Learners have rights too

Charter schools with strict discipline policies provide learning opportunities for motivated students, wrote Mike Petrilli in a New York Times debate on school discipline. That’s why parents are choosing charters, he argued.

Accused of abandoning troubled students — and worse — he concedes that “pushing kids out of school and giving up on them too soon” is a problem.

There are too many schools with weak cultures, weaker leaders, ineffective discipline policies, and poorly trained staff that resort to punitive actions when other approaches would work better. And this has serious consequences for the kids who are suspended or expelled. Helping schools learn how to create positive school climates and develop alternative approaches is definitely worth doing.

But — you knew there’d be a but — eliminating suspensions and expulsions is “the educational equivalent of . . .  letting windows stay broken,”  argues Petrilli. “It elevates the rights of the disruptive students” above the needs of their classmates.

In high-poverty urban schools, the serious learners are low-income black or brown kids. Their parents can’t afford to move to the suburbs or pay private-school tuition.

Strong public schools have long had tools to deal with these moral dilemmas, including detentions, suspension, expulsion, and “alternative schools” for the most troubled students. Yet some on the left, including in Arne Duncan’s Office of Civil Rights, have been fighting to take these tools away.

“If you want traditional public schools to thrive, allow them to employ reasonable discipline policies that will create environments conducive to learning—including the responsible use of suspension, expulsion, and alternative schools,” writes Petrilli. Otherwise, competent parents will choose charter schools that are safe and orderly.

Critics say there are better ways to create safe, orderly schools, such as “restorative justice” approaches that try to mediate conflicts.

Here’s a video on a conflict-resolution program at an Oakland (California) middle school.

A new research paper from the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative calls for educators to analyze discipline rates by race and ethnicity and look for alternatives to suspension. These include improving the “cultural responsiveness of instruction,” better classroom management, programs to build supportive relationships between teachers and students and high-quality instruction. “Efforts to increase academic rigor and to increase safe, predictable environments for young people” reduce conflict, the paper concludes.

That last bit seems chicken-and-eggish to me. If you create a safe, predictable environment, you’ll have a safer environment.

Let parents, teachers choose orderly schools

Parents and teachers should be able to choose safe, orderly schools designed for “the vast majority of children . . . who come to school wanting to learn,” argues Mike Petrilli in the New York Times.

Disruptive students make schools “unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning,” he writes.

For eons, excellent schools have found smart ways to create order that need not require large doses of punitive sanctions. (They create) . . . a climate of respect for students and teachers alike; setting clear behavioral expectations schoolwide and enforcing them consistently; and using a set of graduated consequences for misbehavior that work to correct problems before they get out of hand.

It’s no surprise, then, that both parents and educators flock to schools with strong, positive climates and a sense of order. Once upon a time that often meant urban Catholic schools, with their school uniforms and ample supply of tough love. Increasingly it means urban charter schools, many of which are secular forms of the Catholic schools of old.

It’s much easier for schools of choice to enforce order. “They can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers),” writes Petrilli. “Those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.”

Traditional public schools don’t have that consensus on how strict is strict enough, he writes. They have to compromise.

Instead of forcing charters to tolerate more disruption in the classroom, why not encourage district schools to tolerate less?

Districts can create choice schools. How many low-income urban parents would choose a do-your-own-thing school over a school with clear rules enforced consistently? Some would prefer a “community school” with social workers and counselors, while others would want an academically focused school with after-school tutors.

Too strict?

A student at Lyons Community School in New York does an exercise before a student "circle."

A student at Lyons Community School in New York prepares for a student “circle.”

Is this working? asks a story on school discipline policies for NPR’s This American Life.

Reporter Chana Jaffe-Walt contrasts a “no excuses” charter school in Brooklyn, Achievement First Bushwick, with a nearby middle/high school, Lyons Community, which stresses “restorative justice.”

AFB students who misbehave gets demerits. Lyons students discuss their decision-making in student circles and and may go before a student justice court.

On Match Education’s blog, guest Ross T. critiques NPR’s story.

Educated in a “no excuses” school in Boston, Rousseau Mieze now teaches middle school at AFB. He’s ambivalent about his old high school’s strict discipline, she writes. She finds it “super confusing” when he gives a a demerit to a student for talking during a silent transition.

Mieze is motivated by fear, she concludes.

Fear for the well-being of their students, fear that they “won’t graduate, won’t get to college, will get suspended or arrested for horsing around or being rowdy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I can relate. I felt that fear, for my own part. What follows next, though, I disagree with.

Jaffe-Walt then says that while Mieze is trying to relinquish some control over his students, “his fear gets in the way.”  The implication is that he knows that the discipline he enacts is wrongheaded, but a sort of hysteria of good intentions blinds his better judgment.

The vignette is framed by a discussion of the “Schools to Prison Pipeline,” a theory that strict discipline leads students — disproportionately minority — to see themselves as “bad kids,”  writes Ross T. “The idea is that minority kids will get suspended (often unfairly), miss school, become frustrated and garner more suspensions by misbehaving out of frustration.” And then on to prison.

By contrast, the report on Lyons is glowing.

Jaffe-Walt is impressed with the commitment to dialogue, and introduces us to multiple students who have been “Lyonized,” or transformed into more reflective, socially adept community members.

She doesn’t discuss the schools’ academic results, notes Ross T. The Achievement First middle school earned straight As — based in part on students’ academic gains — on its 2012-13 DOE progress report, while Lyons’ middle school earned Ds and Cs. The Lyons high school had lower graduation rates than peer schools in its district.

In a few years, we’ll be able to see whether the “no excuses” model increases the number of low-income, minority students who become prison inmates — or college graduates.


Achievement First Bushwick students practice the violin.

As a teacher at a low-performing Memphis high school, Jessica Polner “saw dozens of suspensions and expulsions” for subjectively enforced and overly harsh rules. Carefully and consistently implemented restorative justice programs can be effective, she writes.

The vultures circle

“Newsvulture vans” are parked in front of Darren’s Sacramento high school “fanning the flames and needlessly putting some people on edge,” he writes on Right on the Left Coast. Graffiti threatening a school shooting was found in a restroom.

The hysteria started last week. A student claimed the vice principal manhandled her after she tried to grab a confiscated book report — and bit him. Students protested in support of the 17-year-old girl.

Disciplining the undisciplined

Federal “guidance” on school discipline could “have a chilling effect . . . potentially leading to unruly and unsafe classrooms,” warned senior House Republicans in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder.

The letter was too polite, writes Checker Finn in Disciplining the undisciplined. It will be harder to create “safe, serious, and effective learning environments” for students who want to learn.

A 23-page “Dear Colleague” letter warns against disciplinary practices that have a “disparate impact” on various groups of kids. University of Colorado political scientist Josh Dunn explains:

. . .  if students in one racial group are punished more than their percentage of the student population a school can expect the feds to come knocking at their door. In that investigation, federal bureaucrats will ask if a discipline policy had an “adverse” (disproportionate) impact on a particular race, if the policy is necessary to meet important educational goals, and if other effective policies could be substituted without the “adverse” effect. The guidelines are unsurprisingly short on what could count as an important educational goal and what policies might be suitable alternatives. If evenhandedly designed and implemented policies could fall afoul of their bureaucratic eye, then any policy could.

“The consequences for schools and particularly for minority students, will be nothing short of disastrous if actually implemented,” Dunn concludes.

Out of order

Keeping order in the classroom is essential for new teachers, writes Esther J. Cepeda in the Washington Post. But few teachers are taught effective classroom management techniques in ed school.

In my first full-time teaching job, a supervisor disabused me of the classroom-management silliness my teacher-preparation program had drilled into me.

A battle-hardened veteran devoid of educational mumbo jumbo, she gave it to me straight: Be firm, show ‘em who’s in charge.

My teacher-education program had sporadically and ineffectively preached what I called the mommy/best friend philosophy of classroom management. The idea was to coddle and entertain students into engagement, creating a bordering-on-party atmosphere to get kids actively learning.

A classroom should be “a collective of learners wherein everyone had equal standing,” she was told.

Ed schools don’t spend much time or energy teaching classroom management, charges the National Council on Teacher Quality in Training Our Future Teachers.

The softer side of KIPP

KIPP schools aren’t militaristic or joyless — much less “concentration camps — write Alexandra M. Boyd, Robert Maranto and Caleb Rose in Education Next.

We found that schools that begin by establishing a culture of strict discipline, in neighborhoods where violence and disorder are widespread, ease off once a safe, tolerant learning environment is secured.

KIPPsters live up to the “work hard, be nice” slogan, but they “also play hard when the work is done,” they write after visiting 12 schools in five states. Despite the strong academic focus, the schools “make time for band, basketball, chess, prom, and any number of clubs.”

At KIPP McDonogh 15, a combined elementary and middle-school building in New Orleans’s French Quarter, the middle-school principal played music, and students and staff danced down the hallways as they moved from one class session to another. In the elementary school a floor below, some teachers took this concept a step further, using a lively musical transition from one lesson to another.

On most Friday afternoons, the New Orleans school schedules “celebration.” Students with no behavior demerits compete in a lottery for the chance to hit any teacher or administrator with a cream pie. A few days after researchers saw a popular third-grade teacher “pied,” a professor at the American Educational Research Association’s conference — a mile away — denounced KIPP as a “concentration camp.”

KIPP Blytheville College Preparatory School (BCPS) in Arkansas celebrated Geek Week in March culminating with Pi Day, on March 14 (3.14). A 6th-grade girl won the Pi Challenge by reciting 158 digits of pi. Then three teachers and three students smashed pie plates of whipped cream into each other’s faces.

It’s a concentration camp with music, dancing, pi and pie.

No substitute for a teacher

There’s No Substitute for a Teacher, writes June Kronholz on Education Next. Students learn less when substitutes fill in.

Duke researchers Charles Clotfelter, Helen Ladd, and Jacob Vigdor found that being taught by a sub for 10 days per year has a larger effect on a child’s math scores than if he’d changed schools, and about half the size of the difference between students from well-to-do and poor families.

Columbia researchers Mariesa Herrmann and Jonah Rockoff concluded that the effect on learning of using a substitute for even a day is greater than the effect of replacing an average teacher with a terrible one—that is, a teacher in the 10th percentile for math instruction and the 20th percentile in English instruction.

Some school districts — including Maryland’s Baltimore County, Florida’s Hillsborough County, Georgia’s Cobb County, and Colorado’s Jefferson County — hire subs with only a high school diploma or a GED, writes Kronholz. Her son worked as a sub right after graduating from college.

. . . most often, teachers left behind worksheets, quizzes, and videos for him to monitor, amounting to what University of Washington professor Marguerite Roza calls “a lost day for most kids, regardless of the qualifications of the sub.” Indeed, many schools are looking for someone just to keep order rather than to teach differential equations.

“A lot of times, principals are just praying for basic safety,” said Raegen T. Miller, who has studied teacher absenteeism as associate director of education research at the Center for American Progress and as part of a Harvard University team.

Some 5.3 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, according to Education Department figures, but reporting is haphazard, writes Kronholz.  Eight to 10 percent of teachers are out on any given day, according to surveys by Geoffrey Smith, who founded the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State.

Schools that are large, urban and/or serve low-income students rely heavily on substitutes to fill in for missing teachers. Camden, New Jersey needs subs for up to 40 percent of its teachers each day, the district told the local newspaper. Teachers in Providence, Rhode Island were absent an average of 21 days each per school year in 2011, according to a report by Brown researchers.

In well-run schools, students show up for class and teachers do too.  But low-performing schools get stuck in a vicious cycle: Students cut class: frustrated teachers call in sick; substitutes hand out worksheets; students skip more classes.

Making classroom rules

Who Makes the Rules in a Classroom? asks Nancy Flanagan on Teacher in a Strange Land. According to the latest dogma,  good teachers get students to collectively write their own classroom rules.

It seems democratic and encourages “buy-in,” teachers believe, even if students are just as likely to break their own rules as ones set by teachers.

When Flanagan tried it in her own music classroom, students came up with a list of “don’ts” — as in don’t empty your spit valve on someone else’s chair — but “it never felt as if we were wrestling with the really important issues: Building a functioning community. Safety. Personal dignity. Kindness. Order. Academic integrity. Democracy.”

She offers ideas about creating classroom rules, such as:

 •You’re shooting for influence, not control. Fact is, teachers never have absolute control over kids, even using techniques like fear, punishment, isolation and intimidation. (In edu-speak, “consequences.”) You want kids to behave appropriately because they understand that there are rewards for everyone in a civil classroom.

•No matter what rules you put on paper, your most important job is role-modeling those practices, not enforcing them. Behave the way you want kids to behave: Ignore minor, brainless bids for attention. Make eye contact with speakers. Don’t be an attention hog–your stories aren’t more important than theirs. Don’t be rude to kids. Apologize publicly when you’re wrong. Remember that you’re the adult in the room. It’s your calm presence that institutes order, not rules.

Don’t restate the obvious or load up on “don’ts,” she advises. But do give clear instructions when needed.  “Stress: order facilitates learning, makes the class a pleasant place to be.”

 •Integrity helps build community. The most important directives in democratic classrooms are around ethical practices: A clear definition of cheating, understood by all students, in the digital age. Why trust and personal best are more important than winning. Why substandard work isn’t ever OK. How true leadership–kids want to be leaders, too– is a function of respect.

“Carrots and sticks” can be counter-productive, Flanagan writes. Students’ good behavior is its own reward: They get to attend a “civil, well-managed” school.

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.