Now that we've all had our turns spanking Mike Petrilli for his bracingly honest take on charter skimming ("It's not a bug. It's a feature."), it's time to move on to the question that he raised-- what about the students who are a disruption in their schools?
Define the Problem
First, I want to acknowledge the precise shading of the problem, because it does have a major effect on what we propose as a solution.
Most charteristas frame the issue as "allowing students to escape failing schools." As a statement of the problem, this has a major shortcoming for charter promoters. If the problem is that some schools are failing, why oh why would we discuss saving some students and abandoning others instead of discussing how to make the school Not Fail? Reformsters have toyed with the recovery model, where the failing school is taken over by charteristas, but that doesn't seem to be a popular approach. At the very least, it requires reformsters to push straight through local opposition to the takeover of public schools.
If the problem is schools that are failing because they lack resources, support and money, the most obvious solution is to give them resources, support, and money. But there's no growth opportunity for charteristas in that.
Petrilli's framing is more elegantly useful. If the problem is Bad Students, then no amount of money or resources is likely to fix the problem. Instead, we must separate the bad seeds from the good, allow the poor but gifted students to depart for more the company of a better class of peers. This is an excellent growth opportunity for the modern charter entrepreneurs.
Abandoning Those People
The problem with this model is that it involves abandoning a whole bunch of live human children, throwing up our hands and warehousing them in what remains of a public system after everything useful and profitable has been stripped from it. I could barely accept this as a "solution" if those charters that did the stripping came with 100-year contracts to stay and do the job no matter how inconvenient or unprofitable it became. Since modern charters commit to stay in business only as long as they're in the mood, the Petrilli solution of Good Student Charter Schools and Those People Public School Warehousing is not an acceptable solution.
On twitter, Petrilli noted that I was "putting a lot on the shoulders of poor gifted kids." When accused of hating "those kids," the disruptive students, he replied, "Alternatively, I LOVE 'those kids'--the low income kids who want to learn." Well, who doesn't.
A colleague once had a student teacher who quit about two weeks in. When told he had to work with all of her classes, he said, "But I only want to teach the smart kids, the kids who really want to be here." Well, sure. But that's not the gig. The gig is to teach everyone. Abandoning the students who are difficult is not the job. It's not the mission. It's not the purpose of public education.
It is absolutely true that in some places, the public schools have failed that mission. It is also true that in some places, that mission is way harder to accomplish than in others. But those are the problems we should be addressing. This proposal is the equivalent of saying that since we have filled up our car's back seat with Burger King wrappers, we need to buy a new car.
Who Deserves Education?
The Petrilli argument seems to be that those students who deserve it should have the choice of a better school. Of course, it's not really their choice, because in this system, it's the school who will decide exactly who deserves the "better" education. Students (or their parents) will have to prove they really want it by displaying the behavior and skills that the charter wants to see-- otherwise, it's back to the public school holding pens with them. I will say one thing for this approach-- it's as complete a repudiation of No Child Left Behind as anybody has ever proposed.
What Petrilli is describing is not choice for students and families-- it is choice for schools, with a big side helping of highly coerced behavior modification.
So What If They Stay?
So if we close the escape hatch, what do we do about the Better Class of Student trapped in a school with Those People?
I have a couple of answers to that.
Why do we keep looking at schools that are grossly underfunded and completely lacking in basics like building maintenance and books and supplies and acting like this is an unsolvable riddle? It's like looking in your cupboard and pantry and finding no food and saying, "Well, I don't know. I guess we need to move to a new house." Get schools the resources they need. Stop short-changing the schools of the poor and minority families because it's politically expedient to do so. Give them leadership. Give them money. Give them resources. In short, give them all the tools that are used to make the schools of wealthy white kids excellent.
Next, Look at Those People
"Disruptive student" is such a broad category, from the very smart and board to the highly challenged and frustrated. It also includes Students Who Bring Huge Baggage To School With Them. But as Sarah Blaine asks, at exactly what age do you think it's okay to give up on them? When they're old enough to move directly into a jail cell?
Curmudgeonly though I am, I believe some fairly hopeful things about people. One thing I believe is that by and large people do not make a nuisance of themselves for no good reason. A student who disrupts does so for a reason. Find out what it is. Address it. Screaming is a baby's way of saying, "I need something, dammit, but I don't know how to tell you." The improvement over that level of communication is gradual and often takes decades. This process will require somebody to pay attention and it will require flexibility and creativity in the response and if you think I am even trying to imply that I am some sort of miracle worker who can reach troubled youths easily, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.
But I do know some things that don't work. "You're a worthless failure. Go sit over there with the other worthless failures," does not help anybody. "Do as I say or I will punish you some more," is also rarely helpful. "This is why you don't deserve nice things," is unlikely to be motivational.
Petrilli also asked, via twitter, "Why put the needs of the most
disadvantaged few above the needs of the also disadvantaged many?" I'd
ask why we have to rank them at all? Particularly if we can't be sure we
know which are which.
Find out what the students need. Help them get it.
What About the Gifted?
Petrilli suggested that leaving gifted students trapped with Those People is hard on them. I agree. Of course, I also think that gifted students can very often be Those People, so I'm not sure his plan is going to help. But lets pretend for a moment that we can reliably sort the goats from the sheep. What do we do?
Variable tracking works. I know tracking is considered Very Naughty. If you allow students a say in their tracks, it works. If you have some course that do not track or which track according to different criteria (phys ed, choir, arts), you can still have a mixed population, and still allow the best students space in which to be best.
And the Special?
Petrilli took some flak for talking about Alternative Schools, but done right, they also work. And designing them is a useful challenge, because it forces educators to ask a really important question that we don't ask often enough-- what needs to happen in order for these children to get an education, and what are we demanding really just to serve the ease of the institution?
Some students bring so much baggage that addressing it is a full time job. Can we educate them anyway? Probably. Do we have to send them to a gulag to do it? No. Do they benefit from having contact with their peers? Yes.
Public schools are one of the few places left where citizens (albeit young ones) must still interact with people who are not just like them. Outside schools, we are becoming an increasingly walled-off society, and there are absolutely no signs that this is good for us. We have a huge prison population because our solution for dealing with difficult and different people is to send them away (or, unfortunately, increasingly, shoot them).
It is not so easy to sort the deserving from the undeserving; it is not even so easy to sort those that care from those that don't. But in a varied and mixed community, all can learn from all.
We can do better. We can do better in schools, where we have the chance to impart a basic life lesson-- there are people in the world who are not just like you. I don't subscribe to the Duncan theory that expectations and tests dissolve all functional differences between all students. But I do believe that being around other people, including other people who don't approach the world the same way you do, is humanizing and beneficial. However we are reaching the point where as a culture we are increasingly bad at it.
It may well be that we'll keep going this way, increasingly bellicose in our insistence that we will take care of our own and everybody else can go to hell. The problem is that history suggests that when a large sector of a nation's people are sent to hell, they tend to take large chunks of the whole country with them.