still relatively new, scholars have not yet had time to assess whether they improve their students’ academic achievement. Some studies do find small improvements, but methodological problems make it difficult to reach any firm conclusions at this point (DeLuca & Dayton, 2009).DeLuca, S., & Dayton, E. (2009). Switching social contexts: The effects of housing mobility and school choice programs on youth outcomes. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(1), 457–491. Although there is also little research on the impact of school choice programs on funding and other aspects of public school systems, some evidence does indicate a negative impact. In Milwaukee, for example, enrollment decline from the use of vouchers cost the school system $26 million in state aid during the 1990s, forcing a rise in property taxes to replace the lost funds. Because the students who left the Milwaukee school system came from most of its 157 public schools, only a few left any one school, diluting the voucher system’s competitive impact. Thus although school choice programs may give some families alternatives to public schools, they might not have the competitive impact on public schools that their advocates claim, and they may cost public school systems state aid (Cooper, 1999).Cooper, K. J. (1999, June 25). Under vouchers, status quo rules. The Washington Post, p. A3.

Charter Schools

About 5,000 charter schools operate across the nation, with about 3 percent of American children attending them. Charter schools and their proponents claim that students fare better in these schools than in conventional public schools because of the charter schools’ rigorous teaching methods, strong expectations for good behavior, small classrooms, and other advantages (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2012).National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (2012). Why charter schools? Retrieved January 11, 2012, from http://www.publiccharters.org/About-Charter-Schools/Why-Charter-Schools003F.aspx.

Critics say charter schools incur the same problems that education vouchers incur: They take some of the brightest students from a city’s conventional public schools and lead to lower funding for these schools (Ravitch, 2010; Rosenfeld, 2012).Ravitch, D. (2010, March 8). Why I changed my mnd about school reform. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704869304575109443305343962.html; Rosenfeld, L. (2012, March 16). How charter schools can hurt. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/opinion/how-charter-schools-can-hurt.html?emc=tnt&tntemail0=y. Critics also cite research findings that charter schools do not in fact deliver the strong academic performance claimed by their advocates. For example, a study that compared test scores at charter schools in sixteen states with those at public schools found that the charter schools did worse overall: 17 percent of charter schools had better scores than public schools, 46 percent had scores similar to those of public schools, and 37 percent had lower scores (Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 2009).Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (2009). Multiple choice: Charter school performance in 16 states. Stanford, CA: Author.

Even when charter school test scores are higher, there is the methodological problem that students are not randomly assigned to attend a charter school (Basile, 2010).Basile, M. (2010). False impression: How a widely cited study vastly overstates the benefits of charter schools. New York, NY: Century Foundation. It is thus possible that the students and parents who apply to charter schools are more highly motivated than those who do not. If so, the higher test scores found in some charter schools may reflect the motivation of the students attending these schools, and not necessarily the schools’ teaching methods. It is also true that charter schools do not usually enroll students who know little English (because their parents are immigrants) and students with disabilities or other problems. All such students often face difficulties in doing well in school. This is yet another possible reason that a small number of charter schools outperform public schools. Despite the popularity of charter schools, then, the academic case for them remains to be proven.

Single-Sex Schools and Classes

Before the late 1960s and early 1970s, many colleges and universities, including several highly selective campuses, were single-sex institutions. Since that time, almost all the male colleges and many of the female colleges have gone coed. A few women’s colleges still remain, as their administrators and alumnae say that women can achieve much more in a women’s college than in a coed institution. The issue of single-sex institutions has been more muted at the secondary school level, as most public schools have been coeducational since the advent of free, compulsory education during the nineteenth century. However, several private schools were single-sex ones from their outset, and many of these remain today. Still, the trend throughout the educational world was toward coeducation.

Single-sex schools and classes have become more popular for several reasons. The research so far indicates that single-sex education may be beneficial in certain respects for the students experiencing it.

Since the 1990s, however, some education specialists have argued that single-sex secondary schools, or at least single-sex classes, might make sense for girls or for boys. In response, single-sex classes and single-sex schools have arisen in at least seventeen US cities. The argument for single-sex learning for girls rests on the same reasons advanced by advocates for women’s colleges: Girls can do better academically, and perhaps especially in math and science classes, when they are by themselves. The argument for boys rests on a different set of reasons (National Association for Single Sex Public Education, 2011).National Association for Single Sex Public Education. (2011). Advantages for boys. Retrieved January 2, 2012, from http://www.singlesexschools.org/advantages-forboys.htm. Boys in classes with girls are more likely to act “macho” and thus to engage in disruptive behavior; in single-sex classes, boys thus behave better and are more committed to their studies. They also feel freer to exhibit an interest in music, the arts, and other subjects not usually thought of as “macho” topics. Furthermore, because the best students in coed schools are often girls, many boys tend to devalue academic success in coed settings and are more likely to value it in single-sex settings. Finally, in a boys-only setting, teachers can use examples and certain teaching techniques that boys may find especially interesting, such as the use of snakes to teach biology. To the extent that single-sex education may benefit boys for any of these reasons, these benefits are often thought to be highest for boys from families living in poverty or near poverty.

What does the research evidence say about single-sex schooling’s benefits? A review of several dozen studies concluded that the results of single-sex schooling are mixed overall but that there are slightly more favorable outcomes for single-sex schools compared to coeducational schools (US Department of Education, 2005).US Department of Education. (2005). Single-sex versus secondary schooling: A systematic review. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. However, the review noted that methodological problems limited the value of the studies it examined. For example, none of the studies involved random assignment of students to single-sex or coeducational schooling. Further, all the studies involved high school students and a majority involved students in Catholic schools. This limited scope prompted the call for additional studies of younger students and those in public schools.

Another review of the research evidence was more critical of single-sex schooling (Halpern et al., 2011).Halpern, D. F., Eliot, L., Bigler, R. S., Fabes, R. A., Hanish, L. D., Hyde, J., et al. (2011). The pseudoscience of single-sex schooling. Science, 333, 1706–1707. This review concluded that such schooling does not benefit girls or boys and in fact does them harm by reinforcing gender-role stereotypes. Boys in all-boy classes become more aggressive, the review said, and girls in all-girl classes become more feminine. The review also argued that single-sex schooling is based on a faulty, outdated understanding of how girls and boys learn and function. Drawing on this review and other evidence, two critics of single-sex education recently concluded, “So there is a veritable mountain of evidence, growing every day, that the single-sex classroom is not a magic bullet to save American education. And scant evidence that it heightens the academic achievement of girls and boys” (Barnett & Rivers, 2012).Barnett, R. C., & Rivers, C. (2012, February 17). Why science doesn’t support single-sex classes. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/02/17/21barnett.h31.html?tkn=XNPFPP3DSaPBokSRePilYv9tz%2FsDy4SQ5jGa&cmp=ENL -EU-VIEWS1.

Children and Our Future

The Importance of Preschool and Summer Learning Programs for Low-Income Children

The first few years of life are absolutely critical for a child’s neurological and cognitive development. What happens, or doesn’t happen, before ages 5 and 6 can have lifelong consequences for a child’s educational attainment, adolescent behavior, and adult employment and family life. However, as this chapter and previous chapters emphasize, low-income children face many kinds of obstacles during this critical phase of their lives. Among other problems, their families are often filled with stressful life events that impair their physical and mental health and neurological development, and their parents read and talk to them much less on the average than wealthier parents do. These difficulties in turn lower their school performance and educational attainment, with negative repercussions continuing into adulthood.

To counteract these problems and enhance low-income children’s ability to do well in school, two types of programs have been repeatedly shown to be very helpful and even essential. The first is preschool, a general term for semiformal early learning programs that take place roughly between ages 3 and 5. As the name of the famous Head Start program implies, preschool is meant to help prepare low-income children for kindergarten and beyond. Depending on the program, preschool involves group instruction and play for children, developmental and health screening, and other components. Many European nations have high-quality preschool programs that are free or heavily subsidized, but these programs are, by comparison, much less prevalent in the United States and often more costly for parents.

Preschool in the United States has been shown to have positive benefits that extend well into adulthood. For example, children who participate in Head Start and certain other programs are more likely years later to graduate high school and attend college. They also tend to have higher salaries in their twenties, and they are less likely to engage in delinquency and crime.

The second program involves summer learning. Educators have discovered that summer is an important time for children’s learning. During the summer, children from middle-class and wealthier families tend to read books, attend summer camp and/or engage in other group activities, and travel with their parents. When they return to school in September, their reading and math skills are higher than when the summer began. In contrast, low-income children are much less likely to have these types of summer experiences, and those who benefitted from school lunch programs during the academic year often go hungry. As a result, their reading and math skills are lower when they return to school than when the summer began.

In response to this discovery, many summer learning programs have been established. They generally last from four to eight weeks and are held at schools, campgrounds, community centers, or other locations. Although these programs are still relatively new and not yet thoroughly studied, a recent review concluded that they “can be effective and are likely to have positive impacts when they engage students in learning activities that are hands-on, enjoyable, and have real-world applications.”

Preschool programs help children in the short and long term, and summer programs appear to have the same potential. Their expansion in the United States would benefit many aspects of American society. Because their economic benefits outweigh their economic costs, they are a “no-brainer” for comprehensive social reform efforts.

Sources: Child Trends, 2011; Downey & Gibbs, 2012; Garces, Thomas, & Currie, 2003; Reynolds, Temple, Ou, Arteaga, & White, 2011; Terzian & Moore, 2009Child Trends. (2011). Research-based responses to key questions about the 2010 Head Start impact study. Washington, DC: Author; Downey, D. B., & Gibbs, B. G. (2012). How schools really matter. In D. Hartmann & C. Uggen (Eds.), The Contexts Reader (2nd ed., pp. 80–86). New York, NY: W. W. Norton; Garces, E., Thomas, D., & Currie, J. (2003). Longer-term effects of Head Start. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation; Reynolds, A. J., Temple, J. A., Ou, S.-R., Arteaga, I. A., & White, B. A. B. (2011, July 15). School-based early childhood education and age-28 well-being: Effects by timing, dosage, and subgroups. Science, 360–364; Terzian, M., & Moore, K. A. (2009). What works for summer learning programs for low-income children and youth: Preliminary lessons from experimental evaluations of social interventions. Washington, DC: Child Trends.

School Violence

The issue of school violence won major headlines during the 1990s, when many children, teachers, and other individuals died in the nation’s schools. From 1992 until 1999, 248 students, teachers, and other people died from violent acts (including suicide) on school property, during travel to and from school, or at a school-related event, for an average of about thirty-five violent deaths per year (Zuckoff, 1999).Zuckoff, M. (1999, May 21). Fear is spread around nation. The Boston Globe, p. A1.

Several of these deaths occurred in mass shootings. In just a few examples, in December 1997, a student in a Kentucky high school shot and killed three students in a before-school prayer group. In March 1998, two middle school students in Arkansas pulled a fire alarm to evacuate their school and then shot and killed four students and one teacher as they emerged. Two months later, an Oregon high school student killed his parents and then went to his school cafeteria, where he killed two students and wounded twenty-two others. Against this backdrop, the infamous April 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two students murdered twelve other students and one teacher before killing themselves, seemed like the last straw. Within days, school after school across the nation installed metal detectors, located police at building entrances and in hallways, and began questioning or suspending students joking about committing violence. People everywhere wondered why the schools were becoming so violent and what could be done about it. A newspaper headline summarized their concern: “fear is spread around nation” (Zuckoff, 1999).Zuckoff, M. (1999, May 21). Fear is spread around nation. The Boston Globe, p. A1.

Fortunately, school violence has declined since the 1990s, with fewer students and other people dying in the nation’s schools or being physically attacked. As this trend indicates, the risk of school violence should not be exaggerated: Statistically speaking, schools are very safe, especially in regard to fatal violence. Two kinds of statistics illustrate this point. First, less than 1 percent of all homicides involving school-aged children take place in or near school; virtually all children’s homicides occur in or near a child’s home. Second, an average of seventeen students are killed at school yearly; because about 56 million students attend US elementary and secondary schools, the chances are less than one in 3 million that a student will be killed at school. The annual rate of other serious school violence (rape and sexual assault, aggravated assault, and robbery) is only three crimes per one hundred students; although this is still three too many, it does indicate that 97 percent of students do not suffer these crimes (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2010).National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2010). Understanding school violence fact sheet. Washington, DC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, depicted here, killed thirteen people at Columbine High School in 1999 before killing themselves. Their massacre led people across the nation to question why violence was occurring in the schools and to wonder what could be done to reduce it.

Bullying

Bullying is another problem in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools and is often considered a specific type of school violence. However, bullying can take many forms, such as taunting, that do not involve the use or threat of physical violence. As such, we consider bullying here as a separate problem while acknowledging its close relation to school violence.

First it will be helpful to define bullyingPhysical and verbal attacks and harassment directed at a victim(s) by one student or a group of students over an extensive period of time.. A common definition in the research literature is that bullying involves “physical and verbal attacks and harassment directed at a victim(s) by one student or a group of students over an extensive period of time” (Moon, Hwang, & McCluskey, 2011).Moon, B., Hwang, H.-W., & McCluskey, J. D. (2011). Causes of school bullying: Empirical test of a general theory of crime, differential association theory, and general strain theory. Crime & Delinquency, 57, 849–877. Another definition is also helpful: “The use of one’s strength or popularity to injure, threaten or embarrass another person on purpose” (St. George, 2011).St. George, D. (2011, September 5). Bullying linked to lower school achievement. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/bullying-linked-to-lower-school-achievement/2011/09/01/gIQArmQw4J_story.html. As these definitions suggest, bullying can be physical in nature (violence such as shoving and punching), verbal (teasing, taunting, and name calling), and social (spreading rumors, breaking up friendships, deliberately excluding someone from an activity). An additional form of bullying that has emerged in the last decade or so is cyberbullyingThe use of the Internet, cell phones and smartphones, and other digital technologies to bully others.. As its name implies, cyberbullying involves the use of the Internet, cell phones and smartphones, and other digital technologies to bully others (e.g., rumors can be spread via Facebook) (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2012).US Department of Health and Human Services. (2012). What is bullying? Retrieved January 5, 2012, from http://www.stopbullying.gov/topics/what_is_bullying/index.html.

Bullying is a serious problem for at least two reasons. First, bullying is a common occurrence. About one-third of students report being victimized by some form of bullying during the school year; this rate of victimization is much higher than the 3 percent rate of victimization for school violence mentioned in the previous section (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2010).National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2010). Understanding school violence fact sheet. Washington, DC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Second, bullying can have serious consequences (Adams & Lawrence, 2011).Adams, F. D., & Lawrence, G. J. (2011). Bullying victims: The effects last into college. American Secondary Education, 40(1), 4–13. Students who are bullied often experience psychological problems that can last into adulthood; these problems include anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleeplessness, and suicidal thoughts. Their physical health may also suffer. Their school performance (grades, attendance, and participation in school activities) may also decline. In addition, bullying victims sometimes respond by lashing out in violence; many of the mass school shootings of the 1990s were committed by male students who had been bullied.

A tragic example of bullying’s effects occurred in September 2011, when a 14-year-old boy in western New York, Jamey Rodemeyer, killed himself after being bullied by classmates because he was gay. Much of the bullying involved homophobic taunts on a social media site Jamey used, including comments such as “JAMIE IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND UGLY. HE MUST DIE!” and “I wouldn’t care if you died. No one would. So just do it: It would make everyone WAY more happier!” A week before he died, Jamey wrote on his site, “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” (Tan, 2011).Tan, S. (2011, September 20). Teenager struggled with bullying before taking his life. The Buffalo News. Retrieved from http://www.buffalonews.com/city/schools/article563538.ece.

School Discipline and Racial Discrimination

To reduce school violence and bullying, many school districts have adopted strict policies that specify harsh punishments. A common policy involves zero-tolerance for weapons; this type of policy calls for automatic suspension or expulsion of a student who has anything resembling a weapon for any reason. However, this policy is often applied too rigidly. In one example, a 6–year-old boy in Delaware excitedly took his new camping utensil—a combination of knife, fork, and spoon—from Cub Scouts to school to use at lunch. He was suspended for having a knife and ordered to spend forty-five days in reform school. His mother said her son certainly posed no threat to anyone at school, but school officials replied that their policy had to be strictly enforced because it is difficult to determine who actually poses a threat from who does not (Urbina, 2009).Urbina, I. (2009, October 11). It’s a fork, it’s a spoon, it’s a…weapon? New York Times, p. A1. In another case, a ninth grader took a knife and cigarette lighter away from a student who had used them to threaten a fellow classmate. The ninth grader was suspended for the rest of the school year for possessing a weapon, even though he had them only because he was protecting his classmate. According to a news story about this case, the school’s reaction was “vigilance to a fault” (Walker, 2010, p. A12).Walker, A. (2010, January 23). Vigilance to a fault. The Boston Globe, p. A12.

Zero-tolerance or other very strict policies are also in place in many schools for offenses such as drug use and possession, fighting, and classroom disruption. However well intended these policies may be, the research evidence suggests that they are ineffective in deterring the behavior they are meant to prevent, and may even be counterproductive. As one review of this evidence puts it, “It is not clear that zero tolerance policies are succeeding in improving school safety. In fact, some evidence…suggests that these policies actually may have an adverse effect on student academic and behavioral outcomes” (Boccanfuso & Kuhfeld, 2011, p. 1).Boccanfuso, C., & Kuhfeld, M. (2011). Multiple responses, promising results: Evidence-based, nonpunitive alternatives to zero tolerance. Washington, DC: Child Trends. When students are suspended, their grades may suffer, and their commitment to schooling may lower; these problems in turn increase their likelihood of engaging in delinquency. The expelled students find it difficult to get back into a school and eventually achieve a high school degree. Their behavior, too, may become more unlawful as a result, and they also are more likely to face unemployment and low-paying jobs. Zero-tolerance school discipline thus seems to do much more harm than good.

In addition to deterrence, another reason for the adoption of strict discipline policies has been to avoid the racial discrimination that occurs when school officials have discretion in deciding which students should be suspended or expelled (Skiba & Rausch, 2006).Skiba, R. J., & Rausch, M. K. (2006). Zero tolerance, suspension, and expulsion: Questions of equity and effectiveness. In C. M. Evertson & C. S. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (pp. 1063–1089). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. In school districts with such discretion, African American students with weapons or “near weapons” (such as a small penknife) are more likely than white students with the same objects to be punished in this manner. However, a growing body of research finds that African American and Latino students are still more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled for similar misbehaviors (having a weapon, fighting, cursing a teacher, etc.) even in school districts with very strict discipline (Welch & Payne, 2010; Lewin, 2012).Welch, K., & Payne, A. A. (2010). Racial threat and punitive school discipline. Social Problems, 57(1), 25–48; Lewin, T. (2012, March 6). Black students face more discipline, study suggests. New York Times, p. A11. School discipline, then, is often racially discriminatory.

Key Takeaways

  • Schools in America are unequal: They differ greatly in the extent of their funding, in the quality of their physical facilities, and in other respects. Jonathan Kozol calls these differences “savage inequalities.”
  • Single-sex education at the secondary level has become more popular. Preliminary evidence indicates that this form of education may be beneficial for several reasons, but more evidence on this issue is needed.
  • Although school violence has declined since the 1990s, it continues to concern many Americans. Bullying at school is a common problem and can lead to more serious violence by the children who are bullied.
  • School choice programs are popular but also controversial. Charter schools on the average do no better than public schools, and sometimes worse.

For Your Review

  1. If you were the principal of a middle school, would you favor or oppose single-sex classes? Explain your answer.
  2. Do you favor or oppose school vouchers? Why?