Friday, December 12, 2014

Whither Disruptive Students?

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.

First, Resources-

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.


  1. I think your words here are very powerful. They go to the essence of what education is in a democratic society and point to the direction we should be going:

    "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.

  2. Is it possible that the model of delivering education these days, especially with so much testing, is actually responsible for creating the problem of disruptive students? If there is a sincere desire to reach people where they are, the re-examining the thousands of assumptions about why the students are failing (lack of resources, lack of parenting, lack of maturity, lack of this, lack of that) is not going to yield much in terms of changing in these students' circumstances. Having the courage to consider the possibility that education needs to be turned on its ear, and that people need to be looked at as human beings, and not graded endlessly, nor evaluated, but rather talked to, talked to, talked to, listened to, listened to and listened to some more, until some real communication has taken place. All the best books, computers and leaders in the world will never replace the value of on-going, mutually relevant conversation. This is the beginning of creating a state of mind which will allow integrated learning to take place. Without authentic validation of the individual, all the talk about democracy is just platitudes. All the cries for more support for this novel program or that is just more wheel spinning. Your baby stops crying when it is heard. Until someone stops to hear these children, without judging them in the process, they will never ever stop crying or being disruptive. Interestingly, you could probably find dozens of volunteers to come to schools and just talk with kids all day long. This is the beginning of their healing and development. Over time, the capacity to learn in a more formal way would develop. This is the stage of development that was skipped for these kids. People need to have emotional rest to be ready to learn.

  3. Sorry about some incoherent sentences...I am probably too tired to be writing but this topic is so heart breaking and I could not help but chime in.

  4. The first rule of Ed Reform Club is don't speak about Ed Reform Club.

    Petrilli showed us his slip. And he can't hide it anymore.

  5. Wait, you mean teaching ALL kids is a feature, not a bug, of public education? *wink*

  6. Have you listened to the This American Life episode on "stories of schools struggling with what to do with misbehaving kids"? Check it out.

  7. I completely agree that the public schools are one of the last places in our society where "some of these things are not like the other". This is why the charter boutique-ing of schooling is an assault on our democracy. Quite soon, the demographics in our public schools will be a majority of minorities - a great reason for defunding them, in the eyes of some.

  8. Why must we insist that everyone think alike and do alike? School Librarian positions are being eliminated in the state of Hawaii. Why? So students and teachers will be at even more of a disadvantage if we dare to argue, dare to investigate other views? Dare to educate and be educated?

  9. I teach in an alternative school that serves the population Petrilli talks about. We have small class sizes, full time counselors, home visits, arts and an asynchronous learning model. The work is extremely hard and not always successful.

    But regardless of how we do with these students we know there is a regular Ed classroom somewhere that is maximizing learning time because we exist.

    There is a similar model in Stamford Connecticut where charter schools are designed to take the disruptive students out of the public schools, to give them an alternative setting more appropriate to their needs and realities.

    What's being lost in this debate is that this was the original purpose for charter schools in NY too. The 1998 Charter School law passed because it promised charters would focus on "at risk" students, creating solutions to be replicated across the larger system.

    In other words charters came into existence by promising that they would deal with problem kids. But soon after passage the law was amended so that charters could shift the focus in the complete opposite direction and create boutique schools that cherry pick the best students out of public schools.

    Kudos to NYT for finally covering this issue in their Room for Debate oped page. There, charter directors have started to acknowledge that expulsions are a bad thing but they are still completely unable to defend the rigged intake system with proactive applications and lotteries.