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I’ve been rereading Up the Down Staircase, the 1964 classic tale of a dysfunctional urban high school, and one of the points that struck me is that one of the students worst served by the school was Italian-American.

In all the current discussions about achievement gaps among ethnic groups, it is often forgotten that back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Italian-American students — particularly boys — were often marginalized and expected to drop out of school before graduation.

For much of the book the young teacher, Sylvia Barrett, is trying to establish some kind of trusting relationship with Joe Ferone who insolently defies school rules with a toothpick in his mouth (that’s a blast from the past — I haven’t seen a teenager with a toothpick in his mouth in a long time!). He finally agrees to come in to talk with her when he was suspended from school for two weeks. Barrett tells the assistant principal that Ferone should have been permitted to keep his appointment with her rather than being put out of school “to roam the streets and join the gangs.” That’s when the assistant principal tells her straight up:

“They’ve got to toe the line, or they’ll make mincemeat out of us. You ever seen their homes, some of them? You ever been in juvenile court? Hear them talk about us amongst themselves? These kids are bad. They’ve got to be taught law and order, and we’re the ones to teach them. We’re stuck with them, and they’ve got to stick out their time, and they better behave themselves or else. All you people who shoot off ideas — you just try to run this school your way for one day, you’ll have a riot in every room.”

Up the Down Staircase was a novel, of course. But it was a novel written about teaching by a teacher who saw the tragedy of harsh and arbitrary discipline and how it was often part of a deliberate strategy of pushing kids out of school. It’s worth keeping in mind when we see those reports of disparate disciplinary actions against African American and Latino students in today’s schools.

(For more reflection on Up the Down Staircase, see my Huffington Post blog this week.)

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