01/24/2013 11:11 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Educating for Democracy: A Modest Proposal on Reducing Gun Violence

The present debate on what to do about gun violence as a result of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre reminds me of an observation by Winston Churchill: "The American people will find a solution to every problem after they've tried everything else." On the one hand the pro-gun supporters argue that the only way to be safe from gun violence is by creating a greater opportunity to have it: schools with armed guards and teachers with guns, a "Guard Your Turf" version of the "Stand Your Ground" law that came to national attention in the Trayvon Martin case. The reason for this law was to give law-abiding citizens the option of "standing up" to armed criminals with their own guns instead of trying to get out of harm's way. But a study by Mark Hoekstra of Texas A&M which recently aired on NPR found that "Stand Your Ground" has what I would judge is the inevitable effect of encouraging the use of deadly force among law-abiding citizens when in a potentially violent situation: Hoekstra's "study finds that homicides go up by 7 to 9 percent in states that pass the laws, relative to states that didn't pass the laws over the same time period." As to whether the laws reduce crime -- by creating a deterrence to criminals -- [Hoekstra] adds, "we find no evidence of any deterrence effect over that same time period."

On the other hand, the hastily conceived gun-control law introduced by Governor Cuomo and passed by the New York State legislator may have attempted to address the problem of the potential violent behavior of the mentally ill but created new issues. One of them is that people who need therapy might be discouraged from seeking help if they know they will be reported by their therapist to be "flagged" by authorities should they choose to purchase a gun.

One of the most serious causes of ongoing gun violence is connected to gang warfare, many of the participants being school-age teens who have been casualties of an educational system and of a social culture that have not been able to offer them what they feel as a viable alternative to the street. According to the National Gang Center statistics, there are over 750,000 young people in gangs in the United States, and gang-related homicides account for 63 percent of all homicides in cities with populations of over 100,000. These are among the same cities that have the greatest problems with school drop out rates compared to the suburban schools.The recent response of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to President Obama's call for improved gun regulation illustrates my concern with "experts" looking for solutions without understanding the problems. "A renewed commitment to students' mental and emotional well-being is key," Duncan declared. But I would argue that the very programs that Duncan and the Obama administration promote increases the likelihood that potential young learners will drop out of school and join gangs rather than see education as preferable to the street.

I would like to offer a few modest proposals that might encourage teenaged young learners to decide that school was a place they would prefer to frequent rather than the street.

Instead of safety through "guns in the classroom," turn schools into places where there is "fun in the classroom." That would mean getting rid of those battery of tests that have become the focus of the educational establishment and that are boring, repetitious and turn off young learners to schooling. Instead, learning should be encouraged and enhanced by turning the dominance of "standardized test" into "unstandardized quests." Giving young learners the opportunity to develop their own projects and do collaborative work, reaching them through what they know in the outside world and what will enrich that world from what education has to offer.

So here are my "modest" suggestions to address not just school violence but the violence that young learners are taught when they give up on school:

1. All students, beginning with pre-school should be given the opportunity to draw, paint, scribble, learn an instrument, be in a play, write a poem, dance, and sing.

2. No more standardized tests should be administered in any classroom while the educational establishment finally understands how destructive to learning their programs have become. That should enable them to justify to the public the abolition of these tests.

3. Subject-based testing should begin no earlier than junior high and that for the purpose of diagnosing and aiding students with learning disabilities that had not been detected earlier. Of course, early intervention at the preschool level should be mandatory.

4. Homework should not be assigned until third grade and that connect to the life of the child outside of school. Subsequently, homework should be project-based.

5. Collaborative and project-based learning should be the basic mode of instruction.

6. The teacher should determine her mode of instruction with constructive suggestions from veteran teachers for developing learning and teaching techniques.

7. One of the most accurate ways of determining a teacher's effectiveness is to wait at least 20 years before administering evaluations by former students in order to "measure" the long-term impact of the teacher's influence.

8. Schools should be places for fun, creativity, self-expression and, after regular school hours and even before, centers of refuge, comfort and sustenance for those young learners who need them and a place of joy for all.

At present, many schools offer none of these educational and cultural supports to young learners who then choose the way of the streets and gun violence. Instead of closing schools, which seems to be one of the chief consequences of the present assessment system, they should be opened much wider.