Paging John Stuart Mill

19 March 2005

I've always felt that Utilitarianism has had a great influence in the shaping of American education. Are we not, as educators, working for the "greater good for the greatest number"? Do we not insist that in spite of one child's unhappiness at being at school one day is morally okay because overall happiness from education will result?

I was thinking about this again after reading this study published by "The Common Good" last year. According to their research:
  • "The present legal environment undermines order in schools by enabling students and parents to threaten a lawsuit over virtually anything," said CG Chair Philip K. Howard. "The legal system must strike a better balance between the claimed rights of individuals and the legitimate interests of society as a whole."
  • Public Agenda President Ruth Wooden noted, "At a time when the achievement stakes for students have never been higher, the fact is that in school after school, a minority of students who routinely challenge legitimate school rules and authority are preventing the majority of students from learning and teachers from teaching."

Ah, seems like some students and parents aren't acting with utilitarian-like motives.

I have found many such instances throughout my career. They took the form of a student who required much of my time and effort during each class period that s/he was present. With 30 students in a room, many of whom were at least somewhat eager to learn, why did they have to have a peer who did everything possible to take away their opportunity? Does one student's "right" to an education outweigh the "rights" of 29 others in the room?

The answer sometimes is "yes," but only if it is for SPED kids. We have kids who routinely beat adults in the building, as well as fellow students. There are others who bring weapons. Still more who disrupt learning in classes in other ways. But it doesn't matter, because as long as that child's actions can be related to his/her disability---his/her rights to attend school will always outweigh the safety and academic environment of others. Please keep in mind that only a few SPED'dies out there act in these ways. The vast majority are as delightful to have in class as any other student.

However, according to the poll conducted by The Common Good, "76% of teachers say that special education students who misbehave are often treated too lightly, even when their misbehavior has nothing to do with their disability."

SPED students comprise 14% of the student population in my district. What about the other 86%? Are they all angels in the classroom? I think the proportion of students who come to school in order to learn far outweighs the few who don't. But we still have to deal with those few. And many of them have lawyers at the ready in case we might suggest that they change their behaviour to suit the "needs of the many."

What do we do about this? For one thing, I think that teachers and schools shouldn't be afraid to discipline a student as long as (a) the "punishment" is reasonable and (b) there is a well-documented history of the student's behaviour. Even teachers who have well-established classroom routines and management strategies have to deal with nearly unmanageable students at some point. There needs to be some sort of alternative educational environment for those students. I'm just "utilitarian" enough to believe that the 29 other kiddos sitting in a class represent the "greater good."

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