Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Yeah, but what do you do with the kids who get kicked out?

Anyone who has read a few of my posts probably knows that I strongly believe that public school teachers need to have the power to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms. I am convinced that doing this would do more to improve public education than any other "reform" that has been proposed in the last forty years. Many teachers have told me they agree with this, but the question I consistently hear is, "What are you going to do with the kids who get kicked out?"

My gut reaction is always to reply, "I don't care! I know where I don't want them!" but I know how harsh that sounds, so let me explain. If a student is unwilling to make any effort to learn, there is nothing to be gained by having that student in school. But every student effects other students, and the only effect that student can possibly have on his classmates is negative. Some disruptive students might gain something from being in class, but the negative effect they have on their classmates far outweighs that. We keep on claiming that we, as a society, believe that education is very important. If we really believe that, do we want to put people in classrooms who are clearly damaging the education of others simply because we can't think of anywhere else to put them? We can argue about what the purposes of public education should be, but there is no way that one of those purposes should be to provide babysitting services for kids who won't try and won't behave.

Before I go on, I should point out that I'm not talking about a lot of kids here. I'm not talking about kids who talk a little too much or fail to turn in their homework once in a while. I'm talking about kids who are constantly disruptive, and kids whose effort is so poor that it becomes clear that they have no chance to pass. In Philip K. Howard's excellent book, The Death of Common Sense, he says that teachers in even so-called "bad schools" report that it is a relative handful of kids who cause most of the problems. There should be an effort to turn disruptive and apathetic kids around, but there comes a time to say, "Enough!"

Removing the most disruptive and apathetic students would greatly improve the learning environment in public schools. First of all, we'd be removing the most disruptive and apathetic kids. (Duh!) But the effect would go much further than that. Very often, the most disruptive kids have a certain amount of charisma, and they are able to drag some other kids along with them. Get them out of the schools, and many of those other kids will be much less of a problem, and some of them will be completely fine.

The number of problem kids in schools would be cut down even further, because many of the kids who now perform and behave poorly want to stay in school. Some of them want to graduate, and some of them enjoy the social aspects--they want to be with their friends. Many of them are kids who are willing to push the limits, and they've found out that nothing serious will happen no matter how badly they behave and no matter how poor their effort is. If they knew getting kicked out was a realistic possibility, their effort and behavior would improve.The last really disruptive student that I had fit into this category. He behaved badly because he could. He seemed to enjoy being scolded, detention scared him about as much as a French Poodle would scare and axe-murderer, and he viewed suspension as a vacation. He was a fairly bright kid, though, and he wanted to stay in school. I have no doubt that if he'd have thought he might get kicked out, his behavior would have been much better.

My point here is that many of the kids who now behave badly would not end up getting kicked out. In fact, we'd be doing them a favor by giving teachers the power to remove the most troublesome kids from their classrooms, because their educational performance would improve. But what about kids who do get kicked out? Here are my options:

1. The most obvious solution is to place them in alternative learning centers. One problem with ALCs, however, is that they lessen the incentive for kids to avoid getting kicked out of their classes. Too many students don't mind the idea of getting sent over to the ALC, so they can be with their buddies. We have an ALC in our school district, but because it is so convenient for the students who get sent there, it doesn't help our schools as much as it should. We still end up with too many kids in our regular classes who don't behave or try as hard as they should. Nevertheless, having an ALC is definitely better than nothing.

2. SLM, who I disagree with on just about everything that has to do with education, suggested in a comment over at Education Wonks that we bring back "reform schools" for kids who refuse to fit into normal classrooms. I like this idea. We already have these kinds of institutions for kids who get into legal trouble (we call them "training centers," here), so why not also use them for kids who refuse to do what is expected in school. Reform schools would not be pleasant places for students to be sent to, and I don't think they should be.

3. Another public education critic, Peter Brimelow, in his book The Worm in the Apple, argues that we should find a way to give more meaning to the GED so that those kids who want to get out of school and into the working world can do so. Brimelow is another guy that I disagree with on just about everything, but I have no problem with this idea. If someone can't wait to go to work in a factory, I have no desire to force them to sit in my classroom so I can make them miserable, and I certainly don't need them there so they can be making my life and those of my other students' miserable. The problem with this is that I suspect a reason employers don't put much stock in the GED is that they know that many people who get them couldn't make it through school because they wouldn't show up, wouldn't be on time, and wouldn't follow directions. Those aren't exactly the traits of an ideal employee. That being the case, I'm not sure how we go about making the GED more meaningful.

4. The argument can also be made that kids who choose not to behave or not to try should become the responsibility of their parents. After all, we are now in the 21st century, and there are all kinds of materials for homeschooling on the Internet. State legislatures around the nation have been doing everything they can to promote homeschooling, and as far as I'm concerned, these kids are great candidates for that option.

5. Finally, if kids who have dropped out or gotten kicked out of school have a change of heart, and decide that education does have something to offer them, I would love to see them come back. If we are going to spend money, I would rather spend it on programs to encourage kids or young adults to do this, than to spend it on the education of kids who are forced to be in school, but don't want to be there. Regardless of their personal history, it seems to me that we have our best chance to help people when they have decided that they want to participate in their own education. Time Magazine's "Dropout Nation" cover story in April told the story of one young man who had done this. A number of years ago, 60 Minutes did a feature on a program that encouraged dropouts to come back to school in Chicago that seemed to be working. I don't know if that program still exists, or if it ended up being considered a success or a failure, but I think the concept was a great one.

The bottom line is that our top priority should be to provide a good learning environment for kids who want to learn and are willing to follow reasonable rules. These are the kids that we can help, and these are the kids who deserve it the most. The first and most important lesson we need to teach kids, especially those with problems, is that they must try to help themselves. Somehow, some way, we need to find a way to separate the kids who refuse to learn this lesson from the rest, especially in so-called "failing" schools. Trying to turn around disruptive and apathetic kids is a noble endeavor, but when we focus too heavily on doing this, we have to ask ourselves if we are doing more harm than good. We have to ask ourselves if we are giving those kids who are trying to do the right thing a fair shake. I think the answers to these questions, especially in some areas of our nation, are painfully obvious.


Anonymous Doug Noon said...

Before I had a classroom, I worked as a lifeguard at the public swimming pool. It was organized chaos, and it ran smoothly. Whenever the usual methods of controlling rowdy behavior didn't work we'd kick the person out. If they hung around and caused trouble outside, we called the police. The system was simple and it worked. Everyone understood it.

Nobody can understand a school that tolerates bullying and disruption. Whenever I've handled a discipline situation in a questionable way, it's because I've run out of both options and patience using the regular channels. Teachers need to have at least as much authority as the pool lifeguard. So right you are.

7/26/2006 1:02 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you for a great analogy, Doug. Here's another one. The people most responsible for our lack of authority in our classrooms are judges. Does anyone think they would have tolerate in their courtrooms the things that they've forced us to tolerate in our classrooms?

7/26/2006 3:29 AM  
Blogger NYC Educator said...

We used to have vocation education here in NYC, but it's now all but disappeared. I think there's no shame in learning a trade, and carpenters and plumbers, for example, can be very well-compensated.

I'm kind of neutral on your proposal to remove kids. I think, though, allowing kids to choose a practical, non-academic path would help both them and teachers who feel as you do.

I realize you won't see this as a complete solution, but it may be a good starting point.

7/26/2006 7:37 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

As a teacher in an alternative program, I agree whole heartedly that part of the solution needs to be an ALC. However, in our program, kids are not sent to us. They need to apply.

This gives the mainstream high schools some more teeth when disciplining students as they can't just opt out and come over to our program. Students who try are often surprised to learn they need to fill out an application and that there are typically 30+ kids on the waiting list already. Some choose not to bother and figure out how to make it at their regular schools.

ALCs are absolutely part of the solution, but they can't, as you point out, just be an easy out.

7/26/2006 8:09 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Whelan said...

I'm going to agree and disagree. I disagree that we're talking about a small number of students here. In some districts and good 50% to 75% of students are labeled with severe learning disabilities/social instabilities that affect their behavior drastically. I've worked in schools like this.
On the other hand I do agree that, to an extent, removal is helpful. In some schools and districts they have begun to implement a plan called ALA or Alternative Learning Area.
I worked at an alternative school for socially emotionally disabled kids in Waterbury, Connecticut when I first saw this in place. The idea behind ALA is that students, from time to time, need structured class time to teach them the basic social skills that they need to participate in "regular" class. So, while the student has been removed from the class he or she is working on skills to help them when they re-enter the class room rather than just sitting and brooding in a time-out environment. Meanwhile, the students who are still in class move forward with the academic side of the curriculum.
I know they began this in the Hartford Public Schools as well, but last I heard the program had been cut due to funding problems. They have to hire a full time special education teacher to teach these socials skills so that they can be on call any time to take a student out of a classroom. It's a more expensive venture, but, I can attest to, and others who have experienced it can attest to the fact that it makes a significant difference not only in the learning process of the students still left in class, but also the student being kept in ALA when they return to class.
It's not so much a punishment as a misdirection and it falls under the umbrella of educational philosophy that the reason our students don't behave in our classes is because nobody has taught them how to yet.

7/26/2006 8:44 AM  
Blogger Strausser said...

I whole-heartedly agree that those students who are habitually disruptive need to be removed from the classroom - the only thing they are constructively doing is taking everybody else on task and that cannot be allowed.

I do disagree, though, that those who are just plain apathetic should also be taken out. My basic approach is that I will try my hardest to get to all my students but as long as they are not disrupting other students, I would rather have them there so at least they can passively absorb some of what I am teaching. True they are not going to be taking notes or doing work but at least they will hear my talks. I am not there to force my students to learn and if they choose not to, as long as they do not prevent others from doing so, that is their choice.

As for where to send the "bad apples" we are working really hard right now to set up an "OCR" (On Campus Reassignment) at school that is a total quiet room (no socializing) and frankly that is the most horrid thing imaginable for young teenagers.

As always, great post....Strausser

7/26/2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank all of you for your comments; you all make good points, but I would like to address a couple of them.

Ben, I should have said this in my post, but I realize we do have some kids who have legitimate problems like ADHD and emotional behavior disorders. We should definitely have programs to help them, and we may have to make accommodations for them that we wouldn't for other students. I do think, however, that the onus should be on them to show that they want to deal with their disabilities as effectively as possible and that they want to be successful.

Strausser, I would never tell you to remove apathetic kids if you disagreed with that, but I would like the power to do that for two reasons. First of all, I know that there are days when I'm a bundle of energy, and there are days when I'm not. On those days when I'm not, if I was a student in a classroom, and there were a few of my peers, or maybe just one or two of them, who were doing nothing, I might be very tempted to do nothing as well. And that can be a habit that is very easy to get into. On the other hand, if everyone in the class is working, I'm probably going to figure that I better do some work as well.

The second reason is one that I stated in the post, but I want to clarify it. I think some kids do nothing simply because we tolerate that. They tell themselves that they'll start trying tomorrow, or next week, and they keep telling themselves that until it's the end of the marking period, and they know they'll be getting an F. Then they tell themselves that they'll start trying next quarter. I think a lot of kids who don't try would change their ways if they knew that their lack of effort wouldn't be tolerated. It's kind of a tough-love approach, but I really think this could actually help a lot of kids.

By the way, I think your On Campus Reassignment and NYC's vocational school ideas are excellent.

7/26/2006 9:58 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Whelan said...

I see what you're saying, but then I'm going to turn it around and say that I don't think anybody WANTS to be a failure. We sometimes, especially as young people, find ourselves misguided into failure.
As someone who has a learning disability (a mild one, but all the same) I have to say that, at times it was very difficult for me and it would have been pretty easy to give up. Luckily I had a support mechanism around me that helped me to work through all of that.
Again, I don't think we disagree as much as it might seem!

7/27/2006 9:36 AM  
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