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.