If Schools Could Pick Their Students. Then Teachers Wouldn't Have to Put Up with Kids like 'Jeremy,' a Troublemaker with Uncooperative Parents

Newsweek, November 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

If Schools Could Pick Their Students. Then Teachers Wouldn't Have to Put Up with Kids like 'Jeremy,' a Troublemaker with Uncooperative Parents


Critics of public schools have it all backward: we shouldn't let students pick their schools. We should let schools pick the students.

Let me cite a story--fairly typical among my teacher colleagues--to illustrate my reasoning.

A few years ago, a student I'll call "Jeremy" came to our middle school. He was disruptive and abusive to his peers, and he quickly became known throughout school as a troublemaker.

The following year, in seventh grade, Jeremy was in my class. On the second day, the tall, lanky 12-year-old let loose with a fusillade of profanity at the poor little girl to his right. I immediately threw him out of the room. The next morning I found a scathing letter on my desk from Jeremy's mother. In it she claimed I'd expelled her son because he "didn't have a pencil for class." Obviously, there was a communication problem here. A meeting was set up, the record was straightened out and the year went on more or less uneventfully.

In eighth grade, I heard, Jeremy continued to lie and be disrespectful. A couple of weeks after he graduated from our school, Jeremy's dad called me at home while I was having lunch. "We want to send Jeremy to a private high school. Could you write a recommendation?" I almost choked on my cucumber.

A recommendation? After all the grief he'd put me and my colleagues through? "He liked you," the father said quietly. And, in a way, I believed him. Jeremy did eventually settle down a bit in my class. His father probably asked me to write a recommendation because I was the only teacher he had a chance of persuading.

I grudgingly agreed, and a few hours later Jeremy and his parents were on my doorstep. They were on their way to Jeremy's interview.

"Oh, Mr. Schachter!" the mother cooed. "Thank you so much for writing this letter for Jeremy." This was from the woman who the year before had wanted my head for daring to discipline her child.

Smiling wanly, I promised, "I'll do what I can." Jeremy's dad handed me the school's questionnaire, and off they went.

I curled up in my big chair and looked over the categories from which I was to mark Jeremy from "outstanding" to "poor." "Performance as a student": I circled fair. "Scholastic ability"--fair. And then I paused. Uh-oh. "Behavior," "Respect for others" and "Emotional stability. …

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