Sunday, September 14, 2008

An "A-ha!" moment

I finally broke down and ordered Sweating the Small Stuff by David Whitman. In the book, Whitman describes six high-performing inner-city schools, and he tells us that they are so good because they are "highly paternalistic."

It sounds like the education kids are getting in these school is excellent. A number of education bloggers have been buzzing about this book, so I had gotten an idea about how they operate. Before I ordered the book, I read a customer review by Cory Bower. Bower says this about Whitman's description of the schools:

All of the schools take a no-nonsense approach to discipline and work hard to create a positive school culture in which bad behavior is unacceptable and good behavior is rewarded. All of the schools go to great lengths to explicitly teach various social behaviors that one would expect to be second nature to middle and upper-income youth. All of the schools put great emphasis on attendance and manage to lengthen the school year and/or day in some fashion. And all of the schools have produced results that are quite impressive.

I think all of those are good things, and I don't mean to negate any of them. But as I read on, I came upon this information about the schools that gave me my "A-ha!" moment.

Whitman acknowledges some limitations to the these results -- the KIPP in the Bronx enrolls students that outperform their community peers before entering, The SEED School expels about 5% of their students, and Cristo Rey only admits students that they believe are capable of working in an upscale office, for example.

From the little I know about them, I'd say that these schools deserve the praise they are getting, but those are important limitations. In fact, those limitations make all the other things the schools are doing possible.

If there are lessons here that someone wants public schools to learn from, we are going to need to have some power that at least resembles the power that the schools presented have. If the public really wants us to have a "no-nonsense approach to discipline" and "to create a positive school culture in which bad behavior is unacceptable," then we are going to have to be able to impose meaningful consequences for that bad behavior. My understanding is that KIPP schools use humiliation and some kids end up dropping out as a result. I don't want us to use that. Cristo Rey only admits the students that it wants, and public schools certainly can't do that. The SEED School expels about 5% of their kids. Most public schools shouldn't need to expel than many, but maybe some do. My point is that there has to be a bottom line. When someone says that they won't accept bad behavior there have to be very serious consequences for anyone who is determined to behave badly. We don't need kids in public education to behave flawlessly, but we do need them to behave reasonably.

At least in the case of KIPP schools, I suspect that many parents who send their kids to them are hoping that they will become academic all-stars. I'm not knocking that, but that's not what most American parents are interested in. Most Americans just want their kids to get a good solid education. I'm absolutely convinced that public schools can provide that if we're given just some of the powers that those "paternalistic" schools have.


Blogger Mrs. C said...

You're right - it's unfair to compare apples and oranges. And I think as a parent I have very different expectations for each of my children. The eldest is in honours/AP or gifted classes all the way, and I'd be upset to see him stuck in a mediocre or mid-level class. But my second child, G, is autistic. He's clueless on social cues. He doesn't get it. He needs his environment tailored to suit his disability, unfortunately. He costs a lot more to educate than Patrick, and you won't get nearly such great results on paper.

Public schools are doing some good things that are definitely overlooked. I'd prefer having my own tax money to do with as I please and educate my children as I see fit, but I also see that my sons' teachers are wonderful folks who are dedicated to their profession.

Just don't ask me to join the PTA or be best friends with the NEA. That's pushing it. :]

HEY how's your school year going? Hope all is well with you.

9/14/2008 5:50 PM  
Blogger mazenko said...

Why do private schools and charter schools outperform standard public schools? Because they get to pick their students. It's so obvious, yet something no critic of the public schools ever acknowledges. Whenever we hear about successful programs that are beating the odds, there is always a caveat. Sadly, people like Hannity or O'Reilly - or even NBC, CBS, and ABC - would not report these little details, and, thus, average American remains in the dark about the true nature of school reform.

There are plenty of good things happening in the world of education. For example, I've recently learned on another blog about the new superintendent of DC public schools who is shaking up the system. She's fired more than a hundred administrators and principals whom she felt were impeding reform. Good for her if her actions are, in fact, sound. She has also sidestepped the "can't fire bad teachers" argument by sending pink slips to hundreds of teachers and hiring back the best. That's one way of getting rid of "dead weight," and we all know it exists in all schools. North High School in Denver did the same thing last year, and while I'm glad I haven't been a part of such a shake-up, it seems to be a needed approach to many districts.

In terms of taxes, Mrs. C, I agree with your position, but I acknowledge that your money is also going to educate the children of others who aren't so dedicated as you, and that benefits all society. In terms of choice, I do like the fact that Colorado has open enrollment for all public schools which is, I think, a better way to address the voucher argument.

Thanks for another great post, Dennis.

9/14/2008 8:07 PM  
Blogger Brent said...

yeah agree with you all guys, schools must be equals in learning and delivering education, having your blog as reference makes my mba education in australia much easier, keep it up.

9/15/2008 2:22 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mrs. C., thanks for asking. This year has started out much better than last year. The students I have are much better behaved. They aren't a bunch of rocket scientists, but I don't need them to be. As long as they behave reasonably well and make a decent effort, we'll be just fine. So far, so good. I do have a big black cloud hanging over my head as I type this, however. This coming Friday is homecoming, and as the sophomore class advisor, I'm in charge. Not exactly my favorite duty--I'll be uptight about it all week, wondering what might go wrong. I feel this way every year, and so far, every year it's gone fine, but as of Saturday there will be a gigantic weight off my back.

Australia?!?! Holy moley! No worries, though.

9/15/2008 2:51 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

Homecoming... I feel *so* sorry for you LOL!

I used to live in Australia, in a suburb of Sydney called Pymble. I attended Turramurra High School for a time as well. Say that quickly three times ;]. I went to school with the children of ambassadors and what-not, too. It's winter/spring there now, you know, and you get summer break over Christmas.

9/17/2008 11:04 AM  
Anonymous Lea said...

"If the public really wants us to have a "no-nonsense approach to discipline" and "to create a positive school culture in which bad behavior is unacceptable," then we are going to have to be able to impose meaningful consequences for that bad behavior."

My oldest son, now 23, went from being an elementary school superstar (academically, through hardwork), to a complete waste of space in middle and highschool. To say he was lazy would do the word an injustice.

So what went wrong? The system itself (this was SC). Elementary school encourages and welcomes a parents participation, and I was highly active. Your children are young, reports are sent home, you get calls if there's a problem, and so on. Middle school arrives, and in the blink of an eye, your children are supposed to grow up and be fully accountable for everything they do. Those reports don't come home anymore, you don't know your kid is failing until the interim shows up, or worse yet, the report card. Bit late by then. Discipline issues are left to lie. If you get a call at all, the problem is SO far out of control that it is a nightmare to get things back on track.

My son spent the majority of this sixth grade year grounded. He failed the first semester horribly, forged my signature on papers and interims showing failing grades, and did virtually nothing. Confronted when the report card finally arrived and he had no choice but to let me see it, he told me the following.

First few days of school, when they handed out all the papers and forms and he saw the possible punishments for wrong doing, he was scared to death. It seemed so hard, like everything he did might get him in trouble, and the consequences were dire. But then it happened; he forgot to get his log signed, and nothing happened. An oversight he thought, the teacher would call home eventually and the axe would fall. But she never did, so he skipped getting that weekly log signed again, and then again, and then a whole semester goes by and no matter WHAT he does or fails to do, NOTHING EVER HAPPENS. There are NEVER any consequences, he can do whatever he wants and NO ONE will ever care. My son reasoned that if they cared, that if education actually mattered, they would enforce their policies. As they never did, he felt free to break policies, often just to see if they would EVER call home, yet no one ever did. He viewed the fault not his as own, but theirs, for their failure to discipline him.

To this day, in both work and education, my son still holds the view that if he breaks the rules, so what, there are no consequences in 'real life.' In his entire life, the only time there have ever been consequences for wrong doing was at home, leading him to conclude that his mother was the only person that effort or good behavior really mattered too.

I fully believe that the utter lack of consequences for poor behavior or academic performance, coupled with the expecation that children of age X are suddenly all grown up, is the core reason for why public school performance (in many areas) is so problematic. I cannot imagine, at my sons age (12 at the time), having this same attitude. But that's likely because I grew up in a era where discipline was the norm, policies were enforced, and consequences were REAL and immediate.

It's too late for my son (though yes, he graduated HS), but I would welcome a return to that era's way of thinking, so that my future grandchildren might benefit from the changes to education that this would mean.

9/17/2008 1:57 PM  
Blogger Julie Carney said...

Thanks for this post. I agree with you, as well as mrs. c, that you can't directly compare separate institutions. You've given me some good ideas for a blog I recently launched with the NIFB Young Entrepreneur Foundation.



9/26/2008 5:15 AM  

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