With parents now physically attacking and threatening an estimated 150 umpires and referees each year, syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer reports that 15 state legislatures have passed laws levying stiff fines against this type of family fun.

Geyer describes the behavior of a parent at a school event: “At one game, in Bethesda, Md., a father threatened the referee at his 14-year-old daughter’s soccer game, dropped his pants and ‘mooned’ the official – and was applauded by many in the crowd.”

All told, an estimated three-fourths of referees quit within three years and one-half of all new teachers are gone within five years. It’s slightly reminiscent of 1966 in China when Mao launched his Red August anti-teacher campaign, telling Red Guard students that their teachers were “class enemies,” overly fortunate and excessively literate foes that they should spit upon, badger, beat and finally kill.

In a major article, “Schools Awash in Bad Behavior,” the Washington Post paints a picture of a wide-ranging danger to society from “out of control” students: “Children across the country spit on teachers, trip them, threaten to burn down the school, pelt their teachers with obscenities and expose themselves.” Such events, increasingly “shocking” and “self-indulgent,” reports the Post, have now shifted from “rare” to “regular” events in many elementary schools, nationwide.

Al Gore’s solution during the presidential election was “alternative educational settings,” or “special second-chance schools,” for students expelled for disciplinary reasons. In short, stick all the bad apples in one barrel. Bush, in contrast, pushed for more school choice – more competition, more accountability, less monopoly, more vouchers for poor children stuck in failing schools.

In any case, with the starting bell about to ring for another school year and nearly 70 percent of fourth graders, urban and rural, unable to read at a basic level, Al Gore has come back with an ugly beard, Bush II has compromised away any real shot at reform and the National Education Association (NEA) is saying the answer is more money and less work, i.e., automatic raises and smaller classes.

All in all, it looked like another year of more of the same, another round of the annual autumn debate about why we’re behind Uzbekistan in math and science and scoring somewhere between Tonga and Bhutan in reading.

Speaking recently to delegates at the NEA’s convention, Bush’s secretary of education, Rod Paige, pointed to the numbers: education spending straight up over the past eight years and zero to tiny improvements in student performance. The finger-pointing puts the blame in all the usual places – TV, drugs, indifferent parents, red tape, tenured burn-outs, politicians, teachers’ unions, the fact that public schools are a monopoly and, most of all, disinterested kids.

Then came the good news: The kids do better – just like California oranges – when they’re sun-kissed! It turns out that a new study of 21,000 California school kids indicates that students suffer when there isn’t enough light, becoming off-balance just like the folks who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depression brought on by a lack of sunlight.

“Researchers found that students in classrooms with the most light showed a 20 percent faster rate of improvement on math tests, and a 26 percent faster rate of improvement on reading tests, than students toiling in classrooms with the least light,” reports the New York Observer. “In a Seattle school district, the amount of daylight in a classroom was a better predictor of academic performance than gender, class size, or whether the student came from a single parent family. Students in classrooms with ample natural light scored as much as 18 percent higher on tests than those whose classrooms had no windows.”

And screens matter! “Not only did windows make a difference; if they opened, there were further benefits,” reports the Observer. “In the California study, students in classrooms with windows that could open advanced 8 percent faster over one year than those in classrooms without open windows, which researchers attributed to the flow of natural air.”

Maybe that’s why those smart-alecky homeschoolers win all the spelling bees. Perhaps it’s not their self-starting work ethic after all, or their faithful and dedicated parents, or their top-notch mail-order cassettes. Maybe it’s just the patio, the sun, the porch and the windows that open, the flow of fresh air that’s boosting performance by 20 to 26 percent. Same with those Catholic schools in Brooklyn from the 1930s with their big old floor-to-ceiling double-hung windows that regularly outperform the city’s more updated public schools with their airtight rooms and windows that don’t open.

I asked the Significant Other what she thought about it. For her, it was simple – just common sense – even without the California study: “Look at the plants in the winter. You think we’re immune to that? It’s why people head for Florida when that gray cloud comes over Pittsburgh every winter.”

The lesson? First, call the remodeling crews to get the windows open and install some screens. Second, see how that works, see if we beat Tonga and Bhutan, before there’s any more talk about extending the school year. And third, invite some good architects and environmental psychologists to the table the next time a school’s being designed.

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