If you wonder why American students rank poorly among industrialized nations on academic skills, here’s part of the explanation, from a seventh-grade classroom in the Los Angeles Unified School District:
On a recent morning, [reports the Los Angeles Times,] Trina Greene, manager of Peace Over Violence’s Start Strong program, faced a class at Berendo Middle School in Pico-Union and dived into matters of love and control.
She took students through an exercise in which they had to decide whether to leave a relationship. Under one scenario, a girl pinched a boy for looking at another girl. The students said they would end the relationship. But when she bought him a gold chain for his birthday, a number of them wavered, saying they might stay.
Only 35 percent of Hispanic seventh-graders at this overwhelmingly Hispanic middle school were deemed proficient in California’s English Language Arts test in 2010-11, and only 43 percent were deemed proficient in Math. Yet Berendo’s students are spending precious class time role-playing dating scenarios rather than studying the grammar of dependent clauses or poring over algebra work sheets. (The purchase of a gold chain in this dating scenario is interesting, since we can safely assume that the Start Strong program has been rigorously vetted for “cultural appropriateness.” Taxpayers subsidize lunch for 96 percent of Berendo’s students.)
Now comes a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education who wants every school in the Los Angeles public school system to teach students “how to recognize when a relationship is becoming abusive,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Over the last several months, L.A. Board of Education member Steve Zimmer, a former teacher and activist, has been working closely with the anti-dating-violence program Peace Over Violence on how to expand its services district-wide. The proposed expansion, estimated to cost $2 million in its first year and approximately $600,000 a year thereafter, would hire a new central district administrator and four full-time assistants who would coordinate each school’s anti-dating-violence programs and would train a teacher or staff member on each campus to “help students identify when they may be veering toward physical, emotional, or verbal abuse and to raise awareness of these issues.”
Zimmer got a boost for his effort in late September when an 18-year-old student, Abraham Lopez, fatally stabbed his 17-year-old ex-girlfriend, Cindi Santana, during lunch at South East High School. If any politician were inclined to oppose Zimmer’s proposal, it will be harder to do so in the wake of the Santana stabbing. Nevertheless, a few questions about this symbol of our dysfunctional schools present themselves:
• Why is a school program necessary to teach students to recognize if they are in an abusive relationship? Here’s a simple test: If you are being mentally or physically abused, you are in an abusive relationship.
• Why are seventh-graders dating?
• Isn’t teaching about dating the family’s responsibility? The all-purpose justification for the takeover of schools by the social work bureaucracy is: “Parents are not doing their jobs.” But the causality here works both ways. The more that schools purport to take on the functions of parents, the more marginalized those parents become and the less class time is devoted to the academic material that could help propel students out of underclass culture.
• How can a government employee hope to instill in a child the subtle understanding of self, usually built up over years of interactions with parents, that would insulate someone from an abusive relationship? If government social workers could stem social breakdown, inner-city family structure would be the healthiest in the world.
Schools have been piling on social services for decades, yet the illegitimacy rate continues to rise, most cataclysmically among blacks (73 percent) and Latinos (53 percent). (Teen birth rates have gone down since the early 1990s, though they are still magnitudes higher than in Europe and Asia.) The social dysfunction that results from this spiraling illegitimacy rate provides the pretext for further increasing the school social work bureaucracy.
Berendo Middle School, located in a gang-ridden section of south Los Angeles County, already has a robust therapeutic staff, including a coordinator of social services who “outreaches” to other social work agencies in the community. In 2006, I visited Berendo’s Violence Intervention Program for children who show signs of gang involvement and their overwhelmingly single mothers. The students’ siblings often came from a dizzying array of different fathers. The Violence Intervention Program’s listless group therapy session did not inspire confidence that students were better off parked there than in front of a math textbook.
The dominant ethos of the social service lobby guarantees that it will fail to stem family breakdown, even if it had any hope of serving as a viable surrogate for parental oversight to begin with. The lobby is obsessively value-neutral about promiscuity and family structure. It’s fine for teens to have sex, so long as they do so in a nonsexist, non-heteronormative, condom-using way. It’s also fine for women and girls to have children out of wedlock; to suggest otherwise violates the first principle of feminism: “Strong women can do it all.” Children don’t need fathers; they just need good “support systems.”
Of course, the mainstream media and large swaths of the opinion elite are just as nonjudgmental about premature sexual activity and the disappearance of marriage as the social work bureaucracy is. The Los Angeles Times presented Jessica Contreras, an 18-year-old graduate of the Los Angeles Unified School District, as an example of the benefits of anti-dating-violence programs. Contreras says “she wished she had learned more about healthy relationships before she ended up in an abusive one,” according to the Times. (Parental guidance? Not on the radar screen.) When Contreras was 14, her 18-year-old boyfriend slapped her after she “told him off” for hanging out with another girl at school. For a year afterwards, she said, “I didn’t know what to think or how to feel.” Jessica’s bewilderment did not last long: Now 18, she is “raising her one-year-old son from another relationship.” The news gets even better: “With counseling and help from programs like Peace Over Violence, she said, she knows how to define boundaries in a relationship and stand up for herself.”
Apparently those “boundaries” kick in after granting access to private parts, not before.
The problems purportedly ad-dressed by school social programs are unquestionably serious. The demise of the norm of sexual modesty has resulted in a grotesquely sexualized culture that many parents do nothing to counter and that the entertainment and consumer industries do everything to accentuate. Dating violence and domestic violence are likely to worsen with the growing Hispanic population, which is already responsible for large increases in domestic violence calls in big-city police departments.
Schools do have one powerful tool to stem this tide of dysfunction, however: homework. Asian teen pregnancy rates are negligible in part because the Asian family is still strong, but also because the children are studying so single-mindedly that they don’t have time to hang out at the mall, get drunk, and fornicate.
Every school with a teen pregnancy problem should double its academic requirements and enforce consequences for blowing them off. The $2 million that Los Angeles Unified board member Steve Zimmer wants to spend on a new bureaucracy could instead be used to send the message that school is about gaining precious knowledge of the world; the money could restore lost library hours and stock library shelves with Poe, Conan Doyle, and books conveying the excitement of science and history.
Schools have a second line of defense against social breakdown when families fail to civilize their children: a pervasive ethic of self-discipline and respect for others. Rather than creating specialized classes in various dysfunctions, schools should simply insist on nonnegotiable norms of promptness, neatness, effort, and courtesy. The KIPP schools—high-achieving, inner-city charters whose students sign enforceable pledges to behave responsibly, including following their teacher’s directions—are the best examples of this civilizing environment. Students who are taught to respond respectfully to adults are less likely to abuse each other. But such traditional methods of socialization do not add to school district and union payrolls or to their supporters’ electoral prospects.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.