Don’t blame schools for violence

“To end the killing” — 141 murders so far this year – a Baltimore Sun editorial called for  ”effective police and prosecutors, ample drug treatment, better schools, and more economic opportunities.”

Don’t blame the schools, responded Dave Miceli, a veteran teacher, in a letter to the editor.

I have taught in the Baltimore public school system for the past two decades. What we need is better students. We have many excellent teachers. I cannot count the number of students who have physically destroyed property in the schools. They have trashed brand new computers, destroyed exit signs, set multiple fires, destroyed many, many lockers, stolen teachers’ school supplies, written their filth on the tops of classroom desks, defecated in bathrooms and stairwells, assaulted teachers (beyond constantly telling them to perform certain impossible acts upon themselves) and refused to do any homework or classwork.

Miceli blames the crime rate on “a total disregard for life” in Baltimore and other cities.

Who’s responsible for a culture of violence? I’d look to parents.

In Asian schools, boys behave

School boys in China, South Korea and Taiwan aren’t more disruptive than girls, while there’s a large gender gap in behavior in the U.S., according to a University of Pittsburgh study.  Yet U.S., Korean and Taiwanese teachers see girls as better behaved, notes Ed Week.

Los Angeles won’t suspend for ‘willful defiance’

Los Angeles Unified will not suspend students for “willful defiance,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

The proposal would ban suspensions of students for “willful defiance,” an offense criticized as a subjective catch-all for such behavior as refusing to take off a hat, turn off a cellphone or failing to wear a school uniform. The offense accounted for 48% of 710,000 suspensions issued in California in 2011-12, prompting state and local efforts to restrict its use in disciplinary actions.

Disruptive students can be kicked out of class, but not out of school, the school board decided. Principals are supposed to develop alternatives, such as “positive behavior incentives” and “restorative justice” strategies.

Students still will be suspended for violence, drugs, fights and other behavior that threatens others, Superintendent John Deasy told the board. But he said students shouldn’t be pushed out of school for non-violent misbehavior. ”We want to be part of graduating, not incarcerating,” students, he said.

Black students, who make up 9 percent of enrollment in Los Angeles, drew 26 percent of suspensions for defiance. What if they account for a disproportionate share of alternative discipline referrals?

Expulsion, transfer or … ?

D.C. Charter Schools Expel Students at Far Higher Rates than Traditional Public Schools, reported the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown. District-run schools rarely expel disruptive or dangerous students, instead using long-term suspensions, involuntary transfers and assignment to alternative schools.

The “culture of compliance” in district offices “has crippled their ability to maintain safe and orderly schools,” writes John Thompson on This Week In Education. It’s easier to transfer a belligerent student to a new school than to fill out reams of paperwork to document “students’ patterns of misbehavior” and “the resulting interventions.”

In D.C., a student cannot be suspended for more than ten days without the approval of an administrative law judge.  When everyone involved – principals, teachers, families and, above all, students – know that it is virtually impossible to follow through with longterm suspensions, then it is harder to draw the line regarding smaller infractions.  It becomes far more difficult to teach challenging kids how to become students.  Consequently, shuttling discipline problems to other schools becomes a rational response.

Troubled schools should focus on “improving learning climates” as the first step to improving learning, Thompson writes.

It’s not fair to charge that charters ”push out” troubled students, he concludes. Charter educators sincerely believe they’re doing what’s best for their students by enforcing discipline.

As Brown reports, some charters with “zero tolerance” policies allow expulsion for repeated, minor nonviolent offenses, such as skipping class, or violating dress codes. I oppose those policies. . . . Having experience with the anarchy that often comes from the refusal of systems to enforce their codes of conduct, however, I can understand why some charters have gone too far the other way.

Some charter supporters have slandered educators in traditional schools. They should stop implying that it is “low expectations” that causes the disorder which undermines teaching and learning. But if we do unto them what has been done unto neighborhood school teachers, and charge charters with intentionally pushing out students, we will lose the opportunity to discuss better ways of building respectful learning climates. We will reinforce the impression that neighborhood schools will never become serious about raising behavioral standards, and hasten the day when traditional urban schools are merely the alternative schools for the students who could not make it in charters, magnets, or low-poverty schools.

By refusing to tolerate disruptive students, charters provide an opportunity for strivers, “high-potential low-income students . . . who are committed to using education to escape poverty and are often supported in that effort by supportive parents,” writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

. . .  the traditional system has been downright hostile to the needs of such striving children and families—as have been many charter critics. Magnet “exam schools,” such as those recently profiled by Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett, are viewed with suspicion; tracking or ability grouping is seen as elitist; any effort to provide special classes, environments, or challenges for motivated or high-achieving kids is cast as perpetuating inequality—even when all the kids are poor, and even though there’s a ton of evidence that high achievers do best around other high achievers.

And now these “social justice” types want to berate schools for asking disruptive students to leave.

For sure, there should be checks on pushing kids out willy-nilly. Thankfully, charter officials in D.C. are already on the case, publicizing discipline data and prodding the handful of schools with sky-high expulsion and suspension rates to find better approaches.

But let’s not forget about the needs (even rights) of the other kids to learn.

Parents like strict discipline policies, adds Eduwonk. That’s why 41 percent of D.C.’s public students now attend charter schools.

The problem is that too little attention is paid to what to do for students who need an alternative learning environment rather than a traditional school and there are too few learning environments like that – and too often alternative schools become the place where you put all the people who struggle in the regular system, adults and kids.

Washington D.C. charter schools are considering getting together to create an alternative school where disruptive students could be transferred instead of expelled. That could be great for troubled kids — or another dumping ground.

Rowdy kids disrupt classmates’ learning

Kids with poor self-control don’t learn as much in first grade — and neither do their classmates — concludes a study by Lori Skibbe and colleagues. It’s no surprise that disruptive students make it hard for teachers to teach and students to learn, writes Dan Willingham, but the effect is surprisingly large.

Without suspension, what’s the solution?

The Dignity in Schools Campaign is calling for Solutions Not Suspensions, a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions. The coalition charges black, Latino and disabled students are being pushed out of school and denied an education. Instead of suspension and expulsion, the coalition proposes a Model Code on Education and Dignity which calls for “positive discipline,” “restorative justice” and lots of counseling and support services.

Our punitive mindset blinds us to effective discipline, argues Julia Steiny.

“Children cannot learn if they are not in the classroom,” said  AFT President Randi Weingarten in a statement supporting the need for discussion. She added, “Nor can they or their peers learn, or teachers teach, in a school environment that is not safe, stable and engaging.”

The facts are disturbing. According to a Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles report, 17 percent of African-American students and 13 percent of students with disabilities have been suspended. And school districts continue to eliminate school counselors, mentors and other services that are crucial to helping students succeed inside and outside the classroom.

The AFT wants “viable alternatives” before supporting a ban on suspensions, Weingarten writes.

In New York City public schools, students will not be suspended for talking back to teachers, cursing or other “low-level”  misbehavior. unless they’re habitual offenders, reports the New York Times. K-3 students can be suspended for five days, but not 10, for offenses such as shoving or tagging school property. The revised discipline code tells teachers to “intervene quickly with misbehaving students and to try counseling before moving to punishment.”

Misbehaving students can be sent to the principal’s office or denied  extracurricular activities. Severely disruptive students may be moved to a school that specializes in students with disciplinary problems. Expulsion is almost never used.

Teachers, is out-of-school suspension a necessary tool to deal with disruptive but non-violent students? What are the alternatives?

The discipline gap: Racism or bad behavior?

If black students are disciplined at a higher rate than whites — and they are — Education Secretary Arne Duncan thinks schools are discriminating, writes Heather Mac Donald in Undisciplined in City Journal.  ”The Departments of Education and Justice have launched a campaign against disproportionate minority discipline rates,” ignoring the possibility that students’ behavior, not educators’ racism,” is the explanation, she writes.

. . .  the cascade of red tape and lawsuits emanating from Washington will depress student achievement and enrich advocates and attorneys for years to come.

The Department of Education is investigating at least five school systems because of disparate black-white discipline rates, she writes. (Don’t expect an investigation to determine why white students are suspended and expelled at twice the rate of Asian-American students.)

Arne Duncan, of all people, should be aware of inner-city students’ self-discipline problems, having headed the Chicago school system before becoming secretary of education. . . . Between September 2011 and February 2012, 25 times more black Chicago students than white ones were arrested at school, mostly for battery; black students outnumbered whites by four to one. (In response to the inevitable outcry over the arrest data, a Chicago teacher commented: “I feel bad for kids being arrested, . . . but I feel worse seeing a kid get his head smashed on the floor and almost die. Or a teacher being threatened with his life.”)

Nationally,the homicide rate among males between the ages of 14 and 17 is nearly ten times higher for blacks than for whites and Hispanics combined, she writes. Duncan seems to think that suspensions lead to school failure and then to prison, but it’s more likely that the primary mover is poor self-control.

Graph by Alberto Mena
BY ALBERTO MENA

St. Paul, Minnesota fired a “highly regarded principal” for suspending too many black second- and fourth-graders, Mac Donald writes. The system spent $350,000 on “cultural-proficiency” training, where staffers learned to “examine the presence and role of ‘Whiteness,’ ”  and another $2 million “to implement an anti-suspension behavioral-modification program embraced by the Obama administration.”

Aaron Benner, a fifth-grade teacher, protested at a school board meeting, saying disruptive students “affect those who want to learn.”  He blamed student misbehavior on parents and black community leaders, rather than on racism and cultural insensitivity. As a black man, he was heaped with abuse and called a “tie-wearing Uncle Tom.”

“The losers are the kids,” Mac Donald writes.

Protecting well-behaved students’ ability to learn is a school’s highest obligation, and it is destroyed when teachers lose the option of removing chronically disruptive students from class. Nor does keeping those unruly students in class do them any favors. School is the last chance to socialize a student who repeatedly curses his teacher, since his parent is obviously failing at the job. Remove serious consequences for bad behavior, and you are sending a child into the world who has learned precisely the opposite of what he needs to know about life.

Disabled students — especially blacks — are far more likely to be suspended, reports the Civil Rights Project, which doesn’t hazard a guess on whether these students are suffering discrimination or more likely to behave badly.

. . .  17% of African American students nationwide received an out-of-school suspension compared to about 5% of White students.  The comparable rate for Latinos was 7%.  . . . an estimated 13% of all students with disabilities were suspended nationally, approximately twice the rate of their non-disabled peers.

In urban districts, “the leadership and faculty are also people of color,” Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education, told the New York Times. “So it certainly doesn’t fit into the color-coded boxes of that ‘ism’ that we’ve used historically.” Nonetheless, the department is investigating 19 districts where minority students were disproportionately disciplined.

All the “social pathologies — poverty, single parenthood, addiction, etc. —  impact the black community disproportionately,” writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. That plays out in school and later: Black adults are 5.8 time as likely to be in prison as whites.

As for the students-with-disabilities data, this almost surely relates to the use (or misuse) of the “emotional/behavioral disability” category. By definition, students so labeled are more likely to act out, defy adults, get into fights, and so forth. If anything, what these data illustrate is that many schools are dumping kids with discipline problems into special education, whether they have a “disability” or not. The outrage isn’t that these kids are getting suspended; it’s that they are ending up in special education in the first place, which is often a road to nowhere.

Federal law has made it difficult to suspend students diagnosed with disabilities, especially if their behavior is related to the disability, which is a given for kids with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

The number one challenge for urban schools is student behavior. Most kids can be taught the behaviors that enable learning. But teachers need the power to remove disruptive, unsocialized students from their classrooms. Instead of out-of-school suspension, which amounts to a vacation, that should be a place with counseling, social services and catch-up tutoring.

Update: At Dropout Nation, RiShawn Biddle argues that suspension and expulsion are overused for students who are disruptive, but not violent.  ”There is no evidence that such discipline . . . improves school cultures or improves safety for children attending school.”  Low-quality teaching and curricula has as much to do with bad behavior as lack of discipline at home, Biddle believes.

The right way to assess teachers

Laid off after her first year of teaching algebra, geometry and humanities at a California high school, Michele Kerr is open to judging teachers on performance rather than seniority. But she’s only willing to be judged on her students’ success under certain conditions, she writes in a Washington Post op-ed.

First, she proposes that teachers be judged on the students with 90 percent or higher attendance. “Teachers can’t teach children who aren’t there.”

Second, teachers should be allowed to remove disruptive students.

Two to three students who just don’t care can easily disrupt a class of strugglers. Moreover, many students who are consistently removed for their behavior do start to straighten up — sitting in the office is pretty boring.

Administrators can decide “what to do with constantly disruptive students or those teachers who would rather remove students than teach them,” she writes.

Third, Kerr would forbid students to move on to the next course if they score below “basic” proficiency in a state test.  Teachers wouldn’t be blamed if students who don’t know algebra can’t learn geometry or those who can’t read at a ninth-grade level can’t keep up in sophomore English, history or science.

Not only is it nearly impossible for these students to learn the new material, but they also slow everyone else as the teacher struggles to find a middle ground. By requiring students to repeat a subject, we can assess both the current and the next teacher based on student progress in an apples-to-apples comparison.

If Race to the Top is to have meaning, we have to be sure that students are actually getting to the top, instead of being stalled midway up the hill while we lie to them about their progress.

Finally, teachers should be judged on student improvement rather than meeting an absolute standard. That sort of “value-added” measure is what’s proposed in performance plans, so it’s her easiest condition to meet.

No one’s willing to admit how many students “are doing poorly because they simply don’t care, their parents don’t care, their cognitive abilities aren’t up to the task or some vicious combination of factors we haven’t figured out — with no regard to teacher quality,” Kerr writes. It’s easier to write tests that nearly everyone can pass and blame teachers if they can’t get semi-literate students through a college-prep English class or teach algebra to students who never learned arithmetic.

Is this doable? Letting teachers kick out disruptive students would be very useful, I think. Holding back students who lack basic skills would be painful, but it would force an intense effort to teach them what they need to know. I think that would help students more than dumping them in classes they can’t understand and hoping for the Clue Fairy to touch them with her magic wand.

I’d bet many teachers would be willing to be judged on the progress of on-track, in-class students.

The 7-year-old special ed aide

Miss Brave is trying to teach 28 second graders in a New York City school, including Julio, who belongs in a small special ed class.  Easily frustrated, Julio responds by “pounding on his desk and punching himself in the head.”  Teaching without an aide, Miss Brave asked her most responsible student to be Julio’s “buddy” and now thinks: I’ve turned a seven-year-old girl into a “para” (teacher’s aide).  How fair is that?

* He has started singing, humming, pounding on his desk, kicking at his desk, and grabbing his desk and shaking it aggressively, all during what is supposed to be a quiet working period.

* The other day, he got upset, so he took everything out of his desk, hurled it to the floor, and then flopped himself on top of it and lay there.

I assigned him a “buddy” whose job is (a) to help him find things in his desk (because whenever I ask the class to take out a certain book or folder, he yells out, “I CAN’T FIND IT!” and starts taking everything out of his desk and throwing it to the floor) and (b) to remind him what he is supposed to be doing (because every time we’re supposed to be working independently, he yells, “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DOOOOOO!” and starts up with the punching himself in the head and shaking his desk around). And God bless her, his buddy has taken on that role and more — whispering “Julio” and pointing to his sticker chart when he starts humming and/or singing and fidgeting, showing him what page to turn to, etc. The day that he threw everything out of his desk and then threw himself on top of the carnage, she got up without a word and began helping him return everything to his desk. That’s when I realized: Carly is his para.

Julio’s mother doesn’t want him in special education, fearing he’d “fall behind,” but he’s now on a long waiting list for a special class. Meanwhile, he gets no special services.

Doing his Hulk routine, Julio hurt himself, taking a chunk of time from the math lesson. Miss Brave wants to help Julio, but she doesn’t want to hurt her other 27 students.

Am I dooming my students to a lifetime of fearing impulsively violent classmates and being cast aside while emergencies like this one continue to build?

Julio’s mother volunteered to sit with him in class a few times a month to help  him focus, but the assistant principal rejected the offer, saying it would be “disruptive to other students.” Unlike the current situation.

Send disruptive kids to separate school

Disruptive students should go to a separate school till they learn to behave, says Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart. Don’t wait till a disruptive student turns violent, she told the City Club of Chicago.

“Here’s the problem: Teachers don’t always get the support they need from their principals. Too often, the principal returns disruptive students to the class like a boomerang,” Stewart said. “Teachers can’t teach and students can’t learn in a constantly disruptive classroom.”

. . . In the St. Louis school, students attend from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. every day and complete the full year at the alternative school before returning to their regular school the next year.

This is common sense, writes teacher John Thompson on This Week in Education.

It sure would be nice for the students who want to learn.