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Ohanian Comment: Petrilli's plan to dump disruptive students so that students willing to sit in neat and tidy rows and do their homework won't be disturbed strikes me as dangerous as well as cruel. For starters, there's a classroom rule that only experienced teachers are aware of: When the "bad" kid is absent, another kid in the class steps up to take his place.

When our middle school opened, I was assigned to teach 7th grade remedial reading in the same room with another teacher who was in charge of the 8th graders. The school operated on a crazy six day schedule, with kids getting remedial reading three days out of six, meaning the kids with the worst reading skills missed half of their regular English classes. "Regular" Language Arts teachers were up in arms. How could they teach "The Red Pony" to kids who were only there half the time (and couldn't read it anyway)?

So the 8th grade teacher and I went to the principals with a plan: Scrap remedial reading. We'll become the Language Arts teachers for the worst readers in the school--but we want them every day. What's more, we want them twice a day. We figured with twice a day, we might be able to help kids get better at reading--and to help them with their other classes.

The principals saw the immediate up side to this plan. The two teachers in the school who never sent kids to the office would take charge of the kids who spent the most time in the office.

So our classes were filled with the kids Petrilli calls a "cancer." He likes to refer to rocket science. It's not rocket science to know that if we kick kids out of school, their problems will just intensify. . . and, in the end, become terrible societal problems.

The real cancer here is to impose an inappropriate curriculum on kids, convincing them they are worthless, when there are plenty of things they can do, given the chance. The real cancer here is a social and economic system that fails to provide for its people, young and old. The real cancer is insisting on shoving square pegs into round holes, on insisting the kid must change and refusing to change the curriculum.

In my twenty years of teaching, by choice I taught 'difficult' kids, most of the time very difficult kids. In that twenty years, I encountered just one kid whom I requested be removed from my class--and from school. I did it for the safety of other students. I remember all the details--because failure sticks to the bones--and the heart. We had to admit we couldn't "manage" that kid, let alone teach him. But we did make radical changes to the curriculum so other hundreds could be successful. I would add that if you keep kids out of the office, nobody looks at the curriculum. I'd also add that we received very positive reaction from parents, who, for eight years or more, had never heard anything good about their kids' school work.

Petrilli worries about disruption. I'd say schools are way too orderly these days.

by Michael J. Petrilli

It's not a particularly new, or radical, idea that schools need to be orderly places. Great teaching and learning takes focus and concentration; constant disruption and anxiety due to chronic violence are the enemies of that.

What is new -- or at least newly controversial -- is the notion that that we need to prioritize the needs of the vast majority of children -- the ones who come to school wanting to learn. Yet the needs of these students are often overlooked in today's debates, as some advocates focus narrowly on the consequences for disruptive kids. To be sure, we should worry about the "school to prison pipeline," and shouldn't suspend or expel students any more frequently than necessary. But we also shouldn't allow disruptive students to hold their classrooms hostage. That's true for all public schools, charter or otherwise.

For eons, excellent schools have found smart ways to create order that need not require large doses of punitive sanctions. It's part art, part science, and comes in many flavors, but generally amounts to creating a climate of respect for students and teachers alike; setting clear behavioral expectations schoolwide and enforcing them consistently; and using a set of graduated consequences for misbehavior that work to correct problems before they get out of hand.

None of this is rocket science, but it's not easy, and unfortunately many schools struggle mightily with creating such a positive climate. In 2004, a third of teachers sampled in a national poll reported that they knew colleagues who left the profession because of discipline problems at their school; the same number said they themselves had considered leaving for the same reason. It seems likely that these sentiments still apply today.

It's no surprise, then, that both parents and educators flock to schools with strong, positive climates and a sense of order. Once upon a time that often meant urban Catholic schools, with their school uniforms and ample supply of tough love. Increasingly it means urban charter schools, many of which are secular forms of the Catholic schools of old.

Because these are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.

This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That's a feature, not a bug.

It's not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools -- especially schools of choice -- that allow their students to flourish.

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is on Twitter.

— Michael J. Petrilli with Ohanian comment
New York Times





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