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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Kansas City, Missouri School District Needs New Approach to Discipline


Fixing Chaotic Schools Requires that School Leaders Step Up

The following is by Frank Beard, a graduate of Drake University and a former Teach for America corps member (Kansas City '08). He taught middle school science, social studies, and communication arts in the Kansas City, Missouri School District.

If you read my last post, then you know that my former school in Kansas City had some serious problems—the most significant being the ability of a handful of students to steal their classmates’ education through constant disruption.

In Kansas City, students learn from Day 1 that rules are meaningless and misbehavior has no consequence. While there are some fantastic teachers who manage in the elementary years to enforce rules, by sixth grade, those who want to disrupt class are free to do so. The lack of structure breeds chaos. Students act out when there’s no structure not because they’re from an impoverished part of town, but because they’re kids. My K-12 classmates back in suburban Iowa would have been no different in such a free-for-all system. When an education consultant met with some of my students to ask for their input on what needed to change, even those who were constantly disruptive said they wanted to be called out for their behavior.

Anyone who’s worked in a low-performing district knows this is not a problem for which there are easy solutions—otherwise it would have been fixed years ago. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I think it's clear where change needs to come from: the top.

Dr. Covington, KCMSD's superintendent, must make it his priority to address classroom discipline issues. He must attack the issue with a sense of urgency and demand that every school offer an environment conducive to learning. Principals must know that Covington not only expects their buildings to be under control—something for which they'll be held accountable—but that he will provide any and all necessary resources and support. He should establish alternative settings for those who need it, avoid second-guessing on discipline matters, and refuse to back down if parents and community members resist the sudden increase in student accountability. If legal issues arise, then he should defend the district's right to decide what’s acceptable in the schools.

At the classroom level, teachers must be supported with regard to discipline issues. Teachers are there to provide academic instruction. Their job is not to conduct crowd control and endure constant verbal and sometimes physical harassment. They should not have to teach manners, how to behave, or the inns and outs of getting along. If a student proves unwilling or unable to act reasonably, then he shouldn't be in the classroom. If the superintendent makes it a priority to stop chronic misbehavior from turning classrooms into toxic environments—and holds principals accountable to that end—then perhaps teachers can get back to doing what they were hired to do.

It won’t be easy, however, and there will certainly be challenges.

When students resist an environment in which there are rules and consequences, they may need to be placed in an alternative setting. If that doesn’t work, then maybe they need to find another district. The adults running the school district need to be the ones deciding what’s acceptable—not the students.

But isn’t it difficult to enforce even the most basic rules? Aren’t there policies in place that effectively prevent schools from doing so?

As some of the comments on my last post pointed out, dealing with this issue is difficult because of the restrictions in place. I understand that, and I’m aware that even actions as simple as suspending a student require all sorts of documentation and a deference to students’ due process rights. But the district can't use this as a reason to ignore its responsibility to all children.  

What troubled me most about my time teaching in KCMSD was not that it was difficult to effectively address discipline issues, but that I saw absolutely nothing being done. Other than the occasional conversation, I saw no substantial effort undertaken by my former district to fix the out-of-control atmosphere in its schools. It’s one thing to try. It’s quite another to do nothing. 

If KCMSD—and others like it—want to get serious about truly providing an atmosphere that’s conducive to educational excellence, then school leaders must step up and make it happen. It won’t be easy, and they’ll certainly take criticism for doing so, but it’s the right thing to do. Letting things continue as usual is just a recipe for failure.

Realistically, however, I don't believe that anything of this sort will happen.

The problems I encountered at my school are largely representative of the strange culture that surrounds this country’s education system—one which often abhors the notion of holding students accountable for their actions and permits the sorts of horrible environments that exist in so many urban schools. It’s a culture that allows a superintendent to become the Secretary of Education while having no history of successfully managing a district, enables a person like Michelle Rhee to launch a profitable career peddling the educational equivalent of snake oil, and yet one that vilifies and attacks the very people who do the job it was designed to do: educate children. It’s a system in which the key decision-makers in many urban districts are allowed to sell themselves as transformative leaders while their schools are nothing short of out-of-control and dysfunctional.

Still, there’s always hope that some school leader will step up and say “enough is enough”. If such a person ever does present himself, then he’ll certainly have my full support.

You can follow Frank Beard on twitter @FrankBeard, or email him at fbeard@gmail.com.

14 comments:

  1. If the superintendent makes it a priority to stop chronic misbehavior from turning classrooms into toxic environments—and holds principals accountable to that end—then perhaps teachers can get back to doing what they were hired to do.

    Teachers aren't simply hired to convey information. They are the first - and most important - line of defense against students who would disrupt the learning environment. To the extent that this post argues for a systematic, consistent, and proactive approach to discipline at the district level, I agree with it. But no superintendent or building principal can, from the top down, dictate the atmosphere that will prevail in a given classroom. That is the teacher's job. And to the extent that this post argues that creating a productive learning environment is not a primary duty of a teacher, it is very, very wrong.

    I also find this post's flippant dismissal of students' due process rights and the eagerness it displays to remove children from the educational setting offensive. Yes, schools get to define acceptable behavior, but once that definition is in place, every child has the right to be judged by that standard, and enforcing procedural requirement in the discipline process assures that will happen. Yes, not every educational setting is right for every child, but every child has an unequivocal right to an education and that right shouldn't be taken away at the whim of a teacher, principal, or even superintendent who has decided that the student is "unwilling or unable to act reasonably."

    This post reads like the bitter reciminations of a former teacher who is looking for someone to blame for the difficulties and failures he encountered in his classroom. Frank, I don't doubt that classroom behavior made your job incredibly difficult, and I am sure that the lack of support and consistency at a building and district level made managing that behavior many times more difficult than it needed to be. But I don't see you taking any ownership for the behavior of your students. That, coupled with your seeming eagerness to just get rid of the students who don't immediately meet your standards of "reasonable" behavior, make me think that many of the problems you encountered in your classroom were, in large part, your own fault.

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  2. TFA '05: My experience suggests the most powerful prevention of classroom misbehavior is a positive home environment. Indeed, teachers, while incredibly important, are merely the most important IN-SCHOOL factor in helping students achieve educational success.

    Rather than take offense by a disagreement you have with Frank, I'd implore you to rather see this as an opportunity for further discussion around this important issue. Unless you think Frank's motive here is to deny students an education, I really don't think a disagreement is anything to be offended by.

    Lastly, while I'd agree with you that classroom management is a primary responsibility of a teacher, I'd agree with Frank that it is also a primary responsibility of a principal, a superintendent, and a parent. Since you never visited Frank's classroom, I don't think you can really go so far as to say that the disruption he experienced was largely his fault. More and more, it seems we're segregating our students based on their ability to succeed on grade-level. And when students who are the most challenging to teach are placed in the classrooms of those least prepared to teach them in politically corrupt and educationally inept high-profile school districts, it should come as no shock that students' learning will be sacrificed. It's like expecting a quarterback to win the superbowl without an offensive line. Teachers NEED support.

    We're all responsible for the abysmal failure of our community schools. What can we do to change that?

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  3. @TFA '05

    I understand what you're saying, but I strongly disagree.

    I really thought I was a bad teacher after my first year. It wasn’t as rough as my second, but there were still a number of students who did not live up to my expectations. According to the TFA way of thinking, however, good teachers are able to fix everything short of poverty itself—so it was only natural that I blamed myself.

    But teaching summer school changed my mind. I had few if any behavioral problems, nearly every one of my students did exceptionally well, and I was able to be the tough, demanding, no-nonsense teacher that I'd hoped I'd be. In fact, I was even helping a veteran teacher with some of her management problems (and it worked, by the way). I was told frequently by administrators and fellow teachers that I did a fantastic job, and one of my favorite students—who was by no means well-behaved at first—even begged me to come back to his regular school.

    So what changed?

    It was the administration at my summer school. They supported their teachers, and they communicated to the students on Day 1 that there were consequences for behaving poorly. They provided an environment that was conducive to learning.

    Expecting teachers to deal with the sorts of horrible behaviors that I experienced at my regular school--especially my second year--is just wrong. It's unreasonable to expect a teacher who sees each student for roughly 50 minutes a day--along with twenty other classmates--to fix what their parents have either been unable or unwilling to fix in the past thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen years.

    You're right that teaching isn't about simply conveying material. It's about helping students to think critically, assisting them in making connections between the material and their lives, and it's about helping them write better, more fully express themselves, and to understand the world around them. Teachers do far more than just convey material.

    Teaching, however, is not about correcting and changing the behaviors of students who destroy the educational environment. I suppose teaching could be about that, but then our neediest students would surely be losing out compared to those in more wealthy districts—the latter receiving high quality instruction and the former receiving something akin to “life skills”.

    Teachers do need to have a basic management system in place, but to expect them to correct the sorts of behaviors that occurred in my school is nothing short of a recipe for disaster.

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  4. "Teachers do need to have a basic management system in place, but to expect them to correct the sorts of behaviors that occurred in my school is nothing short of a recipe for disaster" without SUPPORT. I agree with both posters, Classroom management is the job of hte teacher but the tone has to be set by the school to create a school culture that is conducive to learning. If the school is mayhem, then expecting a teacher to have control of their classroom is unreasonable.

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  5. "But I don't see you taking any ownership for the behavior of your students. That, coupled with your seeming eagerness to just get rid of the students who don't immediately meet your standards of "reasonable" behavior, make me think that many of the problems you encountered in your classroom were, in large part, your own fault"

    Just guessing that this is what TFA inculcates into its young recruits. It may inspire some teachers to be better managers, but I also bet it causes some to end their 2 year teaching stint in quiet defeat, feeling like failures, but not willing to admit it.

    Instead, they go on to "bigger and better things" with no further public reflection on their teaching problems, thus offering no way to help the young idealistic teachers who follow them.

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  6. I understand the importance of a competent and supportive administration to successful classrooms (I could go on at length about the difficulties I faced because of the incompetent and vindictive principal in my building). If TFA argues that teachers can solve every problem short of poverty itself, then it's fundamentally misguided. I never got the impression that that was the organization's approach, though. Systemic change is needed in order to make sure that every kid in the country gets a high quality education. But, Frank, I think your post is like a lot of others I've read on this blog that portray teachers as helpless-yet-put-upon non-agents who, no matter what they do, can't teach kids in the ghetto. And one of the points I'm trying to make is that this is fundamentally wrong.

    Expectations exist at multiple levels within a school district. No one but the superintendent can set behavioral expectation for the district as a whole. No one but the building principal can set them for the entire school. But here's the important piece: no one but the teacher can set the expectations for his or her classroom. And setting and upholding expectations takes much more work than posting rules and yelling "You can't behave reasonably! Get out!" and expecting the administration to eliminate the problem child. It takes good teaching. Running a functional classroom in a dysfunctional school is incredibly difficult. But it is not impossible.

    And it can be done without resorting to the tired excuses about "these kids" and their irresponsible parents who don't give them proper training at home. It's not fair to the kids or their parents to essentially give up on an entire population because they weren't raised the way we ourselves were. There are root causes to that problem that go back much further than too much rap music and not enough spankings. And unless we want to just throw up our hands and declare that poor people can't raise kids or be successful in school because that's just how poor people are, we have to find ways to solve those root causes instead of just pointing at them as an excuse. One way to begin solving the problem is to teach this generation of children how to be successful students. Schools can do that. Schools must do that. And teachers have to embrace their role in the process.

    I readily admit that we could have a truly excellent teacher in every classroom in the country and our educational crisis would not be resolved. As I said before, systemic change is necessary. We need to change how we fund schools, how we treat teachers and administrators, and how we choose who we put in those roles. However, excellent teachers can go a long, long way toward solving the crisis, so long as they embrace the responsibilities and opportunities that come along with their job.

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  7. "But, Frank, I think your post is like a lot of others I've read on this blog that portray teachers as helpless-yet-put-upon non-agents who, no matter what they do, can't teach kids in the ghetto. And one of the points I'm trying to make is that this is fundamentally wrong."

    I've never read a post like that here or anywhere, that written by a teacher. What I have seen plenty of is teachers like you accusing other teachers of thinking that way.

    It's a cop out - a way of shifting the blame to other teachers who don't have your mind-set. Seem to me that the people who have thrown up their hands are those who see only "Great teachers" as the solution to improved schools, while ignoring overarching problems.

    Seems to me that if you really card about kids you'd be wondering what to do if your teachers-only solutions doesn't work, especially in the light of mountains of research, common sense and experience that shows a clear connection between SES and school success.

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  8. TFA '05: I'd love if you could point to part of Frank's writing where you think he expressed his desire to give up on "these kids." Also - could you please tell me where, in my blog, you see tired excuses about why it's impossible to educate poor children.

    You think this blog is about giving up on poor children and making excuses? I think it's about showing the reality of what's happening in inner-city schools. The way we've set things up (both in our educational systems and in society at large) does make it impossible to provide the same quality education to poor minority children as we do to rich white children. As far as I'm concerned, there's no getting around that, and people should know about it. From my perspective (and I'll always admit I could be wrong), it seems you'd like us not to expose the devastating reality that is the urban school for most kids. And I do take offense (far more legitimately than you originally did with Frank) for implying that I don't think we can teach disadvantaged youth. Because of the confidence with which you speak about classroom management and correcting disciplinary problems in schools, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and presume you're still teaching. I think it would be nice if everyone so confident about the ways to fix our system would teach, like you and I. It does, however, seem ironic that you would imply that I, a fellow teacher, have given up on kids...

    Beyond that, I think you, Frank, and I probably agree with each other. No need to be so nasty.

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  9. @TFA '05

    I hear you, but it's not always as simple as teaching students to do the right thing. Let's be realistic here: whether or not a teacher can take a classroom with numerous chronically disruptive students and "teach" them the correct behaviors, procedures, and mindsets is dependent upon pure chance. There's no by-the-book way of doing this, no hard science. Something as simple as the disruptive students' personalities clashing with the teacher's can destroy those efforts. By time they're in middle school, some have even decided that they just hate teachers. It's easy to say that teachers simply need to teach how to behave and have high expectations, but reality is often far more complicated than the simple teacher-savior stories that are all too popular in TFA. That someone has a chaotic classroom doesn't mean that substantial and significant efforts weren't made towards that end. Sometimes it's just not possible given the circumstances.

    And contrary to what you may think, I don't advocate for just throwing away those students who destroy the classroom environment.

    I still stay in contact with some of my former students who were very disruptive. I care about them deeply, and I want to know how they're doing in school and life. In fact, one of my worst students recently told me that she wishes I was at her high school because she feels I'm a better teacher than her current science instructor. That meant a lot coming from her.

    But putting chronically disruptive students in a regular classroom not only harms the education of everyone else, but it prevents them from getting the sort of attention that they need. If a student is disruptive year after year and district leadership ignores that, then they're failing him as well as the rest of the class. I taught many students who had spent years failing their classes, producing minimal work, and disrupting the education of others. Nobody can look at their situations and say that they're benefiting from a system which puts them in a regular classroom and expects teachers to "reach" them like some sort of secular missionaries. If anything, THAT is the ultimate form of low expectations--expecting so little out of them that they're tossed into a regular classroom without the support they need, never held accountable, and essentially doomed to failure unless "inspired" by a lucky teacher.

    The sorts of problems that I encountered in Kansas City, unfortunately, are not something which will be fixed by a teachers having just high expectations and good management systems. The very structure of the school system is set up for failure, and it's no surprise that it's failing miserably.

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  10. http://www.fox4kc.com/news/wdaf-parents-get-sw-high-under-control-or-shut-it-down-20110214,0,6624770.story

    If anyone's curious about the situation in my former school district, watch the video in the link above. Two of my former students are featured.

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  11. I teach in the district. These kids are very smart and can achieve! On the other hand, it is very difficult when a student can say to a teacher "shut the hell up" and the parent is not upset and administration gives the student 1 class period of "in school tutoring" (a nice way to say ISS). What message is sent to that student? What about the student who refuses to come to class? I can't teach a student who doesn't come to class. Every year the paperwork required increases. I give up a lot of family time to prepare for my classes because 50 minutes a day is not enough time to call parents to keep them informed of their student's progress, file paperwork for downtown, attend team meetings, attend department meetings and grade papers. The level of disrespect by these young people is out of control. As I interact with my students I do my best to ensure that at every moment of the day I am showing my students respect and in my classroom I demand that it is returned not only to myself but to their peers. As a teacher in the hall I can respectfully ask a student why they are not in class and should not expect a reply of none of your fucking business. Covington combined blocks and in turn put rival gangs that used to be separated into the same building. Who was he getting information from? If someone is going to improve this district, it is not going to be someone who has not been in the classroom or acted as administration in one of our buildings. As a person who has scheduled visits, he can't get a true picture of the reality of our day.

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  12. I've spoken with several teachers who've told me that the secret to good classroom discipline is to make the students think that the teacher is crazier than they are!

    Here are several examples of the "crazy teacher" techniques:

    1) On the first day of school, a SPED teacher who's a black belt in karate would demonstrate how she can break a board with one karate chop to the center. She would tell the class, "The first time that you talk without permission in my class, I go like this! (makes a motion in which she taps her closed lips with the front of her index finger) But the second time that you talk without permission in my class, I go like this! (makes a motion in which she draws the fingernail of her index finger from right to left across her neck as if slitting her throat)"

    2) A science teacher (who later became a middle school principal) used to call one of the worst-behaving ringleader-type boys in each class out into the hallway, grab him, push him against the wall, and say, "If you ever act like that again in my classroom, I'm going to rip your b***s off and shove 'em down your throat!"

    3) A math teacher would stand on top of the teacher's desk, jump up and down, shout at the class to be quiet, then jump off the desk and kick the garbage can across the room. One time he ran across the room toward an occupied chair. The student bolted from the chair as the teacher picked it up, opened the classroom door, and then hurled the chair against the opposite wall in the hallway!

    4) An industrial arts teacher would ask the worst-behaving students to help him out by separating a huge unsorted barrel of machine parts into separate, individual, smaller containers of nuts, bolts, washers, screws, etc. After the class left the room, he'd take the sorted components, dump them back into the barrel again, and stir the contents. The same procedures were in effect for each class all day long. More of the same on the following day, etc. Obviously, the contents of the barrel never decreased all term long, and the students were kept busy with a neverending sorting process!

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  13. It's refreshing to have a teacher voice the same concerns as I. Many teachers think these same thoughts, but never talk about it. I think it's mainly due to the tone the administrators set in the school, e.g. teachers are the scapegoat when things don't go according to "plan." As a teacher, I can't tell you how many times my authority has been undermined because a student that I sent to the principal was sent back to my class. One moment stands out particularly in my mind, because there was a troubled young man in middle school who punched a girl, in front of me and the class. And what was his punishment--a day of in school suspension. It was not his first offense, but had a record at that school. How can we, as educators instill the values of respect, if nothing is done about actions such as these. It's unsettling and unacceptable! For the most part, most students that I've worked with are respectful and hard-working, and many have voiced the same concerns as I. They simply can not learn in an environment, where they do not feel secure. The fact that an administrator/principal immediately blames a teacher for a student's disruptive behavior is proof of their own inefficiency and cowardice. I don't understand why superintendents and administrators who step up to the plate, so to speak, think they are taking on "the white man's burden." My experience has really been a lesson and epifany on the state of urban education in the U.S. The problems is not the demographics, e.g. impoverished, unruly students from the ghettos, but rather, as the author pointed out, the climate of permissiveness that prevails in our American urban schools, politics, and society.

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  14. Did any of you see "To Sir With Love"? Great movie. Good luck. I've heard (and I live in New York) that the Kansas City school systems are just dismal.

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