Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Rescuing Strivers from Those People

Today in Bloomberg View, Mike Petrilli is airing out his ideas about how charters should be the lifeboats that rescue strivers from the chaos of disruptive students.

His thesis is pretty simple-- strivers suffer from being trapped in classrooms that are disrupted by non-strivey students, so if we could screen for strivers and get them into a safe, striver-friendly school, rescuing them from chaotic public schools where disruptive students are, for a variety of both good and bad reasons, allowed to suck up the disruptive lion's share of time and attention.

As I said just a few days ago, when Petrilli was defending Eva Moskowitz's push-out policy, his point is not completely without merit. Every teacher on the planet has had That Student, without whom their class runs so much more smoothly. And every teacher understands the impact of the group-mind in a classroom in terms of atmosphere and what can be accomplished. And every teacher who's been working for more than ten years has seen the impact of policies that have aggressively pushed for all students, regardless of skill or inclination, back into the regular classroom.

However, I have some huge problems with Petrilli's narrative.

The Myth of the Climb to the Middle Class

In his very first paragraph, Petrilli provides a definition of a striver:

Low-income strivers -- impoverished families who follow the rules and work hard to climb the ladder to the middle class -- may be the most underserved population in America today.

It's a nice picture, but are we still claiming that if you just work hard and follow the rules you'll become successful. Because that sounds wrong several ways.

First, exactly what rules does one follow to get to the middle class? Be born to middle class parents? Because there's research that suggests that poor kids who do everything right still don't do any better than rich kids who do everything wrong. And yes, I know there are individuals who can trot out their stories of bootstrapping their way to the middle-- but they are now grown men and women who did that a decade or three ago and that's not the world that our students live in right now.

Second, the notion that a Good Student is one who 1) works hard and 2) is compliant is not an appealing one. I don't need compliant students. I need students who have some drive and initiative and are occasionally obnoxious because they are excited about stuff. Just in general, I see a real contradiction between striving and complying. The narrative that seems much more familiar to me is that if the person who has the nerve to take risks and the safety to take them without losing everything.

Disruption Is Not a Permanent Condition

Petrilli talks about disruptive students as if disruptor status is permanently and unwaveringly a thing. The student who is a gigantic, disruptive pain in the butt on Monday may be the shining light on Wednesday. Being a disruptive student is not like being left-handed. For that matter, the student who is absolute disaster in your class may be my top student.

This is betterocracy at work, the notion that some people are just better than others, and that's just how it is, and the purpose of public institutions like school is to sort out the Betters from the Lessers, allowing the Betters to rise and the Lessers to stay in place, as if every persons level of Betterness is fixed and static, wired into their dna.

Disruptosity is not an absolute, static condition. Worse, talking about "disruptive students" is like talking about "bad kids"-- it locks a child into some sort of permanent state that colors all our interactions with him, instead of recognizing that we're seeing a particular behavior on a particular day, but that behavior is not who the child is. Because...

Disruptive Students Disrupt for a Reason

If a student is wreaking havoc in my classroom, that tells me that something is going on with that person. That doesn't mean I abandon all my other students so that we can try to sit down, hold hands, and sing kumbaya. But it does mean that I have a professional and ethical obligation to see if I can find out what's up. Petrilli's model is that I lock the disruptive kid in the room by himself and take the rest of my class somewhere else-- forever.

I may need to find a way to shut my disruptor down now so I can do my job for the rest of my students. But part of my job is to find out what is going on with the disruptor, because there's a long list of reasons that a student might act out, and all of those reasons are important to know, particular as a representative of the school that is quite possibly the only place where the child encounters caring, professional adults.

Disruptive Students Can Be High Achieving Students

Like much of his talk on this subject, his call for universal screening to look for gifted students in elementary school seems to assume that academic aptitude goes hand in hand with striverliness, while not going along with disruptorosity. That is kind of hilarious. Because nobody knows how to spread chaos, disorder, and disruption like a really smart student. Particularly a really smart student who finds himself up against a school that wants him to show how compliant he is.

Rule-following compliance is, once again, not synonymous or even always concurrent with high levels of ability.

Moskowitz Is Still Wrong

You can see where Petrilli is headed. Strivers have lost patience with public schools that are in chaos because of Those Students, the Disruptors.

Frustrated that the traditional public schools aren’t willing to prioritize their children’s needs, many low-income strivers have turned to high-quality charter schools instead. But now those are under attack, too. In recent weeks, the "PBS Newshour" and "New York Times" had highly critical coverage of Success Academies, charter schools in New York City that have shown excellent results in improving student performance. The reports focused on the academies' suspending students aggressively and removing those who are chronic disrupters.

First, these "high-quality charters" (and you can keep calling them "high-quality" or "super-dee-duper" or "able to spin straw into plutonium" as much as you want, but that doesn't make it so) aren't under attack. They're just finally being looked at openly, instead of getting to hide behind their own carefully controlled PR spin.

Second, they have not raised student achievement. They have raised student test scores. We've had this discussion before, so I'll skip to the end which is that raising test scores is easy if you stop worrying about every other aspect of a child's development and education.

Third, they are not removing chronic disruptors. They're creating problem children, and the problem is that the children will not comply quickly, quietly and obediently. I haven't seen anybody put it better than Pedro Noguera in his account of a trip to John King's No Excusey charter:

Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don't need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.

I'll Give Petrilli This

Petrilli calls for safe schools, and I have nothing to quibble with there. And he does acknowledge that the disruptors are entitled to some sort of education, somehow. Just not at the expense of the strivers.

Which leads me to this...

A Proposal

It's probably fair to say that there are some students so troubled and challenged that a traditional school setting just doesn't work for them, and they become chronic disruptors. But that's a small percentage. And since they are a small percentage of the school population and charters only have capacity for a small percentage of the school population and charter operators claim to know the secrets of making all students from all backgrounds successful, why don't we do this-- let the charters have the disruptors.

The strivers will be left in disruption-free public schools, safe and freed from Those People who interfere with their education. The disruptors will be set straight by the edu-wizards of the charter world. It's perfect.

Well, unless this was all just an elaborate argument to justify charter refusal to teach difficult students, with "difficult' broadly defined as "any students who won't do as they're told." But if the whole secret of charter success is "make sure you only teach smart, compliant students who understand and follow instructions," then the charter secret is no secret at all.

But compliance and rule-following are not particularly admirable qualities, nor are they generally top qualities of top students. It's not that I want a room full of disruptive misbehaving students, but if we start with the assumption that the best students are students who do as they're told, we don't end up anywhere good. Not good for us, not good for the students, not good for society. And really, though I doubt that Petrilli meant to go there, weirdly reminiscent of comments like "If that girl has just done as she was told, the cop wouldn't have ripped her out of her seat" or "If Freddy Gray had just followed orders, he'd still be alive."

Blind obedience is not a virtue, and disruption is not always a flaw. I'm all for getting problem students what they need in a manner that allows education to continue for everybody-- I mean, I'm really all for it as in that's what I try to do every day of my career. But Petrelli isn't just barking up the wrong tree or approaching this the wrong way-- he's trying to find the cow that will give the best milk by looking for the greenest cherries on the bush next to the barn. He's trying to warm the house by setting the couch afire with a flamethrower. I think there's something fundamentally flawed with his model of how education and humans work. In short, he's just wrong.


  1. I have been advocating a version of this forever. Some small number of students, perhaps more in very low income schools, need socialization as much as education. Small class, individualized attention, social workers, home contact. All very expensive, no profits there.

  2. Peter, this is great as usual. I have a pretty good idea of which rules Mike Petrilli is talking about:


    This so-called "Success Sequence" has been debunked as nonsense:


    Also, Petrilli's view of rescuing strivers has been historically used to justify segregation and white flight, fleeing "disruptive students". I'm guessing a significant portion of the children society deems as disruptive are ELLs and Sp Ed students. This is not the right solution

  3. First time comment-er and new fan of your blog here. This is another great piece.

    I noticed that many comments in response the the NYT article about the "Got to Go" list expressed sympathy for SA and supported their pushing out of disruptive students. There was a common assumption that the root cause of disruptive behavior is bad parents who did not teach their children how to properly behave. This might sometimes be the case, but of course as teachers we know that it's certainly not that simple. We are dealing with developing human beings here who are going through all sorts of experiences that manifest themselves in different ways. I work in an elementary school and have found that disruptive students are often dealing with a difficult personal situation (divorce, economic hardship, tragedy, abuse) or have a physiological issue of some sort that affects their behavior. More often than not, their parents are very much involved and are trying the best they can. Perhaps by assuming that disruptive behavior is solely a product of bad parenting, removing students from school can be justified in people's minds because those students (or their parents) just didn't hold up their end of the bargain.

  4. You keep outdoing yourself, Peter. You speak the thoughts of so many of us, so much better than we could. Shame you don't have a wider audience.

  5. Petrilli's kid goes to school in the same district as my kids, but you can bet that neither he nor his kids really get the realities of the lives of the families my kids go to school with only 10 miles away. I've invited him repeatedly to come and see but am left with the impression that the Unwashed Masses up here in my part of the world are nothing more than an academic concern.

    I'm sure it would please him to know how much it grinds my gears that he gets paid probably 3-4 times what *actual* teachers get paid in order to spout his theoretical bovine excrement from his ivory tower.

    (I know: "Don't hold back, Crunchy; tell us how you REALLY feel." :P)

  6. Excellent, again, Mr Greene.
    It's gratifying to see you getting wider readership.

  7. Dear Mr. Greene:

    I can see why you enjoy reviewing Mr. Petrilli's work so much. He sure doesn't pull his punches, huh?

    “We would ask all schools, including those with a high percentage of poor students, to identify at least 10 percent of their students for special programs, and then allow these kids the opportunity to spend part of their day learning with other high-achieving peers, and to go faster or deeper into the curriculum.”

    The administration and school boards of schools in less affluent neighborhoods who can't afford a gifted program? They need to get up off their seats and go out to the money tree and pick a few bushels. The fresh air and sunshine would be good for 'em, too, the slackers.


  8. I thought the original intent of charter schools was specifically to help the disrupters, those who didn't fit in a regular public school. Here is a link to an article that discusses the history of charter schools and how their mission--integration, learning lab for public schools--was co-opted by conservatives. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/albert-shanker-the-original-charter-school-visionary.html?_r=0

  9. I thought the original intent of charter schools was specifically to help the disrupters, those who didn't fit in a regular public school. Here is a link to an article that discusses the history of charter schools and how their mission--integration, learning lab for public schools--was co-opted by conservatives. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/albert-shanker-the-original-charter-school-visionary.html?_r=0

  10. Excellent, again, Mr Greene.
    It's gratifying to see you getting wider readership.

  11. Another foul entree from the Maison Reformiste: A 16-oz filet of Wrong, accompanied by locally-sourced organic Wrong Au Gratin and steamed fair trade Wrong, paired with a glass of Chateau St. Wrong (Cuvee Erreur).

    One of the best things about this blog, Peter, is that you not only point out all the ways in which this kind of idea doesn't work (you can't identify "high performers" in pre-K, smart does not equal compliant, etc.) It's that you also keep reminding your readers that there is a repellant educational philosophy behind reformer ideas.

    Petrilli sounds as though he's explaining how businesses can identify and train the best recruits. And in this, he's possibly a little bit right. This "find 'em early & set 'em aside" approach also helped the former Soviet Union to produce jaw-droppingly good gymnasts, and it's how a lot of Asian countries maintain a mandarin class. It's also what I think when I'm on hiring committees. I'm not trying to help the people applying for jobs - I'm trying to pick the one that I think will help my institution.

    That's perfectly fine for a business, or an Olympics gymnastic team. But God almighty, it's not the mission of education in a democracy.