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Posted at 06:12 PM ET, 06/29/2011

Reader raises vital issue: classroom misbehavior

Readers of this blog ask great questions. I am not saying the other blogs don’t have similarly curious and adept commenters, although on the sports and politics pages the inquiries seem to dwell more on the circumstances of the bloggers’ birth than I would be comfortable with myself..

Some of the best recent questions were posted June 25 by a commenter signing on as LaborLawyer. The questioner was raising an issue of vital importance--classroom behavior. I didn’t find his post until after the deadline for comments had passed. I don’t like the three-day rule any more than you do, since I post a lot of comments here myself. But I guess the Web site would implode if we didn’t have something like that. If you yearn to comment after comments have closed, just post your thoughts on whatever inane column I have just posted, even if the topic is different. We will figure it out.

I am going to do something like that right now--devote this post LaborLawyers’ questions, and let you weigh in if you feel like it. If the deadline has passed, keep the discussion going the next chance you have. I am getting into the busiest part of my move to California, but will do my best to make sure I keep posting so there is something to hang your thoughts on.

LaborLawyer said that the discussions of PE and classroom standards we were having “rest on the fact that, in many classes, there are at least some students who frequently do not meet minimum behavior standards.... During conversations with experienced teachers throughout the country, I constantly hear that minor but endemic classroom misbehavior is the biggest problem with our public schools, that the problem has gotten worse over the past 30 years, that the problem is worse in schools serving lower socio-economic areas, and that school reformers seldom even acknowledge the problem, let alone try to resolve it.

“If these experienced teachers are correct, then perhaps we could make substantial improvements in the quality of our inner-city schools by adopting policies that reduce classroom misbehavior. Reforms aimed at improving classroom behavior would be less expensive than merit pay and less controversial/easier-to-implement than discharging teachers.”

Here are the questions from LaborLawyer that followed, and my answers::

How widespread is this problem?

To the teachers I have covered over the years, there is no issue more important. Bad behavior is found everywhere but is particularly common, as we all know, among students who are not doing well. That means it is a fearsome plague in schools full of low-income students and in classes in even affluent schools where the slowest and most difficult students are kept.

To what extent is it a greater problem in schools serving lower socio-economic students? To what extent are schools with the worst behavior problems also the schools with the worst test scores?

As I said, lower socio-economic students tend to be less prepared for school and more likely to do poorly, a situation that breeds bad behavior. Kids who are bored, confused, unhappy or otherwise distracted will act out. Bad behavior correlates with poor academic performance.

Has the problem gotten worse over the last 30 years?

Many people think so because they perceive, probably rightly, that we used to suspend and expel miscreants more than we do now. But I gave seen no comparative data proving that misbehavior is worse now than then. It doesn’t matter. It interfered with learning 30 years ago and it does so now.

Why does this problem persist/worsen? What, if anything, is being done to address the problem?

Schools have tried more suspensions, and fewer suspensions. They have tried smaller classes, smaller schools, more counselors and more training of teachers in the latest class management techniques. None of this seems to work well unless the entire school is committed to making it work.

Some of the schools I have studied, such as the KIPP schools, give this first priority. They recruit and train teachers to respond very quickly to any sign of misbehavior because they know that the worst thing you can do is hope it will go away. They have longer school days in part so teachers will have time to coordinate their classroom management techniques and back each other up. What seems to work is establishing rules and habits of behavior before you do anything else---KIPP devotes much of its first summer session for new students to this--and enforcing the rules consistently.

Sadly, schools that take misbehavior seriously are often defamed for being prisons, when in fact if the critics ever visited them, they would find them to be full of lively kids expressing themselves freely in class because the fear of teasing and bullying has been removed. The founders of KIPP were trained by their guru, Harriett Ball of the Houston schools, to act as if one child teasing another was the worst possible act, to be stopped right away. She said kids had to feel valued and safe if they were to learn. The founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, would get physically close to teasers and bullies and say, “Are you really so smart you can make fun of other people?” “Is this the way you treat teammates?” “Is acting like that going to get you into college?”

To what extent can better classroom management practices by the teacher resolve the problem?

The techniques that produce a more focused class produce higher achievement, and happier students.

To what extent are teachers taught these classroom-management practices (in teacher training program, in in-service programs)?

There are many attempts to include them in training, but teachers tell me that in most instances not nearly enough time and practice and oversight is devoted to them.

To what extent can better school administrator practices resolve the problem?

Administrators who make this a first priority, who intervene quickly whenever a teacher is failing to manage a class, and focus on the problem until the teacher learns to manage, or decides on an different career, are the most successful administrators.

To what extent should consequences for classroom misbehavior be revised?

It is not so much the consequences themselves, but the speed and clarity with which they are imposed that make the difference. Every child in the school has to be taught the importance of behaving properly, and be reminded quickly whenever they stray, or learning won’t happen.

To what extent should persistent disrupters be removed from the classroom, and where should they go when they are removed?

The educators I know who are most successful in managing classrooms say they need to have the whole array of measures for bad behavior, but be left free to use them in ways that make sense for each student and each situation. There are occasions when sending the kid home, or to the principal’s office, make sense. But teachers usually prefer techniques that do not remove the student because that cuts down on learning time.

One technique used by many KIPP schools in internal isolation. If a child is put on the bench, as some schools call it, for misbehavior, she stays in the classroom and still responds to the teacher, but sits at the side and is no longer allowed to talk to other students. At lunch time she has to sit by herself. At the same time she is communicating much more frequently with teachers and administrators, who are regularly reminding her that only good deeds---attention to the teacher, completing homework, staying out of further trouble---will get her back with her friends.

If someone with your status in education/media circles took the lead in exploring this problem and its solutions, it could truly make a difference in the quality of our public schools.

The behavior problem was essentially what my KIPP book, “Work Hard. Be Nice,” was about. Some people say they have gotten something out of it, but the best teachers tell me there is no magic bullet for to cure classroom misbehavior. It takes different tactics for every kid. At bottom, the teacher has to persuade her students, particularly the unhappy ones, that she is not going to waver, but that she cares about them and is never going to give up on them. It takes a long time to learn how to do that, and it has to be done on the job, not in ed school and not by reading one of my books, or this blog.

By  |  06:12 PM ET, 06/29/2011

 
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