Charter schools were conceived as places for innovation so the lessons learned from these experiments can be shared with all schools to help them improve.
After twenty years of such experimentation, there is finally one very clear strategy charters have cultivated to narrow the achievement gap for their students. The strategy, unfortunately, is not very profound or legal. It is a strategy that I figured out myself after only one month of teaching.
Put very simply, the strategy that charters have proved effective is: Keep the bottom 15% of the kids away from the top 50% of the kids.
I remember thinking this during my first year of teaching. In each class there were five or six kids who I was unable to control for various reasons. I could only send a few to the office, but when a few were absent and I could send the remaining ones to the office, I was able to accomplish a lot more that period. Now of course it was my own incompetence that made me unable to teach those five or six kids, but under the circumstances there was a real dilemma. Should five or six kids be denied the opportunity to learn or should all thirty-four kids be denied the opportunity to learn? From a strictly utilitarian point of view, denying the bottom five or six kids was ‘good’ for the group, on average.
After my first book, Reluctant Disciplinarian, came out, I was working as a software engineer and I showed the book to one of my co-workers, who had just moved to the United States from India. He said he was fascinated by the book, but was in disbelief that such a book should be necessary. Most of the book is about how to be better at classroom management. And the book certainly conveys that it is hard, part art, part science. My co-worker’s reaction was based on his experience growing up in India where classroom management was not, apparently, an issue that teachers had to worry about. Students behaved or they were kicked out of school. Teachers would never have to spend a large percent of their energy manipulating kids into listening.
‘No Excuses’ charter schools sometimes get higher test scores than their non-charter neighbors. When you ask their leaders what their secret is, they generally say that they have great teachers who they offer flexibility to in exchange for accountability. I think that the charters really think that this is the cause of their increased test scores. But I think that it is because, as a result of their strict discipline they manage to keep the bottom 15% of the kids away from the top 50% of the kids.
That this ‘works,’ and helps test scores increase incrementally, is not surprising to me. But once we realize that this is what the source of their success is, we have to ask whether 1) this is ethical?, and 2) is this the most efficient way of accomplishing the strategy of keeping the bottom 15% of the kids away from the top 50% of the kids?
I’d argue ‘no’ on both questions, but I can certainly see why many people might think that it is ethical. After all, is it fair that a small group of kids get to ‘rob’ education from their classmates? Certainly this isn’t what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote about free public education. If he could look ahead 200 years and see teachers needing to read books about classroom management, he would surely say that this wasn’t what he had in mind.
But if it is ethical to deprive the bottom 15% of their education for the benefit of the top 50%, and since charter schools are doing it, at least, in effect, then let’s think about how this might be accomplished more efficiently. Right now the process of keeping the bottom 15% away from the top 50% is like one of those unnecessarily complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions.
Uninformed Parent (A), fails to fill out ‘choice’ application. Informed Parent (B) is told after student ‘wins’ lottery that the school does not have services for the special needs of her child. Other informed parent (C) is told that if the student is late too many times, the student will get expelled. Since informed parent (C) does not have a reliable car, she ‘chooses’ not to enroll her child at that school. Struggling student (D) is told that since the school has extra ‘high expectations’ that he has to ‘choose’ between being left back or transferring to a different school. Within three years of this, most of the bottom 15% have been eliminated.
Since we’re doing this anyway, maybe the lesson we learn from charters is that we should simply not allow the bottom 15% to come to school in the first place. This would save a lot of time and energy. I’d rather they do it this way, so at least we’d all be admitting it, and we’d have to really decide if this is a just system.
Rather than end here with an obviously satirical view, I do think there there is something to the fundamental problem that a small group of kids can ‘ruin it’ for the majority of kids. Why do teachers have to be so talented at classroom management? Classroom management issues are why teachers quit and why they leave ‘bad’ schools to go to ‘good’ ones. Rather than deny the bottom 15% an education, maybe we should have a much more strict discipline code where teachers don’t have to spend so much energy with classroom management. In New York City, there is not even such thing as ‘at home suspension.’ Kids get suspended to different schools that have detention centers. I think power has shifted a bit too far to the kids. More discipline at an administrative level would help prevent a few kids from preventing the majority of kids from learning. Maybe we don’t need to eliminate the bottom 15%, just keep them in line.
Of course it isn’t that simple. There is something good about management being the almost full responsibility of the teacher. The best way to manage is to prevent discipline problems. And the best way to prevent discipline problems is to teach well, not confuse the kids, and keep them engaged in work that is an appropriate level. If you don’t do those things, you will have discipline problems. Discipline problems, then, offer a sort of ‘feedback loop’ that helps teachers become better. If it was too easy to discipline, teachers might not know if they are confusing their kids.
Still, though, I think that it is pretty crazy that teachers have to spend time thinking about, and practicing, things like the ‘teacher look.’ I don’t know what the right amount of strict discipline there should be, but it should be more than there is now.