The New Three-Fifths Compromise

The New Three-Fifths Compromise

Why won't the Supreme Court treat children as people, too?

As a kid I grew up singing "Kids are People Too" along with Wonderama TV host Bob McAllister. Ever since I've believed that kids are people with all the rights and privileges afforded to other citizens. Apparently, members of the Supreme Court and talk-radio audiences disagree and are rolling back the rights of children with hardly a whimper of dissent.

Other groups argue that their civil liberties are being violated, but they have a voice in the process. Kids can't vote and when parents voice concerns on behalf of their children, they are dismissed as, well, ... parents.

On Nov. 27, Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case began in the 1997-98 school year when an Owasso, Okla., parent, Kristja Falvo, complained to the school district that students in the fifth to seventh grades were routinely required to swap and grade the papers of a classmate before publicly calling out the scores to the teacher, who would record them in his/her gradebook. Falvo's son was a mainstreamed special education student who experienced ridicule and bullying by the other students as a result of his weak academic performance.

The scales of justice apparently tilt against the will of parents and the interests of students.

You might be thinking, "How the heck did this time-honored classroom practice make it to the U.S. Supreme Court?" The answer is because when the parent asked that this humiliating classroom ritual be retired, she was told: "Things have always been done this way." Falvo sued, claiming that the school district violated the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. This act protects the secrecy of educational records and a Federal Appeals Court ruled that calling out a grade so it could be recorded constituted an educational record.

Gosh, how the Supremes and pundits yucked it up about this case. Who cares if a kid's feelings are hurt? It's the school's right to behave in any way they wish.

The justices quibbled about whether a teacher's gradebook is a record since it's not stored in an office safe. Is it a record before it's written down? There was an argument about whether parents should have veto power over school conduct. The scales of justice apparently tilt against the will of parents and interests of students.

There was heady debate about the honor roll, gold stickers and no-pass/no-play rules-all cherished patches of Americana that one could argue are also miseducative and counter productive.

There was much discussion about how teachers have too many students and too many papers to grade and therefore must rely on student slaves to pick up the slack-as if two wrongs indeed make a right.

Teachers who don't wish to mark hundreds of papers per day should not assign so many isolated tasks. Meaningful work is not often found in book bags full of dittos. Falvo suggested that if students marked their own papers they would reap the benefits of learning from their mistakes in real-time. The justices also mocked this solution as unrealistic since everyone knows that kids are cheating little weasels.

Teachers called into radio shows and wrote editorials about how peer-editing and cooperative learning would be prohibited if this poor little child were deprived of a humiliation-free school. The sky is falling!

There is a profound difference between peer-editing and what we know was going on in the classroom of Falvo's child. In one case, children consent to help each other construct knowledge. In the other, sloppy teaching is enhanced by the non-consensual public exclamation of numerical dunce caps.

Since this case may be decided by the time you read this, let's put aside the legal wrangling and get to the heart of the matter. The court will probably rule against the privacy rights of students. But do the NEA, NSBA, AFT and Owassa County Schools really wish to defend shoddy teaching, or are they fighting to prove who's boss?

The defendants never challenged the accusation that children were being harmed by the practice they so vigorously defending. The school district's attorney asked, "How important are hurt feelings in the context of dayto- day activities in the classroom? Kids are mean to one another from time to time. It's unfortunate, but is that what Congress was really intending to protect?"

Should schools add humiliation to the already overcrowded curriculum? Will we need standards to ensure that we hurt every child's feelings?

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.


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