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THOMPSON: Small Schools and Creaming

Creaming Can’t we just agree that advocates of small schools like Joel Klein and many charters like KIPP would like to minimize the effects of "creaming," but that choice invariably leaves neighborhood schools, or "default" schools, with a greater critical mass of challenging students? Is there any doubt that New York City has and will continue to produce some of the best schooling in the world? Would anyone question the rationale for the small schools movement (or charters) or the need for an honest discussion of their inherent trade-offs? Is there a better starting point that "The New Marketplace?"

A 2005 report by the Parthenon documented the burden imposed on neighborhood schools by high concentrations of challenging students. So, it made sense to create small schools for 58,000 of the city’s 297,000 high school students, and to offer smaller classes and temporary relief (creaming) so that small schools did not have to take their full share of ELL and special education students during their start-ups. Predictably, new small schools were safer and had a better environment for learning. And it still makes sense that those schools would see an increase in attendance and graduation rates.

Equally predictably, old neighborhood schools were left with greater overcrowding, greater disciplinary challenges, and lower attendance and graduation rates.

The Center for New York City Affairs cites Taisha as a student who benefited from the intense personal attention received by small school students. In contrast to her old neighborhood school where she was struck with an egg on the first day, Taisha could "throw tantrums" and make her teacher cry by shouting "this is so F___ing boring," but still receive second chances. And she had a biology class of three students. The report also warns "in the first year, the schools had high attendance, low levels of discipline problems and high levels of teacher satisfaction. ... But teachers surveyed "perceived a sharp and statistically significant decline’ in discipline in the second year. ...Moreover, the teachers felt they had less influence on school policy ... Suspension rates went up and attendance rates went down, and students accumulated fewer credits towards graduation." So as the easier-to-teach students moved on, "every indicator was moving in the wrong direction."

Three years ago, I walked in the 100 degree heat through Bedford Stuyvesant with my Brandy as she applied for a middle school teaching position in the projects. I did a lot of smoozing with principals, and I was very impressed with them. They knew that other small schools were being started, but everything was happening so quickly that few knew how many other schools shared their sites. Given the extreme state of flux, NYC could have tried the novel approach of transparency.

In the past high school principals had mostly been in their upper 40's and 50's, but small school principals often were in their 30's, and much more likely to have young children to care for after their 14 hour days. These passionately committed principals already put enough stress on themselves, fearing that their students would end up homeless or in jail if they slipped through the cracks. "I don’t have a choice," said one principal, "which child am I going to sacrifice?"

But Joel Klein’s management style compounded the tension. One principal quit because of "the excessive focus on data in evaluating principals. ‘You have two choices... you can either do the real work and not worry about the evaluation, or you can worry about the evaluation and not do the real work.’"

Is there any doubt that such trade-offs are pervasive and that the answer is more honest conversation? - John Thompson


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Q: "Is there any doubt that such trade-offs are pervasive and that the answer is more honest conversation?"

A: No. The operative word, however, is "honest." The CNYC report is honest. But it competes with the propaganda spin of the Federal government that is echoed by the general media. State and local education authorities and think tank "reformers" add to the spin cacophony. There is much babble, but little honest conversation.

Your blog and a few others are exceptions rather than the general rule.


If honest conversation results in changes in school structure and culture, then I’m all for it. But with regard to serving some of the toughest kids in our country, I think we need some honest conversation about something else first:

1. what right does one student have to disrupt the learning environment of another student?

2. What obligation does the state have to educate kids who are consistently absent or disruptive?

3. How can we reconcile the truth that some small percentage of kids simply aren’t cut out for the school environment?

These are all awful questions to ask. The only thing worse is trying to answer them.

School, like society, is becoming ever more stratified. Small schools and charter schools do have a tendency, however inadvertent, to cream the easiest kids off the top. Thus, schools left with higher concentrations of tougher kids become tougher places in which to work. After a while, people figure this out and that’s when we have trouble staffing. The result, as everyone knows, is that the toughest kids typically end up with the least prepared teachers.

What if we took this state of affairs one generation into the future? We would undoubtedly have many fine newly-created schools. But we would also have high concentrations of difficult kids in traditional schools – schools that by this time might be, for all intents and purposes, completely unworkable.

The solution I see for this problem involves a new kind of curriculum based on helping kids develop successful educational behaviors. Beginning in kindergarten we need to be teaching and evaluating student participation in school with the same zeal reserved currently for academic performance.

Because this idea interests me so much, I’ve had a certain amount of experience with it in difficult schools and classrooms. I’ve also helped a number of teachers in difficult situations use a behavior-based approach.

For the most part, the results have been very rewarding.

It seems to me that every kid can control his or her own behavior. And that every teacher can create a small list of “participation requirements” to explain to kids what he or she expects. Furthermore, kids can tell when they’re participating appropriately and when they’re not. Frequent self-assessment improves behavior. So does making behavior one component in a student’s grade.

What if we looked at our toughest kids not as a collection of hard luck stories but simply as a set of scholarly behaviors? As soon as they pass through the school door, certain standards apply. Beginning with children at a very early age would help to inculcate these behaviors and increase the chance that they would stick.

Even in this performance-driven day and age, I would argue that behavior is the basis of every child’s success. Improving behavior improves the likelihood that students will make more progress. And with more progress comes better performance.

To reach our toughest-to-reach kids may simply mean reaching out to them – like a responsible family member would – and showing them how to act in a given situation. We take for granted that everyone knows how to be in school. But this is not the case. In many places, kids don’t know how to be in school. And blaming their socio-economic or ethnic circumstances gets us nowhere.

Schools are places where kids come to learn. What difference might it make if what they learned was how to act in school? One might even argue that this should be the first thing kids should learn. And that primary grade curricula should be tightly focused on this outcome.

The alternatives to this approach are few and, to many of us, unspeakable. We can continue to let a small percentage of kids ruin school for a large percentage of kids. Or we can bar a small percentage of kids from attending school based on long-held patterns of inappropriate behavior. Neither option seems acceptable to me.

Why not give those kids who need to learn the basics including how to act a safe environment in which to get caught up and prepared to learn? Why not take them out of the traditional class room to do this? I am all for it. Once they are caught up they can join the regular class. If they need more time in a given subject they will get that. If they excel in other academic areas, they go to the advanced class.

No child has the right to disrupt another's learning. None what so ever. However, that disruptive child needs to be given the chance to learn how to change their behavior (in a different setting).


NYC’s rationale for Small Schools was correct. We must break up the high concentrations of the most troubled students in the toughest schools. If every class had two or three or four students who brought the challenges of Taisha, then society could expect teachers to maintain an effective, respectful, and caring learning environment. But when a class crosses a line with four or six or eight or twelve students who are acting out their pain, then a critical mass of problems takes over. Where is that line? The tipping point depends on the age of the student, the leadership and policies of the school and the system, and the individual teacher’s people skills, and many other factors.

What does society owe, in addition to an honest discussion? Start early, and as Steve explains, and we can minimize many of these behavioral problems. Give neighborhood schools the capacity for timely interventions and the ability to enforce their rules, and we can further address the challenge. At some point, however, we need honest discussions about alternative schools, accelerated middle schools, and/or in-school alternatives. We must acknowledge the danger of stigma. That’s one more reason why these interventions must be of high-quality.

But, when we can predict with 80 to 85% accuracy which 6th graders are likely to drop out and systems just dump those kids in the toughest schools and tell teachers to handle it, then those systems can’t take the high road. “Reformers” can’t claim to be pure as they condemn the low expectations of teachers. They need to ask whether they are condemning those children.

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