Category Archives: Uncategorized

Are big money experiments ruining our schools?

My thoughts on Robert Herbert’s October 6, 2014 essay:

The Plot Against Public Education: How millionaires and billionaires are ruining our schools.

What do the failed educational reform initiatives critiqued in this essay have in common?

  • A belief that the answers to the challenges we face were clear and simple.
  • They made promises to fix the ills of our schools.
  • That very large sums of money gave you the right to experiment.
  • Projects could proceed without much scrutiny or forethought.
  • Reformers could act with impunity and move on if things didn’t go well.
  • Our children and their education suffered.

Herbert first discusses the Small Schools Initiative.

From 2000 to 2009, well-intentioned Bill Gates underwrote the “notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.”

Two billion dollars and a host of disrupted schools and damaged students later, Gates concluded, “Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.”

Gates’ next idea was to define what makes an exemplary teacher and then set that as the standard for all schools. He dismissed the plan when he discovered, “Unfortunately,” he said, “it seems that the field doesn’t have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it using one curriculum over another? Is it extra time after school? We don’t really know.”

Next he critiques the Charter School Movement:

Herbert says, “Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.”

They didn’t. Academic success -test scores- in charter schools was on a par or worse than the public schools they replaced and the racial disparities they promised to reduce were instead heightened. He concludes, “Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools. In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes.”

Herbert’s essay is scathing and unfortunately on point. Frustrated non-educators often think they have the magic solution to fixing schools. Nowhere is this more evident than the rapid growth of charter schools, which turned out to be loose cannons with little financial or academic accountability, rather than the meccas of exemplary practice and inclusiveness as touted. If there were simple answers to reducing dropout rates and consensus on what and how we should teach so all kids achieve at a high level, no matter their circumstances, and if we had an easy to apply formula for what makes “a good teacher,” and surefire ways to create efficient schools with respectful, caring cultures, we’d have glommed on to these solutions long ago. End of discussion.

But teaching and learning isn’t that prescriptive and schools are the most challenging of institutions to run and reform. They are people motivators and life changers., and everyone has a stake in their success. They are accountable for students’ success and this is dependent on the quality of life afforded the families and children we welcome into our classrooms, and the excellent leadership and tireless work of each adult in a child’s life. The reason why we don’t always have the answers is that the needs of our children and the context of the society they live in are not static; so nor are the strategies, resources, and skills critical to meet these needs.

I say all this as both a pragmatist and an eternal optimist when it comes to the tremendous power and inherent goodness of public schools. Great things are already happening and we surely can improve, but not by the temptation of a notion, the stroke of a brush, or the clinking of coins.

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Hazing: A sugarcoated name for bullying and assault

A Case of Rights vs Rites

We owe it to our students to call it what it is.

Hazing is violent behavior we’d never excuse under its real name: bullying and assault.

Hazing is tacitly permitted and spans the violence continuum from taunting, extortion, and humiliation, to forced substance abuse, and physical and sexual assault. Like all bullying, hazing is an abuse of power and it negatively affects both girls and boys. The problem continues to exist because students are afraid to report it, it flies under the radar of adult scrutiny, or adults are aware of it and do nothing. Looking the other way and this veil of secrecy provide the perfect mix for uncontrolled, destructive behavior under the guise of tradition and good fun.

The traditions and myths surrounding hazing allow it to enjoy a protected place in our culture, not just in our colleges, but also in our public and private elementary and secondary schools. Status as a cultural norm, which considers negative initiation rites benign and even character building, is an imposing barrier. The norm is strengthened even more by student peer pressure and the need for acceptance into the group. The effect is students routinely give up their rights and quietly suffer humiliation and put themselves in emotional and physical danger in exchange for the chance to be included. They don’t see a way out of going along with the initiation rites if they want to be able to take part in the group activity they enjoy. We need to develop and present a new mindset and set up policies that give students a way out.

Who is in charge of eliminating hazing?

Clearly we are, just as we are responsible for maintaining academic standards and establishing a safe school climate. The adult staff is accountable to do no harm and to allow no harm be done to their students. Coaches and advisors for sports teams, music groups, social activities, and clubs have a specific responsibility to keep safe the students under their care by prohibiting and reporting hazing that occurs on or off school property and during or outside of school hours. If a college fraternity chapter can be suspended from campus for life for hazing abuses and members charged with assault, coaches and other adults who allow our young students to be abused and those students who abuse others should face comparable consequences.

The reality is most students want us to protect them from hazing. They don’t want to be victims and many don’t want to be put in the role of victimizer. They want adults to intervene, hazers disciplined, the police called, school leaders who are educated about the underground of initiation rites, and hazing replaced with positive experiences.

Adult culpability for what happens to their students is a wake up call to all elementary and secondary school staff. The Ohio State Education Department takes this responsibility seriously. Their anti-hazing code warns that any adult who “recklessly” permits hazing, or who has knowledge of the hazing and takes no action to stop the behavior is liable for civil action for injury and damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering. They have placed hazing into the realm of a crime where it belongs.

But students fear nothing will change, and some adults justify hazing, because it is difficult to break down well-established traditions. Yet we have repeatedly proven we can change school climate and school culture. Think of what used to be ingrained in the culture and policies of our schools: students segregated by race, separate schools and classrooms for students with disabilities, different courses and graduation and post graduation expectations for boys and girls, rigid academic tracking from a young age, the use of corporal punishment for discipline. From experience, we know that the most effective way to change the status quo is to get the cooperation of those involved and to take a clear and firm position together.

In the unique case of hazing, school policies, staff, students, and families need to be clear and firm that no emotional or physical violence, couched as a harmless initiation rite for acceptance into a group, regardless of tradition, will be allowed, ignored, or excused. Any anti-bullying policy that does not specifically address hazing is incomplete.

Instead we will:

  • Create a written code of conduct for extra-curricular groups that specifically prohibits any form of hazing. (See Evergreen Colorado HS anti-hazing sample policy below.)
  • Bring parents together to review the code and to enlist their support for its success.
  • Consistently publicize and enforce the anti-hazing policy.
  • Create a confidential hotline so hesitant students and parents can report hazing to the authorities.
  • And as our new mindset, offer positive, respectful adult leadership and collaborative activities to welcome new students into a group.

Sample policy

Evergreen Colorado High School Anti-Hazing Policies

Evergreen High School prohibits recognized groups, organizations, athletic teams or those that attend events or activities sponsored, organized or supported in any way by those organizations, from hazing members, prospective members, or other persons seeking to obtain benefits or services from any of these organizations.

Hazing is any action or activity, with or without consent from a person, whether conducted on or off Evergreen High School property, which is designated to or has the reasonably foreseeable effect of humiliation, denigrating, offending, physically or mentally abusing or exposing to danger a person, as a condition, directly or indirectly, of the person’s consideration for, continuation in, admission to, membership in, participation in activities of, receipt of benefits or services from, an organization or group.

Part 1: An end to zero-tolerance policies and the “school-to-prison pipeline”

A Return to Common Sense and Reason

The US Department of Education recently condemned zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Time and experience have proven zero-tolerance policies-where all degrees of discipline issues are treated in a rigid, cause-effect way-are ineffective at reducing violence and teaching our students a better way to live and treat others. With this shift in public policy, we are now ready to build a more humane and hopeful approach to school discipline and violence prevention, one where reasonable and consistent discipline policies and practices build relationships and a positive school climate, not destroy them.

Where did the idea of using zero-tolerance in our schools come from?

The zero-tolerance policies enacted in the 1990s were a well-intentioned response to a growing concern about the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol, and firearms on school campuses. The Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 implemented a nationwide law mandating a one-year expulsion for students who were proven to have brought a firearm or other weapon to school. Over time, some states and school districts expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a range of behaviors including illegal drugs, insubordination, and bullying and they became the disciplinary approach of choice from kindergarten to high school.

Unfortunately after all these years, researchers have found that such punitive threats do little to deter violent behavior and often exacerbate a problematic situation. Automatic rigid penalties such as suspensions and expulsions:

  • Prevent schools from considering context and individual circumstances.
  • Damage relationships and chip away at the climate of the school.
  • Are disproportionate to race and socio-economic status, and students with special educational needs. 
  • Encourage adults to give up on “problem” students.
  • Do nothing to encourage interventions that could help change students’ behavior, save them from dropping out of school, and keep them from continuing to act violently and winding up in jail.
  • Can look foolishly misguided as in the case of the suspension of a kindergarten child for bringing a weapon to school (a dinner knife), or a first grader for sexually harassing a classmate (kissing her during recess).

By ignoring context and circumstances, zero-tolerance policies had a disproportional and negative impact on African-American and Latino students and were often a path to more trouble and imprisonment. The policies disregarded the reality that a student’s life experiences and the type of community he lives in profoundly affect his understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior. At times home and neighborhood give a context for behavior that would be out of line in a school and, in the same way, school approved behaviors might seem foreign and impractical given the home environment.

Children face an internal conflict in trying to live successfully in these two very different worlds. This results in the alienation of students raised in toxic environments and who find themselves in a school culture that contradicts their own norms. They get in trouble more easily and more often for using the survival skills they have adopted in response to a culture of violence where emotional and physical force is the everyday means of dealing with conflict. Their behavior is as much about self-preservation as it would be for a soldier in a war zone.

It bears reinforcing that when we consider circumstances it does not mean we accept inappropriate behavior: Violent and disruptive behavior are still serious and must be stopped. Standards for behavior are kept high, all misbehavior is consistently addressed, and the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. Yet we are mindful that every inappropriate behavior is not of the same seriousness and does not deserve the same response.

One-Size Discipline Does Not Fit All

The more alienated the student, the greater the feeling of powerlessness and the greater the effort needed to reach out to help him develop that critical missing connection to the school and to those in it. So, we can be more effective by being more thoughtful. In place of zero-tolerance policies we can use our broad understanding of violence as a continuum of behaviors- emotional and physical, subtle to obvious – to address violence in all its forms and to understand its patterns. Then we can intervene early. And when we do intervene we can be compassionate and fair in our expectations, and work with students to replace their learned violent behaviors with socially acceptable alternatives, each according to need. It’s both logical and natural to treat individuals in the way that is most effective for them, to meet them where they are in their development, to help them grow in self-discipline and self-control, and to learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We take this approach to skill building for academics, learning an instrument, in sports, etc, so why not for behavior? We consider context and understand each circumstance and that the child is still learning.

Inconsistent responses to acts of violence (a behavior is okay for one group of students but not for another, or the behavior is not always addressed) and “ zero tolerance” policies that react rigidly to categories of behavior cause students and families to regard school rules and staff with skepticism. They see school and the administrators and teachers as unresponsive and even discriminatory. They lose faith in the educational system, or see their preconceived opinions about the school reinforced. These missteps undermine our efforts to build the trust with children and their families needed to change inappropriate behavior.

And to what end? A comprehensive policy research report on the effect of zero tolerance policies and practices found “an almost complete lack of evidence that zero tolerance is among the strategies capable of accomplishing that objective (reducing violent and illegal behavior). Researcher Russell Skiba concluded, “One can only hope for the development and application of more effective, less intrusive alternatives for preserving the safety of our nation’s schools.”

A Better Way

School education lawyer Dean Pickett understood the concept of context when he called for a more reasonable approach, which involves “zero tolerance for behavior but not zero thinking.” The addition of thinking and using our judgment allows administrators and other school adults to consider context and circumstances, and intent and history of the student to decide the most fair and effective response.

These fair responses offered through caring, concerned relationships are what we owe our students and how we can best effect change in their attitudes and behavior. This is what I would want if I found myself in trouble.

 

 

 

A Must See/Must Share Cyberbullying Video!

Cyberbullying – What does it look like and what can we do about it?

Students, teachers, parents, counselors, social media users…everyone needs to see this engaging and spot-on video posted by Upworthy.com from DeleteCyberbullying.eu

It will help us and our kids

prevent, avoid, and deal with

cyberbullying.

You might also want to see some of my related posts:

Slam Books and Social Media

Cyber-bating Teachers: A sign of broken relationships

3,500 views this year! Who would have guessed?

Is anyone listening?

Writing is a solitary pursuit and publishing your writing is a leap of faith. Without a direct connection with an audience it is easy to wonder…Do people care about school climate? Do I have something important to say about school violence? Do I offer new insights that help us improve the school experience for students? Do my posts inspire others to reevaluate and take action?

Thanks to this WordPress annual report of my blog activity for 2013, I know the answer is yes. Schoolclimate.com had 3,500 views this year. I had no idea so many people visited my site, especially since I am not the most prolific blogger and seem to average one post a month.

Blogger or Essayist?

Blogger probably isn’t the right word for what I do. I think I am more of an essayist. I don’t maintain my blog site regularly. I am inspired to write when I feel I have something important to say. It doesn’t have to be important with a capital I; it could just be a different perspective on an old topic or a new idea I had about something to try. Things that are thought-provoking, enlightening, and disturbing spur my posts. When I do write it is from my deep commitment to keep the conversation going and to generate positive change.

While I enjoyed writing each post, I am especially pleased that my most popular post was New School Year Tip: Create a no sarcasm zone. Eliminating sarcasm is a foundation for a school climate that teaches respectful communication and nurtures positive relationships among students and between teachers and students. The topic of sarcasm clearly resonated with readers and that tells us people do care about making our schools the emotionally and physically safe havens we owe our children.

So thanks and happy new year to my regular followers and to all the Internet searchers who found me. You made this a good year for schoolclimate.com. Energized by the stats, I will continue to write about topics that inspire me and I hope, in turn, interest and inspire you. In fact, I already have one brewing to start the new year!

Here is the WordPress.com 2013 annual statistics report for my blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,500 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 58 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Time to add another “protected class”?

Lady Gaga wants to speak with the President about students’ civil rights.

One week ago today, Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, committed suicide. Jamey was harassed in school and through social media for being gay. In one online video he tells us, “They’d taunt me in the hallways, and I thought I’d never escape it.” For strength Jamey embraced the message of Lady Gaga’s song,  “Born this Way. ” It became his personal anthem and she became his idol. His death hit her hard and she’s now calling for a movement to make gay bullying a crime.

Do we really need a new law?

Legislation seems to be the only way to curtail – we never completely stop – discrimination and acts of hate. For schools, federal civil rights laws already prohibit discrimination and harassment against certain groups in programs or activities that receive funds from the US Department of Education. The law makes discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, sex, disability, and age against the law in every state, in every educational institution.

These groups are members of a protected class of Americans. It’s clear who is missing from this list. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, 90% of whom report being bullied in school, have not yet been identified as needing legal protection. Yet research continues to confirm that gay-bashing of students is a widespread and common occurence.

What have we done so far? 

In October 2010, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This expanded the 1964 Hate Crimes Act to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity.

But is bullying in our schools a crime? Not unless it escalates into physical violence and threats of bodily harm that break the law. This leaves schools free to treat  acts such as taunting, name-calling, rumor spreading, stalking, and cyber-bullying, which lie toward the middle of the violence continuum, however they see fit.

Publicity about suicides has increased our understanding that school staff are responsible for keeping the climate of their schools free from hostility and harassment. Schools are now advised, and in some cases required by state law, to treat such incidents seriously and to respond quickly and definitively.

But as history teaches us, without the authority of a federal law that identifies those who are LGBT as a protected class, the way students are treated will be hit or miss, helpful or harmful, and too often left to cause emotional and psychological damage.

If Lady Gaga and the rest of us continue to bring attention to the issue, we might just pass a new civil rights law that protects gay students.