Changing students to change schools

To salvage the “bottom of the bottom” schools, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan proposes four models that would qualify for federal funding, writes Maureen Downey in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. All require changing the school operator and/or the principal and/or the teachers. Educators have a different idea: Instead of firing teachers or principals, fire the students.

Downey quotes Metro Association of Classroom Educators chairman John Trotter, who says the children in failing schools are the main problem.

“They are unmotivated and lazy. Yes, there are many incompetent and idiotic and mean administrators who need to go,” Trotter says. “There are even some bad teachers, but these are really rare. The problem starts with the students. What is Duncan going to do with some so-called students who act like miscreants each day?”

It reminds me of Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox’s comment about the horrible state prisons: “What we need is a better class of prisoner!” However, the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg makes a more persuasive argument in Education Week. It’s impossible to change a bad school without changing the mix of students, he argues.

Changing the principal and teachers in a school isn’t enough, in part because many years of research have confirmed what all parents know: Kids learn from one another as well as from the teacher. In high-poverty schools, a child is surrounded by classmates who are less likely to have big dreams and, accordingly, are less academically engaged and more prone to acting out and cutting class.

Low-income parents are less likely to volunteer in the classroom and “know how to hold school officials accountable when things go wrong,” Kahlenberg writes.

The student and parent makeup of a school, in turn, profoundly affects the type of teacher who can be recruited. Polls consistently find that teachers care more about “work environment” than they do about salary. They care about school safety, whether they will have to spend large portions of their time on classroom management, and whether parents will make sure kids do their homework. That’s why it’s so difficult to attract and keep great teachers in high-poverty schools, even when bonuses are offered.

Kahlenberg suggests turning high-poverty schools into magnet schools good enough to “attract new teachers and a mix of middle-class and low-income students.” That’s worked in Raleigh and its suburbs, he writes, citing Gerald Grant’s Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.

Economic segregation drives failure, he writes.

It congregates the kids with the smallest dreams, the parents who are most pressed, and burnt-out teachers who often cannot get hired elsewhere.

I don’t think there are enough middle-class urban pioneers to change high-poverty schools in most cities. (And I’d be interested in feedback on Raleigh.) Magnet schools, which have been around for a long time, haven’t proven to be game changers in most places.

Some high-poverty schools are safe, orderly places that concentrate on figuring out how to educate the class of children they’ve got. It’s hard to do, but not impossible.

About Joanne


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    Talking to some young ladies who have made it through high school and into college from the projects and through a horrible high school we asked them what they thought would help others survive the challenges facing these kids, keep them in school and help them thrive. They both said “get the kids a mentor”. The kids felt the addition of role models, opportunities to explore things, place, ideas, etc outside of their home/neighborhood environment would help.

    The question is how? Our district has 75000 students with 76% of them being free and reduced meal qualified. Does this mean 40,000 +/- need mentors? No but even with the numerous after school programs the district has for middle school students the waiting list for these services is long. These programs do not address the needs of the elementary and high school students.

    How does one make this work? The middle class families in our district have fled to the extent they can. Those that have stayed are in the magnet or choice schools with scatterings of families in the default er zoned schools. The rest are in private school. Roughly 20% of the students in our county are in private schools. One cluster has 60% of kids in private schools and the one I live in has 40% or more of kids in private schools.

    What do we do?

  2. Step one is to restore the status of doing well academically and work to de-legitemize the thug life.

  3. Look at the API scores and demographics for Madison Elementary school in the Long Beach Unified School District since 1999. The economic demographics were roughly steady at 1/3 disadvantaged, the population shifted from more Caucasian students to a roughly equal proportion of Caucasian, Hispanic, and African American students. Since that time API scores have risen from 716 to 836. Over 800 means the school is meeting minimum CA standards. So at least some schools know how to improve results without cherry picking students .

  4. Okay, I got my ed-ja-ma-cation in Raleigh (at least part of it)
    So to explain how this is somewhat successful in Raleigh you have to know the city.
    1. Raleigh has a very small downtown area compared to the surrounding parts of the city.
    Raleigh in known for the “Research Triangle Park” which provides many middle to upper middle class jobs. So in this case there seems to be a big enough pool suburban middle class kids that want to attend a magnet school in the city.

    In reference to “there are no bad schools in Raleigh…..”
    I guess it is all on how you define the term “bad”
    I can agree that the magnet schools helped out in the Raleigh area…but to say there are no bad schools, I think there were at least bad parts of the schools.
    Going to a magnet school close to a low socio economic status (SES) area was different than schools in the suburbs. We had a bit more violence and fighting than my friends’ schools in the suburbs, we had more drugs, and it seemed students at the inner city magnet schools started sexual activity earlier.
    Positive notes were that the fighting and drugs were still minimum considering where the school was located. Students also had state of the art equipment, technology, opportunities for field trips and school projects that other schools just could not afford. Overall I think magnets schools helped to create an inner city school with dedicated teachers and an integrated SES.

  5. What’s really nice about the “change the students” excuse is that the resulting bouts of explosive giggling cause the people making the excuse more and more to end up talking only to people who desperately want to believe the excuse. As the self-isolation increases the true believers and their leaders become increasingly irrelevant to the larger, societal discussion on education.

    There’s a Greek-tragedy aspect to the situation in that the supporters of the educational status quo can hardly do anything else yet the inescapable action leads, inescapably, to ruin.


  6. I think that the reality is that the “change the students” approach has experienced some limited success–whenever a mix of students has been accomplished. Historically, however, such efforts have not maintained long-term, as desegregation has demonstrated. Not only are there persistent lurkers in the wings waiting for their opportunity to push for some really racist/classist separations (and it seems I see more of these folks lately–not necessarily related to education), but most of us carry latent racist/classist perceptions of what a “good” education for our children looks like, and those with means drift away from the center (to the delight of realtors who can sell houses for more if they are in a “good” area).

    There are some parents who really prefer a mixed crowd–and these folks can provide a base for a limited number of “magnet” type schools. But, I have watched a number of these come and go in my district. Frequently the success of the school is personality based (centering on a principal), and I have seen dramatic changes in community support based on who was in charge. Currently my district simply doesn’t have sufficient middle class and non-minority students to successfully integrate every school. On the other hand, I have spent most of my life working with populations of “others,” the non-mainstream folks and my general experience has been that in any neighborhood there is likely to be “enough.” Enough responsibility, enough intelligence, enough caring. What is difficult is learning to see the resources. When I hear teachers talking about how much time they have to spend “parenting,” because their kids “don’t get it at home,” I know that they are not getting it. They are not at all atuned to what is actually going on for the majority of their kids. Yes–there may in fact be some parents who are a mess. I can testify that this is by no means unique to low-income neighborhoods–just easier to see. But the belief that only so much can be done is such a powerful limiting factor. Joanne is right–schools can be safe and welcoming places, with work. Not only do all parents care profoundly about this (all), but they can provide a powerful evaluative mirror as to whether or not this is the case.

  7. “They are unmotivated and lazy. Yes, there are many incompetent and idiotic and mean administrators who need to go,” Trotter says. “There are even some bad teachers, but these are really rare. The problem starts with the students. What is Duncan going to do with some so-called students who act like miscreants each day?”
    That’s right, blame the victim. The problem is that Trotter’s competent professionals have shown more success at “curing” the motivated and ambitious than the other way around.

  8. “It reminds me of Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox’s comment about the horrible state prisons”

    Interesting comparison. 😉

  9. It sounds like to me that Duncan is reaching for a way to ensure he looks correct in the policies he’s pursuing.

    Many of the education “reformers” have already tried this route. Change the kids at the school by making it a “magnet” school (all the better to bring in the gifted and motivated students) and then declare your “reforms” a success.

  10. Dennis Fermoyle says:

    I understand what both Trotter and Kahlenberg were saying. Although Kahlenberg was much more eloquent, I have felt the frustration that Trotter expressed. I’ve never taught in a really rough school, but I have had classes from time to time with a very bad mix of students. The sad fact is that it doesn’t take very many disruptive kids to make learning impossible for an entire classroom. Believe me, the students Trotter was talking about should not be viewed as victims; their classmates should be. The schools I’ve read about that have been able to turn things around in areas where there are a lot of disadvantaged kids have usually been charter schools, and they have been able to practice tough discipline–probably because they’re given some leeway on some of the rules that the rest of us have to follow. As a teacher in one of those schools told one unruly student, “If you’re going to act like that, you won’t be able to stay here.” If we ever want to turn things around in regular old neighborhood public schools we are so concerned about, teachers in those schools need to be given the power to say the same thing and mean it.

  11. I have been saying this for the last 10 years–send me a better student and I can do a better job. Sure enough, when I get a class full of kids who all want to learn, then we go gangbusters. There are some classes where my success rate is huge and it’s because of the kids. This from someone who has taught in a tough inner city school for 20 years. Poverty is not the issue, it’s the mindset.