Posted November 12, 2008, 9:00am
Good morning and welcome to the NewTalk forum on the topic of order and respect in public schools. In the recent past, the quest to improve public schools has focused on curriculum, classroom size, teacher salaries, expanded choice and testing. Too little attention has been paid to structuring peer climates and improving school culture. This is surprising given that sociologists have long demonstrated that student peer climates are a central component in understanding why some schools are more effective than others. Before we consider the causes of student disorder, and possible reforms that are targeted both in and outside of schools to address this issue, I would like us to start with a discussion of the scale and scope of current student behavioral problems. How common and how severe are the problems of disorder and misbehavior in schools today? Are these problems concentrated in certain types of schools or do they reflect broader societal trends? Is there anything new about the prevalence or the form of the current problem?
Posted November 12, 2008, 9:53am
In response to Richard’s opening remarks, I would like to offer my observations from my multitude of interactions with principals and teachers in Indiana public schools. I think a lack of order and discipline is more prevalent in the public schools than the public may be aware of, and particularly in urban schools. I know at least one major urban school where the central office has put pressure on principals to not expel minority students, so the school system's minority expulsion rates look low to the public.
However, urban schools are not the only schools suffering from discipline problems. Just this week I visited a rural school and was told by the assistant principal that he had just conferenced with a boy who was tardy 17 times already this year. Both the assistant principal and principal of that school expressed serious concerns about their authority to discipline, and whether they would be supported by the central office and school board when a parent complains about his or her child being disciplined.
W. Edwards Deming, the grandfather of the international quality movement, once observed that about 94% of an organization's problems are in the design of the organization's systems, and only about 6% of the organization's problems are due to the workers. In Black Belt training, we refer to taking the 20,000 foot view of the problem. I would suggest to my esteemed colleagues on the panel that we look at the problem of order and discipline in public schools from a systemic view.
Posted November 12, 2008, 9:57am
Good morning, all. I agree that far too much of our quest to improve public schools has focused on curriculum, teacher salaries, expanded choice, and testing.
But the issue of class size does affect peer climates and school culture. If a high school teacher has a class of 30, and five are absent on a given day, the culture of that class is going to be greatly improved, especially if any of the five who are absent are troublemakers.
Class size also affects how much individual attention a teacher can give to each student. That individual attention may mean the difference between a student dropping out or staying in school, sliding by with C’s when they’re capable of earning A’s, causing trouble or staying on task. A smaller class size allows time to treat kids as individuals, rather than as part of a herd.
Also, in large classes teachers are busy putting out large discipline fires. In smaller classes they have a tighter rein on smaller infractions. That difference hugely affects peer climates and school culture.
Posted November 12, 2008, 10:12am
I agree with Jeff that the lack of order and discipline in public schools is more prevalent than the public realizes. I taught for nearly 20 years in a large suburban-turning-urban district. Teachers as well as principals regularly expressed concerns about whether or not they would be supported by central administration and the school board when a parent complained about the disciplining of a child.
And complain they did. We had strong, clear, progressive discipline processes in place, but they were regularly overturned if a parent complained loudly enough. That, more than anything else, affected school culture because kids, and their parents, know how to work the system. If we are going to approach the problem of order and respect in our public schools, we need to start with parents.
Posted November 12, 2008, 10:33am
Well… it's not like me to be so agreeable so early in the morning. But agreeable I must be because I can't find any fault with either of Kelly's posts so far. Certainly class sizes can impact the culture of a classroom, as well as the ability of a teacher to maintain good order. The current factory model of design of public education does indeed prevent many teachers from treating kids as individuals with individual needs. I like the metaphor of "herd" that Kelly uses. Any of us who have taught in the public schools know that in many classes the teacher is performing a most difficult task when trying to maintain good order and control of the classroom. In many schools its like herding a flock of cats.
I can't count the number of times over the years that public school teachers and principals have privately told me that they are really hamstrung by the politics in their school district. Complaining parents who have political power and the ear of the superintendent or school board can and do have a dramatic effect on school discipline. Many teachers and principals have privately expressed to me that they have backed off student discipline and only go after the most extreme violations of school rules, such as drugs, guns, and fights - for fear of political retribution by the school board.
In my seventeen years of law practice I had more than one case where an educator "stepped on the wrong toes" and was disciplined based on a sham reason. I am not a complaining plaintiff's attorney, as 95% of the cases I was involved in I was a school board attorney representing the school board who was taking it out on the poor teacher or principal. Politics do influence student behavior and impact student discipline greatly.
Posted November 12, 2008, 11:12am
I taught for one year at a large urban high school in Boston and experienced many of the things described by both Jeff and Kelly. When my students misbehaved, I would follow the protocols and systems outlined by the school’s administration. However, when I needed the support of the administration regarding a difficult student and/or a challenging family, I was often told to handle the situation myself.
I then taught at a smaller public school in Boston called Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, which had a similar population of students (100% students of color, ~70% eligible for free/reduced price lunch). Roxbury Prep’s Code of Conduct was virtually identical to that of the Boston Public Schools. The major difference was the administration wholeheartedly supported teachers when it came to discipline incidents. In short, the Code of Conduct was enacted.
After teaching at Roxbury Prep for a few years, I ended up serving as one of its school leaders for six years. Every day, we as school leaders ensured that our students abided by the Code of Conduct. If they did not, they received consequences. If they did, they received merits/rewards. A structured, safe learning environment can be built in a public school as long as all staff members are on the same page and willing to do the work to implement discipline systems each and every day. Roxbury Prep has consistently been the highest-performing urban middle school in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The high expectations regarding discipline and the willingness of the administration to follow through on infractions of the Code of Conduct have enabled Roxbury Prep teachers to focus on what they do best—providing rigorous, engaging lessons for their students.
Posted November 12, 2008, 11:30am
Josh makes an excellent point: all staff members must be on the same page and willing to do the work to implement discipline systems each and every day. That’s a huge start. If the rule is no soft drinks in the hall, Teacher A should not be left to enforce it while Teacher B looks the other way.
But in addition to that, school officials must be willing to stand up to parents. An administrator recently told me that in the early years of his career he was threatened with lawsuits once or twice. Now he is threatened with lawsuits once or twice a day.
So the question is this: How do educators get parents to work with us instead of against us? Because it often seems that when it comes to parents there are two extremes—they are either completely absent when we need them to help, or they’re involved, but in a negative way.
They definitely need to be involved. And they have a right to be involved—it’s their child’s education at stake. And it is, after all, a public school. They’re the public. But how do we get them to use their powers for good, and not evil?
Posted November 12, 2008, 11:38am
One aspect involved in restoring order and respect in public schools involves the local media. For many years the media has painted a negative image of the public schools and their employees. Though public schools have real and reportable issues taking place across our country that must be explored in an open forum; where is the media coverage of outstanding school programs, exemplary student achievement, and student participation in community service and humanistic ventures? Why is there little mention of staff voluntarily tutoring students, helping with college applications, and acting as mentors and or advisors? In order for the public to respect a system, newspapers, radio, and television must report the good work that is performed in our schools by good people. To this end, we have designated a committee of teachers, parents, and administrators specifically charged with spreading our positive message throughout local media outlets. Our return on this "positive marketing" approach continues to be greater parental, staff, and student involvement during and after school, higher matriculation of informed students, and greater retention of highly qualified staff. These encouraging results have lead to an increase of order and respect throughout the entire school and the surrounding community.
Posted November 12, 2008, 12:00pm
I strongly agree that too little attention has been paid to the social, emotional and civic dimensions of learning and school life. It is well known that as important as linguistic and mathematical learning are, students are always social, emotional and civic as well as intellectual learners. And educators and parents are always social, emotional and civic teachers. The only question is to what extent adults are intentionally and helpfully teaching children these core skills and dispositions that provide the foundation for school—and life—success.
The prevalence of behavioral problems in K-12 students is significant. On the one hand, it has been estimated that 9 to 13% of American children and adolescents (ages 9 to 17) have serious emotional and/or behavioral disorders (Friedman, 2002). More than half of these students drop out of grades 9-12. It has also been estimated that roughly 10 to 15% of all typically developing preschool children have chronic mild to moderate levels of behavioral problems. Children who are poor are much more likely to develop behavioral problems, with prevalence rates that approach 30% (Qi & Kaiser, 2003)!
When school and parent leaders do pay attention to social, emotional and civic learning and improving school climate (including but certainly not limited to class and school size), we see a dramatic reduction in the range of behavioral problems in our K-12 schools.
Posted November 12, 2008, 12:30pm
Sana’s comment suggests that for those who care about public schools there is often a reluctance to acknowledge problems of school disorder, for fear of contributing to societal negative perceptions of these institutions. Other comments, including Jonathan's, however, suggest that these problems are common and widespread. We know from empirical research that certain types of students who are most vulnerable to the effects of school disorder, such as boys, are increasingly struggling to achieve academically. Jeff encourages us to take a systemic view. What factors have led schools to struggle around these issues today? Are school behavioral problems simply a product of larger societal trends (such as changing family structure, media, parenting cultures, etc.)? Or, are schools and the regulatory systems governing them also implicated in the problems we currently face?
Posted November 12, 2008, 12:47pm
I believe that any educational reform must be realized by way of a holistic approach. No one organization or contingent can be responsible for our students' futures. All effected parties (parents, community leaders, support staff, teachers, school leadership, etc.) must be held accountable and actively participate in the reclamation process.
Posted November 12, 2008, 1:00pm
I am joining a bit late, but find myself in agreement with much of what has been said, especially Jonathan's last point about the need to take school climate (in the broadest sense of the term) seriously. When I ask a roomful of administrators if they can articulate their school's civic mission (or character mission), I often get blank stares. They know they have one, but they haven't looked at it in years—and they don't see it as central to their daily work. But in my experience, when administrators and teachers do pay attention to the "social, emotional and civic dimensions of learning and school life," discipline problems are few, attendance is high, and academic performance is strong.
Following up on Kelly's post about the role of parents: in our First Amendment Schools project, the most successful schools had principals who included teachers, staff, students, parents and community members when making decisions about organization, governance and curricula. We found that when all members of the school community are given a meaningful voice in shaping the life of the school, each has a real stake in creating safe and caring learning environments.
Posted November 12, 2008, 1:14pm
Richard raises a series of complicated and critically important questions about the underlying reasons for behavioral problems in our schools. There are many individual, peer-group-related, school-wide and larger societal factors that contribute to this problem. I would like to comment on three that relate to educational policy, individual risk factors and teacher education.
Current federal educational mandates (No Child Left Behind) force educators to focus on reading, math and, recently, science scores. In addition, federal policy does insist that schools measure and track rates of physical violence. We don't measure school climate or the social, emotional and civic dimensions of school life. Following Ohio's lead, a growing number of State Departments of Education are beginning to consider measuring school climate. When we do so comprehensively, we recognize how socially (and physically) safe, as well as "connected" and engaged, students are. This data provides schools with information about a student who is "in need" and, as result, supports primary prevention efforts.
Second, we know that there are important risk factors that dramatically enhance the likelihood that some students will become behaviorally disordered. Students who, for example, have been traumatized or struggle with psychological/psychiatric problems are much, much more at risk for developing behavioral problems (Cohen, 2006). In our recent work with the Ohio Department of Education, we are learning that students who live in families that are moving from location to location seem to be at risk for developing behavioral problems.
Finally, too often students who present behavioral problems are labeled pejoratively by their teachers. Too many departments of education do not help beginning educators to appreciate that student behavioral problems are a signal that something is amiss.
Posted November 12, 2008, 6:00pm
As today's discussion draws to a close, we seem to have come to a general agreement that a problem exists in terms of the prevalence of school disorder, and also that there are multiple causes for student misbehavior. Tomorrow, let’s turn our attention more fully to what policymakers, educators and schools can do to address this issue.
If our public schools have lost their way focusing too narrowly on improving math and English test score performance and ignoring their larger purpose in terms of supporting youth socialization and preparing the next generation of citizens, what can be done to restore balance and revitalize these other core educational functions? What advice would you have for an incoming Secretary of Education in a new federal administration? Are there specific policies that could be advanced that will help to enhance order, respect and the development of citizenship in our schools? Or, is this a problem solely for practitioners and parents to address?
Posted November 13, 2008, 9:05am
I apologize for joining the discussion so late. I will preface my comments by saying they are based on my observations from the past 25 years in a high school classroom mostly in Wyoming.
I have to go back to the initial comments from earlier in the discussion. In my opinion, class size is essential because small classes (and small schools) allow for CONNECTIONS between students and teachers. Students need to know that there is at least one caring adult there for them every day. They don't care what you have to teach them until they know that you care about THEM. (In other words, I don't teach science - I teach kids.)
I do not teach in a perfect situation, but I am sure Cody, WY is much below the national averages for discipline and behavior problems.
-Cody has around 760 students in our high school. A small enough number that most students feel like individuals; and the majority of students know one another by name.
- We operate on a block schedule of four 97 minute periods a day. That chunk of contact time gives a teacher lots of time to interact with students and get to know them. It also allows time for projects, group work and activities that make school more engaging and interesting. This of course means fewer discipline issues.
-We have small average class sizes: elementary under 18; Middle School about 22; and high school around 20. Small classes mean fewer discipline issues because every student naturally gets more attention.
This intangible connection that gets made when a teacher has time to interact with each student as an individual is a major component of school climate. I know the names of all my students by the end of the first week of school. I call every parent with a positive comment every semester and I stand outside my door and welcome kids every day before class. A teacher who has 150 students a day cannot make those connections and unfortunately the same kids who cause problems at school are the ones who have few connections with adult role models outside of school.
There are so many great strides schools could make if we had the complete buy in of all the parents and the community at large, but so many of those are beyond our control. There were lots of great ideas generated so far in this discussion, and I am not saying to give up on those, but improving opportunities for making connections is something that schools can control.
Posted November 13, 2008, 9:12am
I would suggest that we can and need to support policy and practice leaders understanding that we can and need to measure school climate and use this social, emotional and civic data to promote students, parents/guardians and school personnel working together to promote social as well as physical safety, ‘connected’ and engagement. To the extent that we recognize the "voices" of everyone in the school community, we create a 'platform' that supports our learning and working together about our problems/needs as well as our strengths. Research shows that this will not only support behaviorally troubled youth. It will support student learning and teachers' ability to teach (Cohen, McCabe, Mitchelli, & Pickeral, 2009)
My understanding is that school climate is now the most practical and scientifically sound way of recognizing (measuring) the social, emotional and civic dimensions of learning and school life.
I suggest that we can and need to develop policies that support this work as well as 'centers of excellence' that support practice leaders learning from one another about the range of ways that we can measure school climate comprehensively and in scientifically sound ways and use this data to build authentic learning communities and develop instructional and systemic plans to promote social, emotional and civic learning.
The National School Climate Council has issued a position paper: The School Climate Challenge: Narrowing the Gap Between School Climate Research and School Climate Policy, Practice Guidelines and Teacher Education Policy (www.csee.net) that summarizes the current, socially unjust gap between school climate research on the one hand and school climate policy, practice and teacher education on the other hand. This position statement also details a series of suggested recommendations for policy and practice leaders. The Council is now working on one of the most important policy recommendations: developing school climate standards.
Posted November 13, 2008, 9:34am
Although I think most of what needs to be done must be carried out on the state and local levels, I do see an important role for the U.S. DOE. The new Secretary of Education might start by moving "civic education" and "character education" beyond the narrow parameters of the "safe and drug free schools" office—and create a new, expanded initiative that encourages states to take school climate seriously. I would like to see the DOE take the leadership in bringing together leaders in civic education, character education, service-learning, and social and emotional learning to explore their shared goals—and consider ways to work more closely together. And, of course, I would like to see more funding dedicated to these efforts. President-elect Obama's statements in the campaign calling for attention to the whole child (my gloss on his words) suggest that we have an opportunity to move the DOE in this direction.
About five years ago, some leaders of the various initiatives listed above came together to consider ways to cooperate more fully in helping schools develop what we called "civic character" in their students (defined as "responsible moral action that serves the common good"). It was easy to get agreement on our shared goal to graduate students "of good character who are intellectually prepared, civically engaged, and compassionate members of the community." It is more difficult, however, to coordinate these efforts in ways that lead to more cohesive educational programs in our schools. In my view, we need more leadership on all levels, including the DOE, to ensure that we work together—and not at cross purposes.
Posted November 13, 2008, 9:45am
Good morning, all. Regarding Richard’s question about whether or not we can create policies that would enhance order, respect and the development of citizenship in our schools, I think a class size policy might be a place to start, coupled with a small school initiative. And so many of our public school buildings are crumbling, perhaps we could fund infrastructure repairs that include remodeling buildings into smaller wings, and separate students by grade.
And I definitely like the fact that President-elect Obama has admonished parents to turn off the TV and video games. How refreshing.
Posted November 13, 2008, 10:27am
Hello, and I too apologize for joining in so late. The comments have been fascinating and reflect much of what we see in our surveys of both students and teachers. I am always struck by the level of concern students voice over widespread use of profanity in the schools, widespread cheating, and the not uncommon problem (the students tell us) of teachers spending more time on trying to manage discipline issues than on teaching. One issue that comes up a lot from teachers is that "one or two behavior problems" distract the entire class. From what we hear, there don't seem to be widespread or effective intervention programs for these troubled youngsters. Some teachers say that the "solution" seems to be "serial suspension." Teachers often complain that it's applied when the problem is very severe, and it doesn't actually help the student. What's the experience of the group on this? Is one solution really focusing on the kids with serious behavior problems in a much different and more effective way? And what would that be?
Posted November 13, 2008, 10:39am
When I first started teaching, we could write a discipline referral for a student who used profanity. By the time I left the classroom, we were being instructed NOT to send students to the office for something so trivial. We were told to handle it on our own. And that’s fine. Teachers should be able to handle discipline on their own. But then when you called the parent to discuss their child’s profanity, often the response was, “Yeah, so? What’s the big deal?”
It always comes back to this. A huge part of the problem with order and respect in our public schools has to do with parents, specifically that some of them do their darnedest to overturn good discipline policies and, they don’t teach respect at home.
So again, my question is: how can we get parents to work with us instead of against us?
Posted November 13, 2008, 12:00pm
Based on what I have seen work in many schools, an important part of the solution is to give students a voice. This should be done, of course, within a comprehensive plan for developing good character in the school. At the recent Character Education Partnership conference, I was struck by how many of the schools that were recognized as "schools of character" as well as the schools recognized for their "promising practices" were places where students were given real opportunities to shape the life of the school: class and school meetings; participation in the development of the honor code and class rules; peer mediation/conflict resolution; community engagement, etc.
I have spent time in many of these schools (all grade levels) and there are few discipline problems (…more about these schools at www.character.org). When an issue arises, students take responsibility for addressing it. Some of the "troubled" students often end up being the most engaged, powerful voices for respect and responsibility. Freedom is not the enemy of school safety. When students learn how to use their freedom responsibly, they help to create a safer learning environment.
Posted November 13, 2008, 1:07pm
I would like to first appreciate what Charles outlined in his initial (9:35) posting this morning. I agree that there is an important role for states as well as the federal government to play here. Ohio plans to be the first state in the nation to adopt the new National School Climate Standards that the National School Climate Council (with the help of scores of educators and other educational leaders) is now developing. I hope that other states will review and consider adopting these standards. I also agree that the Federal movement needs to fiscally support the kind of social, emotional and civic learning that is—in fact—the stated goal of virtually every single school's (and state's) educational mission statement.
I differ with Kelly's suggestions that we should start with small class and/or school size as a focus for policy change. As important as this is, the recent and costly experiment that the Gates Foundation carried out in this area underscores that class size reductions—in and of themselves—is not enough. This is one critically important variable among many that shapes the norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures that make up school life. I suggest that focusing on a more comprehensive set of school climate practices and policies will foster more meaningful change.
Posted November 13, 2008, 2:34pm
I share Kelly's frustration that teachers have too often been instructed to not send "trivial" problems (e.g. profanity use) to the office while in previous times such misconduct was indeed regarded as serious.
Kelly asks, "How can we get parents to work with us instead of against us?" I think the answer may lie in what Charles offered as part of the solution to student misconduct—i.e. to give students a voice. Many schools, particularly secondary schools, resemble military training camps more than institutions of learning. It is a rare school that gives students (and their parents) a meaningful choice in their schooling. First of all, we force kids to go to school between certain ages—e.g. ages 6-18. Second, we restrict their right to select a school that interests them. We force upon them arbitrary school boundaries based upon school district facility and transportation needs. Then we tell them what days and hours they must attend school. School administrators hand down unilaterally developed student behavior rules. We don't give them a choice in who will teach them. Nor do we give them much choice, except in high school where there are a few electives, to choose their course of study. On top of that, we don't even give them a choice of textbooks. There is not much, if any, real freedom for kids and parents the way we have designed public schooling.
What is needed is a new era of public schools: the freedom school era—an era that provides much more freedom for students and parents, but also for teachers and school principals. (For more on this, you can read my article, Freedom Schools, from the Indiana Policy Review.)
Should we even have a compulsory attendance law? Is there any research that clearly establishes that this law is helping kids learn? The Amish in our area seem to be doing just fine even though they regularly withdraw their kids from school before they reach the age of freedom. Are kids and families viewing public schools as an entitlement because of the way we have designed the system? Why not give kids and parents a right to select any public school they want to attend and engage in learning? Why not give them the power to control their own destiny and treat them as clients, rather than as junior serfs like we do now?
Posted November 13, 2008, 3:53pm
Jeff is right. We need to re-think schools in ways that reflect our commitment to democratic freedom. A few examples:
* Fairview Elementary School in Modesto, CA: parents were invited to help make decisions about school policies and practices. Since many of those parents are new arrivals (80% of the school population is Hispanic), the school sponsored special classes to give parents the tools to participate in decision-making. Many of the parents soon became active in the life of the school. Small example: when they learned that Fairview was a "First Amendment School," they decided to exercise their right to petition by asking the city to build a fence in front of the school to protect their kids from the busy street.
* Federal Hocking High School in Ohio (where democratic schools advocate George Wood is principal): students serve on all school committees (including hiring), help formulate school polices, help design their course of study, etc.
* Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter School here in Washington, DC: the curriculum and all aspects of school life are designed to engage students in public policy—and to prepare them to make a difference in their community. It has been rightly called a "school of conscience"—a place where students who have long been ignored and written off in DC are given the skills and knowledge to be effective citizens in a democracy.
All of these schools have high attendance, few discipline problems, strong parental support and involvement, and strong academic achievement.
Posted November 13, 2008, 4:15pm
Great examples, Charles, of the benefits of empowering students and their parents! I might add that it is difficult to empower students and parents under the current bureaucratic political system of school governance. If we can empower teachers and principals, and lessen their burden of paperwork and compliance with all the bureaucracy's mandates that have been imposed upon them, they will have more time to satisfy their clients’ (the students’ and their parents’) needs, and to undertake more activities to get parents meaningfully involved in their child's education.
Please don't think that I want to turn over the schools to the parents to run. There is in a way too much of that. What I mean is that a few powerful, politically-connected parents can often dominate a single school building under the current political system with elected school boards. What needs to happen is we need to give more choices to parents, and allow them to make more decisions about their individual child's education, than we do now. I am not saying let the parents set the policies and run the school. That is (or should be) the principal's job.
Schools will find themselves with better parent relations if they view the students as their clients. If their clients have the choice to go to any public school, then they are choosing that school because of the staff, educational programs, location, and other factors that they may consider to be appropriate. Parents with more choices will be happier parents, and in theory, will become more involved with the school, since it is their decision for their child to attend that school.
Posted November 13, 2008, 5:05pm
Several of the panelists have suggested the importance of empowering students and parents more as part of a solution to the problem of school disorder. Jeff recommends that schools treat students and their families more like clients. I am not so sure about the practicality of these approaches to this particular issue. Students as consumers would have their own interests that may not be well-aligned with either socialization or moral development. Isn't it the responsibility of educators to define and structure school climates that are conducive to learning? I am not sure enhancing the power of either students or parents as advocates would necessarily result in the changes we seek.
Philip Howard has posted a Reader Comment here that "suggests a very practical shift in how schools are organized: 1) Teachers must have the ability immediately to remove students for any conduct that violates the code of conduct; 2) The school must have places for these students to go, and counseling services for those who, for whatever reason, cannot abide by basic norms of cooperative behavior." Is such a change either feasible or desirable? Would it help reduce school disorder?
Posted November 13, 2008, 6:07pm
Richard raises an important question about "what works" in schools to bring about the changes we seek. I think much depends on how it is done. What I am describing in successful schools is less about enhancing power and more about inclusion and shared decision-making. I agree that giving students "freedom"—or increasing the power of parents—should not be done in isolation. That would surely make things worse. But when people participate in creating a vision for building good character, civic engagement, and free and safe schools, they feel invested—and they are far more likely to support the efforts of the school than if the vision and mission are defined from the top down. When everyone is given a real voice in shaping the life of the school, each has a real stake in creating and sustaining safe and caring learning communities. Educators need to take the lead—but that leadership works best when shared. I have seen this work in a wide variety of school settings. Some additional examples may be found at firstamendmentschools.org.
As for Philip Howard's proposal: these measures may be useful as part of a larger strategy to address student conduct. But in my experience, step one is to address the root of the discipline problem by making sure that all members of the school community are invested in the "code of conduct." Unless the school climate is right, these measures will serve as band-aids only.
Posted November 13, 2008, 6:56pm
I agree with Richard’s assertion that it is “the responsibility of educators to define and structure school climates.” I also agree with Philip Howard’s suggestion as to how schools should be organized. At all of our 11 public schools, students, parents, and teachers are required to sign a family-school contract. In short, the contract ensures that each partner (student, parent, teacher) adheres to the school’s expectations concerning the Code of Conduct, attendance, homework, family participation in school events, etc. If the family-school contract is broken, the student’s enrollment at the school is jeopardized.
In addition, each parent and student is required to attend a mandatory orientation session before the start of the school year. At the orientation session, the school leaders review the Code of Conduct and high expectations for behavior in great detail. The orientation session ensures that students and parents have a comprehensive understanding of the school’s expectations. School choice is essential in enforcing the above policies. In my opinion, parents (especially parents of historically disadvantaged populations) should be given a choice as to which schools their children attend. That said, when parents choose a school, they are choosing all of the rules, regulations, and policies of that school. Once the student is enrolled, it is the responsibility of the school to enforce the rules and policies.
Posted November 14, 2008, 7:52am
I agree with Philip Howard that teachers must have the ability to immediately remove students for any conduct that violates the Code of Conduct. By law we have that option in Michigan.
The second part of his suggestion—providing places for these students to go, and providing counseling services for them—is more challenging because it requires building space and personnel. Both of those things cost money. As it is now, counselors have caseloads that are far, far too large to allow them to be very effective.
But bottom line, yes, I do think Philip’s suggestion would help restore order in schools. The question is, how do we fund it?
Posted November 14, 2008, 9:00am
Public education is in such a difficult situation and there is no silver bullet. How do we reconcile the fact that no school can effectively serve the needs of every child with the monumental goal of preparing every student to be a successful and productive member of society? A number of great ideas have been suggested in this forum but once again implementing a uniform set of guidelines in a system which is locally controlled and managed is nearly impossible.
As a classroom teacher, being able to get disruptive students out immediately accomplishes two things at once. First, that student is gone and the class can return to a focus on teaching and learning. However, more importantly is that other students observe the removal and realizing they don't want to suffer the same consequences (mostly because their friends are in that classroom), and modify their behavior. I am not suggesting we "make an example of them" but rather use it as an opportunity to model consistent limits and demonstrate clear consequences. (Adults and traffic tickets might serve as an analogy—we aren't happy that the police are out on the highway giving out speeding tickets, but we want to continue driving so we all slow down.)
Posted November 14, 2008, 9:53am
I have been "lurking" in this conversation up till now.
Schools have been faced with the issue of unruly students since their inception. Throughout the years we have tried many techniques. As has been pointed out, there is no "silver bullet," no one size fits all program—and programs take resources, which continue to be cut from rather than added to public school budgets. Within that context I would urge us to think more deeply about Charles Haynes’s comments regarding inclusive and democratic schools. We know that the application of democratic principles to schooling improves performance and behavior for students. I believe that, just as all students can learn, all students can be a member of a democratic society. Changing the culture of a school is probably more difficult than just creating a "holding tank" for suspension cases. However, one of the primary missions of public education is to develop students who can fully participate in a democratic society. As such it is a necessary goal for our schools which, when attended to properly, has many positive consequences.
Posted November 14, 2008, 10:20pm
I agree with and appreciate the comments that have been made this morning. There is no simple or single silver bullet. And a key process includes using the measurement and improvement of school climate as a strategy of recognizing the social, emotional and civic dimensions of student, parent and school personnel life in schools. In addition to learning a great deal about social, emotional and civic learning, school climate data can be used as a springboard to further a democratically informed process of learning, goal setting and instructional and/or school-wide improvement efforts. We are working with schools where students become "school climate improvement leaders"—learning about the findings (along with the adults) and deciding what goals they want to work on to improve school life.
Until we make positive and sustained school climate and/or social, emotional and civic learning standards, and a "bar" that we expect schools to meet, too many educators and school boards will not pay attention to this. I think it is also true that the setting in motion of a process of students, school personnel and educators working together to improve school climate is something that schools can do now. As Julie Underwood underscores, changing the culture or climate of a school is challenging. It is a multiyear endeavor. It is also possible and transformational.
Posted November 14, 2008, 10:30am
All of us seem to be committed to the general principle of advancing a democratic schooling system committed to preparing future responsible citizens. Many of our schools today, however, fall far short of that goal. Disorder is often endemic and the school discipline that ultimately is implemented today often takes authoritarian and counterproductive forms that are perceived as illegitimate by both students and parents. Recent Justice Department statistics suggest that almost one third of African-American youth today can be expected to be incarcerated at one point over their lifetime, while white middle class male students are failing to attend and complete college at rates greater than many parents and educators expect. The consequences of the lack of youth socialization vary greatly given the vulnerability and resources of particular individuals, but the evidence suggests that something is seriously amiss in terms of preparing youth—and particularly boys—for the future. In a democratic society, however, is it possible to implement meaningful system-level reforms without facing widespread challenges? Where would political and institutional opposition to specific policies, such as the ones that Phillip Howard proposes, come from? Would students, parents, lawyers and judges accept and support such reforms?
Posted November 14, 2008, 11:28am
I share Richard's sense of urgency because of what students themselves tell us in our surveys, especially minority students. Over three in ten African-American students tell us that their schools have "very serious" problems with: Too many kids cutting classes or ditching school (37% very serious)
Too much fighting and weapons in school (32% very serious)
Too much drug and alcohol abuse (30% very serious)
Teachers spend more time on discipline than teaching (30% very serious).
If adults reported problems like this at work, we would consider it a "hostile" environment and hold their employers to account. To me, one of the most immediate and specific needs, again based on our surveys, is to develop effective alternate programs for the handful of students with very serious behavioral and academic issues. Right now, we aren't helping them, and their teachers and classmates are paying the price as well.
Posted November 14, 2008, 11:30am
To the extent that new policies and standards were grounded in school climate and student leadership/engagement, there is a compelling and growing body of research that supports how this is related to effective risk prevention, health promotion and student learning related outcomes. I have less rather than more experience with national and state policy reform efforts. But, I imagine that students, parents, lawyers and judges would be supportive of these efforts.
I suspect that one of the major concerns and forms of opposition will be fiscal: if we fund a new project, what we will not fund? In these dire fiscal times, it is entirely probable that there will be significantly less funding for children and education. If we are asked, "Where will we spend less money to pay for these kinds of new initiatives," what would we say?
Posted November 14, 2008, 11:53am
Richard, I may be the only panelist who questions the "general principle of advancing a democratic schooling system" to which you suggest we all agreed. So you all are probably thinking, Who is this nutcase commie-thinking leftwing liberal anti-U.S. anti-democracy crazo? I am not at all against democracy, even though the United States is not a democratic form of government, but a republican one. The problem, as is often the problem when educators and citizens begin a discussion on "democracy," is the definition of the term. What does it mean in the school context? Does it mean students and parents vote on school behavior rules? on school programs and course offerings? on the textbooks used? on teacher assignments? on hours and days of school? on the school lunch menu? etc. etc. etc.
This is why talking about democracy in schools may be dangerous. Many schools give lip service to this concept, but don't allow majority rule. Students and parents are not fooled by this lip service. I in no way advocate turning over the schools to parents and students to run in the name of "democracy." What I advocate is freedom for students and parents to choose their schools.
So you may be thinking, Abbott just wants to have teachers and principals serve as authoritarian rulers of a totalitarian and oppressive school environment. No... I don't want that either.
In my university position I teach a course called Introduction to the Quality Process. The quality philosophy requires the focus of the organization's mission to be on the customers (i.e. clients in the school business and other professions). What does this mean? The school continuously gets feedback from its clients and adjusts it services and programs to meet their needs as expressed by the client. An organization does not necessarily try and satisfy all the wants of each and every client (an impossible goal anyway) but tries to satisfy the wants and needs of the critical mass of its clients. If it does not do so? Its clients will choose another service provider.
Posted November 14, 2008, 1:07pm
I agree with Jeff that parents need choice (within the public school system). Some of the best examples of schools that take democratic freedom seriously are charter schools (City Academy in Utah; Cesar Chavez in DC). And I also agree that paying lip service to "democratic schools" is misleading and undermines meaningful efforts to reform schools in that direction. The Forum for Education and Democracy is a good place to look for some of the best thinking about the variety of approaches to democracy and freedom in public schools. Jeff is right to point out that these concepts must be carefully defined. But when properly understood and applied, the concepts work: I have seen failing public schools turn around when they find ways to give students (and all members of the school community) a real voice. I highly recommend taking a look at The Five Freedoms Project. The online network brings together educators, students and other interested citizens who "share a commitment to First Amendment freedoms, democratic schools, and the idea that children deserve to be seen and heard." Another place to find schools that are putting into action the "best practices" we recommended in the "renewal of the civic mission of schools" report can be found at: www.civicmissionofschools.org
Of course, one size doesn't fit all. Many fine schools use more traditional approaches... Some of the outstanding National Schools of Character, for example, are quite traditional in their methods, but have caring, respectful learning environments.
Posted November 14, 2008, 1:10pm
I agree with Richard that “disorder is often endemic,” but I don’t agree that “the school discipline that ultimately is implemented today often takes authoritarian and counterproductive forms that are perceived as illegitimate by both students and parents.”
To me, Richard is implying that schools are at fault for taking a stand. If Child A steals a cell phone from Child B, Child A must pay the price. That’s not authoritarian, it’s just fair. That’s not illegitimate, it’s just life.
And yet, even something as seemingly clear-cut as theft cannot be handled the way it should. I know of a student who stole a laptop from someone at school. He got caught. The parents insisted that the child not be punished. They said they would make him return the laptop in exchange for no punishment. They made such a stink that administrators gave in.
School officials have very few discipline options available. If a kid writes on a desk, you can no longer make him wash it. About the only thing you CAN do is suspend a child, and yes, that IS counterproductive, but often it is the only option available.
So Philip’s suggestion of counseling is a good one, as long as it's funded.
Posted November 14, 2008, 1:22pm
Increasing both buy in and input from "clients"—a.k.a. parents and students—is essential to improving school climate. Every school needs to find mechanisms to get ideas and energy from parents. (However, it might be best to get that input in situations where it does not directly impact their own child since that might cloud their otherwise clear vision.)
I believe at least at the middle and high school levels, student input is even more important than that of parents. Make students a part of the system and they will help to support and enforce it. At every grade level something as simple as having the students help in creating the classroom rules can work wonders. The rule-making discussion can be guided by the teacher to whatever degree necessary to reach the desired outcome. Kids like an ordered environment as much as adults. Kids can even create appropriate consequences that will be enforced by the teacher. However, the key is that the kids will remind each other when slipups occur ("remember, Billy, we need to be quiet so people can pay attention during story time"). Instead of just the teacher acting as the enforcer, the entire class is working toward common goals of good conduct. In addition, at the middle or high school level you can set up a teen court system where kids are answerable to their peers for disruptive, destructive or socially inappropriate behaviors. Positive peer pressure in action.
Finally, at the high school level, have student council and other leadership groups be involved on committees and in every important decision. Student council should look beyond social events and fundraising as their primary purpose, and focus on student government.
Posted November 14, 2008, 7:00pm
Deb has some great points. But, as others have pointed out, changing culture is a challenge (although an incredibly important one). In order to actually engage students to be active participants in their community—particularly their school community—they have to have experienced the dialogue of democracy. What I mean is that the responsibilities of a democratic culture require quite a period of time to develop. It is best if they are learned starting at the earliest possible times and reinforced (consistently) over time. (As you see from the international scene, a democracy grows—it can't be imposed.) Ideally this culture would be pervasive throughout all public schools, regardless of location, so that students took an increasing role as they grew through the system, regardless of whether they moved five times before they graduated.
Unfortunately, like many other goals (curricular or co-curricular) there are wide disparities between how students are treated—or treat each other—from building to building across the country. We have made some progress in creating consistent expectations for students in some core subjects. How about focusing on some consistent expectations for student responsibilities? I believe this is the heart of the First Amendment Schools, but not being inside that project I can't be sure.
Posted November 14, 2008, 2:31pm
In 2005 I published an article, The 30th Anniversary of Goss v. Lopez, 198 Educ. L. Rep. 795, 797, 802 (2005). It was the remarks I made to a group of school attorneys considering the impact Goss has had on student discipline. Lots of things have happened in the 30 years post Goss, so you can't draw a cause and effect. But I do believe that since then we have literally made a "federal case" out of student discipline issues. Goss actually gave school officials the authority to do a 30-second due process for minor disciplinary issues. We often don't think about using that discretion and routinely (too often in my opinion) turn to a formal procedure. In my opinion we have tied our own hands and too often lose the "teachable moment" surrounding a minor disciplinary issue by not dealing with it immediately and directly. I don't think this was the intended consequence of Goss—but it does seem to be its legacy.
Posted November 14, 2008, 2:46pm
I would like to offer a rather specific suggestion for improving school order and discipline. It is vital, if we are to improve order and discipline in the schools, that we design a system that motivates teachers and school principals to excel. The current system does not provide any extrinsic motivations, and only the faithful few have enough resilience to persevere with their internal motivation keeping them going on a high level. Especially in schools that lack resources, a teacher's motivation may become the main factor influencing the quality of education.
In schools that operate effectively, teacher and principal morale are always higher, and teachers take responsibility for student performance. Better morale raises teachers' and principals' performance. But even though there is a strong link between teacher and principal motivation and performance, and education quality, increasing this motivation has seldom been a major concern of national policy-makers.
Teacher and principal motivation is an important concern for educational policy-makers because it has an important effect on student motivation. Neves de Jesus & Lens (2005) proclaimed that a common teacher complaint is the difficulty of keeping students motivated to learn in the classroom, and then asked, How much more difficult is it if the teachers themselves are not motivated? Pittman (1998) found that students' perceptions of the teacher as intrinsically motivated increase the chances that the students will be intrinsically motivated as well. Other research supports the importance of teacher motivation.
So what's the point? If we redesign the school governance system to empower teachers and school principals, they will become not only empowered but more motivated. Motivated teachers and principals will increase student motivation. When students are more motivated, they tend to misbehave less and school order and discipline improve. Let's treat teachers and principals like the professionals they are, and give them much more responsibility to run their classrooms and schools than we do now—and then hold them accountable for results. I have much confidence that the new generation of teacher leaders that we are preparing will be fully capable of operating public schools in a way that results in much higher quality schools than we see now... if only we will let them do so without micro-managing them from afar. Let's give them the freedom—and responsibility—to do so.
Posted November 14, 2008, 2:51pm
Julie has made a cogent point. Her insight is invaluable. Goss has been widely misinterpreted and misused by not only the public schools but students and parents. It all started in 1969 with Tinker v. DesMoines Independent School District, 393 U.S. 503. There the U.S. Supreme Court pronounced that "it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." This landmark case opened up the federal courts to thousands of school complaints that have been filed in federal courts since. The question it raises is, Hasn't this been detrimental to good school order and discipline? Kids and parents not infrequently threaten teachers and principals with lawsuits. Why do we waste so much money on litigation? Why not design a system that does not let a student discipline act rise to the level of a constitutional lawsuit? Private schools seem to function just fine without this right accorded to their students. Why? Because the kids are there voluntarily and they want to be there. Thanks Julie for bringing in an important view.
Posted November 14, 2008, 3:23pm
On the contrary, Tinker affirms our nation's commitment to fundamental human rights, especially freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. Students don't leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate because these are inalienable rights. Of course, as the Tinker decision makes clear, the free speech rights of students are not co-extensive with the speech rights of adults. And subsequent Supreme Court decisions (Fraser, Hazelwood, Frederick) have further strengthened the authority of school officials to place limits on inappropriate student expression. But Tinker still lives—and extends vital constitutional protection to much student political and religious speech. This has, in my view, been healthy for our democracy. The problem isn't that students have too much freedom; the problem is that they have too few opportunities to exercise their freedom with responsibility. Teaching students how to use their free speech well, not censoring speech, is the best way to ensure order and discipline. (This is, indeed, the aim of the First Amendment Schools work—and many other similar efforts.) Many of those lawsuits are triggered by school officials who don't understand the law—or who believe that "order and discipline" means repressing speech or denying religious liberty. Public schools should be the laboratories for freedom and democracy, places where students learn how to be responsible citizens. Students who learn in this kind of environment are highly motivated to learn—and become effective, engaged citizens.
Posted November 14, 2008, 3:55pm
Actually I agree with Charles... but find public schools anything but a Mecca for free speech. I am not sure my point was well made. My point on the last email was simply that private school students have no right of free speech. The Constitutional protections afforded to public school students are not accorded to the private school students because the U.S. Constitution protects us from government action, not private action. I fully support the right of free speech, but there are way too many legislators, school boards, superintendents, and others who don't. Most public schools are anything but laboratories for modeling democracy and the Constitution.
Posted November 14, 2008, 4:00pm
As our third and final day ends, I would like to thank you all for your excellent contributions that have served well to illuminate this important issue. Our panel covered a lot of ground. While we started with abstract reflections on the role of democracy and freedom in our schools, we ended up appropriately with a discussion centered specifically on Goss v. Lopez, a Supreme Court decision that extended rudimentary due process rights to public school students facing even minor day-to-day school discipline. Concrete ideas have been proposed to attend better to students' socio-emotional, moral and civic development and to restore not just a sense of order to our schools, but also fairness and a focus on the full spectrum of capacities related to human development. What is clear from our discussion is that there are many actors that will need to be involved collaboratively in fashioning remedies to address the current problems. Educators, parents, students, policy makers and others will all have to find new ways to both talk and work together, if we hope to improve schooling for our youth.