To provide children with a safe, and quiet, learning environment in public schools is no simple task these days. Few things, however, count more than orderly classrooms, where students can concentrate on learning.
Such classrooms can't be mandated. They depend on two things: teachers with the ability to engage students, and students with the ability and readiness to listen. These classrooms needn't be hushed places, heavy with discipline, where no child speaks until called upon. They do need to be alive with learning.
The first element, skillful teaching, is the product of both good training and personal commitment. It can be honed in a professional setting, and it can be objectively assessed. The second element, listening students, has a lot to with the attitudes and emotions that children bring to school from home, community, and society at large, including the entertainment media.
The frequency of suspensions from school, even in the elementary grades, seems to indicate a substantial problem with students who not only don't listen, but actively disrupt classrooms. This past school year, Boston saw a big increase in suspensions, especially among young K-3 students. Chicago's suspensions - 37,310 last year - went up 14.5 percent since 1995. Teachers in Cleveland sought a "right of removal" clause in their contracts to ensure that disorderly students could be removed from classrooms. Fort Worth, Texas, schools may set up specially staffed classrooms for kids suspended for offenses like profanity or fighting.
And it's not just a big-city phenomenon. Schools in suburban counties around Washington, D.C., for example, have experienced increases in disruptive behavior. One longtime elementary-school principal, interviewed in The Washington Post, estimated that 10 percent of her students are disorderly now, versus 2 percent when she began teaching two decades ago.
Nor is it strictly an American problem. Scotland's schools suspended or expelled 35,000 students last year, and attacks on teachers by students went up 50 percent. Scottish officials are weighing steps, ranging from dress codes to classes for parents whose children cause trouble.
In most classrooms, students who act badly and seem unable to listen and learn are a small but growing percentage - but a group that must be dealt with if President Bush's basic goal for school reform is to be fully realized.
Dealing with the problem of disruptive students also involves a community response, so that youngsters who have too much unsupervised time at home because of working parents have constructive ways to use their time and develop habits of cooperation. Schools themselves can do more to help instill elements of character, such as respect for others.
It's not easy to awaken every child's innate ability to listen and learn. But a commitment to do so, and to turn kids from disruptive and self-defeating behaviors, is a large part of what will make the call for better public education more than a political slogan.