Thomas: Time to Return Accountability to Schools

In an earlier age, private boarding schools like Exeter and Deerfield essentially had no rules—or as the students liked to say, you never knew what the rules were until you broke one. Rather these schools had a standard, a code of conduct that, in retrospect, sounds archaic and hopelessly snobby but worked to establish a sense of shared responsibility. Students (all boys then) were expected to behave like gentlemen, and they were occasionally disciplined for "conduct unbecoming a gentleman" or "unbecoming an Exonian," ideally the same thing.

Today, you might say, such a code is impossible. Schools, including prep schools, are too diverse and democratic for such an elitist approach to discipline. Even the Exeters and Deerfield must have specific rules now.

But consider Team Academy, a charter public school in Newark, N.J. The school, set amidst some mean streets in the inner city, is a KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) school, which means it has just two rules: Work Hard. Be Nice. A simple formula, almost corny, but it works—at Team Academy, the students are attentive to their teachers and to each other, and they far outscore MOST other inner city schools, not because they "teach to the test" but rather because they hearken to a new-old idea: accountability. Students who act out and disrupt the class are disciplined quickly and predictably. Team Academy has few rules, but far more effective, it has created a culture in which all the students and teachers share the same values—the values of discipline, respect, and hard work.

Team Academy remains the exception that proves the rule. Most public schools are drowning in bureaucracy. There are hundreds, sometimes thousands of rules governing the conduct of teachers and students. The fear of lawsuits has led to well-publicized absurdities: the ban on running at recess in Florida for safety reasons (which led to banning recess altogether at some schools—which led to more obese schoolchildren). Then there was the first grader in North Carolina who was suspended for sexual harassment—he had kissed another first grader. And the ridiculous number of steps teachers in one New York City High school were required to take last year before they could call 911: call the school nurse; call the parents and get permission; call the assistant principal or principal; call the dean's office. ("By step four," one teacher observed, "the kid's already dead.")

This "hyper legalism," argues Philip K. Howard in "Life Without Lawyers" (Norton, $27.50) was the perhaps natural and inevitable by-product of the civil rights movement, necessary in its time to protect the rights of minorities. But as interpreted by lawyers and implemented by lawmakers, the law has perversely worked to create less freedom, not more.

As Howard notes, kids can sense it when a teacher is powerless. By claiming their "rights," students learn that mere allegation is enough to intimidate a teacher. A 2004 survey found that 78 percent of middle and high school teachers have been threatened with lawsuits over violations of rights by students. Students feel they can do whatever they want. The result is chaos and sometimes violence in the classroom, especially inner city classrooms where rule-bound teachers lose control. One study found that one in seven teachers in urban public schools have been physically assaulted by students.

The only solution is to create a culture of accountability, writes Howard, the author of an earlier best-seller ("The Death of Common Sense") on too much law and not enough responsibility in America. ("Life Without Lawyers" also deals with the health care system and other bureaucratic nightmares). The problem is deeply-embedded in society but not hopelessly so: a model for change can be found in the KIPP schools where students and teachers are constantly reminded that they are responsible for their own actions, where there is a commonly held ethos. It's a simple idea, and it has been proven to work in many poor areas where educators had essentially given up and opted to warehouse students until they dropped out. The KIPP schools offer hope to school reformers everywhere. But first lawmakers must think hard about the role of lawyers in America and how the law has been twisted to do the opposite of what the Framers imagined.