Schooling, Education, and Quality Schools - The Practice

Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom - William Glasser M.D. 1998

Schooling, Education, and Quality Schools
The Practice

IN THE EARLY 1990s I was invited to Pittsburgh to keynote a special conference on high schools. The conference organizers were interested because I had written two books, The Quality School and The Quality School Teacher, explaining how choice theory can be used in schools. Those attending were administrators, teachers, and students from a consortium of about forty schools that, by all measures of success, were judged the best high schools in the United States.

Knowing that top students from each school would be in the audience, I chose to nervous because I was going to start my speech with the claim that more than half the students in the best schools do nothing more in class than get by. I was afraid that the students selected to come to this conference, who might be school boosters, would resent the claim that their schools were filled with do-enough-to-get-by students and pay little attention to what I said. It wasn’t the teachers and administrators who concerned me. They don’t know or want to know as much about the schools as do the students.

The night before I was to deliver my speech, I asked the students if they would be willing to meet with me half an hour before my talk in the morning. I told them I was planning to make a statement about their schools, but I didn’t want to say it if they disagreed. Almost all fifty students showed up. I asked for their estimates of how many students in their schools were doing far less than they were capable of. We had a discussion about students’ effort, and I told them that I would go along with their criteria but I wanted a number—how many were working hard to learn?

I was surprised at the range of their estimates that 20-45 percent were working hard in class. The students from the 45 percent high school explained that although poor performers in middle school were not admitted, still less then half the students were buckling down. We talked about that low figure, and to make sure they understood what I wanted, I asked, “Are the poor performers incapable of doing good schoolwork?” They said no, but added that some of the most capable students were doing very little in class because they had turned off in middle school. Although in my talk I said that less than half were working, I tend to agree with the students, the actual figure in the best schools is closer to 25 percent, but less than 5 percent in many large inner-city schools.

When I made the claim that this low figure is due to coercive, or boss, management, no one in the audience challenged it. I will describe both boss management and lead management in detail in the next chapter on the workplace. But, in essence, bosses fail because they force and punish, and leaders succeed because, without forcing and punishing, students see it is to their benefit to follow them and do so more because they like them than because of what they teach. If good education is our goal, boss management is costing us at least half of every dollar we spend on this effort.

But even more alarming was what I soon learned while making an all-day presentation on quality schools in Alma, Michigan. The schools were closed for the day; all the school employees and many of the city leaders were in attendance; however, no students were present. As usual, I lectured all morning, but in the afternoon I interviewed high school students. Considering that the town’s power structure was there, I knew I was going to get the best students, and I did. Since I had talked on quality schools all morning, I decided to ask, “What is quality?” The students had no trouble answering and defined quality as well as it can be defined: the best you can do, it takes time and lots of effort, it’s what we want when we spend our money, and it’s usually expensive. I then asked a question they did not expect, “Do you do quality work in school?”

The students were silent, not knowing exactly what to say. I thought maybe these good students did not want to boast. After a pause of at least twenty seconds, a tall young man stood up to address the audience. In the several hundred of these interviews I have conducted, this was the first time a student had ever stood up to make a statement. He said, “I’ve gone to school here since kindergarten and I’ve been a good student, all A’s, a few B’s, no C’s. My parents and teachers have been very satisfied. But I want to tell you this. Never once in an academic class have I ever done the best I can do.” The audience was stunned to hear this from such a capable young man whom most of them knew. When the interview ended, many from the audience rushed up to talk to him. A few challenged him, but he held his ground.

After the audience was through with him, I asked him what I should have asked during the interview, “If you don’t do it in the classroom, where in school do you do your best?” Immediately he said, “On the basketball team. I always do the best I can there.” His answer supported my belief that the best work in most schools is done in extracurricular activities for two reasons. First, the students almost always have both the teachers who lead these activities and the activities themselves in their quality worlds. This is by far the most important criterion for good work in school. Second, there is no schooling, a term I will soon explain, in these activities.

What is so disappointing about his answer is that it pinpoints a huge problem in the way we teach. Not only are many poor students doing badly in our coercive schools, many good students are not doing their best either. Although I concern myself mainly with lower achievers, we need quality schools for all students. If a future leader like this young man does not choose to do his best, there is little hope for improving education.


The main reason so many students are doing badly and even good students are not doing their best is that our schools, firmly supported by school boards, politicians, and parents, all of whom follow external control psychology, adhere rigidly to the idea that what is taught in school is right and that students who won’t learn it should be punished. This destructive, false belief is best called schooling. It is defined by two practices, both of which are enforced by low grades and failure.

The first practice is trying to make students acquire knowledge or memorize facts in school that have no value for anyone, including students, in the real world. The second practice is forcing students to acquire knowledge that may have value in the real world but nowhere near enough value to try to force every student to learn it. Forcing people to learn has never been successful, yet we continue to do it because we think it is right.

Schooling is what students, even many good students, rebel against in school. If they are failed or given low grades because of this rebellion, many stop working altogether and take not only the schooling but the teachers who school out of their quality worlds. To be fair, many teachers believe that the coercive system that runs the schools forces them to school students and that if they don’t, they will be punished. If we are to get rid of schooling, we must stop defining education as acquiring knowledge.

Education is not acquiring knowledge; it is best defined as using knowledge. The dictionary defines knowledge as the fact or awareness of knowing something. I recognize that you have to know something to use it, but except in some television quiz shows or party games, there is little value in merely knowing something. The value is in using what you have learned, and this is where the schools fail to focus.

Much of what students are required to do in school and are punished if they refuse is to memorize information they will never be asked to use except in school. What makes this practice senseless is that in most instances, the school does not require that the students retain the knowledge, just know it for tests. As Linus said in a Peanuts cartoon strip, “The difference between A students and F students is the A students forget it five minutes after the test, the F students, five minutes before.”

Education is worth the effort; schooling is not. Education is worth improving; schooling cannot be improved. If you know something, you know it; if you don’t, you don’t. You can’t know it better or worse. Where you can demonstrate your competence is in using knowledge. You want your dentist to be able to spot a cavity when she sees one, but if she doesn’t know how to fill it properly, you might be better off if she didn’t even see it. We commit a fraud on students when we tell them that because they learn facts like dates, names, and places, they have acquired something worth knowing. The real world does not reward schooling. If needed, the knowledge of where to look up names, dates or places is well worth acquiring. If the popular schooling game Trivial Pursuit had been called Serious Pursuit, it would have been a dud.

Schooling is what the young man from Alma was referring to when he said he did not do his best. He couldn’t do his best in temporarily acquiring knowledge. But on the basketball team and in most nonacademic areas, students put in a lot of effort because they not only use what they learn but can improve it. The real excitement attached to learning anything is improving it. When students tell you, “We have a great teacher,” what they are saying is that the teacher has taught them to use and improve knowledge, not just acquire it. That is why the best teachers are usually the toughest teachers: They require students to think. For most students in our schooling schools, thinking is new and seen as difficult. But once they see that it’s useful, they respect their teachers and are willing to do the work. In or out of school, there is nothing good about knowing something or bad about not knowing something unless you use it or intend to use it.

Most people will agree that much of what they memorized for both school and college was useless. But there is still the argument of the popular educator E. D. Hirsch, who has written a series of books on what children need to know. Hirsch claims that just being aware of a certain amount of knowledge is indispensable if we want to succeed in the culture we live in. If he was talking about using knowledge, I would agree with him. My question to people like Hirsch who define things worth knowing is, How are we to get this knowledge into the heads of almost all the students if we don’t concurrently teach them to use it?

Since we are a widely diverse culture, in which the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening, the blind forcing of what experts say we all must know will be rejected by many students who do not have homes in which education is valued. They will be failed for this rejection and will “retaliate” by taking schoolwork and then school out of their quality worlds. Many will drop out of school into lives that include violence, crime, prison, drugs, and unloving sex. In a quality school, where students are led instead of bossed, they acquire a lot of knowledge by using what they learn, and they retain it. We need more quality schools if we are to reduce the increasing and costly gap between the haves and have-nots in our society.

This point leads me directly into the second procedure of schooling, where things get more complicated. Some teachers at another conference asked me to role-play how a teacher or a counselor could deal with a capable seventeen-year-old girl who was failing senior English because she had stopped working in class. A teacher volunteered to play the girl. I played the counselor.

“Your teacher sent you to see me. She thinks you have a problem. What’s happening in that class?”

“I’m flunking English. I try, but I really don’t know what’s going on in that class. I don’t make any trouble. But I’m going to fail, and without that class I won’t graduate. I want to graduate but I don’t think I’m going to.”

“Is your teacher doing anything to help you?”

“He’s trying. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays there is after-school tutoring, but I can’t go. I have a job every day after school and I need the money. It’s not just for me. I have to help out my mother; there isn’t enough for food if I don’t help. I have a little sister and brother, they have to eat.”

“You seem intelligent, why are you failing?”

“It’s Macbeth, it’s Shakespeare. They’re making me take Shakespeare, and I don’t understand it. I hate it. I used to try, but I got all mixed up and I flunked the tests so I’ve just given up. Why do I need Shakespeare? Why can’t I graduate if I don’t know Shakespeare?”

This is a good question. There is value in knowing Shakespeare, but is there enough value to flunk this hardworking intelligent girl because she doesn’t understand Macbeth} Even if she graduates, her chances of finding happiness are not that good. If she fails, she has even less chance to do whatever she wants to do with her life. To find happiness, she may have to pursue some more training, and without graduating she’ll be sour on school and there is less likelihood she will try to do so. I don’t think this girl should be failed, but she will be unless some exception is made. Because I believe that the core of English is to be able to read and write and understand what you have read and written, I asked her, “Would you be willing to read a book, write a report on it, and take a test on it if your teacher would let you?”

“Not if it’s Shakespeare. Besides, I don’t have time to read books. I have barely enough time to do what I’m doing to pass my other courses. Anyway my teacher wouldn’t let me do that. If he let me, the whole class would want to do it. They all hate Macbeth.

Here you can see the difficulty with forcing culture. Do we chance ruining a student’s life for refusing to learn what may help her to succeed in our culture? I worry a lot more about students learning to read and write well than I do about Shakespeare.

“What do you like?”

“I like animals. I have a cat and I have a book on cats. I read that.”

“Would you be willing to read a good book on animals? It was a best-seller, and I have it at home. If I give it to you, would you read it for English and take a test on it? I think you could pass that test and I know you’d like the book.”

“What’s it called?”

“All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot.”

Should we punish a young woman for not understanding Shakespeare in a class filled with students who, like her, are hostile to Shakespeare and angry at being threatened with failure if they don’t want to make the effort to understand Macbeth? My claim is that she and the culture she lives in would be better off reading Herriot and writing and talking about what they read than they would be even if they managed to pass Shakespeare. I don’t say give her an A. Give her a C or if she does a great job a B. But don’t fail her. There is no sense in that. Given the conditions that exist in that all-too-typical class, I don’t know what else to suggest.

After the role-play, the teachers were divided. Some agreed with me but said they couldn’t do it because the administrators would not let them. They realized how destructive failing her and not letting her graduate with her class would be, but their hands were tied. However, other teachers said the girl was correct about one thing: If they made an exception for one student, many more would want the same thing. The fear of failure may be motivating, but it will never be motivating enough to make many of them appreciate Shakespeare. It is pure external control psychology that we should not change the system to accommodate this girl (and many others) who is willing to demonstrate that she can read and write well.

The teachers who wanted to fail her were saying that it would be right to sacrifice her to preserve the coercive system. My concern is that this right is creating a large group of intellectual have-nots who hate the haves and hate to learn in school. This hate makes a large contribution to the flat line of human progress graphed in the first chapter. The choice theory right is to teach students the skills they need to succeed in our culture. Universal education must mean more than forcing students to attend school. It must mean that all are learning because they have school, teachers, schoolwork, and each other in their quality worlds.

At one teacher in-service training program, to kick off the 1995-96 school year, a school district invited me to make a daylong presentation to their K-12 teachers. After my morning presentation, I interviewed four eleventh- and twelfth-grade students. I asked them things about their school that would illustrate some points I made in my morning talk. One question I asked was if they had ever voluntarily read a book on their own that was not assigned in school. I was surprised to hear that not one of them had. When I asked if they thought they ever would, three said they seriously doubted it, and one, an eleventh grader, was adamant that he never would.

The students’ answers shocked and puzzled the teachers in the audience, and after the students left I continued our discussion. One of the elementary teachers stood up and sounded heartbroken when she said, “I taught that little boy in the third grade and he loved to read then. What happened?” Schooling is what happened. An important purpose of education is to nurture a love for lifelong learning in all students, not kill it. The system being used in that district, and almost all others across the nation, is killing students’ love of learning.


As much as the two practices of schooling stop useful learning in the nontechnical or soft subjects of school, they save their worst horrors for math. With math, we destroy students’ lives by the thousands for no other purpose than to keep the right to school them intact. If you ask some average citizens, who may have taken math in school but do not use it in their lives, What is math? they will give you the schooling answer: Math is calculating. If you ask them for examples, they will say, the times tables.

If you asked all elementary teachers the same question, almost all of them would give you the same answer. If you asked all secondary teachers and college teachers, except those who teach math, as well as captains of industry, politicians, doctors, lawyers, and judges, the same question, almost all of them would agree.

All who believe math is calculation are wrong. Math never was and never will be calculation. Calculation in school, which means to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and do fractions, decimals, and percentages by hand, is exactly what its name says it is, calculation. It is a useful skill to learn, but once learned, it is not useful to repeat over and over as is now done in most schools. Repetitive calculation by hand, something no adult in the real world has done for almost fifty years, has made the lives of millions of children miserable and wasted millions of instructional hours and billions of instructional dollars in a country that desperately needs the more useful skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and problem solving, including, of course, mathematical and scientific problem solving.

Recent studies have found that fourth graders do well on math and science tests but that there is a huge drop-off when eighth graders are tested in the same subjects. In chapter 3, I attributed this drop-off to the students taking these subjects out of their quality worlds. But calculation, which makes sense to first through third graders, makes less sense to fourth through eighth graders. Students in these grades in places like Singapore are busy doing real math and science, while our students are stuck senselessly doing repetitive calculations by hand and memorizing science. In an effort to be right, we are dumbing down the curriculum with schooling and then wondering why our students are doing poorly.

The math books are getting better. My sixth-grade granddaughter’s text has a lot of useful math in it but also a lot of useless calculation, which she told me she had learned to do by the third grade. As good as parts of the book are, the authors do not distinguish between this real math and calculation. They could have and they should have.

Math in the real world is only one thing: solving story problems. If you look around you no matter how far you travel, almost everything you see that is human-made had a story problem or problems involved in its making. In a quality school, students learn math starting in kindergarten and continue to learn it until they leave the school. In the early grades, they hand-calculate to get the sense of the processes and to appreciate the power of numbers. But as they get into the third grade and can demonstrate competent hand calculation, they are offered calculators.

Anyone who does math in the real world—anyone who solves a story problem, from totaling a restaurant check to sending a spacecraft to Mars—uses a calculator or computer. Math is getting the problem to where calculation is needed, and that only a human being can do. Calculators can’t set up the problems; their only use is to do the calculation at the end.

Calculators are cheap, available, and accurate. If your life depended on an engineer dividing 23,682 by 5,033 and doing it in a hurry, would you rather he did it by hand or used a calculator? If your life depended on that same engineer knowing how to set up the story problem that required that calculation, would you rather he had studied math or spent a lot of time doing long division by hand? Engineers, and I have a degree in chemical engineering, use calculators and computers. We had to study math so we could learn how to get the story problem to the place where we knew what to calculate.

But in most schools, calculation rules the roost in the early grades. It is necessary, but it should not be the priority. Story problems should be introduced immediately, so students can see the relationship between math and calculation. However, by the fourth grade, story problems should predominate and students should be introduced to hard problems that require algebra and calculus and shown how this more powerful math was created to make hard problems easy, not the other way around.

Then by the time they are ready to tackle problems, such as where the trains met or how long it took the boat to go upstream against the current, they will have learned the algebra that makes it easy. If they don’t learn the algebra, they cannot do these problems no matter how well they can calculate. If they can do the algebra, the calculations are so simple that most people can do them in their heads. But also remember that even if you couldn’t solve these difficult story problems, you still passed algebra. You passed by doing a lot of algebraic exercises and manipulations that, like calculations, have nothing to do with solving story problems.

This avoidance of story problems continues in higher math and even makes up a large part of all college math. Schooling is diminished, but even in the smaller role it plays, it is alive and well in college math. But if you do math in the real world, you don’t school, you do story problems. The sad part is that most of us ended up both fearing and hating math when most of us didn’t even do it. But if we came from homes that supported education, we managed to pass our mandatory schooling in hand calculation and non-problem-solving higher math.

I’ve worked a lot with students who, because of schooling, took schoolwork and school teachers out of their quality worlds and didn’t get through school. And what they were told they had to do, and punished for not doing, were calculations they were told were math. Our prisons are filled with young men, disproportionally African American and Hispanic, who wouldn’t memorize useless facts or learn Shakespeare and who certainly wouldn’t do repetitive long division, the most punishing and worthless calculation of all. When they flunked school, they were on the fast track to prison. This failure has led to a great deal of violence, drug use, and nonloving sex and has compounded the problems of child neglect and abuse when they father children. It is the children who were themselves abused and neglected who are the most vulnerable to the depredations of schooling.

If we were short of mathematicians to do real work, which we are not, anyone who was forced to learn math would not be anywhere near good enough to do it when it had to be done. Instead of insisting that all students go on to algebra and geometry, we should focus on teaching them to solve the nonalgebraic story problems that most of us run into in the real world. All students can learn this arithmetic if we are patient and do not fail them. But so few of us can even do arithmetic because we were turned off by too much calculation or later by the mysteries of “higher math.”

If we stopped the forced schooling represented by the torture of hand calculating and really taught the arithmetic we can all use that few of us know now, many more students would be interested in going further into real math. By spending much less money than we spend now, we could use our present math teachers to teach these voluntary, interested students in small classes, and by the time they finished high school, they would have completed the undergraduate math of most colleges.

In the end, we would have many more and much better-educated mathematicians than we have now. These would be happy classes. The interested students who want to learn real math are harmed by being taught with reluctant students who are forced to be there. The argument that math teaches thinking skills may be correct, but only to the students who want to learn it. It does not teach thinking to many students who are forced to take it. All you get from coercion is resistance, no matter where it is used.

Before I leave this discussion of math and how it is destroyed by schooling, I want to offer an example of a simple, nonalgebraic story problem that I don’t believe more than a few people in the country who aren’t mathematicians can solve: Should I buy or lease a car} Most people who lease cars would be better off to the tune of up to $100 a month if they bought cars. But they can’t do the math, so they are prey to car salesmen (most of whom can’t do the math either) who have been told to lease cars because the dealers make more money that way. If the dealers make more, lessees lose that money. Read car advertisements, and you will see that the prices of the cars are rarely advertised, only the monthly costs of leasing them. And look for what is called an acquisition fee, only a totally nonmath person would ever be gullible enough to go for that scam.

Another example of real-world, useful math that schoolchildren could start learning by the third grade is how much families, especially large families, could save if the students were taught the value of clipping and using grocery store coupons. Teachers could go to the stores and pick up the flyers with the coupons in them and explain where else these coupons are available. The children could take these coupons to the stores with their parents and figure out the savings as they shopped or at the checkout counters. Parents would be impressed with this useful knowledge and might share a little of the savings with the children.


The basics of education-useful learning—not schooling—as taught and practiced in a quality school, are learning to speak, listen, read, and write and to use these skills to solve problems. Once you learn these skills, you can keep practicing and improving them for the rest of your life. After graduation, it is a rare day that you do not use these skills to solve problems. In school, to prepare for life, you should be taught vocabulary by using better words, not by memorizing the meaning of words you don’t use.

Problem solving is basic to history and literature, as well as to math and science. It is not who, when, where, or what in history or literature that is important, but the problems the characters, real or fictional, were struggling to solve and whether they succeeded. If they succeed, why? If not, why not? In a quality school, students are asked these questions, the core of using knowledge, from the beginning. These are the questions that are now asked on proficiency tests, and quality school students do well on these measures.

The arts do not ordinarily suffer from the ravages of schooling. Students enjoy recognizing paintings by studying what the artists were trying to portray. Recognizing the Mona Lisa is only the beginning. One useful discussion about who she was and why Leonardo painted her smiling will lock that enigmatic smile into a student’s memory for life. Students are more than willing to memorize music or the lines of a play for performances. The whole basis of art and music is to do it or to appreciate others doing it.

There is a place for memorizing in education, but not if students are forced and have no choice in what to memorize. I memorized the last paragraph of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech in the eighth grade, and it was so beautiful that I still know it almost sixty years later. But I was asked by my teacher what I wanted to memorize; I had a choice. I was given time to do it and I enjoyed doing it perfectly. The teacher, who knew all the pieces by heart, prompted the students who had difficulty and got them through it. No one was flunked or threatened. The class liked memorizing their chosen pieces, and it was a good experience. A good experience with a good teacher is the key to learning anything well.

Right now if your second and third graders are memorizing and calculating and love doing it because it is new and exciting and they like you, I can’t criticize. But when this initial pleasure in acquiring knowledge begins to wear off, as it will, don’t force them to continue. Move quickly from schooling into education, and you’ll set them on the path to real learning for life.


I use the unisex name Stacy to refer to a large group of students who begin to take schoolwork and teachers out of their quality worlds as early as the second grade. It is that they had so few Stacys that made the high schools that came to the Pittsburgh conference so outstanding. They may have had a lot of students who didn’t do much schoolwork, but these students still had their schools, some teachers, and some schoolwork in their quality worlds. Although they may have wanted the school to be better, they had enough support from both their teachers and parents that they didn’t put up much of a fight against the coercion they experienced even in their good schools. If there were no coercion, the number of students who worked hard would have been double or triple what the students I met with reported. Many of the students in these good schools, who do enough to get by because school is in their quality worlds, get into college. There, with more choices and much less schooling, they may do very well.

The Stacys are a different story. Usually, they don’t get much support for education at home, and they frequently don’t receive as much love and attention at home as they want. They need to get this support and attention in school if they are even to do enough to get by. Without what they need at home, they are extremely vulnerable to the forcing, schooling, and punishing they encounter early in school and that they resist by taking school-work; teachers; and, eventually, the school itself out of their quality worlds. Like almost all students, Stacys start school with teachers and schoolwork in their quality worlds.

Many do quite well in kindergarten and first grade, and the schools, their warm and caring teachers, and the need-satisfying schoolwork become even stronger in their quality worlds than when they began. If their teachers are patient, flexible in their approach to teaching them to read, and read a lot to them from interesting books, they learn to read and write. If their teachers make an effort to talk and listen to them, both individually and in class meetings, the students quickly improve the way they speak and listen.

But by the second grade, teachers begin to add a little coercion and a lot of schooling to their approach. Acquiring knowledge, doing calculations, and being assigned homework, accompanied by grades and the threat of failure, begin to intrude on what was mostly love and fun. This change is subtle, but the students who are to become the Stacys begin to detect it and to resist. The students who are not to become Stacys may also rebel a little at this change. The teachers see this behavior as a disciplinary problem and begin to prod them a little. The difference is that when the students who are not to become Stacys are prodded, they choose to work a little harder. The Stacys take some of the schoolwork, usually the schooling, out of their quality worlds. When this change occurs, the two groups begin to separate, a separation that will increase markedly when they reach middle school.

Until the two groups separate, there is no way to tell the difference between the Stacys and the other students. More than thirty years ago, when I worked in Watts, a low-income, segregated section of Los Angeles, I saw students who had been eager, involved learners in kindergarten and first grade gradually stop doing school-work in the higher grades of elementary school. I was puzzled then, but now that I know choice theory I am no longer puzzled. There was nothing wrong with their brains; it was the coercive system that they rebelled so self-destructively against. As I mentioned, in the beginning, the change is uneven and hard to detect, especially by teachers who don’t know about the quality world and how vital it is for the children to keep them and what they teach in it. But as the change continues into the third and fourth grades, it becomes easier to see.

The students who will become Stacys start to pay less attention. They talk and attempt to socialize by forcing themselves on children who are trying to learn and disrupting if they don’t get the attention they want. For whatever reason, they need more love and more patience in school than do other students. But as they begin to behave in ways that frustrate their teachers and to force themselves on other students for attention, they fail to get what they want from the teachers and the students. Then they increasingly resist doing what they are told to do by using a lot of behaviors that are labeled disciplinary problems.

The third, fourth, and fifth grades are a vital time. If the potential Stacys continue to take schoolwork, teachers, and good students out of their quality worlds, they are on their way to becoming full-blown Stacys. The process of becoming Stacys can be reversed comparatively easily at this early stage. Many good teachers in our punish-them-if-they-don’t-do-what-they-are-told schools are able to recognize this resistance early and immediately stop the punishment. They give them a little more attention, for example, a friendly greeting in the morning, a few pats on the head, an assignment they can do, help them to do it well, and then a little praise for doing it. All of this may reverse this disastrous process.

These students need to form satisfying relationships with loving, patient teachers, who may be the only reliable source of love they have. Good teachers know how to give students what they need, and it doesn’t take that much time. In the end, it saves time because the students buckle down and go to work. Having classrooms with only twenty children in the first three grades, as has recently been funded in California, is a wonderful step in the right direction. It frees the teachers to give students the attention they could not otherwise get.

These good teachers also send messages home asking the parents to read to the children or send games home that the parents can play with them. They have enough sense not to blame the families for the children’s problems in school. Most parents have enough problems of their own; they don’t need more from the school. But knowing enough choice theory to realize what is actually going on is also vital if teachers are to help more children stop choosing to become Stacys.

But many teachers don’t recognize what is happening and either phone the parents or send home a barrage of messages telling, almost ordering, the parents to do something about their children’s behavior in school. They expect parents, who know little themselves but force, to punish the potential Stacys. Now the lonely children become desperate. Less and less loved both at school and at home, they turn more and more to whomever is available, other Stacys like themselves. Yet most of those potential Stacys are still in their deciding stage in the elementary schools.

The big change comes in middle school where there is an abrupt shift to more schooling and more coercion and much less time for teachers to give students individual attention. The process can still be reversed, but it is much harder now than if it had been noticed and dealt with in elementary school. If a student is a full-blown Stacy and has somehow gotten into high school, it is unlikely that this choice will be reversed. But occasionally it happens. It is really never too late as long as the student comes to school. It just gets progressively harder the longer the student is thinking about giving up and becoming a Stacy.

In middle school, the Stacys do poorly academically, often skipping class. They quickly begin to lose ground and may be less prepared for high school than when they entered middle school. Schoolwork and teachers are no longer in their quality worlds, and now they begin to lose or give up on the few good friends they still have who like school. It is these friends who are the incentive to keep school flickering in their quality worlds.

Now, if they stay in school, the Stacys are attached to one another because of their common interest in disruption, violence, sexual activity, and drugs. They may not drop out for another few years because occasionally there is a teacher whom they can relate to, a subject like art or music that they still enjoy, or athletics. Even if they don’t get along well with them, the Stacys rarely give up on their mothers, who continue to tell them to stay in school and try to graduate. But in most cases they are so far behind that their mothers are not enough to help them stay in school.

The Stacys are increasing in number because to succeed in our society, education is more and more necessary, and they have none. They will not succeed in our present one-school-fits-all academic system. Even if these schools are improved, most Stacys have little interest in all-day academics. They need to be offered something that they can do—hands on—at the middle school level. Our present excellent vocational schools take only senior high school students, but for most of the Stacys, that is too late; they have already taken school out of their quality worlds.

We also need to enlarge our vision of what vocational education is and expand apprenticeship programs down to the middle school level. What is already obvious is that when they are in a vocational school setting, Stacys often renew their interest in academics. As we enlarge the opportunities for nonacademic education, we also have to publicize the idea that this is not second-class education. Students should understand that although vocational education is not the direct route to college, that route is still open to students who begin to see themselves going further. All this can be done for far less than we are spending now on the Stacys. But schools will have great difficulty doing so alone; they need community support.

In poor neighborhoods, urban and rural, Stacys make up much of the total school population. Right now, hardly anyone in the nation has the slightest idea what to do with them, in or out of school, beyond punishment, which increases their number. When the male Stacys are in their late teens, many go to prison. Most of their offenses have to do with drugs, from which they obtain both pleasure and money.

A significant number of the male Stacys are incarcerated for what we consider senseless violence. But it is not senseless to them; it is what they are looking for. Putting them in prisons, especially the more punitive ones that the society is now demanding, almost ensures that they will give up totally on happiness and concentrate on what pleasure they can get for the rest of their, often short, lives. These are dangerous people. Violence that would horrify most of us means little to them.

While the Stacys are the visible products of the present system that runs our schools, they themselves are not the problem. What needs to be changed is the system. Almost all the Stacys who go to school would be willing to learn if we would change to a choice theory system, which means changing from schooling to education, from punishment to friendship, and from having to, to not having to make up for past failures. If they are willing to learn the useful skills of reading, writing, and problem solving now, we will forget the past.

Waiving the requirement that they gain the knowledge that they have not acquired will give them hope. Once they have caught up on their skills, then we can worry about requiring knowledge. We have to do what it takes to prevent them from becoming Stacys. No matter how badly they do in school, we can reverse this process if they attend. In most cases, we have several years to reach them, but to do so, we have to change the system.

What we also need to do that is now within our reach is to create model quality elementary schools all over the country. To expand quality education to middle schools is much harder but possible if the students come from quality elementary schools. I think quality high schools are out of our reach until the communities the high schools are in move toward becoming quality communities (I discuss quality communities in chapter 12,). In the end, it may turn out to be easier to move an entire community to choice theory, the basis of a quality community, than to move only a high school.

Quality schools would be schools staffed by teachers and principals who practice lead management and teach choice theory to both students and their families. Already more than two hundred schools have banded together to try to do this in the Quality School Consortium. What is stopping other interested schools is the lack of administrative and community support and the few dollars needed for training. The cost of keeping one Stacy in prison for three years would more than pay for the total training of fifty teachers.

Cooperative leadership from both district superintendents and the teachers’ union is needed to get things started. There is plenty of room for skeptics and naysayers in the thousands of schools that will not consider this approach; there is no room for any of them in quality schools. Just as all administrators and teachers need certificates to teach and manage, every member of a quality school staff should have additional training that would lead to a specialist’s certificate in quality school education.

Our experience so far has been that unless schools are staffed by teachers and principals who hold these certificates, we will never have more than a few quality schools. The William Glasser Institute does the training that is needed and awards these certificates. It is prepared to cooperate with schools of education that want to educate prospective teachers in this specialty. (Further information on how training is done is presented in the appendix.)

We are pushing for drug-free schools. We need to push even harder for coercion-free and failure-free quality schools because it is the alienation caused by coercion and punishment that leads young people to turn seriously to drugs. At the Huntington Woods Elementary School in Wyoming, Michigan, the principal and teachers have all been fully trained in the ideas of this book and my other books. What we have learned from that training has now become the substance of the Quality School Specialist Program offered by the institute.


Public school teachers who read these paragraphs will recognize immediately that they have some or many wannabe Stacys in their classes. When parents are educated and involved with what their children are doing in their school, it could be that many of the potential Stacys are incorrectly labeled learning disabled.

This label strongly implies that the students have something wrong with their brains that makes it difficult for them to learn. But what makes it difficult for so many of them is not abnormal brains but excessive schooling. Our brains are not set up to memorize information we do not use, and we are certainly not given brains that can even remotely compete with a calculator. What many of these students do is take schooling and with it, a lot of essential schoolwork, such as reading and writing, out of their quality worlds. When they do so, there is no way anyone, through any sort of testing, can tell whether they have chosen not to put what they are told to learn into their quality worlds or their brains are incapable of learning what they are told to learn.

These Stacys often have parents who accepted schooling, did well in school, and see nothing wrong with their children being forced to memorize and calculate. They are puzzled by their children’s poor performance and tend to go along with any diagnosis that explains that what’s wrong with their children is no one’s fault; the children have abnormal brains. The current diagnosis that parents and teachers tend to accept is attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). In terms of what the students actually do, it doesn’t make any difference whether they won’t learn or can’t learn. They choose the same behaviors: They don’t attend, become hyperactive, or display what is called emotional disturbance.

They may even claim they want to learn and are often puzzled themselves when they seem unable to. A child who knows nothing about his quality world can’t tell the difference between not having something like reading in his quality world and having something wrong with his brain that makes it difficult for him to learn to read. All he knows is that he is having trouble learning to read. The way to tell if it is a brain dysfunction or if he has taken reading out of his quality world is to observe him closely. This close observation cannot be done by a pediatrician; he or she does not have the time. It must be done cooperatively by the school and the parents, who then report what has been observed to the pediatrician. Diagnosing and labeling a child as learning disabled or handicapped because of an inadequate brain is a serious diagnosis. It can affect the child’s future, so it should be accurate. Here is what to look for.

1. Does the child who is labeled ADD or ADHD watch television and understand what he or she is watching? Does the child play games like Nintendo that require close attention? Is the child able to use a computer?

2. Does the child do better for some teachers than for others?

3. Does the child do better in one subject that requires reading and listening than in another subject that requires the same level of reading and listening?

Does the child have good friends, who are attentive in school, with whom he or she enjoys playing and who enjoy playing with him or her?

If the answer to all the points of the first question is no, the child probably has a learning disability and should be evaluated by a competent pediatrician, and some of the current brain drugs like Ritalin should be considered. If the answers to questions 2 and 3 are no, again you should suspect a learning disability. If the answer to either one is yes, it is unlikely that the child is learning disabled. The brain does not turn off in special situations; the problem is that the teacher or the subject is not in the child’s quality world. If the child has good friends who are attentive in school whom he or she enjoys, question 4, I would not suspect a learning disability. If the child has no good friends, then I would suspect that he or she is lonely and too concerned about making friends to pay attention in school. Before that child is diagnosed and labeled as having a learning disability and given medication for it, a serious attempt should be made to help him or her learn social skills and make friends.

It may also be that the child who is not doing well in school is not getting along well enough with someone at home and may be so concerned about this relationship that he or she is not willing to try to concentrate in school. Before a label is put on any child, the parents should pay close attention to the choice theory child rearing I explained earlier. If too much is expected of young children at home and enforced with punishment or rejection, they may rebel by choosing to do little in school or to disrupt. How the child rebels is not predictable. What to watch for is a child who is very good at home but nonattentive or disruptive in school. This child especially needs help with relationships, and the parents may need some counseling, too.

A mentally healthy child is ordinarily sometimes difficult at home but good both in school and away from home. The child behaves this way because he or she feels loved and secure enough to push the limits at home but sees no reason to do so away from home where people will not accept this behavior. But keep in mind that a child who does not accept a school filled with punishment and schooling does not necessarily have an inadequate brain or poor relationships at home. It may be that he or she is more sensitive and more discriminating than other children and even more secure. When my grandson was in the fifth grade, he told his mother that he had done his last calculation in school. He would not disrupt; he would draw while his classmates calculated. His mother told the teacher she would not interfere. My grandson scored high on tests with story problems, so his teacher did not press the point.

In Huntington Woods, the few potential Stacys who enroll are taught in the regular program and are not recommended for medication. They quickly become learners, and some have become outstanding students. Obviously, the problem was not with their brains; it was that schoolwork was not in their quality worlds before. What helps most of the students who are diagnosed as learning disabled in coercive schools is that with this label, many of them are put into special classes where they are not coerced or punished and usually not schooled. This environment accounts for a lot of the success that trained special education teachers have had with them.

It is interesting that close to half the population who marries—including teachers—have divorced. Of those who have not, many are unhappily married. The reason for this personal unhappiness is the same as the reason for the Stacys: external control psychology.* For example, when you ask a Stacy why he or she does not like school, the answer is: The teachers. They don’t care for me, they don’t listen to me, they try to make me do things I don’t want to do, they have no interest in what I want, and it’s no fun.

When you ask an unhappily married woman, Tell me what’s wrong with your marriage, she almost always says: My husband. He doesn’t love me, he doesn’t listen to me, he tries to make me do things I don’t want to do, he has little interest in what I want to do, and it’s no fun. When teachers learn enough choice theory to put it to work with the people they want to be close to in their own lives and see how successful it is, they will be much more inclined to try it in their classrooms than they are now. And they will be much happier in both places when they do.


The Schwab Middle School, a 700-student seventh- and eighth-grade school in the Cincinnati public school system, was a troubled school when my wife, Carleen, and I arrived in the fall of 1994. Carleen worked full time the whole year, and I consulted and spent about seventy days that year in the school. Ninety percent of the students were African American, and many had failed one or more grades. External control was firmly in place. For example, 1,500 students had been suspended for ten days the year before we came-15,000 school days of suspension. The school was like a sinking ship with the crew and the passengers fighting over the few lifeboats that were operational. But we soon discovered that the staff was highly skilled. They had been fighting a losing battle with the fear-driven system that is central office policy in Cincinnati, as it is in most school districts, for so long that they had almost given up hope.

To be fair, the central office was pressured by the school board, and the board operated in fear of the newspaper and the community. What we were dealing with in Schwab was a good staff rendered close to nonfunctional by the threat-and-fear hierarchy that was and is alive and well in Cincinnati. It took us from September to January to convince the teachers that these students were not dedicated Stacys. They were wannabe Stacys who would change their minds if they were treated differently in a better system.

I asked to be invited into the classrooms, and I received a lot of invitations as soon as the teachers found out that I wanted only to help and support, not to criticize, and that I was willing to work with the students. I would go to a classroom for the period before the teacher had a student-free preparation period so we could talk afterward about what went on. I went to the classroom of a young teacher who had no preparation in his own education or in his teacher training for what he had to contend with at Schwab.

There were about twenty students in attendance. When the bell rang, the teacher locked the door—students were locked in or locked out, depending on how you look at it. It was a math class. The teacher gave a ten-minute lesson on how to solve a story problem that asked students to use a map to find the shortest way from home to school. This was a sensible problem, and the teacher taught a good lesson. The only difficulty, and it was a major difficulty at Schwab, was that I was the only one in the class who was listening. The students were talking at their seats or walking around. About four had their heads down on their tables with their hoods pulled up over their heads. They were inert; they may have been sleeping.

The teacher had put four problems on the board. He finished the lesson and told the students to work on the problems. Not one student even looked at the problems; they all just continued socializing or sleeping. They did this all quietly; there was no noise or fighting. This was actually a good class. Some were much worse, and many with more skilled, experienced teachers were much better. But even in the good classes, although students did work, they retained little of what they learned because a lot of what they were asked to learn was schooling. The students could see no way that they could use what they were being asked to memorize in their lives. Since nothing was retained, each day was a new day. I, too, had no preparation for what to do, but I thought that since the teacher viewed me as an expert, he expected me to do something, so I thought I’d better start.

The girl sitting next to me had paid no attention to the teacher and no attention to me. She was writing furiously in a spiral notebook, and her writing was legible. She was doing something educational even if it wasn’t math. I asked her softly, “Are you going to do the problems?”

She looked at me with surprise. Either she hadn’t seen me or she was surprised that I had spoken to her. She said nothing and went back to her writing. In a polite and interested way, I repeated myself, “Are you going to do the problems?”

She then recognized my presence and said, “What problems?”

“The problems over there on the blackboard.”


I pointed. “There.”

She looked at them, turned to me, and said, “Oh, those problems.”

She went back to her writing.

After a moment I persisted, “Are you going to do them?”

She looked at me as if this was a strange, somewhat foolish question and then politely said, “No.”

At this point, the teacher was going around the class prodding students, but no one paid any attention to him. In desperation, because my reputation was on the line and the teacher was also watching me, I said to the young woman who continued to write, “How about if you just do one problem.”

She looked at me as if this was an interesting suggestion and apparently liked the way I suggested it, not threatening or criticizing, and said, “OK.”

She did the problem easily and then went back to her writing. I summoned up my courage and said, “Look, that was easy. Why don’t you do the rest, and you’ll have done all the work for today.”

She paused a moment in thought and then said “OK” again. With a little help from me, she did the other three problems.

I then said, “Good, go back to your writing.”

I took her paper with the problems on it, and now I knew what to do. I spent the rest of the class tutoring students one at a time with good results. (And spent the rest of the year at Schwab tutoring students with’ good results.) The bell rang and the students left. I asked the teacher if he saw what I did. He said he had, and I gave him the papers of the five students I had tutored. I asked him what he did while I was tutoring, and he told me what I had seen him do: He walked around the class trying to prod students into doing the problems. I asked him if he had any success, and he said, “None.” I asked him if he would have had more success if he’d done what I did, and then I got the answer that I heard many times from teachers when I suggested tutoring: “But if I sit down to tutor one student, what will the rest of them do?”

I answered as I always answered, not sarcastically but truthfully, “Exactly what they were doing while you were walking around—nothing. If you had tutored another five, half the class would have done the lesson.” A small amount of tutoring was the key with many of these kids. They needed the personal attention. But we discovered that we only had to tutor them a few times to get their attention, and then they would begin to work by themselves as long as the work made sense to them. Schooling occasionally worked at Schwab if it was easy. The students loved doing things they could do for a while, but if it continued too long, they got bored and quit. They also liked the math story problems but needed some help to get started. What they really wanted was a lot of personal attention, a little conversation, the feeling the teacher really knew and cared that they were there. Most of the Schwab teachers were able to teach in a way that made a lot of sense and were willing to give the students the personal invitation to get started that they wanted.

But the teachers needed personal attention just as much as the students did. They were laboring in a system in which the only attention they got was criticism from people who had no idea of how hard their jobs were and couldn’t do them if their lives depended on it. From the day we walked into that school, Carleen and I expressed appreciation for their efforts. We spent time with them, talked with them, ate meals with them, taught them all we knew, and listened to them. Quickly it became clear that they knew a lot more about what to do than they were doing but did not feel free to do it. It was as if it was wrong to use their skills to teach effectively, to get as personal as the situation warranted, and to give up all but a little schooling—and to stop threatening and punishing.

In addition to her daily sessions with individual teachers and small groups of teachers in her office, Carleen began to meet after school with whomever would come on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons. First the meetings were gripe sessions and she listened, but gradually she began to ask the teachers what they wanted that they didn’t have now, which gave them the message that she would listen seriously. I attended many of those meetings and told them that we couldn’t guarantee we could get very much of what they wanted, but that at least they should tell us. In the beginning they began to ask indirectly for something that I thought we could help them with: Could they teach the way they felt was best? They seemed afraid that if they did what they wanted to do, it might be against central office policy or a deviation from the prescribed curriculum. Fear again. There was a lot of it at Schwab.

When we asked them what we could do to get them the permission to teach as they wanted to, they said they wanted someone with authority to come from the central office and tell them they could teach as they wanted. No one from the central office seemed to want to come to Schwab. Finally, I called a vice president at Procter and Gamble—that company has a lot of influence in Cincinnati—whose assignment was to help the schools. I told him I needed someone from the central office to visit the school and reassure the teachers that they could be flexible in what and how they taught.

He got someone important to come and reassure them. But the teachers didn’t believe her and told her so; they wanted it in writing. She then sent a letter confirming what she had said, and this was a huge boost for the teachers. This letter was tangible proof that we weren’t just talk. But before they would go ahead, they wanted another letter from the State of Ohio Department of Education, and we got that letter, too. Things began to look up.

The next thing we did was very important. Many of the teachers believed that the students, because of so many years of not doing much in school, were unwilling to buckle down and do some useful schoolwork. To deal with that problem, Carleen and I, with the help of the math department, organized a two day tutor-in for math, their worst subject according to the state achievement tests. We divided the students into groups of ten, each group with a staff member. We had enough on our staff to do this if we used everyone in and out of the classroom.

Carleen got on the phone and went into the neighborhood, the teachers helped, and we got a hundred people to volunteer for the two days. With the math department’s assistance, we put together a special math book for the tutor-in, starting from the elementary level and working up to eighth-grade story problems. It was a huge undertaking for Schwab, but it was intended to show that with personal attention and sensible subject matter, the students would buckle down and work.

For the tutor-in, there were, besides a staff member, one or two helpers for every ten students. The groups were spread all over the school. The students were told there would be no failure. They should do as much as they could and ask for help if they needed it, which they would get immediately. It was a remarkable success. For a day and a half they did huge amounts of both calculation and then math and did them both reasonably well. This was neither the time nor place to fight the schooling battle; the last third of the book was story problems, and they enjoyed solving them.

The last half day they still worked but not with the gusto of the first day and a half. We should have stopped then, but it didn’t hurt the experiment. The students were relaxed and enjoyed the time to chat with their teachers and helpers. What the tutor-in proved to the teachers is that the students were willing to work in a no-failure, lots-of-help, sensible situation. What we had to do was figure out how to get a similar approach going every day. But the groundwork was laid to do something big.

Carleen continued her one-on-one contacts with the teachers during the day and the after-school meetings. More teachers came, and she asked them over and over what they wanted more than anything else. They told her they wanted smaller classes and no disruptive students. The disruptive students were mostly the overage students—there were 170 of them—some of whom had been in the seventh grade for up to four years. The teachers said that if we could get rid of these students, they could really teach. These students seemed to be the real Stacys of Schwab; they had given up on learning. Yet even these students worked during the tutor-in.

There already was a special program in Schwab for the overage students, but only 75 of the 170 were enrolled and only about 40 of them regularly attended. I asked the five teachers who were working with these 40 regularly attending overage students if they would take all the rest. I said that if they would do so, we could transform the school. I was asking them to quadruple their teaching load for no more money, but they were willing to discuss it.

There was a lot of discussion. They said that they needed two more teachers. Two teachers from the regular staff volunteered. They needed a place. I thought that an old wood shop that was being used as a classroom in the present overage program would be ideal for creating the environment we wanted for the students in the new program. Without their asking, the teachers were given total control over the program; there would be no interference from the principal or the central office. The central office had no problem with this request and was supportive of the program from the start. When I explained the program to the principal, he agreed wholeheartedly.

The old shop needed total cleaning, carpeting, painting, and furnishing. There was $22,000 left in an Ohio State Venture Capital Grant awarded to Schwab to be used for our quality school program. Used sofas, dinette sets, and computers were installed. The room was painted and carpeted. It was furnished this way because I believed the room would not work if it looked like a classroom; these students did not have classrooms in their quality worlds.

Now we were able to tell the regular teachers that what they wanted was going to happen. They were going to get smaller classes, on average five fewer students per teacher, and no overage students. At first, they were both pleased and worried. But the fear of the new was a momentary thing. The seven teachers who volunteered to teach the new program interviewed all the overage students and told them what was going to happen. The students were interested. They wanted to graduate and go on to high school but all had given up on the idea that they ever would.

The teachers, with our support, were free to be creative. They worked day and night preparing a new curriculum based totally on the district’s required competencies that every student needed to get into high school. Their approach with the students was, Forget all the failure of the past; just show us you have the skills and the knowledge needed for high school. This was to be no free ride.

The program was supposed to start in January but it didn’t actually start until the second Tuesday in February 1995. It was called the Cambridge Program, patterned after the university in England. The large room was to become the commons; five adjacent classrooms were used for tutorials in math, science, social studies, career education, and remedial language arts. The main language arts were to be in the commons.

The first day looked chaotic. All 170 students showed up, but no one knew exactly what to do. In all the seeming chaos, I sat in the center of the room at a table tutoring some students in math. The second day was less hectic; I continued to tutor, now in English. The staff were discouraged, but I was encouraged. It seemed a lot more organized than I thought it was going to be. The students were loud, but I noticed no hostility. Everyone was pleasant, and we never lost that pleasant mood.

The third day there was an act of God. It snowed and the yellow buses didn’t run. Only eighty students showed up in the whole school that day—forty who could walk to school and were in the regular program, and forty from the Cambridge program, all of whom normally rode the bus, who somehow got there on their own. Those forty had seven teachers and one teacher’s aide all to themselves. They did a lot of work that day and loved it. After that day, we were over the hump.

There were no traditional seat-time classes. It was all tutorial, and the students had the choice of what tutorial to go to and when. We said they had to be fair about it, and they were. Before long they had their own schedules worked out. It was the first time any of them had this much choice in school, and they were thrilled. They could change their schedule every day if they wished. Their job was to show us they could do what was required to move to high school.

Individual tests were given, but no one failed because the students were told just to keep working until they could show the teachers they could do the lessons that the teachers were continuing to work day and night to create. As soon as a student finished an assignment by showing the staff personally what he or she had done and it was accepted, the student went on to the next lesson and then the next. There were a lot of competencies, and the students worked harder than they had ever worked in school. As soon as they completed all that was needed for a subject, they were finished with that subject.

These students were now in business for themselves. They knew what to do, they knew they could do it, and it was their choice to do it. If they didn’t do it, they understood they would continue on next year until they did. It soon became apparent that we would need a summer school program to allow most of them to finish. We got permission to extend our Cambridge Program into summer school, and many students finished their requirements. With these students out of the regular classes, the school was quiet and orderly. Our students became polite, even though no one spoke to them about manners. There was no vandalism, no graffiti, and not one hole was poked in the upholstered furniture.

The six security assistants for the 700-student school who were busy the first semester had less and less to do, but they made a great contribution by socializing with the students. The students needed socializing with happy people who cared about them more than anything if they were to get the idea that they, too, could be happy without drugs and violence. By the end of summer school, 148 of the 170 students enrolled in the Cambridge Program went on to high school. The predicted number for this group when the school year began was close to zero.

As much as possible, we got rid of the failure that is so disastrous in school, especially when there is little support for school in the home. Even more important, we got rid of it for the staff as well. I don’t want anyone to think that we did more than we did. What we did is show it could be done and at a cost of $22,000 plus some training money left over from the previous year. Carleen’s salary was paid by the district. Since Carleen is a senior instructor in the William Glasser Institute, she was able to do all the training continuously throughout the year. The staff we inherited was capable but demoralized. It was how they were treated that helped them to do what they did. What we practiced was lead management based on choice theory. What they were used to was boss management based on external control psychology.

What we began at Schwab has been accomplished at Hunting-ton Woods. At Huntington, they have created a happy school. Their happiness is based on good relationships, on everyone in the school putting each other into their quality worlds: teachers, students, administrators, and parents. This is the key to any successful organization or relationship, such as marriage and the family. When the students at Schwab were asked why they were working and getting along, they always said, This is a good school; you care about us. It’s so simple to say, but in our coercive world, so hard to do.


When we got to Schwab, the school was almost nonfunctional. Few of the students were in order, and even fewer were learning. The halls between classes were filled with yelling, screaming, pushing students. Every forty-three minutes when the bell rang, it looked like a scene from a rock concert where no one could find a seat. All the teachers could think about was discipline, and the main procedures were segregation into time-out rooms and suspension. What we did was to show the teachers that discipline is never the problem. The problem is sensible education-no schooling, no failure, a lot of care, a lot of patience, and an opportunity to start over if you are far behind. At the end of the year, a lot more education was still needed, but disorder was no longer a problem. We had made a strong beginning toward changing from a punitive bossing system to a satisfying, choice theory leading system.

For years, schools all over the country have been buying discipline programs that promise to get students in order in a coercive system. Such programs provide fertile ground for problems to occur. I developed one myself in the 1970s, the Ten-Step Discipline Program based on reality therapy, and unfortunately it is still in use. But by the time I began to understand choice theory, I realized that rebellion or resistance to being forced to do what you don’t want to do is the natural, even the sensible, choice. Discipline programs, even those that are kindly coercive, do not work on potential Stacys who are the real problem. They work only on the students who have teachers and schoolwork in their quality worlds. But, of course, these students don’t need these programs. They need a little attention, a little patience, and a lot of useful education.

The school administrators believe in these programs because they think the programs would have worked on them when they were students, and it is probably true. These people had, and still have, teachers and schoolwork in their quality worlds and were rarely out of order. It is analogous to the parents who show up at Parent-Teachers Association meetings and school functions. It’s good to have them, but they’re not the ones who need to be there; their children do well in our schools as they are.

Examples of the programs that are now in vogue besides my ten-step program are assertive discipline (pure but mild coercion) and restitution, a program that claims to follow my ideas. But because it focuses on the student, not on changing the system, it is not following the quality school concepts I clearly spelled out in The Quality School and The Quality School Teacher. Any program that focuses on changing the student instead of the system is not a choice theory program. What we started at Schwab, and what has been put into place at Hunting-ton Woods, is a complete change of the system. In a choice theory system there are disciplinary incidents but rarely problems. Each incident is treated individually; programmatic approaches to discipline will not work. There is no happiness in coercion and punishment.


This small elementary school in Wyoming, Michigan, is completely based on choice theory, and the teachers, students, principal, and parents have each other in their quality worlds. It was started by a dedicated and charismatic principal, Kaye Mentley. Everything described in my two books on quality schools can be seen in operation in this school, as well as the class meetings that are so crucial to the success of any school program, which are explained in my Schools Without Failure. But the entire staff has created, and continues to create, far more than I could even imagine when I wrote those books. It is the kind of school that I would want my grandchildren to attend and your children and grandchildren, too. Although I will describe it and urge you to visit it, it should not be copied. It is, as is Schwab, a school to be understood. Once you understand it, you can also create a quality school, but one that you tailor to the needs of your staff, students, and community.

Kaye Mentley read The Quality School and immediately had a dream, I want one. She was then the principal of a good elementary school in Wyoming and she began to start to realize her dream in that school. But it was difficult; some of the staff wanted to learn choice theory and others did not. As Abraham Lincoln might have said, a school divided against itself will never become a quality school. Even Huntington Woods could not have accomplished all it has unless it started with an undivided staff. To start with a highly divided staff and students who have been threatened and punished for years, as we did at Schwab, makes the job much harder. However, Schwab had one advantage over an easier school: The staff was not complacent; most of the teachers were desperate for change.

With strong parental support for what they have accomplished, Huntington Woods could expand into a middle school and high school if it had the room. Expanding from an elementary school is one way to create secondary quality schools. To do what we did at Schwab with so many turned-off students to begin with is much harder. The sensible thing to do in Cincinnati would have been to use Schwab as the middle school model and create a K-12 track focusing on what was being done at Schwab. Whatever money any school, whose students come from homes that are not highly supportive of education, spends that continues to use coercion and punishment will either be wasted or, more likely, make things worse.

The superintendent of the Wyoming Schools saw the problem Kaye was facing and believed in Kaye’s ability to lead a school to become a quality school. He had an old, unused elementary building and offered it to her. She could take the teachers she wanted from her present school and hire other teachers who believed in the ideas and were willing to do the training. Now her entire staff has had training, and most have finished the institute’s training program and have been certified in the use of choice theory ideas. It is this kind of dedication that has made Huntington Woods one of the top elementary schools in the nation.

What you see at Huntington Woods is happiness. There is joy on the students’ faces, and the teachers are obviously very happy doing what they are doing. The school is a beehive of activity; children inside and outside the classrooms are busy learning. There is no schooling. Children are learning by themselves or in a variety of group situations. The classes are all double, fifty students and two teachers. Each class is made up of students in one of two age groups. Kindergarten and grades one and two are in the lower grouping; grades three, four, and five are in the upper grouping. By the time the children get ready to move to the upper level, many are already doing upper-level work.

There is no failure; no sense of I’m ahead of you or behind you in school; and no attempt to keep the students apart in the classes by any measure, including age. The teachers share the instruction, and because two are in each double classroom, one can tutor while the other teaches if that seems the thing to do. The children also help each other, and the upper level will send students to the lower level to tutor or help. The competition is more with oneself than with others. There are no bells and no formal recess. The teachers can take the children outside to play or to learn any time they want to for as long as they want.

The teachers and children eat together in the room, and this is a time for relaxing and socializing. The emphasis is always on getting along with each other and enjoying each other’s company. The teachers are treated as professionals. They decide what goes on in their classroom. The principal’s job is to see that they are able to do it. She is on call anytime a teacher wants her for anything, including taking over all fifty students if that is what’s needed.

All the children are taught choice theory, and by the time they are in the school a year, most of them know it quite well. They know they are in a quality school and why. There are signs all over the school saying, “Whenever we have a problem, we talk it over with the people who are involved and work out a solution with no one threatening or hurting anyone else.” Because problems are worked out, there are no ongoing problems or problem children. All the teachers and the principal are trained to counsel, so while there are occasional disciplinary incidents, they are worked out as soon as they occur. There is no punishment or time out.

There is absolutely no need for a discipline program; taking care of problems individually, not through an inflexible program, is the ongoing practice. But even though all the teachers have been trained to counsel using choice theory, the main reason there are no problems is that the quality school program prevents problems. Schools with the kind of teacher-student relationships that are the norm at Huntington Woods have no difficult problems.

There is no programmatic focus on learning disabilities. The staff recognizes that children learn differently, and the program is adjusted to take care of these normal differences. Some children have been diagnosed as suffering from some sort of learning disability, but so far they have been handled easily by the program. A few of the children are on medication for behavioral or learning problems, but this is at the parents’ request. The school never requests this.

To give you the flavor of this school, here is one of the many letters I get from Kaye Mentley:

How are things with you? I hope terrific; they sure are that way with me! We had a new fifth-grade student enroll three weeks ago. He is a foster child with one of our families. When I talked to him, he told me he hated all schools, all teachers, and everything about school! I told him, OK, he could hate us, too, and I was glad he was here. I wish you could see the difference in his face from three weeks ago to now. He is smiling, loves his teachers, is doing ALL his work, and even told a visitor last week that he loves this school. We also got a new second-grade student two weeks ago. She said that this school is much better than her old school because the students are all nice to each other and the teachers don’t yell at her. She says she is learning a lot more than at her old school.

Since Kaye is a firm believer in our economic system, visitors have to get on a waiting list and pay $50 for the privilege. She pays for almost all the training with this money, and the more she raises the price, the more people want to come. The students show visitors the whole program; it’s part of their education. Even cleaning the school and replacing the towels and the toilet paper are a part of their education. The students know how much everything in the school costs and how much work is needed to keep the school functioning. They do not waste supplies, time, or money, since they have learned the value of what they are asked to do. They are paid for their work in school money, but they have to use that money to rent their desks and to buy their supplies. There is no free ride at this quality school. In this program, school mirrors life.


In a quality school, to get credit, all students must do competent work—the equivalent of B in a traditional grading system. There are no lower grades than B. This situation again mirrors the real world, in which competence is the minimum requirement to succeed. Besides, even though it is not required, all are encouraged to do some quality work or the equivalent of what would be A or better in all other schools. This level of competence has been achieved at Huntington Woods. The worst flaw in the punitive schools we have is that they use low grades not only for punishment but to give students credit for incompetent work. In any place work is done, you cannot accept anything less than competence if you want high quality. In a quality school, we call that level TLC, for “total learning competency.” That TLC is also the acronym for “tender loving care” is a lucky coincidence.

The students, however, are urged to improve any of their good work until they and their teachers agree that it is now quality work. One of the ways in which quality work is accomplished is through using tests, but not so much to measure students’ progress as to increase the quality of their work. To understand what I mean, let me suggest a way to increase our knowledge of the rules of the road by improving the written test we take now when we get or renew our driver’s licenses.

Recently I had my driver’s license renewed in California. I studied the booklet, but when I took the test I had difficulty with a lot of the questions and I had to guess. I barely passed. I missed six (out of thirty-five) questions, the limit you can miss and still pass. They kept my test so I had no chance to learn what I missed, and I left feeling that the test did not accomplish what it set out to do. There are important rules of the road I don’t know, and the next time I will even think about learning them will be four years from now. This, like most of the tests we take in school, was not a learning experience.

Even though all the licensed drivers on the road eventually passed this test, many, like me, don’t know and perhaps will never know the answers to the questions they missed. And since the test does not cover more than half the questions in the booklet they give you to study for the test, I think it is safe to say that most drivers do not know more that three-quarters of what they should know. This is a perfect example of a nonlearning or schooling test. I suggest that California use a longer test with a question covering every point in the study booklet, maybe as long as sixty questions. To pass, you would have to get every question correct.

Under the present system, it would be impossible to institute these requirements because very few would pass. As in the schools, what needs to be changed is the system. The change could be simple, like making it an open-booklet test. There would be no excuse for not passing; people would just sit there and keep studying the booklet until they answered all the questions correctly. To check if what I am suggesting is valid, two things could be done. One, give the applicants the choice of the old way, in which they could fail, or the new way, in which they couldn’t fail. My guess is that most of the applicants would opt for the longer open-booklet version. Two, give an oral test six months later to two randomly selected groups, those who took the short version and those who took the long version, and check which group knows more. I’d bet heavily on those who took the long version.

This is the kind of learning test that is used in a quality school, where children are always tested for their ability to use knowledge. There is no schooling in a quality school, so there are no schooling questions on the tests and all tests are open book. These tests require the students to do much more than remember; they require the students to think. However, most tests are short and are given frequently. A test in math, science, history, or English literature might have one question, but the answer would have to demonstrate competence. No credit is given for anything less than a competent answer.

To demonstrate competence, the answer usually has to be written, but beyond that, at the teacher’s or student’s request, the student would be asked or given the opportunity to explain to the teacher or a teacher’s assistant why she chose to answer a certain way. By doing so, the students get ongoing practice in speaking, listening, and thinking about what they write, and the teacher checks students personally to make sure they understand what they have answered. The skills of speaking and listening have the largest payoff of all we learn, and the present schooling schools do next to nothing to teach this important skill.

For example, a history question might be, “Why did George Washington turn down the offer to become king after we won the War of Independence, and how do you think his decision has helped our country?” A science question might be, “Why are scientists worried about Earth warming?” A math problem might be, “Your father is painting the house. He tells you to go to the store and get enough paint for the first coat. You have to figure out how much paint to buy.” In English literature, a question might be, “What problems did each character in the story have, and how would you have solved them?” For each question, the student would have to write a competent answer or solve the problem.

If the work is competent, the student is finished. If the work is not competent, the student is told, “Keep working until we are both sure you are competent.” The teacher may ask competent students to continue and improve what they did to the point of quality. The students may also do so on their own, and this is what good students usually do. But no student would be coerced to try for quality.

If there is a sure way not to get quality, it is to use coercion. Therefore, in a quality school such as Huntington Woods, there is no enforced competition, but there are many incentives for students to do their personal best. The students can compare what they did with what other students did, but what other students do cannot affect anyone’s grade. The teacher not only checks the work but encourages and gives thoughtful feedback so the student can get a better grasp of what he or she is learning. This need-satisfying intellectual interaction creates a powerful learning climate. The students are busy thinking, speaking, listening, and solving problems at Huntington Woods.

In our present schooling schools, students memorize enough to pass or to do well, but there is no competence or quality in memorizing. When the usual test is finished, it’s over, whether the student did well, barely passed, or even failed. The students rarely learn the basics of quality, which is continual improvement based on feedback. They settle for good enough, as the young man from Alma, Michigan, did. It was good-enough A work, but he recognized it was far from the best he could do and always did on the basketball team. In a quality school, students compete against themselves. They can never lose and often help each other because what they do for someone else has no effect on their grades. This is much closer to the way the real world works; no business can survive unless the workers are competent, cooperative, and moving toward quality. Our present schools are filled with students doing C and D work, cooperation is rare, and quality is an endangered idea bordering on extinction. We owe our students more.

People ask, “What if the students never do competent work?” The answer is that they never get credit. They are helped, encouraged, and allowed to take the tests home. But to get credit, no matter how long it takes, they have to do a good job. If this approach is started in kindergarten, there is no problem. Students like to do good work, and given time, they all do it easily. Although we started later at Schwab Middle School, most of the students caught on and did the work to get into high school. The ones who refused were held back to try next year. But 148 out of 170 did more work than they had done in years, maybe more than they had ever done in school. The old system of one shot at a test and failure if you don’t pass had led to their giving up in school. Think of this: If you were a student, would you like to be given a longer time to do good work with no schooling or would you like to be flunked quickly if you did poor work and given no chance to improve? Students are no different from you.

Another question is, “I have thirty students in my class. Where can I find the time to go over all their work?” In practice, since they are all working, there is usually time. You go around and spend a little time with individuals as they do the work. You can quickly find out who needs you and who doesn’t. You have no disciplinary problems to contend with. Discipline became much less of a problem at Schwab when the students buckled down and did what was needed for entering high school.

In a quality school, the proficient students are offered jobs as teacher’s assistants, and they love to do them. If TAs are routinely accepted in college, why not in public schools? The TAs do quality work on the tests and then help the teacher check what other students are doing. They learn more in the process than they could possibly learn by just doing a good job on the tests. One of the teacher’s jobs is to help the TAs when they get stuck. In this quality system, in which there is no failure but all must be competent, to get credit is so motivating that teachers are free to teach; they no longer have to police.

Another question is, “The problem with this system is they all do good work. How do we rank them?” The answer is, you don’t. The present ranking based on schooling is phony. If principals tell the colleges what is required at their schools, I assure you that any student who had a record of being a TA would be looked at closely even by competitive colleges. The students who memorize and calculate well now rank high, but if you follow them to college and out into the real world, they don’t do nearly as well as students who are asked to think and use knowledge. Anyone who thinks that the real world is like school doesn’t know the real world. Using knowledge cooperatively is the only payoff in the real world. A quality school prepares students for the real world, in which you get paid only for good work. You usually get more pay for quality work and a pink slip for poor work.

We do not pay students in schooling schools, but we accept low-quality work and do not insist on good work. We do expel students, but rarely for poor work. In a quality school, unless the students do enough competent work to pass a course, nothing is recorded on their transcripts. This is what the real world does; for example, a bank does not keep a record of the money you don’t have. There may be students who don’t do enough work to graduate, but this system graduates many more students than the present system and the students who graduate are competent. The present Cs and Ds produce incompetent students, many of whom think they are competent because they got credit. To give credit for incompetence is phony, and the students are cheated. What makes the quality system work, as it has begun to do at Schwab, is that students know exactly where they stand. They are in control of their own destiny, which means they can blame only themselves if they don’t choose to do competent work, and there is no way to cheat.

The final question is, “How do we cover all we have to cover if we have to wait for slow students to do competent work?” The question I have to ask in return is, “When you cover more ground, are all the students with you?” You know that the faster you go, the more students you leave behind. It doesn’t matter how much or how fast you teach. The true measure is how much students have learned. Would you rather be operated on by a slow, competent surgeon or a fast, incompetent one? The way our schools work now, a lot of students don’t get anywhere, they don’t know what’s going on, they often don’t even know where they are supposed to go. Many don’t get there, and many C and D students who think they are there don’t even know where there is.

One essential requirement in a quality school is writing, and learning to write takes time. Every year, all year long, the teachers work with students to improve their writing. Since almost all the short tests are written—a few are oral—they continually teach writing and the grammar that is needed to express ideas clearly. This is always actual context teaching and is always useful. By the end of the year, all the students have to demonstrate high-quality writing or improvement in their writing from the beginning of the year.

They can demonstrate that they have improved in any way they see fit. Some use their improved tests, the ones they followed through to quality, to demonstrate that they can write well. Others embark on a writing project like writing a book. Others use the writing they do for extracurricular activities like the school newspaper. Anytime during the year, they can ask their teachers to check them off if they believe they are writing well. It is up to them to evaluate their writing, go to their teachers with it, and ask if the teachers agree.

All students in a quality school also do a special project of their own choosing, which may or may not be based on what they are assigned to study. Anything the students suggest that they can justify as useful before beginning, is eligible. A science project, a book, a song or a video, a community service project, anything the students figure out that can be recognized as quality is fine. The students make informal monthly progress reports, so the projects are not left to the last minute. No prize is given for the best project unless the students want to be competitive. It is up to the students to figure out the best way to show their work to the school and to others. Students love this opportunity to use their creativity, and doing these projects gets the idea of quality across to them better than anything else they can do. The projects are theirs. When we own something, we put our best efforts into it.


I used to think that the state proficiency tests were unfair and inaccurate, but I don’t think so anymore as long as the students are allowed plenty of time and the tests are not focused on memorizing and calculation. There are at least two reasons why many students do badly on these tests now. First, they don’t read the questions very well. Second, they haven’t enough experience taking these kinds of tests.

To read the questions well, students have to learn to read better than most do now, and the way to help them do so is to give them more experience with writing. Writing is the best preparation for good reading. That is why there are few objective tests in a quality school. Writing, problem solving, and explaining are the best preparation for these tests. But the main reason that students don’t do well has to do with the myth that learning can be transferred. It may a little, but for most students it does not transfer as much as most educators think.

If you want to do well on the basketball court, you don’t play baseball or football; you play basketball. If you want students to test well on multiple-choice tests, they need to practice on these exact tests. You can’t assume that the teacher-constructed tests they are given in most classes will prepare them adequately for the state tests. Practice tests are available, and they should be used. No students will complain if you ask them to answer one question a day and teach them how to answer it if they have difficulty. Start in the fall, and by Christmas every student should be able to answer correctly all the questions on one seventy-five-question state test and understand why the answers are correct.

It takes time to prepare students for these tests (though not much), but it is time well spent. I think teachers could devote half the fourth grade to this endeavor because schools are so heavily judged by their fourth-grade students’ performance on these tests. The fourth graders would learn a lot by spending time on these tests and really learning why the answers are correct. Don’t think that the time is wasted. These tests are devised by experts; what they ask is worth knowing, and using this procedure gets results. It is not cheating; the tests are there to be used in any way you want. Besides knowing the material, there is a skill to taking tests that can be learned only with practice. For example, studies have shown that reading the answer choices before reading the question substantially increases the scores. Teachers could check that research out in their classes as a game. Whatever you do, don’t give the students the real test cold. That’s unfair.

The Huntington Woods School gets good scores on the Michigan state tests—at the eighty-fifth percentile or higher—without what I am advising here. That is a tribute to the teachers’ competence in teaching. But I still think that for most schools, a little practice is in order. If schools are not teaching for competence and quality, I advise a lot of practice. Look at all the practice that goes into taking the SAT or the ACT and the money it makes for test-preparation companies. Preparation must pay off, or these companies would not be in business.

What I have suggested about quality schools is my ideal. In actual practice, some schools that are trying to become quality schools will not slavishly follow my suggestions. The kind of people who are involved in quality schools are creative thinkers and implementers. The teachers at Huntington Woods know what they are doing and have added to many of my ideas and gone much further than if they depended more on me. But what is behind everything they do is choice theory. Good relationships are the key. Beyond that, schools are limited only by their own experience and creativity.


At a minimum, there are six criteria for a quality school:

1. All disciplinary problems, not incidents, will be eliminated in two years. A significant drop should occur in year one.

2. At the time the school becomes a quality school, achievement scores on state assessment tests should be improved over what was achieved in the past.

3. TLC means that all grades below competence, or what is now a B, will be eliminated. Students will have to demonstrate competence to their teachers or to designated teacher’s assistants to get credit for the grades or courses. All schooling will be eliminated and replaced by useful education.

4. All students will do some quality work each year—that is, work that is significantly beyond competence. All such work will receive an A or higher grade. This criterion will give hardworking students a chance to show that they can excel.

5. All staff and students will be taught to use choice theory in their lives and in their work in school. Parents will be encouraged to participate in study groups to become familiar with choice theory. A few of these groups will be led by teachers to start, but parent volunteers will be asked to take the groups over once they get started.

6. It will be obvious by the end of the first year that this is a joyful school.

* See my article comparing school failure and marriage failure: William Glasser, “A New Look at School Success and School Failure,” Phi Delta Kappan (April 1997): pp. 597-602.