My thoughts on Robert Herbert’s October 6, 2014 essay:
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.”
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.
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.
New Hampshire, what did you do?
You have managed to shock the education world with this new law.
The state legislature passed a new law, effective January 1, 2012, which requires public school districts to write and implement a policy to allow parents to object to any lesson taught to their children, for any reason. In addition, the school must offer the child an alternative lesson that is acceptable to the parents and the district. The intent and undefined scope of the law is astounding; it makes everything a teacher does, in any content area, subject to second-guessing and outright opposition. And if parents opt to exercise their new rights to object in any numbers, the law is also logistically unworkable. Even one objection by a parent can consume a chunk of a teacher’s precious instructional and preparation time.
Why did this issue come up now?
The curriculum is more standardized and scrutinized than ever before.
It comes at a time when a teacher’s curriculum has likely passed many levels of scrutiny, revision, and approval, and is expected of all children within the state. Gone are the days when teachers decided what to teach by the textbooks found on the classroom shelves, or on what interested them or their students. States now expect every teacher, in every classroom, to use the state-defined learning standards to drive their curriculum and to assess student progress. Deciding what is taught and when it is taught is an involved, time intensive process. These state standards serve as the overarching expectations for all students, and are typically well-thought out and logical. School districts then use the standards and performance indicators to develop a spiraling K-12 curriculum, with learning objectives, materials, and assessments that teach the approved content, attitudes, and skills at each grade level until graduation.
The result is a standard curriculum in grade level classrooms within a building, in all schools in a district, and from district to district throughout the state, one that builds on what was taught and hopefully mastered the previous year. How the standards are actually taught in the classroom is not dictated by the state. This is where teachers are able to apply their professional knowledge and teaching skills to create daily lesson plans that include specific concepts and learner objectives, teaching materials, instructional methods, and learning activities. They are answerable to the state education department and the public for the progress their students make toward mastering the standards.
The logistics are a nightmare!
Did you consider how this would actually work in the real world?
If a lesson must be substituted for one a parent feels is objectionable for some reason, who writes the lesson and who determines whether the content of any substitute lesson is appropriate for teaching in a public school? Who screens the lesson for bias or proselytizing? Who makes sure the content is factual and enables the student to meet the learning standards set for him by the state and district? And what happens if parents want to insert lessons or materials that condone or demonize a particular religion, that preach intolerance of certain groups, or that misrepresent the facts? How will this testy situation be handled?
Was this legislation even necessary in the first place?
What a can of contentious worms your unnecessary law opens up within a school community!
Public school parents already have the prerogative to object to something happening in the school or classroom. But this law sends the message that parents may now determine what their child is taught specifically, down to approving individual lessons and materials. Wise principals and teachers have always listened to parents’ concerns, and accommodated their requests when possible. But they were not obligated to change the curriculum to fit a parent’s views. As long as what they were teaching was age appropriate and followed the district and state curriculum, the school was on solid ground to respectfully decline the request. The message that the school will provide alternative lessons to meet a parent’s beliefs, biases, religion, etc is unworkable and an unwise broadening of control by factions within a community.
Did you think this through on a conceptual level before you approved it?
You seem to have forgotten why a free, democratic society depends on a public educational system.
Schools are a powerful force for the common good yet, that educator Horace Mann called the “great equalizer” of the condition of humankind. We live in a society of many cultures and subcultures that are rich with differences and that share common goals. Students represent the diversity seen in society. Public education in a democracy is predicated on a philosophy of tolerance and understanding of differing opinions and cultures. All children are welcome regardless of their and their parents’ beliefs, race and ethnicity, socio-economic status and educational level, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and special learning needs. The more students are exposed to, learn about, understand, and respect that which is different from them, the more harmonious a society we create. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”
So not only is this law a logistical quagmire, it is a fundamental misreading of the purpose of public education in this country. It undermines the concept of school as a place where teachers and students share ideas freely in a climate of respect, where children learn to judge new ideas against what they already know, and to evaluate the ideas on their merits. We build solidarity based on empathy and compassion. It is the place where students practice the pro-social skills needed to make good personal decisions and to treat others well. What is taught is fit for a pluralist society where public schools do the job of preparing our children to be citizens of good character, who are analytical and creative thinkers and problem solvers.