Powerball and Zero Tolerance

If I were a kid in school today, I don’t know how long I’d last. And that worries me.

Overall, I was an okay student in elementary, middle and high school. I got in a couple of fights, but nothing serious. When I started skipping school, no one seemed to notice, let alone care — so I kept doing it, still turning in my assignments on time, and slipping back into school for the class(es) I liked. I never worked all that hard, mostly because I never needed to. In high school, I became increasingly resentful of the presumption foisted on us that we — kids — should be expected to push ourselves to the brink just to win some teacher’s stamp of approval, or to gain mastery of a body of knowledge I cared not a whit about. (I decided that I could be a well-read person without ever finishing “Wuthering Heights.”)

I also became willful. In tenth grade English, I refused to write a paper about “The Grapes of Wrath” because our teacher, probably under a state-imposed schedule but also lazy, just showed us the 1940 film adaptation instead. In eleventh grade English, I didn’t really read any of the books assigned, because 19th century British lit isn’t my thing. (I wrote our in-class essay about why “Jane Austen” was a waste of my time.) I gave a speech to a professional group of teachers about why the public education system was largely a farce, which went over like a fart in church. I discovered that the grades I was receiving had only a tenuous relationship, if any, with the amount of work I put in — a pattern that continued into college.

In the course of my schooling, I discovered that most of the “rules” were mostly for show. They were for parental consumption. Most of the rules for students were either unenforced, unenforceable or haphazardly applied. This was an epiphany that has shaped much of my life since.

I got through high school and went to college. Then I was accepted, on transfer, to my dream school, where I was very successful, even if my GPA was not distinguished. Life has continued apace ever since. Things have worked out well.

In the years since, I have reflected on my early schooling, and realized that I got away with a lot of stuff because of a couple of factors:

  • My transgressions were pretty minor — no drugs, violence or anything very self-destructive
  • Privilege: I am white, and grew up in a rural, Southern, overwhelmingly white town in a family that, while not wealthy, was not poor either. Our needs were met and then some. My parents, both college-educated, were encouraging of intellectual pursuits.
  • The schools, and many teachers, simply didn’t care that much.

My high school class graduated in 2000. The Columbine massacre happened in my junior year; September 11th in my second year of college. In the 15 years since, just about every school’s procedures and security has drastically changed. You can’t just “slip into” my old high school like you once could — the doors are locked and alarmed, both to keep students in and intruders out. There’s a cop. There’s a metal detector. (Even though you’re still allowed to keep a gun in your car on school grounds in Virginia, which seems incongruous.) None of this is unusual in school districts across the country. If anything, it’s far more lax in my hometown than it is in the more urban areas of Northern Virginia or Richmond.

Attendance records actually seem to matter now. Teachers take them, eating up precious, limited class time with administrative busywork. Those records are collected electronically by the administration. Disciplinary infractions matter too. Talking back to teachers — which, let me tell you, I made an art form out of — is punishable now, if highly discretionary. Suspensions are now routine, both in-school and out. I don’t have supporting data, but I would speculate it’s highly likely that a disproportionate amount of those disciplinary actions fall on non-native English speaking students and those of color. Zero-tolerance policies make life-altering punishments out of normal, and, I’d argue, healthy, teenage impulses for self-advocacy like mine.

I doubt many kids at my old high school today are skipping out on gym to go hang out at the Waffle House to read Heller and Vonnegut like I used to. The disciplinary price to be paid today is just too high.


My wife and I, like everyone else in America, were discussing earlier this week what we’d do if, say, a half-billion dollars just fell in our lap from the Powerball lottery. It was just fun daydreaming, but what I said was that I’d like to build a private school. That got me thinking about what a dream school would look like.

  • Acceptance would be competitive, by an application that included a non-standardized test, interview and recommendations.
  • Tuition would be $0. All costs paid — books, supplies, labs, uniforms (if we had them). The school, in fact, would pay a stipend of, say, $500/month to each family.
  • We would offer a full, quality breakfast and lunch to every student. Nothing fancy — but it’d be there.
  • Basic health care would be available to each student and his/her immediate family.
  • Technology would be a core component of the curriculum, but not everywhere. You could learn to code if you wanted, or not. You don’t need technology to learn every subject.
  • There might be a sports team or two, but no high-profile ones. No football. The athletic budget would be kept to a bare minimum.
  • Teachers would be recruited from local universities (we have a lot of them here in Raleigh/Durham), with starting salaries of $75,000/year, on annual contracts. No tenure. Good, senior teachers could increase in salary to the $150-$200k range. Senior administrators would always earn less than the best teachers.
  • There would be a heavy emphasis on field learning. Trips to local businesses, universities, museums. We would recruit regular speakers to come talk to and meet with students.
  • Enrollment would be limited to kids from families below 200% of the poverty line.

My dream school has some obvious drawbacks. It would have competitive entry, for one — meaning that only students who were interested in “school,” or at least good at it, would self-select in. (Would that include 14-year-old Blair? Maybe? I don’t know.) It could be difficult to attract successful applicants whose first language wasn’t English, or who had learning disabilities. How would you ensure such a school remained diverse? I have no idea.

But that’s when I realized: a good question to ask would be, why aren’t all our schools like this already?

The obvious reason is cost. Schools are mostly financed by local property taxes, and secondarily by state per-student subsidies. This strongly incentivizes every town — and every community inside the town — to prioritize its own children over those of others. To create a school system like the one I describe here, not only would taxes have to increase, but wealthier districts would heavily subsidize poorer ones. You probably couldn’t do it without heavy federal funding too.

We, as a society, tie ourselves in knots fighting over petty, small-ball issues around children and education. Schools are one of the oldest battlegrounds for our cultural wars — because what else is more precious to any parent? All the way from desegregation and school prayer to today’s LGBT and evolution/creationism fights, what happens in the school is (rightly) seen as a referendum on who we are as a society.

Yet while all that happens, we forget, or ignore, the bigger picture of “the school.” Schools that require hefty fees for transportation, supplies, labs and the like hurt already under-privileged children and families. School systems that tolerate bad teachers do too. Does anyone think we attract the very best, brightest and most motivated into teaching at starting salaries in the $40,000 range (as they do here in North Carolina)? Or that granting tenure to anyone who manages to stick around long enough preserves incentives to perform? I don’t. Health care and financial stress at home have direct impacts on student success too.

The modern American school system better serves the needs of parents for childcare than it does society’s need to prepare children for life.

Our modern system of schooling is rooted in German 19th century pedagogical philosophy that is fundamentally unsuited for our world today. Indeed, the modern American school system better serves the needs of parents for childcare than it does society’s need to prepare children for life — whether that means the workforce, college, or society at large. Wealthier parents are able to self-select into communities where they can provide more attractive enrichment for their children, and that will probably never change. Yet at the levels we allow, we leave behind so much talent that will never be realized.

You want to improve America? Improve a school.

We didn’t win Powerball this week, so my dream school isn’t getting started anytime soon. But we’ll keep our fingers crossed.