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Thompson: The Truth None of Us Wants to Face

I still teach GED part-time, so I have not become completely absorbed into the edu-political world that is so divorced from the reality of inner city schools. I seek a balance, addressing the school improvement proposals that are politically viable, while remaining connected with the reasons why practitioners and parents are so dismissive of reform agendas. 

I can't deny that I've been acculturated into much of the "status quo" mentality illustrated by my first principals' mantra, "Pick your battles." The battles that we inner city teachers want policy people to launch are simply not winnable. 

However, Jay Mathews, in How Do We Help Our Least Motivated, Most Disruptive Students?, tackles the issue that I know I shouldn't  touch. 

Twenty years after I was repeatedly warned that assessing disciplinary consequences in a credible manner is an issue that school systems won't dare address, and as the agenda has shifted to reducing suspensions, why should I try to answer Mathews' question? Against my better judgment, I'll respond to his columns and readers. (After I read the book he cites, I'll see whether I dare to get closer to the 3rd rail of edu-politics by discussing it.)

Mathews wrote a three-part series on Caleb Stewart Rossiter's Ain't Nobody Be Learnin' Nothin'.  His first column on Rossiter's indictment of grade inflation "inspired a flood of comments and e-mails saying such malpractice was happening nearly everywhere in the country." But Mathews, like so many teachers turned advocates can only ask, "What do we do about it?" He then turned to Rossiter’s solution to low academic and behavioral standards which doesn’t seem practical to Mathews (or me) but which "represents the toughness I sense many Americans think is overdue."

Mathews begins his third column with his obligatory praise of KIPP, even though he probably realizes that its methods can't be scaled up and are thus irrelevant to systemic improvement. He concedes "that a significant number of low-performing students are likely not to enroll in schools like KIPP — or will drop out — because they don’t like the emphasis on good behavior and hard work."

Mathews agrees with Rossiter that neighborhood schools should teach good behavior and they should not keep returning disruptive students to their original classes, "where they distract students trying to learn." I would add that disruptive students also want to learn and, above all, they want to learn how to control their behavior. I would also argue that troubled students should never be described as "miscreants" or "slow learners" which is Mathews' characterization of Rossiter's views.

Like Mathews, I oppose the segregation of low-performing students or directing them to a vocational track "as early as the beginning of middle school." If older students choose vocational schools, that is one thing, but we adults need to make sure that they are not pressured to do so or to make a premature decision that could limit their horizons.

According to Mathews, Rossiter wants "miscreants and slow learners switched to remedial classes, where their problems would be addressed so they could return to the mainstream courses at the beginning of the next quarter." I'm afraid that Mathews uses such wording because he correctly surmises that that is the sort of tough talk that the public (not Mathews) wants. Regardless of what Rossiter wants to say, I believe Mathews is correct about what the public wants to hear, and the result would be increased (and cruel?) segregation. On the other hand, I support the carefully worded proposals of Professor Emeritus Lynn Canady which would incorporate a type of block scheduling which would accelerate learning and return students who have fallen too far behind in class according to a schedule along the lines Rossiter proposes.

Here's my alternative suggestion: Start early, keep working late to provide second, third, and fourth chances, and acknowledge that the secondary school battle to teach all students how to become students will always yield ambiguous results.

The chronic disorder that undermines neighborhood schools can best be ameliorated by high-quality early education. We must then invest in Early Warning Systems that address absenteeism before it metastasizes into chronic truancy. As the Johns Hopkins' Everyone Graduates Center explains, this will take a "second team" of caring adults to help address the structural barriers to attending school.

In secondary schools, we must remember that most kids will outgrow their tumultuous teens. The first of our twin tasks is helping make sure that bad decisions made at such an early age do not wreck their entire lives. The second is keeping their behavior from robbing their classmates of an education (and undermining their futures.)

In one sense, the first challenge should be easier because it is an ongoing process. Kids become adults according to the criminal justice system at age eighteen, but that does not mean that we can't offer holistic learning opportunities beyond that year inside full-service community schools, vocational schools, and community colleges. Perhaps, in one of those institutions a heroic individual will come to a young person's rescue. In most cases, as long as they are not flattened at such an early age by the harsh realities of the world outside schools, the troubled student will grow into adulthood at his own rate.  

When addressing the second task - keeping disruption from destroying classroom instruction - we should remember that kids outgrow their troubling behaviors at different rates. We adults must do our best, never give up, and recognize how often we will face uncertain outcomes. Today, for both educational and political reasons, Restorative Justice seems to be the most promising investment. Rather that debate whether it or some other approach is optimal, we must focus turning such efforts into top priorities.

Few classroom-driven efforts to improve learning will yield much progress until we better engage in the team effort of building whole school learning cultures that do not undermine the effects of good classroom instruction. So, we must convince policy people that Restorative Justice must be generously funded. If we can only afford to hire a counselor or two, and not the staff that proper implementation requires, then children from generational poverty and students who have endured unconscionable trauma, will continue to  act out their pain in school and undermine the educations of their classmates. Then, we practitioners will become even more convinced that policy people are likely to remain clueless about what it takes to improve schools. -JT(@drjohnthompson)


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A big problem for dealing with the disruptive student is the causes are many and do not lead to a simple solutions. One major cause is inappropriate placement. Many students that should have been identified as needing special education support are not identified. Especially in mathematics, students are pushed into classes that they are not ready to take. In this era of standards and higher graduation requirements, schools are pushing students into advanced math classes two levels above algebra who have not mastered arithmetic.

Fifteen years ago Alfie Kohn decried what he called "the longer stronger meaner approach to education reform." Many of these "reforms" have created an environment where students lose hope and when humans lose hope they become destructive.

Humanistic eduction taught in joyful environments would help a lot.

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