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Threatening to punish bad schools isn’t the answer

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On a visit to my parents' home years ago, I took my twin boys to a nearby park because everything in my mother's house was begging to be broken. Along with the makeshift toys cobbled from the kitchen, I installed their rambunctious bodies in a large sandbox where they could make roads, hills and sundry destinations.

A nearby drinking fountain supplied the liquid, all-purpose fixative for their sand constructions. I settled in on a bench with a book, relieved to get us all out of the china shop.

Other women with kids came, and soon a little peer group was sharing toys and space. Occasionally, raised voices signaled disputes, but when I scanned the scene, one of my kids would indicate that everything was under control.

Life was good until desperate shrieking and yelling jolted me to my feet. One of my twins was screaming his head off while trying to stop another boy, only somewhat larger, from pummeling the other twin. The victim twin was frantically trying to squirm free from under the perpetrator. I grabbed the flailing boy and found his legs holding onto my kid in a vice grip. The woman who turned out to be his mom grabbed one leg as I grabbed the other, and together we pried him off.

"Oh, I am so, so sorry," she cried, genuinely distressed. She was young and in tears. "What am I going to do with him? He has become such a bad boy, and this is happening all the time. I hit him and hit him and hit him and still he pays no attention and fights with other boys anyway. He does not do what I want."

Haunting, the whole incident.

In each of us is a perfectly normal human drive to keep others from doing what we perceive as wrong. But some strategies for doing this are more clever than others. In general, relying too much on punishment tends to backfire and create more problems than it sought to solve.

When I hear teachers demanding more discipline, for example, it seems they generally want faster, stricter and harsher sanctions for wrongdoers. Virtually never, in my experience, are they demanding time, resources or help to get to the bottom of why kids are acting out. The assumption seems to be that having more punishments will force the kids to behave.

It took me quite awhile before I realized that what was bugging me most about the incident in the park was that the mom had no empathy for her child. Even assuming she was raised in a culture that's OK with hitting the kids to demand obedience, wouldn't she, a seemingly sweet woman and caring mom, understand her son well enough to know how to deflect or calm his aggression at least some of the time? Why hadn't some grandmotherly type ever mentioned to her that punishment should be used as a last, not first, resort?

Of course, not much about American culture would give that mom the idea that empathy, kindness and understanding were anything but soft, inefficient and useless. We're so much about being manly, tough, with our zero tolerance and drug wars. The media glorify might and violence. Politicians are always going to get tough on something. We don't want to be soft and wussy.

So our public policies seem driven by the aggression for which America is so justly famous. Everything from our incarceration rate, the world's highest, to our practice of drugging 5 percent of the school-age population into behavioral compliance, also tops in the world, all show the same confidently aggressive attitude.

According to the Justice Department, the number of people imprisoned from June 2004 to June 2005 increased by more than 1,000 every week. Up by a total of 56,428 inmates in one year, we now imprison 2.2 million people. Is this discouraging crime?

But an even more troubling example of non-empathic public policy, to me, is the federal No Child Left Behind law. Beneath the law's sweet name are nearly 1,200 pages filled with lots of legal sticks to punish "bad" schools but few legal carrots. There are loads of sanctions but virtually no acknowledgment of the challenges facing those failing school communities. In true authoritarian, top-down fashion, the law appears to assume that schools are failing on purpose and that under threat of punishment they will see the light and start to behave. The law doesn't reflect having been written by anyone who's actually been in a public school or personally tried to improve one.

Lawmakers would do well to sit on a school-improvement team or governance committee and feel its pain. From there, they could see the real obstacles to school improvement and work to empower the people in the school communities to accomplish more with the kids, no matter what their family backgrounds.

But, no. Instead, the feds are threatening to withhold aid to states because of non-compliance with their testing programs. Teachers who might be perfectly marvelous with the kids are being penalized because they don't have the proper credentials to be "highly qualified," as if there were any evidence that teacher credentialing correlates with good teaching. NCLB did highlight the plight of underserved populations, but the five years invested in implementing this law have produced meager results at best. To me, many schools seem like more miserable places than ever, with narrowed curricula, increased staff turnover and families desperate to get their kids into more responsive learning environments.

Right now we just don't seem interested in what drives the so-called "bad" behavior, whether we're talking about schools that fail or our burgeoning prison population. Instead we just reach for the stick or belt, look for the right drug or legal sanction. Too often public policy sounds just like the mom in the park: I hit him and hit him and hit him and still he doesn't do what I want.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence, R.I., School Board; she now consults and writes for education, government and private enterprises.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.