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...
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.