Friday, December 29, 2006

Freeing learners from those who hold them back

I have said on various posts and comments that I believe public school teachers need the authority to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classes. Recently that belief was reinforced. When I was in the Twin Cities during the holidays, I had the opportunity to talk with a public school graduate who was not very happy about her experience. The person who introduced us told me that I wasn't going to like what she had to say about public schools, but that didn't turn out to be the case.

The young woman attended middle and high schools in an urban district in Florida before going to college where she earned a degree in computer science. She now has a good job in that field. When I suggested that her public schools couldn't have served her too badly, she completely disagreed. She credited her success entirely to the small private college that she attended. So I then asked her what she thought was so bad about her public schools. She said that she felt like she was always being held back by other kids in her classes. She said very few of them had any desire to go on to college. I then asked her if the problem was one of having too many kids who didn't care in her classes, or if it was one of having too many disruptive kids. She looked squarely at me and replied, "The answer to your question is yes and yes!"

Now, having one young person tell me that she thought the problem in her public school was too many bad students might not give me the right to say "I told you so!" but I really don't think it was an accident. (I did ask her about her teachers in her public schools, and she said it was a mixture--some very good, some very bad, and a lot in-between.) The effect of students on other students is one of the least appreciated factors in the education that takes place in public schools. It is a factor that is almost never addressed when politicians and other reformers talk about how to improve public education. What many educational "experts" don't seem to understand is that if there are too many apathetic kids in a classroom, the learning of the other students is going to suffer, and if there are just two or three truly disruptive kids in a classroom, it can make learning impossible for everyone.

I want to make it clear that I believe there should be some effort to turn around troubled students within the classroom itself. As a classroom teacher, I believe it's my responsibility to make it possible for every one of my students to be successful, and I try to set my classes up that way. This year I have a number of kids who started out miserably and are now performing at least adequately. I've even got one who earned an F the first marking period and is now earning a B. But I also have my share of kids who started out miserably and continue to make almost no effort. Now, I know that American History might not be the number one priority in a sixteen-year-old's life, and I also understand that some kids don't get much support from home and that others have other problems in their lives, but by this point in the year my sympathy level for kids who won't try is pretty low. It is hard to me not to look at them as simply being in the way. Since I am a classroom teacher, my greatest empathy lies with those students who come to school every day and actually want to learn something, especially those to whom it doesn't come easily. And they are the ones who are affected most adversely by the non-learners.

It seems to me that one of the most effective things we could do in our efforts to improve public education would be to enable students who are willing to behave and make a reasonable effort to learn in an environment with other kids who are willing to behave and make a reasonable effort. At least at the junior and senior high school levels, these kids need to be separated from the others who are unwilling to do those things. The more apathetic and disruptive kids there are in a school, the more important this becomes. I gathered from my conversation with the young lady from Florida that her schools had more than their share of them.

Public education should put the most focus on the students who are willing to help themselves for two reasons. The first reason is that these kids deserve it. They have positive attitudes, and they are making good decisions, and they should be rewarded for that. The second reason is that they are the ones who have a real chance to be successful. Put them in classrooms with other kids who want to learn, and they will almost certainly do well. It is a tragedy when these students get stuck in classes with enough kids who couldn't care less to make real education impossible. I hate to say this, but by trying to educate everyone, I'm afraid that sometimes we educate no one.

One way to separate kids who are assets to a classroom from ones who are liabilities is with vouchers. Most kids with positive attitudes toward learning have parents who make education a priority, so this would allow them to escape their public schools and go to private ones where kids who were going to hold back their learning probably wouldn't enroll, and if they did, they wouldn't be tolerated. Obviously, this would leave kids with parents who don't care about school in the public schools, which would basically become holding centers educational malcontents. The problem with this is that there are some kids who are eager to learn despite having unconcerned parents. Every year I see a number of kids like this, and no one deserves to be in classes with other motivated students more than them. A voucher system would almost certainly leave them behind, and that would be a gross miscarriage of justice.

So how can we separate the kids who are willing to work and follow rules from those who won't within a public school setting? I think the obvious answer to this is alternative learning centers. We have them now, but at least in my school, we need to make it easier to move kids there who should be there. A few weeks ago I was mildly rebuked for suggesting to parents of kids who were obviously headed toward failing the first semester that they should look into enrolling them in our ALC. I was told that the kids can't enroll there until they actually fail, so right now, I've got six kids in my American History classes who can't possibly pass. Mercifully, none of them are particularly disruptive, but this is not a healthy situation, and there are times when they definitely drag some of their classmates down.

As a classroom teacher, I would like the authority to send kids from my classes to the ALC. I am not ashamed to admit that one reason for this is that it would make my job easier. My job is to teach; my job is to help as many kids as possible be as successful as possible. If something is interfering with that, should I just grin and bear it? Besides, doing this would be in the best interest of the kids who get sent to the ALC. If I can see that a student doesn't have the self-discipline and work habits to pass my class, that student is better off trying "alternative" education.

I have tried to stay away from pushing for more money for more educational programs, because I know that turns off a lot of people, but I think it would be well worth it to put more money into alternative learning centers. I don't claim to be an expert on alternative education, so I have no idea what the best methods are for educating kids who don't fit into a normal classroom situation. I don't think kids should want to go to alternative learning centers, so I'm certainly not proposing that we put more money into them so that they will be more desirable places for kids to go. But I am proposing that we fund them so that they can adequately handle all of the kids in a school district who belong there. And in some places that might be a lot of kids.

There are teachers who's greatest concern is to try to reach the troubled student. I have great admiration for those teachers, but I'd be lying if I said I was one of them. As far as I'm concerned, any kids who can actually be reached by the alternative learning centers that they have been sent to should be considered a bonus. My concern is to free the millions of kids in public schools who want to learn from the disruptive and apathetic kids who are holding them back. I think we are doing a disservice to them if we don't.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What exactly goes on in these alternative learning centers?

How many kids do you typically have in your classes?

Are there social workers in your school who work with the parents of kids who are failing?

It sounds like you work in a locality with a lot of troubled kids...what's going on in the community?

12/30/2006 5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read your previous sounds like you're dealing with a lot of ignorant parents!

12/30/2006 5:37 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, as I said in my post, I am definitely not an expert on alternative learning. I think different alternative schools do things differently, and I am not the right person to tell you what exactly goes on in them.

I have 92 regular American History students in three classes, and eight of them are failing the first semester at this time. There are three weeks left, and one of them will probably make it, but for the other way. I also have one basic class. I think that all of them will probably end up passing the semester. Just so you know I'm not loafing, I also haved an A.P. Government class and an Economics class. The Economics class ends at the semester, and then I'll teach a Sociology class.

I'm sorry if I've made Warroad sound worse than it is, because I really do like the community. When I first came here, other teachers told me that rather than kids fitting into a normal bell shaped curve in ability and interest in school, it was more of a camel shaped curve--a bunch at the top, a bunch at the bottom, and not as many as you would normally expect in-between. I have found that to be true. Most of the parents work in the factory at Marvin Windows, and many of them did not do particularly well in school. Some of them say they should have tried harder, and they really want their kids to do better than they did, but some others don't have much use for schools and teachers. We also have a lot of people move in and out of the community, and unfortunately, their kids usually have more than their share of problems in school.

12/30/2006 6:54 PM  
Blogger Deb S. said...

Looking forward to reading more of your posts in 2007. Happy New Year, Dennis!

12/31/2006 8:08 PM  
Anonymous Deb S. said...

By the way, Dennis, I'm starting to post again - occasionally - at Education by Sistrunk.

1/01/2007 5:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz from I Speak of Dreams. Excellent post, Dennis, which I will reflect on later. For now, I just want to say: Happy New Year to you and yours. I wish you all the best for 2007.

1/01/2007 7:35 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you, Liz, and Happy New Year to you, too! And Deb, it's good to know that the Education Voice of St. Louie is back in business!!

1/02/2007 4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy New Year! You've stated my opinions very well. From what I can see from most of the education blogs that are currently teaching in public ed classrooms they all have posted situations where students are disruptive, apathetic, and downright violent in some cases. It is the one ingredient to school success that is being outright ignored by the powers that be.

1/02/2007 7:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am afraid that the power you seek would not work well. Some teachers would just send all the boys to alc, others the average kids. Good Teachers like good sutdents are held back by the bad. Any rule you right must be looked at to see how the bad teacher would apply it.

1/03/2007 5:28 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

EHT, I've always thought that you and I are pretty close to being of the same mindset on this. After all, great minds run in the same channel.

Anonymous, you raise a valid point. You're right--there are some teachers who would abuse this, so there would have to be some check on the teacher's power to send kids to the ALC. It might be a panel of teachers, or it might be a principal having veto power over it, or it might just be the principal being able to bring the teacher in and ask, "What the heck is going on here?" Nevertheless, I would still like to see the primary power to do this in the hands of the teacher.

1/03/2007 2:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Teachers must teach---not teach kids how to use a #2 pencil and how to correctly fill in the bubble or blister.

1/29/2007 11:03 AM  

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