, Salem, MA

February 27, 2014

Our view: Let teachers teach

The Salem News

---- — Ask any teacher or school administrator these days what their biggest distraction is, and more than likely they’ll tell you that it’s the state’s constant meddling in the classroom.

Laws, directives, “benchmarks,” policies, mandates — some of which are barely tangentially related to classroom learning — are heaped on teachers. As lawmakers and bureaucrats demand that teachers push students to achieve the highest standards of learning, they also require that public school educators take on a growing role as de facto social workers.

The latest bit of meddling coming down the pike is a plan by a handful of state lawmakers to have schools document incidents of bullying so that a database can be created that pinpoints what categories of victims are being picked on. This comes from a “special commission” that studied the state’s 2010 anti-bullying law and recommended numerous additions.

Upon its passage, that 2010 law was heralded by politicians as a “landmark” for the rest of the nation, the most comprehensive law in this country. But when the rubber hit the road in the classrooms, its glaring failures became obvious. Schools were required to develop anti-bullying plans. They spent plenty of time and resources complying with this mandate, but many schools didn’t have the people or money to actually do much of anything beyond that. The plans gather dust on the shelf. It was another feel-good “landmark” mandate that had little real impact. Our local schools are used to them and grow weary of them.

Now, another feel-good mandate is rushing through the Legislature. Schools will be required to gather data on victims so that bureaucrats can study the trends, produce reports and shuttle them off to the Legislature. The goal is to guide anti-bullying “resources.”

“There are various categories that are now set forth where it is felt most of the bullying is taking place — you know, in the gay community, race, physical appearance — and it sets up a mechanism for them to report to the Department of Education, so we, as a commonwealth, will have a better idea,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Monday.

The “data collection tool” ignores one vital fact: Bullies will always pick on the best available targets. The chubby kid who sits in the next seat. The skinny nerdy kid with glasses who sits in the front row. The shy kid, or kid with special needs, who tries to blend into the most remote corner of the room. The kid with the funny hair or bad clothes. The girl with the weird laugh. The gay kid, the artsy kid that sits alone. Bullies are good at picking out the most vulnerable targets.

It’s long been known that bullying behavior is directly linked to the bullying child’s own sense of self-esteem, his or her social life and family life. This is the root of the problem. Studying who gets bullied is an exercise in futility, particularly if the state follows its usual course of filing the data away on a dusty shelf — or worse, heaping another mandate on classroom teachers.

Ask any well-trained school vice principal who the bullies are. They will know who is on the list, who they are bullying and why. A stack of data collection isn’t going to make it any clearer, nor is it going to help.

Teachers have enough on their plates already. They are held to a variety of standards and directives that dictate how they do their jobs and how they must allocate their time. They don’t need another layer of bureaucratic data-gathering on top if that.

Let’s let educators do the job that we have hired them to do — to teach children. Let’s let teachers focus their time on their primary and commendable goal.