California rethinks ‘zero tolerance’

California lawmakers are rethinking “zero-tolerance” discipline laws that require schools to suspend or expel students caught selling drugs, brandishing a knife, possessing a firearm or explosive or sexually assaulting someone, reports the Oakland Tribune.

In the 2009-10 school year, 7 percent of K-12 students, 13 percent of those with disabilities and 18 percent of black students were suspended for at least one day in California schools, according to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, D-Coachella, has introduced a bill to end automatic suspension, except for firearm and explosives possession. In addition, principals would not be required to report illegal activities to law enforcement authorities.

. . .  it would require a governing board’s decision to expel a student to be based not only on the act itself, but on the grounds that “other means of correction are not feasible or have repeatedly failed to bring about proper conduct.”

Another bill would remove “defiance” as grounds for out-of-school suspension, but would let schools impose in-school suspension. “Willful defiance” leads to 40 percent of school suspensions, reports AP.

School suspensions were once reserved for serious offenses including fighting and bringing weapons or drugs on campus. But these days they’re just as likely for talking back to a teacher, cursing, walking into class late or even student eye rolling.

More than 40 percent of suspensions in California are for “willful defiance,” or any behavior that disrupts class, and critics say it’s a catchall that needs to be eliminated because it’s overused for trivial offenses, disproportionately used against black and Latino boys and alienates the students who need most to stay in school.

“It’s so broad it’s not useful,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president and chief executive of the nonprofit South Los Angeles Community Coalition. “You can’t quite define what it means, what it doesn’t mean.”

 I’ve never been a fan of zero tolerance and in-school suspension seems like a smart idea, but doesn’t this seem like a rather wide pendulum swing? It’s going to be difficult for a school board to expel a student for sexual assault or brandishing a knife.

The American way to self-control

American parents can teach their children self-control without emulating Asian “tiger mothers” or strict French mamans, write Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, authors of  Welcome to Your Child’s Brain in a New York Times commentary.

Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bébé, “is envious of Parisian parents whose children don’t throw tantrums in public or fight on playground,” they write. “She ascribes this good behavior to stern French methods like forcing children to follow schedules and wait for attention.”

But, non.

Fortunately for American parents, psychologists find that children can learn self-control without externally imposed pressure.

. . . Find something that the child is crazy about but that requires active effort. Whether it’s compiling baseball statistics or making (but not passively watching) YouTube videos, passionate hobbies build mental staying power that can also be used for math homework.

It’s not that easy to teach self-control, responds Daniel Willingham on his new blog.

The authors suggest that “rather than trying to emulate the strict discipline supposedly instilled by child-rearing techniques in other countries, it may be more useful to consider the science of successful parenting in general.”

Uh, actually, the science of successful parenting shows that children who are high in self-control are more likely to come from homes with house rules.

The suggested “American” strategies — find a hobby, encourage imaginative play, teach a second language, promote aerobic exercise — aren’t likely to work, he predicts.

The successful “Tools of the Mind” curriculum uses lots of imaginative play, but . . . it requires a skillful teacher (and a set of ground rules as to how the drama is to be carried out) for the strategy to work.

A hobby might help self control if the child is (as the authors say) passionate about it, and so learn that hard work is necessary for a desired payoff. But again, you’re sort of leaving a lot to chance if you hope that your child will develop a hobby consonant with that, and will actually stick with it. (I’m reminded of the 13-year-old son of a friend, who calmly told his mother “Mom, don’t you get it? Watching TV is my hobby. It’s what I do.

Willingham isn’t arguing for  “strict parenting,” he writes. The “science of parenting” shows that “parental warmth, and a predictable, organized home environment” are associated with self-control.

Willingham writes here on what teachers can do to increase students’ self-control.

Go to detention, pay $5

Strict discipline is part of the “secret sauce” at the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, which runs 10 high-performing high schools in low-income areas. That includes charging students $5 for the cost of detention if they’re caught in minor violations: Carrying energy drinks or chips, chewing gum, failing to tuck in a shirt or tie shoelaces when asked, carrying a permanent marker or sleeping in class can lead to a three-hour detention, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Noble’s 10 high schools in the city raised nearly $200,000 from the disciplinary fees last year, according to  parent and student advocacy groups who protested the policy.

“It’s nickel-and-diming kids for literally nothing that really matters,” said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education.

Noble Network CEO Michael Milkie said enforcing rules creates an orderly atmosphere that discourages the violence that plagues many Chicago public schools.

“We maybe have one fight per year, per campus. It’s an incredibly safe environment from a physical and emotional standpoint, and part of it comes from sweating the small things.”

And he said students who behave poorly should be forced to pay.

“For far too long in the city, students who behave well have had their education diverted to address students who behave improperly,” Milkie said. “We have set that fee to offset the cost to administer detention.”

Schools offer waivers and payment plans for low-income students and take disabilities into account, Milkie said. The network’s 91.3 percent retention rate is better than the district’s, he added. There are 10,000 students on wait lists to get into a Noble high school.

Parents must like Noble’s policies because they keep signing up their kids, responds Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who’s praised the schools for their high graduation rate, nearly double the rate at other public schools, and the high college-going rate.

KIPP = Nazi Germany?

In musing about democracy on Bridging Differences, Deborah Meier equates KIPP and other “no excuses” schools with Nazi Germany‘s schools.

What troubles me most about the KIPPs of the world are not issues of pedagogy or the public/private issue, but their “no excuses” ideology implemented by a code that rests on humiliating those less powerful than oneself and reinforcing a moral code that suggests that there’s a one-to-one connection between being good and not getting caught. It tries to create certainties in a field where it does not belong. . . . Life is never so simple that we can award points for “badness” on a fixed numerical scale of bad-to-good. As we once reminded colleagues, Nazi Germany had a successful school system—so what? I’d be fascinated to interview some KIPP graduates to learn how its work plays out in their lives.

KIPP schools don’t suspend students for misbehavior or send them out of class. Instead, they sit in a separate area with the school polo shirt inside out until they’ve apologized to their teacher and classmates and the apology has been accepted. I assume that’s what Meier means by humiliation.

The moral code that equates “being good and not getting caught” baffles me. What is she talking about?

Life is not simple, but surely it’s possible for teachers to award merit or demerit points to students for good or bad classroom behavior without turning into Nazis.

After all, very few schools try to operate as democracies.

$124 million for a model high school

Zack Munson’s dark, dingy, crumbling alma mater, Woodrow Wilson High in Washington, D.C.,  has been rebuilt at a cost of $124 million, he writes in High School Monumental. The new Wilson, envisioned as a model urban high school, is airy, pleasant and loaded with technology. But is that enough?

The energetic new principal let Munson tour the rebuilt Wilson High.

The classrooms have teleported from the 20th century to the 21st and beyond. Gone are the projectors and VCRs and LaserDisc players (yes, that cutting-edge technology that reigned supreme for a good year or two). The whole building has Wi-Fi. There is a cyber café and a media center, the latter a white, glowing sea of brand new Macs. There’s even a TV production studio! The whole place is really, really nice. Not just nicer than it used to be; nicer than the college I went to. . . . There is a robotics lab, and a robotics team that competes nationally . . .

Each class has a flat-screen TV, an LCD projector or a Promethean Board (interactive, touch-screen projection device). The bathroom stalls have doors.

Even better, there’s no trash or graffiti. The halls are quiet and empty during classes. Suspensions are down and attendance is up slightly.

Yet, Munson has doubts.

If the last 40 years have demonstrated anything, it’s that dumping money and technology onto faltering public institutions often does little but waste the money and create massive warehouses of rapidly obsolescing technology.

Shortly after he toured the school, a group of students set some of the bathrooms on fire, causing $150,000 in damage.

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.”

Chaos is bad for kids

Kids growing up in chaotic homes with no clear rules or routines have  lower IQs and more behavior problems, concludes a study analyzed by Daniel Willingham on The Answer Sheet.

Rsearchers factored out “the parents’ education level, parent’s IQ, a measure of the literacy environment in the home (number of books and so on), the housing situation, a measure of parental warmth/negativity, and a measure of stressful events.” Chaos still emerged as a negative factor for children’s IQ and behavior.

Chaos hurts in the classroom too, speculates Robert Pondiscio.

It’s not hard to imagine higher level of student achievement, if not IQ, in classrooms that are well managed and orderly.  At the very least, the lack of those qualities is one of the most visible signposts of poorly run schools.

A Teach for America teacher in D.C. uses the “respect bell” to keep order. When a student curses, insults someone or strays off task, the teacher rings a hotel-style bell ($5 at Staples).

(Students) insisted, pleaded, begged that I stop. But I wouldn’t – at least until they, themselves, stopped saying or doing disrespectful things. Surprisingly, my decision to hold my ground led students to police each other in a positive way. They told each other to quiet down, to stop using profanity and to focus in on the lesson. For a moment, I had a class that was completely silent and on-task!

I think kids feel secure with an authoritative adult in charge.

Unsafe for learning

I’ve got a column up at Pajamas Media on bringing order and safety to chaotic, dangerous schools.

Pacific Research’s Not As Safe As You Think finds it’s very easy to avoid reporting any school as “persistently dangerous.”  The legal requirement is useless.