Tag Archives: Charter School Discipline

Different Types of School-to-Prison Pipelines

school to prisonThe ACLU released a report recently outlining what the school-to-prison pipeline looks like in New York City public schools in the Bloomberg era:

“The total number of annual suspensions has more than doubled during the Bloomberg administration, from less than 29,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 in 2011. Black students and students with special needs served an outsize proportion of these suspensions.”

They attribute this development to a zero tolerance policy handed down by Bloomberg in 2003:

“Mayor Bloomberg brought a harsh brand of zero tolerance to New York City in 2003, when he announced a new disciplinary plan calling for ‘an immediate, consistent minimum response to even the most minor violation of a school’s disciplinary policy’, including a ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy’ for students who are in trouble repeatedly.”

NYC public school teachers who read these words might wonder on what planet the ACLU conducted this study. Just last year, Chancellor Dennis Walcott released a much more relaxed discipline code for the entire system. Even before this new code, one of the most common complaints from teachers in the city has been the complete lack of discipline in the schools.

I served as a dean for the first few years of my career. Deans in NYC are essentially school disciplinarians. They handle suspensions, parental conferences, arrests and investigations of wrongdoing. One of the first things I learned as a dean was how to suspend as few kids as possible. Kids who got into fights, disrupted class, cursed out teachers or compiled a long list of minor infractions over time rarely saw suspensions. If teachers in NYC tend to feel handcuffed when dealing with classroom discipline, that is because they are.

As a dean, I considered suspension my trump card only to be used in the most serious circumstances. We tried to work on modifying the behavior of disruptive students through mediation, parental involvement and conduct sheets that had to be filled out by teachers. At the time, I considered this a decent “ladder of referral”, as it is called in NYC. A combination of these things, along with a healthy relationship with the students, usually worked in quelling disruptive behavior. This allowed us to reserve our suspensions for the worst transgressions. I felt that using the suspension card too much cheapened its value and made it less effective in the long run.

Of course, this disciplinary tactic opened us deans up to accusations by our colleagues that we were coddling unruly students. The way I saw it, suspension was a poor disciplinary tool. It essentially amounted to a three-day vacation for students. What happens when the kid comes back from suspension only to continue with their unruly behavior? Since public schools cannot expel kids, the only thing left to do was to suspend them again.

The only exception to this is in the case of the “superintendent’s suspension”, as it is called in NYC. A superintendent suspension is usually given in response to a serious infraction, like a major fight or brandishing a weapon or assaulting a teacher. In my salad days as a dean, a “supe’s suspension” entailed getting a parent to pick the kid up from school on the day of the infraction. Then I would tell them to wait for the superintendent’s office to hand down a hearing date. Once the hearing date was set, we had to determine what type of penalty we wished to seek. The penalties ranged from a long suspension to a request for transfer to another school. We then had to go to a hearing where the student, parent and possibly their lawyer had a chance to defend themselves against the accusations being made. In most cases, the parents did not show up and we were able to get the penalty we wanted.

Very few infractions rise to the level of a superintendent’s suspension and fewer still warrant expulsion. In the most extreme case I saw as a dean, three students assaulted the principal which resulted in an all-out rumble between them and the School Safety officers. They were arrested and ended up testing positive for having crack in their system. Despite the egregiousness of this case, it was still a fight to get these kids out of our school. They lawyered up and dragged out the superintendent suspension hearing for weeks.

In the end, the main reason why public schools do not usually seek to suspend kids is that it looks bad on the “data” that has become so ubiquitous under Bloomberg. Principals know that suspension rates are a matter of public record, and also get factored into the school’s annual report card grade, so they discourage deans from pursuing suspensions. This is why schools that routinely get rated as “safe” in NYC can be anything but.

So the question remains: what planet did the ACLU study? Most teachers here would not recognize the zero tolerance suspension mills portrayed in this report.

I searched the entire study for the word “charter” (as in charter school) and the word did not come up once. My suspicion is that the study lumped charter schools in with the rest of the public school system. In that case, I can imagine suspension rates going through the roof over the past decade. The zero tolerance, almost militaristic, discipline code of many charter schools is well documented. Despite the claims of many charter advocates that they are as public as any public school, their discipline, suspension and expulsion policies are of a totally different breed.

In any event, the study does not paint an accurate picture of the discipline policies of NYC public schools. That is not to say that a school-to-prison pipeline of some sort does not exist here. It is just not the lock-em-up, zero tolerance type that exists in other places.

The report mentions the fact that many public schools have metal detectors through which all students must pass every morning. This is true and is not a practice with which I agree. However, I think it is important to look at what happens on the other side of the metal detector. I know a very smart parent who enrolls her children in a charter school. Despite my protestations to her that charters are nothing but test-prep mills, she has a response with which I cannot argue: they do not tolerate unruly behavior.  She does not have to worry about her child sitting in a classroom where kids are constantly disrupting the lesson. She does not have to worry about gang violence and fighting. While she might have an overly negative view of public schools, it is a view shared by many parents who opt for charters. These parents have a point.

There really is little that a regular NYC public school can do to curb generally rowdy behavior. Principals do not want to suspend students. What is more, principals fear angering parents by coming down too hard on kids. They all too often turn a blind eye to unruly behavior for fear of hurting their “data” or having an uncomfortable confrontation with a parent. This blind eye amounts to a sanctioning of bad behavior. Kids are instinctively able to feel out where the limits of the adults lie. Many know that there are very few limits and take full advantage of this.

This does not mean that most kids are unruly, far from it. However, it does not take a classroom full of unruly students to ruin the learning environment. A very small percentage of troubled kids can dominate a classroom or cafeteria. Through the sheer force of their examples and personalities, they can sweep up many of the meeker kids in a nefarious net where mischief becomes the order of the day. NYC’s teaching force is younger and more inexperienced than ever, as is the current crop of administrators. This means that the adults are less equipped to keep a lid on bad behavior. Experienced educators are able to manage school tone through soft means that do not include suspension or other types of harsh disciplinary actions. In short, lax discipline codes and inexperienced adults have been leading to a deterioration of school tone across the entire system.

At the end of the day, this is another version of a school-to-prison pipeline. A good school is able to reward good behavior, recognize the role models in the student body and elevate them so their examples affect all of the other students. What we have is precisely the opposite state of affairs, one where the most aggressive and abrasive students become the role models and set the tone. Other students then learn the lesson that these are the qualities that get one ahead in life. In these cases, schools can become recruiting grounds for gangs and other types of dangerous activity.

This is a school-to-prison pipeline that breeds criminality. Kids can be influenced into committing nefarious acts who might otherwise not be so inclined. They can be compelled to engage in a serious fight or drug use or brandishing of weapons or other types of criminal activity. These actions can lead to arrest and jail time. This type of school-to-prison pipeline is the other side of the same coin as the type of pipeline created by zero tolerance policies that criminalize even the most innocent childhood behaviors. A school can look for wrongdoing everywhere and end up criminalizing everything or it can look for wrongdoing nowhere and foster a culture of criminality. Charter schools fit the former category and public schools the latter.

I respect the ACLU and what they tried to bring forth in this study. However, their treatment of the issue is too thick to be of much value. There are different types of school-to-prison pipelines and I hope one day groups like the ACLU can realize this for themselves.

NYC’s New Student Discipline Code: What Difference Does It Make?

NYC students celebrate the new discipline code.

Students started this school year in New York City under a new disciplinary regime. The Department of Education revised its discipline codes so that things like lateness and talking back to teachers no longer warrant suspension. The American Civil Liberties Union apparently had been pushing to revise the discipline code for years.

As a long-time dean who has worked in some very tough schools, the new discipline codes seem to codify a state of affairs that has existed de facto for a while. Frankly, I have never seen a student suspended for lateness or back-talk. With Bloomberg’s school report card system, schools are incentivized to not suspend students even for infractions far more severe than what the new discipline codes address.

Therefore, it is tough to see how the changes will have any meaningful impacts on school environment.

Furthermore, with Bloomberg’s erosion of tenure over the past ten years, teachers are scared to death to discipline their students or report any wrongdoing they see in their classrooms or hallways. It is all too common to see teachers who try to discipline students incur the wrath of administrators, not to mention parents. These revisions to the discipline code merely affirm this state of affairs.

Most of my years as a dean were during the beginning of my career, when I was still struggling with how to teach properly. I am thankful for that experience because it taught me valuable tools of classroom discipline. Deans, who played a much larger role in school discipline when I was on the job than they do now, were frequently called to classrooms to remove disruptive students. We found that it was the same teachers kicking kids out day after day. Meanwhile, there were other teachers who taught the same students who were being kicked out of classes who never once called us for help. I would pass by their classrooms and the students were all working, respectful and quiet.

Needless to say, we in the dean’s office had our opinions on who were the bad teachers as opposed to the good teachers. The bad teachers were the ones who called us. The good ones never bothered us at all. I was able to learn from the good ones and implement their mannerisms into my class. It meant dealing with classroom management issues on my own. Eventually, I learned that the best strategy for classroom management was a well-prepared, well-crafted lesson faithfully executed. It took many years to get this down, since this basically represents the nuts and bolts of the teacher’s craft. Even today I still rewrite lessons and devise new activities based upon what I have learned as a teacher.

Therefore, I am thankful for my time as a dean since it basically taught me the lesson that it was my job to deal with my class. I could not reject students for minor infractions. On the other hand, the erosion of student discipline along with teacher tenure poses a problem for new teachers trying to learn their craft.

Not everyone will learn the same way I learned. I was fortunate enough to start my career with a principal who invested time and resources into me. He was a veteran educator in NYC himself, someone who had been in the classroom for 20 years. Under his tutelage, I made many missteps for which another principal could have disciplined me. Yet, he labeled me a “natural” in the classroom, did what he could to inspire me and gave me room to learn from my mistakes. He believed that I, along with many of the young teachers on his staff, would be assets to the school system for many years to come. He shepherded us towards tenure and did all he could to keep us in the school system and in his school.

Unfortunately, the environment in NYC schools has changed. Most new teachers are given no guidance aside from the usual professional developments, which are worse than useless. Many of the new generation of principals are not educators and cannot recognize a potentially great teacher to save their lives. The Leadership Academy, the fast track to a principal position in today’s DOE, trains its alumni in carrots and sticks business management, not school leadership. It is no secret that Leadership Academy principals have reputations for being putative and petty. In this type of environment, it is impossible for a new teacher to learn their craft. Most importantly, the statistics show that principals are denying tenure to probationary teachers at an alarming clip. Many teachers who could be naturals are being pushed out of the system by the third or fourth year.

Add to this mix the new lax student discipline codes and you have a bad mix for New York City schools. With no support from administration and no disciplinary recourse, what tools are available to the struggling first-year teacher who faces an unruly class? What tools are available to the new teacher who has those one or two students who, if they were to be removed, would make a positive difference for the learning of the other students in the class? The answer before the new discipline codes was: nothing. The answer with the new student discipline codes is: less than nothing. We are essentially throwing thousands of new teachers into the classroom with no guidance or training and putting it all on them. This has been the state of affairs for many years in NYC. These new discipline policies take another step towards making this state of affairs permanent.

While the public schools’ ability to discipline students is continually being handcuffed, the charter schools with whom our public schools are “competing” get a blank check on student discipline. Not only can they cherry pick students through the sham lottery system, but they can suspend, expel and “counsel out” students even after they have been cherry picked. And where do those “problem students” from charters end up? Right back in the public schools. Not only do public schools not have the right to cherry pick their students, nor expel or counsel them out, they now do not even have the right to suspend students for many types of infractions. While charters are empowered to discipline students, the public schools have no such power. In this case, it makes no sense to claim that charters “compete” with public schools. When admissions, funding and discipline procedures are so different between the two types of schools, it can only be apples and oranges.

I guess it is extraordinary then that charters still fail to outperform public schools. Despite all the advantages that charters have and all the things that allow charters to fudge their statistics, public schools still do a better job of educating students, especially students that charters would never admit in a million years. Why do you think that is? What gives public schools the edge?

In my mind, it is the fact that public schools have more experienced teachers. Rather than expelling students when they become inconvenient, veteran teachers in NYC have learned to expand the right of education to all children, including the ones who do not want to be educated. Public school teachers, despite the fact that they are continuously vilified and their careers are under attack, still educate the neediest students with the scarcest resources. Despite the fact that the charter school on the top floor has smaller class sizes, more funding and more motivated students, public school teachers are winning the competition that the education reformers believed would run public education into the ground.

For veterans of NYC’s public school system, the new discipline codes will most likely make no difference at all. For the newer teachers, it will probably hamper their ability to learn their craft. Regardless, public school teachers in NYC are continuously being asked to do more with less and are rising to the occasion despite the massive campaign to destroy them.

The New White Man’s Burden

This cartoon can easily be from 2012.

The New York Times ran a story about the impacts of segregation in NYC schools. It features Explore Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The school is even more segregated than the community, with black students comprising nearly 93% of its student body.

While the article makes some valid points, the things that it danced around struck me the most. The article points out that, while the students are overwhelmingly black, the staff itself is 61% white. This is par for the course in NYC schools. Indeed, many schools’ staffs are even more disproportionately white than Explore’s.

As the article introduces some of the teachers at the school, one gets a glimpse into the problems with Bloomberg’s system and the education reform movement in general.

“EXPLORE’S founder, Morty Ballen, 42, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where his father ran several delis. A product of Teach for America, he taught English in a high school in Baton Rouge, La., that went from being all white to half-black.”

East Flastbush is one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. Yet, the school’s founder is a TFA guy from the suburbs. Should we really believe that this is all that can be found to run a network that serves some of the most disadvantaged kids in the city? Of all the veteran teachers who have been railroaded out of the system, educators who even lived in the communities they served, is a TFA alum from the suburbs really the best person to guide an educational program for Flatbush children?

Education is not a Peace Corps job. I doubt that Morty Ballen gets paid a Peace Corps salary. At the same time, his entire teaching career speaks to the type of White Man’s Burden thinking that defines most TFA people:

“He taught at an all-black school in South Africa started by a white woman, then at a largely black-and-Hispanic middle school on the Lower East Side. The experiences soaked in.

“I’m very cognizant of my whiteness, and that I have power,” he said. “I need to incorporate this reality in my leadership.”

You would be cognizant of your race too if you constantly put yourself in a position where you are the outsider.

Mr. Ballen is merely the head of the fish. His staff at Explore reflects values that are, well, like his own.

“Marc Engel, a former investment banker turned librarian and media coordinator at Explore, is 53 and white. He frets about power differentials and how to transcend race, how to steer the students’ inner compass.”

This is understandable if you jump from high finance into East Flatbush. Maybe race would not be such an issue if you were able to relate to your kids on a human level: know their speech, know where they come from, the conditions in which they are growing up and the cultural assumptions they share.

Mr. Engel feels a cultural gap because there really is one. It is not due strictly to the color of his skin, but from the place where he is coming and the children he tries to reach.

“Darren Nielsen, 25, white, from Salt Lake City, is in his second year teaching, assigned to third grade. Last year, when he taught fourth grade, a student got miffed at him and said, “Oh, this white guy.” He later spoke to the student about singling out someone in a negative way because of his or her race. He overheard students call one another “light-skinned crackers” and “dark-skinned crackers.”

I laughed at this one because it is so typically NYC. I can totally imagine a nine-year-old black girl saying “oh, this white guy” in reference to her Salt Lake City teacher. As a dean, I saw this type of stuff play out in classrooms all of the time. Students usually make reference to the race of their teacher not because of the color of their teacher’s skin, but because the teacher’s way of communicating is alien to the student. I would venture to guess that Mr. Nielsen was, quite simply, acting like a white guy from Utah.

Well, that world is light years away from Flatbush, Brooklyn. I would turn this into a teachable moment for myself rather than the student. It is an opportunity to change the way you communicate with your students as a teacher. I doubt I would have made as big a deal out of the girl’s comment as he did. The way he handled it seemed to only heighten the child’s consciousness of her race and how different Mr. Nielsen is from her.

But my favorite part of the article, the part that made me dry heave into my hand, was this:

THE sixth-grade social studies students swept into Alexis Rubin’s classroom. She slapped them five, bid them good afternoon. To settle them down, Ms. Rubin said, “Students are earning demerits in one … two …”

She handed out a test on Colonial Williamsburg. She said, “Every scholar in this room will get a sheet of loose-leaf paper for your short response.”

Of Explore’s teachers, Ms. Rubin, 31, is perhaps the keenest about openly addressing race. She is in her third year at the school, is white and grew up on the Upper West Side.

Outside school, she is the co-chairperson of Border Crossers, an 11-year-old organization troubled by New York’s segregated system that instructs elementary-school teachers how to talk about race in the classrooms……

Ms. Rubin does Border Crossers exercises with her students like MeMaps, in which both students and teachers list characteristics about themselves, then create a “diversity flower,” with petals listing each participant’s unique traits.

What a way to motivate your class: threaten them with demerits. If you do that when a guy from the Times is there, what do you do when he is not there?

Ms. Rubin is from one of the wealthiest Congressional districts in the nation. While she is from NYC and has a leg-up on the school’s founder in that regard, the Upper West Side and Flatbush are different worlds all the same. Seeing as how she instructs other teachers on how to talk about race, she must have a leg up on all the new TFA people coming into the NYC system as well.

And what is Border Crossers’ way of solving the race chasm in NYC classrooms? That’s right, a “diversity flower”. I smelled the liberal guilt through my computer screen when I read that one.

The race issue will not be solved with “diversity flowers”, nor will it be solved by all the richies from the Upper West Side and the suburbs having pow-wows about the best way to say the word “black” in front of black kids.

Every diversity flower and every discussion about how to broach the topic of race is a step further away from building those bridges you seek with your students, Ms. Rubin. They dehumanize children by treating them like problems to be solved or riddles to be figured out.

This is the problem with the driving philosophy behind charter schools and Teach for America. It is the idea that outsiders know best how to teach poor students. People from the community have nothing to offer. After all, they might treat and talk to their students like actual human beings and we cannot have that now, can we?

The major impact of all of these factors can be found towards the beginning of the article:

Explore students wear uniforms and have a longer school day and year than the students in the other schools in the building, schools with which they have a difficult relationship. A great deal of teaching is done to the state tests, the all-important metric by which schools are largely judged. In the hallway this spring, before the tests, a calendar counted down the days remaining until the next round.

Explore’s academic performance has been inconsistent. Last year, the school got its charter renewed for another five years, and this year, for the first time, three students, including Jahmir, got into specialized high schools. Yet, on Explore’s progress report for the 2010-11 school year, the Education Department gave it a C (after a B the previous year). In student progress, it rated a D.

“We weren’t doing right by our students,” Mr. Ballen said.

In response, a new literacy curriculum was introduced and greater emphasis was put on applauding academic achievement. School walls are emblazoned with motivational signs: “Getting the knowledge to go to college”; “When we graduate … we are going to be doctors.” Teachers are encouraged to refer to students as “scholars.”

And when did any of the people at Explore, from the founder to the teachers, ever stand up and say that these exams are wrong for their students? When did they ever say that, given the poverty and hopelessness they see on a daily basis, testing is the last thing their kids need? When did they ever call for better jobs, housing, investment or more humane treatment for the people of Flatbush?

Certainly not in this article.

No, it is all about getting along in the system. It is all about making those bucks by opening up more privatized charters. It is all about padding your resume and salving you guilty liberal conscious by teaching in Flatbush.

Merely calling students “scholars” and posting a bunch of saccharine clichés all around the school will do the trick. That will certainly overcome decades and centuries of oppression. Why did I not think of that? I have been living in the city all of my life, hanging out in ghettos and projects and teaching poor children and not once did I ever think that all they needed was some nice-sounding words to make things all better.

What we need, actually, are home-grown teachers from the communities who have shared in the struggles of their students. What we need are teachers who do not need diversity flowers. What we need are teachers who understand that their students are human beings first, not “minorities”. What we need are teachers who make social activism and political consciousness part of their job description.

And this is exactly the type of teacher the education reformers do not want. Instead, they want friendly faces who have zero attachment or dedication to the communities they serve. They want a generation of schools that will force kids to wear uniforms, march in order and fill in bubbles. We want teachers who will give “demerits” if students do not toe the line exactly as they are told.

After all, there are “no excuses”. Poverty, race, crime, none of these are “excuses” for filling in the wrong bubbles on exams. All the kids of Flatbush need is some discipline. They need role models from Utah, Wall Street and the suburbs to instill that discipline. This is the new magic bullet in education: educational imperialism.

This is the new White Man’s Burden.