Urban public school teachers, parents and students often tell me if we got rid of disruptive students and made sure everyone did their work, more kids would learn. Is there a way to do that?
Caleb Stewart Rossiter, a university professor and policy analyst who taught in D.C. schools from 2010 to 2013, says yes in his new book “Ain’t Nobody Be Learnin’ Nothin’: The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools.” The torrent of responses to my last two columns about his observations on pervasive grade-inflation and low standards reveal many Americans think he has the right idea, so let’s look at his suggested approach.
“First,” he says, “schools must pursue behavioral goals that keep students alive and able to thrive; second, families must be offered a choice between vocational and college prep; and third, weak effort or disruption should never result, as it often does today, in suspension and then return to the same class, but rather in separation from the students who are working hard, with intense remediation intended to allow a new start in a new class the next quarter.”
Rossiter argues that the public charter schools most successful in reducing disruption and improving learning have been doing so by encouraging miscreants and slow learners to leave. He provides little data to buttress this claim. I think he is wrong, based on many years writing a book on one of the nation’s best charter networks, KIPP. KIPP schools in the District expel no more than 1 percent of students, usually for drug or weapon episodes that threaten other students. Those who misbehave or don’t do their homework get more help, not less. Their teachers are resolved to save kids, not tell them to go elsewhere.
I concede that a significant number of low-performing students are likely not to enroll in schools like KIPP — or will drop out — because they don’t like the emphasis on good behavior and hard work. So what can neighborhood schools do with them?
Rossiter is right that those schools should teach good behavior, as KIPP does, and should not keep returning disruptive students to the same classes, where they distract students trying to learn. He says low-performing students should be allowed to switch to a practical vocational track as early as the beginning of middle school.
“Practical academics means checkbook math, not number theory; percentages, not calculus; angles for construction, not for Euclidean proofs; the physics of plumbing, not molecular motion; and analysis of newspaper articles, not Shakespeare’s plays,” he says.
If practical subjects like that were well-taught, as they often were not in vocational tracks of yesteryear, I would endorse the experiment. Those kids would have the reading, writing, math and time management skills they need for trade schools, jobs and even community colleges if they wanted to try higher education.
It is Rossiter’s plan for those unwilling or unable to do even practical academics that makes me shake my head. He wants miscreants and slow learners switched to remedial classes, where their problems would be addressed so they could return to the mainstream courses at the beginning of the next quarter.
He wants more and better social workers for the disruptive, more and better teachers for the slow and unmotivated. But he cites no examples of this working well with such students. In a typical school, those classes would likely become zoos or jails. Very few sane teachers would take such an assignment. Few school boards — or judges — would sanction such remedial cesspools.
Individual attention to such students in small groups might work, but that would be expensive, as would the social and economic reforms Rossiter cites as a solution to poverty. Urban children ready to learn should not be forced to suffer from standards lowered for others, but what to do with the bottom group is a tough call. Any ideas?