Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Middle Ground in the Discipline Debate

A new report being released today apparently finds that 60% of students in Texas were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades. As the NY Times reports, that's a huge number (though I don't quite understand why only 31% were suspended out of school -- apparently half of the kids received in-school suspensions instead (supposedly that's less severe, but does that seem like a worse punishment to anybody else?)).  Everyone interviewed in the article seems outraged at the number, and rightly so -- there's simply no way that 60% of students really cause serious problems in schools.

That said, simply reducing such punishments is no answer either. My school, for example, was under a good deal of pressure to reduce suspensions (word on the street was that our first principal resigned under pressure largely because the rate was deemed too high).  The result was that a few students got away with ludicrous behaviors, significantly reducing what the vast majority of students learned while simultaneously frustrating teachers in a building that already had a serious attrition problem.

So, I empathize with all those who are outraged by the sky-high numbers in this report.  We should certainly try to spend less time punishing, and more time teaching, our students.  But I also empathize with all those students and teachers whose learning and teaching are unnecessarily inhibited on a daily basis by a few students acting out.  I completely agree that we need to reduce the number of punishments meted out, but that can't be the only goal -- we simply cannot sacrifice student learning in the pursuit of less distressing numbers.

Monday, July 11, 2011

District Choice -- For Cities

Here's an interesting story to follow from the suburbs of Pittsburgh.  It seems that the majority of the residents of the tiny borough of Rosslyn Park have signed a petition asking that their community be part of the Chartiers Valley School District rather than the Carlynton School District.

Why?  A number of issues seem to be at play, but it seems that the main driver is that Chartiers Valley is, in many ways, a better district and has lower tax rates.  Given that 34 of 70 school-aged children residing in Rosslyn Park attend private or parochial schools, it's possible that the latter is actually more important than the former.

This isn't without precedent, but I can't say I've ever heard (or considered the possibility) of towns switching school districts.  Granted, this only applies to towns that are part of a multi-town school district -- which eliminates this as a possibility in an awful lot of places -- but it seems plausible that this could become a growing trend.  Based on the information in the article, I think if I lived in Rosslyn Park I'd want to switch districts too.  But I wonder if this were to catch on whether it would just be another way for parents to send their kids to more segregated schools.

Asking the Right Question About Charter School Skimming

This NYT article seems incomplete, but I like it for one simple reason: people talk all the time about charters cherry picking or cream skimming kids, but never seem to ask the right question . . . this article does. There's a ton of evidence that most charters do not take the highest scoring students (see, for example, this chapter from this new book) and those data are used as evidence that charters don't skim.

Case closed, right?  Do charters skim?  No, they don't.

But that's the wrong question. The issue shouldn't be whether charters take the highest scoring students, it should be whether they enroll the best-behaved and/or most motivated students (and then nudge out those who are unruly and/or unmotivated).

In other words, we should be asking if charters enroll kids who are better students instead of asking if they're enrolling students who previously earned higher scores.  Why?  Once you get a class or school full of motivated, attentive, and polite students it's a heck of a lot easier to teach them.  And a heck of a lot easier to see large gains in test scores.

I have yet to see any rigorous analysis of the extent to which charters do, in fact, enroll or retain better students.  Instead, I read a lot of anecdotes like the one from the NYT article I linked to above.  Were I to hazard a guess, it would be that there's at least one charter out there that enrolls/retains substantially better students than the surrounding schools.

Even if I'm right, whether or not that's a good thing or a bad thing is a whole separate discussion.  But let's start that discussion by asking the right questions.