What to do with off-track students

Teachers would love to send failing students to alternative schools — aka “transition schools” or “recuperative schools — writes John Thompson on This Week in Education.

Thompson likes the Gates Foundation’s, This Works for Me series, “much of which could have been written by teachers and their unions.”

Neighborhood schools end up with the hard-to-educate kids, Thompson writes. “More than three fourths of teachers and principals supported what researchers described as alternative learning environments as a way to reduce the dropout rate,” a Gates-funded Public Agenda poll reports.

(The) poll also shows that 90% of teachers believe that discipline problems are serious impediments, and 68% believe that alternative placements for those students would be effective.

Researchers say very good instruction “will reduce, but not entirely eliminate, student behavioral problems,” Public Agenda reports. “There is evidence that average student achievement (i.e., overall teacher effectiveness) is higher in schools where student discipline issues are addressed.”

No kidding.

About Joanne


  1. One of my classes has about 4 kids who are serious discipline problems. They pull in another three or four who would be fine if the first group wasn’t there. It hurts the entire class–and I’m pretty good at classroom management. The class has many kids with a low investment in education, and I’ve turned most of them into reasonably productive students, except these holdouts.

    I have tried two approaches. The first, which is how I ran the first part of the year, was to insist that the discipline problems work in class. This was relatively effective, in that I always won the war and got work out of them, but it came at a cost. I had less time for the other students who were less trouble, and teaching “up front” was long and arduous, as I always had to insist on silence and stop when disruptions happened.

    I spoke to several people about it, and decided that this wasn’t working. I was winning the war with those kids, but the overall class was suffering. So about a month ago, I told the class that if it wasn’t quiet while I was teaching, I would send people out. Warnings were optional and at my discretion. I send them to the office with work. On average, I send two kids out of class in the first 20 minutes (always from that core group), and then it calms down. The remaining troublemakers either get work done or at least do no work quietly. I’ve decided that if any student is kicked out three times, I will insist on an in-class suspension and a contract before they get back into class, with strict behavior requirements.

    I start each class anew. The troublemakers who aren’t kicked out are given as much time as anyone else if they have questions; I never hold their past history against them. I take every opportunity to teach them, and encourage them to go to tutorials to get more help. If they are so far behind that they can’t do the work that day, I try to find something else for them to do.

    This is a suburban school, the troublemaking kids aren’t low income (and are, for the most part, white). But they are troubled, at risk kids. The big question is do you boot them out and further set them back, or do you insist on teaching them, which benefits them a tiny bit but hurts everyone else in the class?

    Does “great teaching” help? Yes. As I said, I’ve been effective at getting these kids to learn–at a cost. Does it fix the discipline problems? No. Fixing the discipline problems requires strict classroom management that puts a stop to all teaching until all kids comply–and with these kids, full compliance is time-consuming to achieve and very brief.

    There’s never going to be an easy answer, but I’m leaning towards removing consistently disruptive kids, even though it will give rise to the “giving up on them” charge. The troublemakers are often salvageable, but if the effort takes away from the rest of the kids, the cost isn’t worth it.

  2. I read the referenced article, which identified middle school as a critical step in keeping kids on track because high school is too late to remediate those who are severely behind. (I agree)

    My older kids attended a 7-8 JHS, which had the same format as HS. Three years later, my younger ones attended the same school, which had become a 6-8 MS (over community objections). All students and teachers were assigned to teams and there was a daily NEST (nurture, encourage, support, ???) period which was supposed to address social/emotional issues. The focus of the school had changed from academic to feelings and even the honors courses had been weakened, although most of the teachers were the same. The school felt more like ES, had the same dose of artsy-crafty work as ES and had moved to the group-project mindset.

    I accept the fact that some kids need the additional support, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of academics and it shouldn’t be required for all. There are many kids who would benefit from more challenging academics.

  3. It only takes a few difficult students to completely ruin the environment for all the rest. These students are generally the ones who need the most attention. An alternative school allows these students to receive this attention in an environment in which they don’t have to perform in front anybody. These students often thrive in such a place.

    There’s no way you can do justice to your students when you also have to deal with 8th grade students who need a calculator to divide 4 by 2 or jump out of their seat every five minutes to flip over a desk. These students, of course, count against your school’s performance.

    As long as these sorts of idiotic situations are commonplace, schools will have a very hard time attracting and keeping good teachers.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It’s not fashionable to say this… but I suspect that there would be a lot fewer discipline problems that actually needed to be addressed if students could lose their public school privileges.

    Students who act out in class are implicitly representing that they don’t *value* the educational experience. People have a funny way of suddenly valuing things when they are taken away, or even when it’s possible that they will be taken away.

    I’m all for public schools, in much the same way I’m for public highways. But we take away the driving privileges of people who don’t value the highway system. And the fact that we *can* take away someone’s driving privileges keeps most people in line.

  5. Put the kids in the academic level for which they are able to do the work. Most likely all of these kids were failed but passed by teachers in prior years who obviously did not do their job of teaching the kids. Once they get caught up put them back the right level for their abilities. The fact that these kids are allowed to continually disrupt the learning time of others is a disgrace to you, a waste of tax payer money and the reason K-12 educators are not viewed as professionals. Do the right thing for the majority of the students and get those that need help to the appropriate grade level in an alternative school. Do it tomorrow. These kids are acting out most likely because they have no clue how to do what you ask.

  6. These kids are acting out most likely because they have no clue how to do what you ask.

    This isn’t necessarily true. The kids who misbehave in my class are of average skill. I do have several kids who are simply not ready for the material, but it’s by no means a one for one overlap. Many of my least prepared students are quiet and well-behaved, but still can’t do the work, even with support.

    I agree that kids should be in the right level, but that won’t fix the behavior problems.

  7. We used to call it “reform school.”

  8. I have taught in alternative Ed (7-12th grades) for ten years. My entire public education career has been in alternative Ed.
    There will always be kids who DO NOT want to learn (at least when we want them to). There is nothing worse than dealing with a kid who is not interested, who is addicted to drugs, or wants to do their own thing. I’ll day this and it won’t be politically correct, but the best thing for them an those who want to learn is to LET THEM GO. Putting all the “bad kids” in alternative Ed makes the problem worse. They are competing to be the “worst” of the worse (I call it the battle to be King of the Misfits).
    Placing kids in classes based on academics sounds good, but most kids I work with won’t go for it. They are too prideful or too embarrassed.
    I’ve had countless former students come back and tell me they just weren’t ready to succeed in school. Some had to go out and get degrees from the school of Hard Knocks, others had to sober up and grow up first. They appreciated all of our efforts, but am education was not their priority.
    They told me to spend my time and energy on the kids who want it and throw out the ones that don’t.

  9. It’s hard to make assumptions about disruptive students. They aren’t all the same. Some can be handled by an experienced teacher with the skills and experience. Some are probably beyond being handled…

    If, for example, a student wants to be kicked out of the school–opportunity transferred elsewhere for some old reason.

    I once had a disruptive student whose parents were Nigerian. They got tired of hearing about his bad behavior and sent him to live with an Uncle in Nigeria and to attend a Nigerian school for one semester. That seemed to cure him–at least for a while.

    My least disruptive classes early in my career were the ones in which I had the most gang-bangers and former gang-bangers. As a rule they kept quiet and their menacing presence kept others from wanting to draw attention to themselves. At the time I was happy to have this silent enforcement though today I don’t want my students, however potentially obnoxious, to be operating out of that kind of fear.

    One inescapable fact is that chronically disruptive students are depriving other willing students of a part of their education. It is stealing, plain and simple, and ought not be tolerated.