12/26/2012 10:48 am ET Updated Feb 25, 2013

Ain't Misbehavin'

When it comes to Black and Latino kids in urban schools, educators need to ask themselves an honest question: do you care more about academic performance of students or student behavior? It seems to me that some educators tend to stress the latter a bit more than the former. I have a serious problem with this. Not because I don't think Black and Latino students, or any student for that matter, should be allowed or encouraged to be unruly, but my issue lies in the fact that some educators grocery shop when it comes to what they want to see in schools that are in high-poverty areas.

What is interesting to me is that teachers, school & district administrators as well as policy makers are very careful to not get into the business of raising Black and Latino students with high needs, yet these same people make it a point to stress that these same kids are behaving properly at all times. If a kid comes to school tired due to a lack of sleep because of a domestic issue and he sleeps in class and subsequently gets into it with his teacher, it is immediately a discipline issue. If a child comes to school and is constantly moving, cannot focus and is always talking, he or she is probably a candidate for medication to address attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. If a student gets out of line, he or she is immediately referred to academic discipline. This happens to Black and Latino students across socio-economic lines, but in the high-poverty school, these matters are certainly concentrated: law and order trumps academic achievement and it is believed that if students are orderly, then they can learn. I would argue that if students are actually learning, then they will behave.

If you don't think that law and order take priority over academic achievement, maybe you should visit schools in urban high-poverty areas: many of these schools function like prisons with their high security systems to keep students from getting out, buzzers to allow people in, metal detectors for students and visitors to keep weapons out and school security staff (who functions as a correctional officer). At the end of the day, students in these schools are simply contained; never expected to amount to anything more than people who live off the system either on public assistance or in prison.

There is a pipeline from school to prison and many Black and Latino students in urban schools are funneled through it. Some will argue that there are schools where this is not the norm; schools where Black and Latino urban students do succeed, where academic performance is the focus of the school, and yes there are schools that are like this. However, if you control for student behavior, as many magnets and some charters schools do, of course you can have success. Schools that don't have a selection process; schools that seek to teach everyone don't have the luxury of academic success... they have the burden of maintaining order. Policymakers as well as bureaucrats and lobbyists have facilitated this culture of law and order within urban schools... the mantra in many urban districts is that if you follow the rules, then you will be given the opportunity to learn. Zero tolerance policies are designed to ensure order. If a school has a uniform policy and a child comes to school out of uniform, he or she is sent home and will not be allowed to come back to school without being in full uniform. If a child is dismissed from the classroom for discipline reasons, he or she is referred to the in school suspension office for the remainder of that class period and in some cases for the rest of the day. Let's be honest with ourselves; when it comes to teaching Black and Latino students in urban schools, the hope and desire is to teach them how to be functional law abiding citizens so that they don't become criminals because quite frankly, agenda driven media continuously perpetuates the belief that people of color are prone to criminality and are incapable living within the structure of American society.

For the teacher, administrator and non-educator taxpayer, racism has little to do with perception; fear and ignorance plays a bigger role. For the individuals who are the agenda setters and policymakers via lobbying dollars in the form of campaign funding, backroom deals and media blitzes, fear and ignorance has little to do with the basis of their activity; maintaining the social order does. Education is big business and to maintain the failing atmosphere of urban schools where law and order takes precedent, business is even bigger. Everyone else is benefiting from the current state of urban schooling except the students; the people who are suppose to be benefiting from schooling in the first place.

The connotation of being a "good" student has changed from having good grades to having good behavior and conduct. Teachers and administrators tend to want to help the "good" students more than the disruptive students; whether or not the disruptive students are actually intelligent doesn't matter. The disruptive behavior of even the most intelligent of students often disqualifies him or her from receiving the attention they need to maximize their potential as students and citizens. The way urban schools function do nothing but supposedly teach Black and Latino students how to follow rules, memorize and repeat to pass standardized tests and not to kill each other until after graduation when they are no longer the responsibility of the school. It is not in the design that most students in these schools become socially mobile... poverty is concentrated in urban areas... poor education systems are as well. In fact, the only socially mobile people are the some of the people who come to work each day from outside the inner-cities. Good students from these schools don't necessarily know enough to achieve gainful employment so they can create a good life for themselves. Good students from these schools know how to stand in line at public places to wait their turn, good students from these schools know not to challenge those in authority under any circumstances; good students from these schools know their place. The million dollar question for all "stakeholders" to answer is if they want Black and Latino inner-city students to determine their course in society or to know their place in society. What is your answer?