Order in the school

Columbus Collegiate Academy, the highest-performing middle school in Columbus, Ohio, won a national award for improving students’ achievement.  Nearly all students are low-income and black.  What’s the secret? This Examiner story cites excellent teachers, a curriculum designed to teach what’s in the state standards and a “laser-like focus on academics.” I was struck by the emphasis on order.

(In each classroom), identical signs illustrate the hand signals students should use for common requests like tissues, pencils, or questions, and where teachers give out individual and class merits and demerits for good or bad behavior. The school’s culture is one of personal and group restraint, with all available energy and attention trained on the urgent task of getting each student prepared, ultimately, for college. Social studies, science, and history teacher Kathryn Anstaett explains that “an aura of professionalism” pervades the school. She and Ben Pacht both agree that the school’s established structure—its clear guidelines for student behavior, instructional practices, and discipline—frees the kids and grownups alike to focus on learning.

Co-director John Dues ends lunch by counting “one, two, three, ” signaling students to stand, push in the chair, discard trash and get in line.  “The cafeteria spotless, the students soundless, Dues directed the children back to their classrooms.”

The Fordham-sponsored charter has a longer day and year — the equivalent of an extra 64 days — and tries to use every second.

Update: James Lileks remembers his junior high school vice principal. Mr. Lear wasn’t anyone’s friend.

Mr. Lear’s preferred method of getting a kid to behave was to lift him up by the short hairs on the nape of his neck, which are directly connected to the portions of the brain that handle pain, fear, humiliation, and resentment. What earned this? Horseplay. Tomfoolery. And, of course, hijinx. But if you said a bad word you walked on tiptoe to his office, held aloft by your neck hairs.

There were never any fights at school, and no one swore out loud.

When a local mother visited the high school Lileks’ daughter might attend, a student called her “bitch,” for no apparent reason, “and all the other kids giggled and whooped.”

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  1. Have you ever read the Thernstrom book, “No Excuses”? All the schools they talk about–Rafe Esquith’s school, KIPP–show that this is what works: regimentation, longer hours, strict discipline, lots of rules, and over-emphasis on math and reading. The test scores never show a closed achievement gap, merely that they closed the gap in reaching a certain test score.

    Also note that success has only ever been achieved at the middle school or lower level.

    This is antithetical to the progressive model, which has significantly had no great effect on test scores. It’s also antithetical to what any middle class or wealthy suburban parent would tolerate–and yet, their kids do just fine, for the most part.

    Fundamentally, educating low ability kids (regardless of income) requires methods that are simply not necessary for students who work at grade level or higher. If we would just acknowledge that, then suburban schools could track, impose these methods on the kids that need it, and show similar results.

    But that’s politically unacceptable, as is any state-wide mandate to teach kids by certain methods based on their ability.

    So the only way this will *ever* work is if a school peels off a certain proportion of the kids–who, by golly, just happen to all be low ability and disproportionately black and/or Hispanic–and impose the regime.

    But so far, no one has proven it would work in high school.

  2. But so far, no one has proven it would work in high school.

    If it worked at the lower levels, it wouldn’t be needed in high school.

  3. Shoot, I could get performance out of my students, no problem, provided I had an administration that assisted with, not hindered, order in the classroom. I have had major obstacles getting persistently disruptive students out of my classroom, even for the remainder of the block.
    Unfortunately, many public schools, particularly in the cities, take it as gospel that the ONLY reason that a teacher would want to remove a kid is pure, undiluted hatred of that student (and probably all the other kids of that student’s ethnic background). Plus, a deep-seated desire to see that kid fail – in school, and in life.
    I hate it. It hurts the rest of the class, who get cheated out of their fair shot at an education.
    Understand, I can handle difficult kids. But the druggies, their dealers, and the behaviorially non-compliant (I’m talking students who should be in a separate classroom, who can’t restrain their impulses to touch other students, start fights, sing at the top of their lungs, wander around looking to cause trouble) are the ones that need to get out, and stop slowing the progress of the rest of the class. When my classes are composed of a significant minority of those kids – sometimes 5-10 kids – well, I don’t have to tell you how hard it is to teach.

  4. Order has NOTHING to do with skill level or ability level. Kids who are already behind need the orderly classroom more, not less.
    Yes, in city schools, those are mostly minority kids. However, except in Honors or gifted classes, that’s the population that is in those schools.
    Do the minority kids deserve the education less? Don’t they deserve a fair chance in life? Part of their success in life will depend on their being able to learn the norms of their society – including how to behave in an educational setting.
    Given order in the classroom, teachers who AREN’T world class can still teach. You don’t need Superman if the school doesn’t tolerate chaos.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    Cal — I like your idea!! Once the kids are back on or above grade level they can return to the “regular” schools.

    Gahrie — I agree with your comments too. Except this approach is sorely needed for those in middle and high school today. Maybe in the future this approach will not be needed.

    My question is what happens to the kids that successfully exit KIPP or other strong charter schools or teachers that use this approch and enter high school? Do they continue to excel?

    Thanks —


  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    There’s a point at which the methods used in pursuing the supposed goals of an educational program undermine the very purpose of having an education in the first place.

    I think schools like this are dangerously close to that point.

    What does it matter if you can read and do algebra competently if you’re trained not to be a citizen at all, but rather a polite, well-functioning cog-cum-inmate?

    I’m not saying that this is what’s happening, but the very sorts of things that schools like this tout as their strengths and benefits do nothing to dispel the idea.

  7. If it worked at the lower levels, it wouldn’t be needed in high school.


    Once the kids are back on or above grade level they can return to the “regular” schools.

    Both these comments assume that it’s just about “catching up”. I very much doubt it. If that were true, however, then the KIPP kids and the Esquith kids and so forth would be doing fine in high school and the achievement gap would be closed.

    We’d have heard about that.

    There are two possibilities to explain how kids get behind: 1) kids with average cognitive skills are educated in the same way as everyone else but fall behind for unknown reasons; 2) kids with below average cognitive skills are educated in the same way as everyone else but fall behind because they have below average cognitive skills.

    I think the first possibility might explain a small percentage–low incentive kids who just needed a buttkicking. But I doubt they are the majority. My bet is on possibility 2.

    And if it’s possibility 2, then high school is an open issue. High school introduces a huge amount of abstract material–advanced math, literary analysis, historical analysis. The strict discipline method and its emphasis on rote learning won’t work there–well, more accurately, we don’t know how to teach genuine abstract understanding by rote at this time. So if the kids are low ability kids who have been able to pass tests because of rote learning, they are not going to be able to succeed in “regular” schools. More importantly, we don’t know if they can succeed genuinely–that is, not just get As, but close the testing gap–in any case. There’s no evidence that we can close the cognition gap.

  8. There’s a point at which the methods used in pursuing the supposed goals of an educational program undermine the very purpose of having an education in the first place.

    But that goes back to the purpose of education. If these kids even maintain their current skills, never mind build on them, will they be more likely to get jobs, even low-skilled jobs? Yes.

    So if the only choice is between this sort of education or fewer skills, less discipline, and no opportunities, which would they take? Probably the deal they’ve got. Certainly, their parents are.

    Elitists, of both the progressive and Ravitch ilk–tend to sneer at this, because in their mind, education is more than just understanding skills. Education is about teaching children to actively participate in a democratic society, and that means creating kids that think and engage with material at an abstract level. They don’t want to hear about the possibility that for lower cognitive ability, just getting a job and being a full-time participant in the great capitalistic enterprise we call the US is a whole lot of participation–particularly if it requires too much discipline and structure. Gosh, how are kids learning to think? they wail.

    It’s their own value system that gets in the way of educating the lower half of the ability spectrum.

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:


    You think that the best the poor old proles can manage is skills training so that they can participate in capitalism (though not democracy — they are not the same thing)…..

    …. and you think that the people who disagree with you, who hold out hope for universal participation in democracy *and* capitalism — you think THEY are elitist?

  10. If K-8 is somewhat regimented (and believe me, mine was!) the students will have developed enough self-control to be able to take advantage of a more open instructional format in HS. In fact, we can hope that if K-5 is regimented, middle schoolers can begin to be more self-directed. But as Linda F so eloquently pointed out, if a certain level of order is never achieved, no-one gets to be self-directed (or well-educated).

  11. I knew there would be some who would worry about the crushing regimentation–and perhaps the children’s crushed dreams.

    This school, and the order it provides, is giving these students a fighting chance to succeed in the world. Their alternative is much bleaker indeed.

  12. What Darren said.

    You think that the best the poor old proles can manage is skills training so that they can participate in capitalism (though not democracy — they are not the same thing)…..

    I said nothing of proles. Read carefully.

  13. It sounds suspiciously like these kids are being prepared for prison life rather than for college life.

  14. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Sorry — I was using a literary term (see “1984”) that seemed to fit the category that you were demarcating (“the lower half of the ability spectrum”).

    If there’s another term for the less mentally able half of the population (perhaps we can call them Epsilons and Deltas?) I’ll be happy to use it.

    My point about the oddity of your charge of elitism stands, however. It’s damn weird to call someone an elitist on the grounds that they can’t see the obviousness of your argument that many people just aren’t equipped for self-governance.

  15. What a dishonest little putz you are. Focus hard: I didn’t say they weren’t equipped for self-governance. Nor did I say that anyone was elitist for not seeing the “obviousness” of my argument.

    However, I could have spared myself two of your idiotic posts had I realized my own error sooner. I just realized I wrote “elitist” and not “elites”.

    So plug in “Elites”. Or Mandarins, if that doesn’t distort the conversation in another direction.

    Not that it will aid your comprehension or your arguments, but at least that much is my error.

  16. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Dishonest putz? Wow. Please accept my apologies for not understanding what you intended to write.

    Your post now makes sense. It’s still subject to various sorts of substantive critiques, but there you are.

  17. tim-10-ber says:

    i highly recommend work hard. be nice. these kids need the discipine in order to succeed post 8th grade. looks like they are being successful with many of them. i wish more public school teachers had true order in their classrooms.


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