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.
If we don’t suspend them, what do we do? We constructively work to break the vicious cycle of violence.
It is a challenge to teach children the skills they need to stop choosing negative behavior when many of them do not have the emotional security required to make healthy choices. Instead of nurturing, trusting, and consistent relationships with loving adults, they have a hyper-vigilant emotional foundation that comes from a variety of factors, including a life of neglect, abuse, family conflicts, poverty, substance abuse, and unsafe neighborhoods. A vicious cycle revolves around the insecurity of their personal situation, which makes them more distrustful and susceptible to the culture of violence, which then leads to harmful behaviors that only perpetuate the lack of emotional security.
In this environment, many young people develop a matter-of-fact view of violence and death. They might not think what they are doing is wrong or understand what they should do instead; it conflicts with what they know is true in their real life. To protect themselves they respond the best they can to the harsh lessons they learn early in life. Without the social bonds and trust that come from a safe and caring family and with many of their basic needs not met, children fight to survive in unhealthy violent ways. The resulting coping mechanisms can persist into adulthood.
Dr. James Garbarino, in Lost Boys, describes the background of men on death row this way:
“Each of these men had been subjected to extreme child maltreatment, yet none received mental health treatment once that victimization was substantiated by the state child protective services agency. I could not help but think that if any one of these young men had been taken hostage by a terrorist group and tortured for years, there would have been no question about their need for and entitlement to mental health services upon their release. Yet we did not provide the same services to these ‘hostages’ once they were released from their tormentors. And now we intended to execute them” (Garbarino 1999)
One size does not fit all when we consider that young people’s anti-social, self-harming behaviors -gang membership, alcohol and other drug use, vandalism, theft, early sexual behavior, physical violence-is an understandable, though not desired, reaction to a life of neglect and abuse. Targeted early intervention with mental health professionals is essential when a child’s anti-social behavior is a reaction to coping with a personal life of pervasive violence. This is where the school, more than ever, needs to be a safe haven where the negative forces of a child’s life outside the school do not carry over into the educational environment.
Why are some children resilient against these negative forces?
Research shows that two-thirds of students living in dire conditions rise above and succeed in spite of their circumstances. What does this two-thirds have that the other one-third is missing? We can prevent or mitigate the negative effects of a high-risk childhood by providing assets that build the network of support and the personal efficacy that are characteristic of survivors of toxic environments. These assets benefit all children and are critical for the most vulnerable. They include:
- · Caring relationships.
- · High expectations.
- · Meaningful participation.
- · Autonomy and sense of self.
- · Sense of meaning and purpose.
(California Healthy Kids Survey 1999)
A study on the relationship between student and teacher safety and the nature of the school and home community in the Chicago Public Schools found this is true. (Steinberg et al. 2011) Controlling for academic achievement and type of neighborhood (crime and poverty levels), the schools with the highest suspension rates were less safe than those with low suspension rates. Researchers discovered that the neighborhood in which the school was located was not as influential as the students’ home neighborhood. The primary difference between schools that felt safe and those that did not was the quality of the relationships between school staff and students and parents. It depended on what happened inside the four walls of the school. The study concluded, “disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships actually feel safer than advantaged schools with low-quality relationships.”
In addition, the report noted that a relationship exists between student low academic achievement and increased problems with school safety and order. Schools with a population of low-achieving students experience higher rates of violence. This finding supports growing research that recommends schools focus on raising the literacy rates of young children, adolescents, and adults to reduce violence in schools and in the community. (Jalloh 2009) Research on aggressive behavior, high school drop-out rates, crime, incarceration and recidivism, unemployment, and poverty show a positive correlation between these negative outcomes and poor literacy skills, especially among Latino and African-American men. The literacy-violence connection has been widely documented and the results show this aggression begins in the primary grades when children first experience frustration when trying to learn to read.
To succeed at academics, students need cognitive confidence (ability to read fluently with comprehension), text confidence (stamina to read increasingly difficult material), and social and emotional confidence (positive attitude and enjoyment of reading) (Jalloh 2009, 3) Students who have many negative risk factors in their lives need an intentional school support system and targeted early intervention efforts to teach literacy, math, and technology skills. Without this support these children become disengaged underachievers who stop trying, turn to violence to get what they need, leave school before they graduate, and live a life of poverty and crime. This reality reinforces the need for school-wide, intentional efforts to improve the interactions and relationships among staff, children, and families, and make the connection to academic success.
Teachers know we can intervene early and change this pattern. The Chicago Public Schools study gives credence to the belief that the way we relate to our students is the critical factor in reducing school violence and improving academic performance. A secure climate is necessary for children to take risks and learn. It is in our power to create a secure, caring climate that addresses the academic and social-emotional needs of our students and builds resilience against negative circumstances, regardless of their neighborhood of origin. And when there is a problem, we need to handle it thoughtfully and appropriately within the context of the student and the circumstances. One-size fits all rigid discipline policies do not work.
In Part Three we’ll see how there are better options that teach, in a lasting way, self-discipline, taking responsibility for one’s choices, restitution, and that result in better decision making in the future.
Part Three: Instead of zero-tolerance, use early intervention, mediation and restorative justice.
The odds are great that you do.
And odds are you have a few students in your classroom who are both highly sensitive and introverted.
We know this because experts who study personality types agree that:
- Around 50% of people are introverted
- 15-20% are highly sensitive. (Checklist: Is your child highly sensitive? Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.)
- And 70% of highly sensitive people are also introverted.
Given these odds, it’s to everyone’s benefit that as we prepare for a new school year, we think how we can meet the needs of our highly sensitive and introverted students, so they can feel safe, secure, and have their gifts appreciated.
Let’s start with some ways to recognize these students. They…
- Deliberate internally (inside their head) before coming to a conclusion.
- Are slower to raise their hand to answer questions and offer ideas.
- Take more time to answer when called on.
- Better show their insight and creativity in solitary activities such as writing, art activities, and individual assignments and projects.
- Enjoy talking to or playing with one or two people at a time and not a large group.
- Thrive with quiet alone time.
- Dislike presenting in front of a group.
- Might look like they aren’t paying attention or are day-dreaming.
- Have a strong sense of fairness, and right and wrong, and a want to help others.
Introverted or Shy?
As you read the list, you may find yourself thinking, this sounds like my shy students. It’s important to understand that introversion and sensitivity are not the same as shyness. Shyness is fear and anxiety in social situations. Introverts might seem or are treated as shy because they are quiet while they listen to others, process internally, and then reflect on ideas and possibilities. It’s not surprising that introversion in a typical noisy, busy classroom, where answering questions quickly and moving on is part of the daily pressure to keep instruction on pace, is often misunderstood as shyness or even slowness. But introverts and extroverts are simply wired differently and therefore react differently to stimuli. The brain of an introvert would feel pleasantly stimulated by solitary activities, while the brain of the extrovert would be pleasantly stimulated by a higher level of sensory input. And both personalities need the chance to merely feel and act like themselves without feeling they are lacking.
Are today’s schools biased in favor of extroverts? Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, believes schools are biased against introverts who are usually more quiet, introspective, and sensitive, and, as a result, overpowered by those more extroverted students who love to talk, work in teams, brainstorm, and to think out loud. She wishes teachers could see inside the mind of the sensitive child, the rich world where the creativity, wisdom, empathy, and compassion lie. There are ways you can do this.
Suggestions to respect and accommodate all students –introverted and extroverted – in the classroom.
- At the beginning of each year, plan activities to get to know your students as unique people, and use this information to develop a feel for where they are on the introvert/extrovert and highly sensitive continuum.
- Teach and model an acceptance of the diverse learning and communication styles in your classroom.
- Create areas and times of the day for students to work quietly and by themselves. (Quiet reading and writing time is a welcome break for those who are easily over stimulated.)
- Cooperative learning isn’t the best approach for every student and for every lesson. Provide a balance of large group, small group, partner, and independent work so both introverted and extroverted students have a learning environment conducive to their thinking and learning style. Build these into your classroom structure so your students come to expect and feel more comfortable in each setting. They can surprise you with their insight if given the right setting to share it with you.
- Allow students to show what they know and can do in a variety of ways, and adopt a broad definition of classroom participation that goes beyond participation in discussions. One-to-one conferences with the teacher are particularly revealing.
- Slow down the instructional pace by giving more wait time for students to think before answering and resist the urge to call on the first child to raise his or her hand. Be patient and wait until more students raise their hands.
- Avoid putting introverted students on the spot to answer questions or read in front of the group. Let the learning setting create the confidence and opportunity they need.
- Use a variety of student response strategies, such as think, pair, share where the first step allows time to reflect quietly on their own to gather their thoughts, where step two allows them to try out their ideas with another person, and step three gives them a chance to share with the larger group the ideas they have thoughtfully considered beforehand.
- Use power writing as a way for students to process before they must answer. (Take three minutes to write all you know about… or, Take five minutes to respond to this quote…)
- Hold regular class meetings where each person is given the opportunity to speak, one child at a time has the floor during discussions, and the emphasis is on thoughtful solutions to problems and respect for the ideas and perspectives of others.
And work to understand yourself better. Figure out where you are on the introvert/extrovert and sensitivity scale. Then consider how this personality style affects your teaching. What adjustments could you make so all children have a chance to thrive and shine in your classroom?
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.
New Hampshire, it is telling that the legislator who introduced the bill was surprised by the furor it caused across the country. His surprise reveals a profound lack of understanding of what public education means in a diverse, democratic society, how curriculum is developed, and the way schools operate on a daily basis.
I like the work coming out of the *Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago (CCSR). They use both long- and short-term action research approaches in the study of important educational issues such as dropout rates, social promotion, and school safety. These studies are intended to help educators all over the world make informed decisions on policies and practices that directly affect their students.
I also like their work because they take school climate seriously, not just because of the current attention on bullying-prevention, but because their research shows that school climate is one of five critical factors affecting student achievement, and that relationships are the foundation for how secure and capable students feel.
How safe do you feel?
In their May 2011 report, “Student and Teacher Safety in Chicago Public Schools: The Roles of Community Context and School Social Organization,” the CCSR looked at the factors affecting how safe students and adults feel in their schools. As we might expect, students from high-crime, high-poverty (disadvantaged) areas tended to feel less safe.
But the most revealing and promising finding was that students and adults felt safer in disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships than they felt in advantaged schools with low-quality relationships. The power of positive, caring relationships among students, families, the community, and school staff trumped the expected negative social effects of crime and poverty! This finding has a dramatic impact on where we choose to focus our efforts to improve student achievement.
The CCSR has now released its Five Essentials School Reports. Based on 15 years of research data, they identified five factors that matter most for student learning. The climate of the school and the relationship between the school and its families and community again rise to prominence.
The Five Essentials:
- Ambitious instruction (classes are challenging and engaging)
- Learning climate (the school is safe, demanding and supportive)
- Instructional leadership (the principal works with teachers to promote professional growth and school success)
- Professional capacity (teachers collaborate to promote professional growth and school success)
- Family and community ties (the entire staff involves families and communities to advance student learning)
The finding that schools that are strong on three or more of these essentials were 10 times more likely to improve student learning than schools weak in three or more of the essentials should grab our attention and help us focus our efforts. Once again it’s all about relationships and good teaching:
Caring teachers + Engaging instruction = Motivated students + Safe school climate
*The National Research Council recommends the CCSR as a model for better linking research, policy making, and practice.