By Robert Pondiscio
Peter Greene, the author of the aptly named “Curmudgucation” blog, had a post the other day lambasting a classroom management system which, assuming he’s representing it accurately, rates kindergarteners’ behavior on a spectrum from “Democracy” and “Cooperation/Compliance” down to “Bullying” and “Bossing” and—the lowest level—”Anarchy.” The post was vintage Greene, who works in mockery and derision the way Matisse worked in oils.
In the midst of his takedown, however, came an observation that stopped me in my tracks: “Here's the thing to remember about discipline systems at school—every one of them codifies somebody's value system, sets in rules and regulations judgments like ‘being compliant is good’ or ‘a good student is one who questions authority,’” Greene wrote. “When a system codifies love of compliance (and can't distinguish between compliance and cooperation) and negative labeling of any sort of age-appropriate behavior (five year olds running! zounds!!), my eyebrows go up.”
Mine too, but not for the same reasons as Greene, one of the blogosphere’s staunchest defenders of traditional public schools. A thirty-five-year veteran teacher, he’s also a deeply informed and tireless critic of reform. So it’s no small irony that in shaking his fist at the education idiocy du jour he accidentally made one of the strongest pro-school choice arguments I’ve ever read.
Greene is precisely right: A school’s approach to student discipline and classroom management is a profound reflection of somebody’s value system. And establishing any value system as a default is a surefire recipe for conflict, even chaos, possibly anarchy. When we seek to establish, valorize, or impose one set of beliefs about student discipline as the “right” one, we are functionally communicating that all others are “wrong.” Greene’s recognition of the values-laden nature of discipline systems all but begs for choice: Parents should be able to weigh, as one factor among many, schools whose philosophy about behavior management, classroom culture, and approach to student discipline most closely mirror their own beliefs and practices.
What’s true for parents is equally true for teachers. An assistant principal at my old school once described my classroom management style as “authoritarian.” She did not intend it as a compliment, but I wasn’t insulted. My South Bronx elementary school could be a chaotic place. I saw nothing wrong (I still don’t) with a classroom culture where adults are firmly in charge and held accountable for creating a safe, orderly, and respectful environment in which learning can happen. But that’s my preference as a teacher and a parent. Your mileage may vary.
And it does. Shortly before last year’s school year ended, I spent a day with Steven Wilson and several of his colleagues at Ascend Public Charter Schools in Brooklyn. I requested the visit after reading Ginia Bellafante’s column in the New York Times, which lauded Ascend’s rejection of “no excuses” culture and discipline in favor of a program called the Responsive Classroom. She quoted an Ascend staffer who worried about the “unforgiving disciplinary codes” in many urban charter schools.
“The most visible change at Ascend is the presence of a school culture that has become intensely therapeutic; teachers are instructed to be warm and present rather than distant and controlling,” Bellafante wrote. Even this fairly benign observation in a piece lauding Ascend’s transformation shows the difficulty of getting this right, and how deeply fraught is the issue of student discipline. Some (including me) might bridle at the idea of an “intensely therapeutic” school culture, thinking it an inappropriate expansion of the school’s mission, even a usurpation of parental prerogative. One man’s “distant and controlling” is another man’s “focused and intentional.”
Ascend’s staff and students are clearly bought in to their approach to discipline. It “works” for them because of that commitment, and it’s central to their beliefs about what a school should be. But it doesn’t follow that their approach should be imposed universally because it “works.” Indeed, we likely won’t even agree on how to measure “works.” Is it reduced suspension rates, higher test scores, parent and student satisfaction, or something else? Let me be clear. My visit to Ascend was impressive. This old authoritarian teacher sees the value, even the wisdom, of Ascend’s approach. I might like to try it someday. But would I set it as the default mode for all schools? Not on your life.
Shortly after Bellafante’s column appeared, I sat in a South Bronx coffee shop interviewing a parent, a New York City taxi driver and immigrant from Ghana who was drawn to his children’s charter school precisely because of its strict approach to discipline, which mirrored his own approach to parenting. I can conceive of no reason why he should be denied that prerogative, nor why the teacher quoted in Bellafante’s column should not be able to seek out a school like Ascend that is aligned with her values.
Not surprisingly, when I pointed out to Greene that he was accidentally making a good case for choice, he disagreed. “I think there are far too many values at play to make every one available in a choice school,” he responded, “particularly when those have to be cross-checked against academics, sports, activities, and all the other things folks want for their children.” In a way, he’s right, but affluent parents shopping for private schools for their kids might shrug. No school is expected to align completely with a family’s preferences, priorities, and values. But one extreme or the other—the perception that a school’s culture is too strict and prescriptive, or too permissive and lenient—might very well be a deal-breaker for some parents. Teachers, too.
Differentiation is the soul of choice. When we narrow our focus to “student outcomes” (read: test scores), we overlook the myriad reasons that schools appeal—or not—to parents. School culture, including discipline, is a big part of it, particularly for those who value school safety above all else. Indeed, if test scores are the only thing that matters, there’s little point in arguing for choice at all. Our energies are better spent improving the performance of a single flavor of school.
About the last thing I want to do is spend the next several years arguing about whose approach to discipline is “right.” The salient question ought to be, “Which is right for you?” Given the deeply held, values-driven nature of school culture and discipline, it seems increasingly untenable to suggest that there is or ought to be a default mode—Peter Greene’s, mine, or yours—and that any ideas at variance with it need to be banned or forced to defend their existence. My advice to school choice advocates is to take Peter Greene’s excellent if unintended advice and spend more time arguing for choice based on school culture and values, and less on test scores.
Last month, The Economist ran a terrific combination feature and editorial on educational technology and how, properly deployed, it can transform the old Prussian model of schooling that most of the world has followed since the eighteenth century.
It seems that fascination with the potential of technology to improve education has been around at least since psychologist Sidney Pressey devised a “teaching machine” in 1928 that he expected to liberate students and teachers from “educational drudgery.” It “had a paper drum displaying multiple-choice questions. Pressing the right key moved the drum on,” with candy used to incentivize kids to keep going.
B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist famous for “Skinner boxes,” created his own version of teaching machines in the 1950’s but, after a brief fad, everyone went back to the Prussian model.
Today, despite a rough start for full-time virtual schooling, we’re pumped about the potential of technology to boost education—excited by promising models of blended learning, thrilled by the soaring example of the Khan Academy, and encouraged by the big bucks (from Zuckerberg et al.) going into the personalizing of primary-secondary education.
That’s in the United States. The Economist astutely points out that technology can be a far larger boost to education in developing countries where schools work badly or not at all and where cell phones and the internet are moving faster than sluggish ministries of education. Technology, the editors explain, can help with two important reforms. The first, which Americans generally call personalization but which they dub “bespoke education,” enables individual children to proceed through the curriculum at their own speed.
The second is “making schools more productive” by saving teachers time and boosting the efficiency of all manner of management and record-keeping tasks.
Ed-tech is not an unmixed blessing, however, and the editors go on to lay down several key precepts that are very much worth keeping in mind as we move forward.
First, “‘personalised learning’ must follow the evidence on how children learn. It must not be an excuse to revive pseudoscientific ideas such as ‘learning styles’: the discredited theory that each child has a particular way of taking in information.”
Second, don’t let technology mislead us into the “falsehood” that “children do not need a broad body of shared knowledge because they can always turn to Google. Some educationalists go further, arguing that facts get in the way of skills such as creativity and critical thinking. The opposite is true.” (Cue E.D. Hirsch.)
Third, “make sure that edtech narrows, rather than widens, inequalities in education.”
Fourth, “the potential for edtech will be realised only if teachers embrace it. They are right to ask for evidence that products work. But scepticism should not turn into Luddism.”
My own sense is that innovators, philanthropists, and reformers in American education are keenly attuned to the latter two precepts but aren’t paying close enough attention to the first pair. (That includes my pal Tom Vander Ark!) It’s not too late, however, to set matters right. If we do, we may yet manage to escape from Prussia.
My Polish-born wife (whose father was used as forced labor by the Nazis) and I watched in horror. We saw American neo-Nazi’s and their allies from the KKK and other white hate groups recreate a scene out of the Nuremburg Rallies with their tiki torches and slick choreography on the campus of the University of Virginia. My wife asked me, “Do they know nothing about the history they are portraying and praising?”
The history of Nazis and their destruction of Europe was made real to me when I lived and worked in Poland in the early and mid-1990s as a teacher and education reformer. My mentor was the former Solidarity leader and Vice-Minister of Education Wiktor Kulerski. Wiktor’s father was a Polish statesman who served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, was a member of the National Council of the Polish Republic, and the Secretary of the Presidium and Commission of Foreign Affairs. He served as personal secretary to Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, the Polish Prime Minister in exile in France and then England during the Second World War. Poland suffered under the horrors of Nazism longer than any other country and lost six million citizens; about 22 percent of its prewar population.
Wiktor’s father was the Polish government’s point of contact with all Western leaders, including Churchill and Roosevelt. The Russians expunged him from the list of Poles who could speak with Soviet leaders, as he was a believer in democracy and freedom for all people.
My wife and I worked with Wiktor Kulerski on his manuscript “Shadows of the Past.” The pain and suffering shared in the work brought us to tears, and more than once my wife said, “I don’t want to keep translating. It’s too much.” Because Wiktor’s father was a leading official in the free-Polish government in exile, his family was hunted by the Nazi’s Gestapo throughout the war. The Nazis shot Wladyslaw Kulerski, Wiktor’s grandfather’s cousin, in November 1939. Wladyslaw’s son, Tadeusz Kazimierz Kulerski, managed to slip through the hands of the Germans in 1939, but was killed fighting the Nazis in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
Lila, the sister of Wiktor’s father, was captured in the south of Poland in late 1941 and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp where she was tattooed with the camp number 10108. Lila’s husband, Wiktor’s uncle Alojzy Majorowicz, was captured with Lila and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He was tattooed with camp number 10554, and was murdered in March 1941. Only a few of Wiktor Kulerski’s family members on his mother’s side survived the war, but several of those were killed later by the Russians.
In order to survive the war, Wiktor’s mother had to change their last name from Kulerski to Kulecki. Wiktor, five years old when the war broke out in 1939, fled with the masses dislocated by the Nazi invasion. The only possession he was allowed to take was his favorite children’s book. When his mother told Wiktor his last name was Kulecki and not Kulerski, he resisted and showed his mom the inscription in his book where it said Kulerski. His mom grabbed the book from him and tore out all the pages where it said Kulerski. “Your name is Kulecki, not Kulerski,” admonished his mother. The Nazis stole Wiktor’s name and identity, and it wasn’t until more than a decade later that he really came to understand who he was.
Wiktor’s uncle would take him to the edge of the woods where his family was hiding to show him the Russian prisoner of war camp where the Nazis starved Russian prisoners of war. Wiktor shared that “when the guards turned away from the prisoners, young children would scurry across the road and throw them bread and cigarettes. One afternoon I saw a guard shoot a little girl in the back because she had given something to a prisoner.” He continued, “Her long blond hair scattered on the road and from under her dress I could see the flow of blood. Bread rolled out of her hand into a small ditch and all the Russians stopped talking and stood up at attention in total silence. The Nazis left her body on the ground and walked away.”
On another day, during a heavy snowfall, Wiktor’s uncle came to get him and took him to see another camp. He gave Wiktor binoculars and told him to look carefully at what was happening in the camp. Wiktor saw a giant sledge filled with naked disfigured bodies being pushed along the road towards the woods. Wiktor’s uncle told the seven-year old boy “you must never forget what you saw here today.” A week later he took Wiktor back to the camp where they came to a high fence. He put the boy on his shoulders. Wiktor looked into the camp, and to his terror he saw lines of pits filled with frozen naked corpses.
The horror and hell of Nazism died in May 1945. The United States used its immense power and the sacrifice of 200,000 citizen-soldiers to help destroy Nazi German and its perverted views of nationalism, race, and power. During his Inaugural Address in 1953, President Eisenhower, the man who led allied forces to victory in Western Europe said, "Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America."
America needs to take a close look at its heart and remember what makes us great, while thoroughly discrediting that which would tear us apart. We must never forget the atrocities committed under the name of Nazis, nationalists and the KKK.
Terry Ryan is the Chief Executive Officer of Bluum, and formerly led Fordham’s school reform efforts in Ohio.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, special guest Jessica Sutter, founder and president of EdPro Consulting, joins Alyssa Schwenk and Brandon Wright to discuss Secretary DeVos’s thoughts on accountability for schools of choice. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines student safety in Detroit charter schools.
Amber’s Research Minute
Daniel Hamlin, “Are Charter Schools Safer in Deindustrialized Cities With High Rates of Crime? Testing Hypotheses in Detroit,” American Educational Research Journal (May 2017).
Confronted with the paradox of a simultaneous rise in high school graduation and college remediation rates, researchers from The Alliance for Excellent Education examined diploma pathways across the country for evidence as to how well they match college or career expectations. They found that far too many students leave high school with diplomas that do not signal preparedness for what comes next.
The Alliance’s new report looked at all fifty states and the District of Columbia and found that there were 98 different pathways to diplomas for the Class of 2014. Slightly less than half were deemed sufficient to prepare students for college or careers (CCR diploma pathways). While college and career ready can be defined in a number of ways, the Alliance’s criteria for a CCR diploma are: 1) Any pathway that requires students to complete four years of grade-level ELA, three years of math through Algebra II or Integrated Math III; and 2) Any pathways promulgated by state institutions of higher education that fully align with admissions requirements into those institutions. All of their analyses follow from these requisites.
The most frequent reason for a rating of “non-CCR” for a diploma pathway was a mismatch between state-level high school graduation requirements and state-adopted content standards in ELA and mathematics. For instance, the General Diploma in Indiana—singled out as a case study in the report—required only 2 years of math and therefore was considered non-CCR by the Alliance. Two of the other pathways in Indiana required three years of math; the most rigorous pathway, four. Not that some Hoosier students earning the General Diploma didn’t make it to and through college, but the data showed that only 24 percent of General Diploma awardees in 2014 enrolled in college and that three out of every five students who did required remediation. Students who earned one of Indiana’s other three types of diplomas (all considered CCR pathways by the Alliance) were far more likely to enroll in college and far less likely to require remediation when they get there. In addition, the data showed that many states granted waivers of either course or assessment requirements for even their CCR diploma pathways for reasons unrelated to special needs. The number of students being granted waivers is unknown, but any undermining of CCR diploma requirements seems superfluous as well as misleading, considering the plethora of non-CCR diplomas already available.
Alliance analysts also took a deeper look at states that had multiple diplomas that included both CCR and non-CCR pathways with an eye to determining how many students earned each type. Nine states fit into that category: Arkansas, California, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Texas, and Virginia. From them we learn that 1) The rate at which students graduated with a CCR diploma in these nine states was substantially lower than the adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR). For example, Nevada’s ACGR for all students was 70 percent in 2014 while its CCR rate was just 29.8 percent. 2) Traditionally underserved students were less likely to graduate with a CCR diploma than their peers, the one small exception being Black students in Arkansas. 3) The three states whose CCR diploma was the main graduation pathway and where the non-CCR diploma was “deemphasized” or seen as a less-desirable alternative (Arkansas, Indiana, and Texas) saw far lower gaps between ACGR and CCR rates. 4) The other six states did not emphasize CCR non-CCR pathways and their ACGR/CCR gaps were considerably larger.
Black students fared worst among racial/ethnic subgroups with ACGR/CCR gaps ranging from 17.5 to 33.9 percentage points. ACGR/CCR gaps between students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities were also pronounced, with gaps ranging from 11.8 to 63.1 percentage points. These statistics are all fairly alarming, but many important questions remain out of reach. Did students opt for easier pathways themselves? Were they somehow “tracked” into them? What influence do teachers and guidance counselors exert on diploma pathway choices and when? How readily can students overachieve beyond minimum requirements?
The nation’s rising graduation rate in recent years has already been challenged as consisting in part of smoke and mirrors. The rate of new college freshman requiring remediation gives us a clearer picture of what really happens when the smoke clears and students are no longer the responsibility of the K-12 folks behind the mirrors. This study brings us fresh evidence that “graduation at all costs” is widespread. States must be exhorted to set the bar for graduation no lower than college and career readiness and must make that the default diploma pathway for their students, with rare exceptions for disability and such. Non-CCR pathways and waivers should be offered only in special cases. Perhaps it is a pie-in-the-sky wish for every diploma to indicate readiness for what’s next, but to make anything less than that that the primary emphasis of a graduation pathway is a disservice to students from the outset.
SOURCE: “Paper Thin? Why All High School Diplomas are Not Created Equal,” Alliance for Excellent Education (July, 2017).
A new report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) evaluates recent charter school performance in Texas. The study compares the math and reading growth for charter students and their traditional public school peers in the Lone Star State from 2011–2015. The report also examines the effects of a 2014 Texas law ushering in stricter charter regulations. These results build on CREDO’s 2015 evaluation of Texas charters.
At the time of the study, Texas had 659 charters with available data on more than 280,000 students. Those pupils were matched to peers from nearby traditional public schools (TPS) based on race/ethnicity, grade level, prior academic achievement, free and reduced lunch eligibility, English proficiency, and special education designation. The study examined growth rather than proficiency, looking at the overall health of charter performance, in addition to how well the charter sector is affecting the performance of Texas’ most vulnerable student populations.
The results are positive, with charter school students seeing improvement in reading by .03 standard deviations (SD), which CREDO equates to an additional seventeen days of learning, when compared with their TPS peers. As for math, there were not significant differences between the scores of charter and TPS students. While these numbers aren’t staggering, they are great news for the Texas charter school sector, which had math growth of -.04 SD (twenty-three fewer days of instruction) and ELA growth of -.02 SD (eleven fewer days) in CREDO’s 2015 study. The new results show that not only are Texas charters showing dramatic improvement, but for the first time they are showing stronger academic growth than traditional public schools.
Yet there’s striking variation among Texas charters and their pupils. Hispanic students, who comprise about 64 percent of the Texas charter population, are seeing the most dramatic academic gains, While they still lag far behind their white TPS peers, they are closing the gap faster than their Hispanic TPS counterparts with .05 SD (twenty-nine days) and .03 SD (seventeen days) higher growth in reading and math, respectively. Other groups, however, fared less well. CREDO found that black pupils, students with special needs, and English language learners in charter schools all saw equivalent or negative growth as compared with their TPS peers.
Moreover, while most Texas charters are achieving greater growth than TPS, almost one third of them see less—a situation that the state’s new regulations are meant to remedy by better replicating the good schools and closing the bad.
The concern now is whether these rules can effectively hold schools accountable without strangling innovation. The final year of the study saw a dramatic increase in charter closures and a decline in new ones, and some evidence that Texas charters are on the right track to closing achievement gaps. Choice advocates and policymakers should continue to take note as the law continues to take effect to see if it is a cautionary tale or recipe for success.
SOURCE: “Charter School Performance in Texas,” The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (August 2017).