Friday, August 29, 2008

Replicating Paternalistic Discipline

More follow-up on my review of David Whitman's new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism:

I've written I don't know how many times about the discipline problems that my school faced and that I've seen and heard about in other schools. Whitman argues that eliminating discipline problems may be the key to success in the schools he describes, writing that "the most distinctive feature of new paternalistic schools is that they are fixated on curbing disorder" (p. 37).

From what he describes, and from what I've heard, about these schools it seems like they've found a way to create an orderly environment where so many others have failed. So here's the key question: can their strategies be replicated by others? The biggest red flag that I, and others, have raised is that these schools may be able to use strategies that traditional public schools cannot.

Below are some excerpts from the book regarding the schools' discipline policies.

Cristo Rey:

"Merely fraternizing with gang members can lead to expulsion." (p. 38)

"If a student even draws gang graffiti on a notebook or piece of paper, we deal with it. They might be suspended for a day the first time. The second time it happened -- well, that would be your last day here." (p. 137)

American Indian Public Charter School:

"has never expelled a student" (p. 82)

"I've added Sunday school as well [for disciplinary infractions]. Sunday school is at [the principal's] house. The kids come by and do yard work." (p. 93)

Amistad Academy

"Over eight years, Amistad has expelled only two students" (p. 114)

"are expected to keep student attrition to less than 5 percent a year (not counting youngsters who move out of the district)" (p. 119-120)


"students learn the rubric of SLANT in class (Sit up straight, Listen, Answer and ask questions, Nod your head if you understand, and Track the speaker)" (p. 156)

"has two fulltime social workers who meet with the most at-risk students on a dialy basis and with all KIPP students regularly." (p. 170)

"hardly ever expels a student" (p. 176)


"unapologetically expels more students than day schools: 5.6% of its pupils each year, on average, compared to 1.8 percent at other charter schools" (p. 205-206)

"on average, about 30 percent fail to move on to ninth grade during their first attempt and must repeat eighth grade as a 'growth year.'" (p. 213)

University Park

"In its ten years to date, just one student has dropped out of UPCS" (p. 226)

A student "recalls that the "other teachers said to me 'we know you're a good kid, but you can't act like that and stay here'" (p. 232)

Overall, the picture looks mixed. Some of these schools certainly rely on expulsion, or at least the threat of expulsion, to keep students in line. Beyond expulsion, some schools clearly rely on convincing students to leave -- particularly by holding back students if they choose to remain. Whitman writes "Studnets who flunk grades and face repeating a year, and those intimidated by the academic demands of rigorous schools, exit to neighborhood schools that practice social promotio" (p. 255). On the other hand, some of the schools cited have exceedingly low attrition rates. It's possible that a school can use expulsion as merely a threat and not actually implement it, but the picture is unclear on how much that happens.

Lastly, principals in particular at some of these schools use techniques that would be explicitly prohibited in many schools. The principal at AIPCS makes students do yard work at his house on Sundays as punishment. That is, plain and clear, corporal punishment -- a big no-no in NYC and many other areas. Furthermore, it's hard for me to imagine that many schools are allowed to mandate that students do anything on weekends much less show up for detention. Whether he's able to do this because he's running a charter school or because he simply doesn't care about the consequences if somebody finds out he's doing this is unclear.

I don't know whether or not these discipline systems can be successfully replicated in traditional public schools, but some red flags certainly exist. Let's just assume for a minute that they cannot in the current system. The question then would whether we should: create more charter schools; give traditional public schools more power (e.g. allowing expulsion); or look to other sources to create discipline systems.


Unknown said...

You raise many good questions. I agree that the "paternalistic" approach is probably the correct direction to go, and how far to take it is going to be tough.

My elementary school has never even had a discussion of school-wide behavior expectations.

I have 2 very strict rules for my little 2nd graders, that, if implemented school-wide, would begin to change the culture at the school:

1. hold the door for the person behind you,

2. drink for 5 seconds when there are folks behind you in line at the drinking fountain (you can go to the end if you still need more).

These are simple civic-minded behaviors that would begin to move us in the direction of accountability; not of teachers, but of the children and their parents, who are the ultimate accountants of their accomplishments and behavior.

Why my staff don't discuss these kinds of things is beyond me. Well, not really; you see, we are too focused on getting out of our "needs improvement" status. I swear, if we dealt with behavior, and expectations for behaviors and habits, we would be on our way to tackling what would be tackle-able because of the prerequisite behavior we had instilled.

Its not rocket science. Expect--demand--proper behavior, boot those that can't comply (after coaching fails), and get on with teaching students who are prepared to learn.

That is how I do it. I tell my parents at back-to-school night this is how its going to be. At first they are put off. As I give my talk, and explain why I need to teach their children to be accountable, and why they, the parents, need to be accountable, the parents begin to nod in agreement. I sound like a good parent, a good teacher, with my priorities straight. No mumbo-jumbo. The curriculum is a given; if I can't deliver the curriculum, who cares if I can get them to behave? But I do both, and the parents love it. The kids love it. It feels good to take responsibility for yourself.

Paternalism deserves a better reputation!

(Sorry to go on for so long! You struck a nerve)

Anonymous said...

Corey: I agree with you. For public schools to succeed, they need to be given the methods of discipline available to private and charter schools. Most notably, this includes the ability to set high standards, and take immediate disciplinary action (including suspension or, if necessary, expulsion) when the rules are not followed.

As you noted, often the schools do not need to actually follow through on their threats very often. But the fact that they CAN implement these consequences - and the kids know it - gives them much more power to enforce their rules and expected behavior norms.

Until public schools are given these rights, it is unfair and meaningless to compare them to charter schools, which have these tools at their disposal.

Anonymous said...

It seems the emphasis of a lot of this discussion is on having severe penalties available to punish misbehaving students. Perhaps this is part of what is needed. But severe penalties are utterly irrelevant when you can't catch the offending students. In some situations of out-of-control classes that doesn't sound like it would be a problem. In some cases it is painfully obvious who is misbehaving and exactly what they are doing. However in less extreme cases, in classrooms where there is some control, there can be great frustrations of disruptions that are debilitating to any attempts at teaching, but impossible to catch. A classic example in my experience is trying to talk to a class when a student is surreptitiously humming. In such a situation all students may appear to be sitting quietly, but all attention is focused on the drama of the challenge to the teacher's authority. No learning can possibly take place until that situation changes. It is possible to look carefully at one student after another in a class and be totally unable to tell who is making the sound. It can also be impossible to tell if one students is humming or several.

There are several approaches to handling this type of problem, and often all of them are totally unsatisfactorily. But one approach perhaps needs more thought. We passively assume that there will always be one adult in the classroom, and that adult must be a policeman as well as teacher (and sometimes nurse, parent, and perhaps a lot of other things). But would it make some sense to think that in at least some situations there needs to be more than one adult in the classroom, with a division of labor between teacher and policeman, at least until control is regained?

In your post of August 26, “Convincing Teachers To Choose High-Poverty Schools” there is a comment by NARLS1969 including this statement.

“I also taught at the local juvenile hall. There, the parole officers maintained discipline, and all I had to do was teach. We had POs at our court school, also.”

Do we interpret this as more than one adult in the classroom? That’s obviously expensive, but compared to the cost of chaos, I wonder.