St. Paul seeks equity, finds chaos

Brawls broke out at two St. Paul high schools in October. Photo: KSTP News

Some St. Paul public schools are unsafe for students and teachers, writes Katherine Kersten, a senior policy fellow at the Center for the American Experiment, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

A Central High teacher was “choked and body-slammed by a student and hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury,” while another teacher was knocked down and suffered a concussion while trying to stop a fight between fifth-grade girls. There have been six high school riots or brawls this school year.

Hoping to close the racial suspension gap, the district has spent millions of dollars on “white privilege” and “cultural competency” training for teachers and “positive behavior” training, an anti-suspension behavior modification program, writes Kersten.

Aaron Benner

Student behavior is getting worse, says teacher Aaron Benner.

When that didn’t work, “they lowered behavior standards and, in many cases, essentially abandoned meaningful penalties,” she writes. Students can’t be suspended for “continual willful disobedience” any more. Often, students “chat briefly with a ‘behavior specialist’ or are simply moved to another classroom or school where they are likely to misbehave again.”

Behavior has gotten worse, wrote Aaron Benner, a veteran elementary teacher, in the Pioneer Press. “On a daily basis, I saw students cussing at their teachers, running out of class, yelling and screaming in the halls, and fighting.”

Teachers say they’re afraid, writes Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario. He quotes a letter from an anonymous teacher, who says teacher are told there are no alternative placements for violent or disruptive K-8 students.

(Teachers) have no way to discipline. If a child is running around screaming, we let them run around and scream. If a student throws a chair at the Smart Board we remove the other students and call for help. If a student shouts obscenities, we simply use kind words to remind them to use kind words themselves. I am not kidding.

. . . The only consequence at the elementary level is taking away recess or sending the offending student to a ‘buddy classroom’ for a few minutes.

At this teacher’s high-poverty, highly diverse school, “I have many students in my class who are very respectful, work hard and care about doing well in school,” the teacher writes. “The disruptive, violent children are ruining the education of these fantastic, deserving children.”

Theo Olson, a special education teacher, was put on leave after complaining about the discipline policy.

Theo Olson, a special education teacher, was put on leave after complaining about the discipline policy.

On March 9, a veteran high school teacher was suspended for social media posts complaining about the discipline policy, when Black Lives Matter activists charged him with racism.

Theo Olson, a special education teacher at Como Park High, wrote that teachers “now have no backup, no functional location to send kids who won’t quit gaming, setting up fights, selling drugs, whoring trains, or cyber bullying, we’re screwed, just designing our own classroom rules.”

He did not mention race.

Black Lives Matter had threatened a “shut-down action” at the school if Olson was not fired.

The same day Olson was put on leave, another Como Park teacher was attacked by two students, suffering a concussion. “The two entered the classroom to assault another student over a marijuana transaction gone bad,” an associate principal told the Star-Tribune.  Two 16-year-olds face felony assault charges.

Is it OK to push out disruptive kids?

“I have no problem at all with charters functioning as a poor man’s private school,” Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio tells Reason. “Are we saying that if you’re a poor black or brown kid, it’s a problem that you should have a disruption-free, studious, high-quality school? Why is that unfair?”

A group of parents have filed a a civil rights complaint accusing high-scoring Success Academy charters of pushing out students with disabilities.

One Success Academy principal issued a “Got-to-Go” list of unwanted students, reported the New York Times in October. Founder Eva Moskowitz called it a mistake.

In response to the complaint, she said Success schools only suspend students for violent behavior. The schools’ disabled students perform better in reading and math than non-disabled students in other city schools, she points out.

Success Academy students who behave well enough to stay are doing much, much better than similar students in district schools. Should Success be forced to adopt laxer discipline policies and keep disruptive students? Should district schools be allowed to adopt tougher discipline policies and get rid of disruptive students?

Milwaukee’s voucher program also was accused of discriminating against disabled students. After four years, the federal investigation has been closed “with no apparent findings of major wrongdoing,” reports the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

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.