Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Getting the porridge just right

How can we get the porridge just right?

You hit a teacher; you deal drugs in school; you refuse to sit when told to sit- You are so out of here!  Wait, I was alright with this list until you got to that last one.  I am a fan of zero tolerance.  Truly, I have zero tolerance for drugs, aggression and violence in public school classrooms. I feel the same way about private school classrooms.  That doesn’t mean I have zero tolerance for the kids, just the behaviors.  I think those behaviors are better addressed in a special self-contained program where we can get to the “why” of the behavior rather than just punish the manifestation of the why.  But in today’s imperfect world, the common wisdom is that all children need to be fully included.  So zero tolerance became the only weapon in the arsenal of defense to make the schools as safe as possible.
But as with any power, sometimes the powerful get carried away with themselves and their power.   Educators began to have zero tolerance for any behaviors of non-compliance.  So if a student gets a bit smart mouthed, throw the bum out.  If a kid refuses to obey a teacher directive, send that kid home.  Before long we were running programs where the class size was 25.6 (I’ll leave it to you to figure out the point 6) but the students in attendance might be closer to 20.  This situation was more likely to happen in communities of color and/or lower socio-economic status where parents didn’t push back.
Then came the community push back along with catchy phrases.  The school to prison road was paved with school suspensions.  We needed justice restored.  As is usually the case in education, Justice Restored became no consequences of any magnitude at all.  We went from “just watch me suspend you” to no suspensions at all.  Children quickly caught on.  They could do whatever they wanted.  A quick “sorry note” or an I’m sorry comment got them off the hook for bad behavior and all was good to go.
Of course, the notion that we were teaching kids that they could act with impunity and not expect any real consequences was a very bad life lesson.  In some ways, it was maybe a detour but still a road from school to prison, this time paved with excuse making and excuses that don’t fly once a student is out of school.
In fairness, students who behave poorly are a minority of the kids in any school, even the schools with a significant minority of high risk children.  Truth is most kids just want to learn, have friends and get through.  For many kids, school is their one safe place out of the neighborhood.
So what happens to these appropriately behaved kids and the teachers who are trying desperately to teach them.   That is simple.  Some of those kids are so frightened by the acting out behaviors that research has shown test scores are lower for kids in these classes.  Absentee rates were 1.42 percent higher for the well behaved kids in those classrooms than in classes in the same community but with no acting out behaviors.

So what is the answer?  Serve the porridge blazing hot and no one gets suspended no matter what.   Serve it ice cold, so it can be like revenge which is better served cold.  Or perhaps we could actually make decisions about individual behavior and not have one response for all kids.  Kids exhibiting extreme behaviors need to be in special programs with extra supports in place and smaller classes so the behaviors do not contaminate other kids.  Kids with disrespectful behaviors need consequences for those behaviors as well.   They need to be required to make the situation whole.  That is real justice restored.  And as with Goldilocks, the porridge would be just right.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Empower the Stars

Empower the Stars

Teachers are leaving the profession contributing to a national shortage.  Nationwide 8% of teachers leave the profession every year.  Three out of five special education teachers leave within the first five years.  Multiple reasons are advanced for the retreat from the profession.  Lower salaries, the pressure of testing too often, pacing guides and the behaviors of students. 
Teaching salaries have never been great.  They are getting much better; and the good benefits, at a time when corporate America is retreating from guaranteed benefits, is generally thought to fill the gap.  The shorter work year doesn’t hurt either.  Pacing guides impede teachers from fostering those relationships with children that brought many into the profession.  Measuring good teaching by test scores when we all know people who are just bad test takers doesn’t help either.
But I think the real culprit is something else. 
 In most fields of endeavor, people who do a better job or work harder are rewarded.  They are rewarded by higher salaries, promotions, more authority.  These things do not happen in teaching.  Of course salaries go up.  But they go up every year depending on the union contract and like a rising tide the contract raises all boats from the dinghy to the luxury yacht.  We need a system where our stars are rewarded for being stars.
Of course, the most obvious approach would be merit pay.  However, unions are adamantly against merit pay, convinced that principals would not be able to judge just on the basis of merit but would throw in their own prejudices.  Of course, if people really wanted to try, there would a way to include independent metrics that did not include test scores.  But teaching is basically a middle class profession and we aren’t anxious to acknowledge that some are better than others at it.  We all know it but we won’t use the system to reward the excellence.
There are other rewards besides pay increases.   For example, consider the pacing guides.  Mostly, teachers do not like them.  Why not let top teachers set their own pace so long as they finish the curriculum by the drop dead date.  This procedure would give top teachers some control.
Control is one of the things that is more and more missing from teaching.  In the olden days, teachers closed their classroom doors and taught school.   Not so any more.
How about adding a mentoring period to the top teachers’ day?   This would be a time when the top teacher could visit other rooms or teachers could come to the top teacher with issues and the top teacher could offer suggestions without being concerned that these suggestions would impact the teacher’s evaluation.

Preferred parking, a special name tag, maybe even a flex day or two- all of these things could communicate to our top teachers that we are grateful they are so good at their jobs and want them to stay around a bit longer.  We need to empower the stars if we expect to keep them shinning.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Let's beat them into submission

Let’s Beat Them into Submission

It is astonishing to know that our public schools are still paddling, swatting or otherwise physically punishing children.   In fact, 21 states still allow the practice.  Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma are the states most likely to use physical punishment in schools.   Now granted, none of these states is known for a quality education system but this practice still seems a bit archaic.  According to federal civil rights data, some children are being paddled in states that do not allow the behavior.  Advocates of corporal punishment advance it as a great alternative to suspension.  Not surprisingly more lower income students are physically punished than wealthier students.  In Mississippi roughly half of all students attend schools where paddling is common practice.  Even in states that allow corporal punishment it is most likely to happen in schools that serve lower income kids.

Something else that is interesting is that there are no training criteria for the person doing the paddling.  At a time when there is special certification for just about everything, corporal punishment stands out for its lack of training or detailed procedures regarding to whom and how the punishment will be delivered.  It is also not surprising to note that black students are disproportionate recipients.   Black students make up 22% of the schools allowing corporal punishment; but 38% of the children experiencing this form of discipline.   On the other hand, white students make up 60% of the enrollment of students in schools that allow paddling but just 50% of them were disciplined in this way.

Black children are not the only minority group targeted.  Disproportionate use of corporal punishment is also seen in schools with a significant representation of Native American kids.

What none of these policies seems to address is “what is the point?”.  Exactly what behavioral change is physical abuse expected to create?   So if a child hits another child, we paddle the aggressor so he will learn not to aggress.  And we do this by being aggressive towards him?  Do children learn that aggression from an adult authority figure is ok but aggression by a child is not?  Isn’t that just the reverse of good sense?

The fact is aggression may beat me into submission but it will never change the attitudes that made behave that way in the first place.  What I am learning is that bigger bullies get away with aggression and smaller bullies don’t.  Beating people has never changed behavior for the future, it just creates better plans to get even.  We can’t beat people into submission for long.