Peter Greene here explains why he objects to Mike Petrilli’s defense of “no-excuses” charter schools that exclude or push out students they don’t want. Mike is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which supports school choice, vouchers, charters, and high-stakes testing. In an article on the “Bloomberg View” website, Mike argued that disruptive students hurt high-achieving students, so it is appropriate to throw them out so the other students have a chance to reach their full potential.
Imagine that we wanted to prioritize the needs of low-income students who demonstrated the aptitude to achieve at high levels and a willingness to work hard — the kids with the best shot to use a solid education to put poverty behind. What might we do?
First, we would put in place “universal screening” tests to look for gifted students in early elementary schools. We would ask all schools, including those with a high percentage of poor students, to identify at least 10 percent of their students for special programs, and then allow these kids the opportunity to spend part of their day learning with other high-achieving peers, and to go faster or deeper into the curriculum. A recent study by David Card of the University of California at Berkeley and Laura Giuliano of the University of Miami demonstrated that this sort of approach is particularly effective for high-achieving, low-income students.
By middle school, we would embrace tracking so that poor, bright students had access to the same challenging courses that affluent high achievers regularly enjoy, and that are essential if young people are going to get on a trajectory for success in Advanced Placement classes in high school and at more selective colleges.
Finally, we would ensure that schools were safe and orderly places to be — balancing the educational needs of disruptive students with the equally valuable needs of their rule-abiding peers.
Yet in most cities we do very few of these things. This is in large part because many progressives are convinced that any sort of tracking is classist and racist, and amounts to giving up on certain kids, and they have worked to ban it. (Ironically, political leaders in the poorest neighborhoods themselves are asking for more schools for the gifted and talented.) Most accountability systems still work on getting low-performing students up to basic proficiency in reading and math, rather than pushing schools to help all students get as far as they can.
Meanwhile, discipline “reforms” are focused overwhelmingly on reducing punishments, often with little attention to the potential downside for learning in the classroom. Yet as common sense — and solid research — tells us, that downside is real. For instance, a study by the group Public Agenda found that 85 percent of teachers and 73 percent of parents felt the “school experience of most students suffers at the expense of a few chronic offenders.”
Frustrated that the traditional public schools aren’t willing to prioritize their children’s needs, many low-income strivers have turned to high-quality charter schools instead. But now those are under attack, too. In recent weeks, the “PBS Newshour” and “New York Times” had highly critical coverage of Success Academies, charter schools in New York City that have shown excellent results in improving student performance. The reports focused on the academies’ suspending students aggressively and removing those who are chronic disrupters. There were similar controversies over the relatively high rates of suspensions and expulsions at charters in Chicago and Washington in recent years.
Peter Greene takes issue with Petrilli on a number of points.
He writes that he does not want docile and compliant students. I don’t need compliant students. I need students who have some drive and initiative and are occasionally obnoxious because they are excited about stuff. Just in general, I see a real contradiction between striving and complying….
Petrilli talks about disruptive students as if disruptor status is permanently and unwaveringly a thing. The student who is a gigantic, disruptive pain in the butt on Monday may be the shining light on Wednesday. Being a disruptive student is not like being left-handed. For that matter, the student who is absolute disaster in your class may be my top student.
This is betterocracy at work, the notion that some people are just better than others, and that’s just how it is, and the purpose of public institutions like school is to sort out the Betters from the Lessers, allowing the Betters to rise and the Lessers to stay in place, as if every persons level of Betterness is fixed and static, wired into their dna.
Disruptosity is not an absolute, static condition. Worse, talking about “disruptive students” is like talking about “bad kids”– it locks a child into some sort of permanent state that colors all our interactions with him, instead of recognizing that we’re seeing a particular behavior on a particular day, but that behavior is not who the child is.
If a child is disruptive, Greene writes, he wants to know why. I may need to find a way to shut my disruptor down now so I can do my job for the rest of my students. But part of my job is to find out what is going on with the disruptor, because there’s a long list of reasons that a student might act out, and all of those reasons are important to know, particular as a representative of the school that is quite possibly the only place where the child encounters caring, professional adults.
Greene writes that the disruptive students may include some of the smartest students:
Like much of his talk on this subject, his call for universal screening to look for gifted students in elementary school seems to assume that academic aptitude goes hand in hand with striverliness, while not going along with disruptorosity. That is kind of hilarious. Because nobody knows how to spread chaos, disorder, and disruption like a really smart student. Particularly a really smart student who finds himself up against a school that wants him to show how compliant he is.
Greene has a proposal that will solve everyone’s problems with disruptive students:
It’s probably fair to say that there are some students so troubled and challenged that a traditional school setting just doesn’t work for them, and they become chronic disruptors. But that’s a small percentage. And since they are a small percentage of the school population and charters only have capacity for a small percentage of the school population and charter operators claim to know the secrets of making all students from all backgrounds successful, why don’t we do this– let the charters have the disruptors.
The strivers will be left in disruption-free public schools, safe and freed from Those People who interfere with their education. The disruptors will be set straight by the edu-wizards of the charter world. It’s perfect.
Now there is a modest but feasible proposal: Let the charters be the schools that solve the problems of disruptive students, a tiny fraction of the student population. Then everyone would join in the Hallelujah Chorus to charter miracles.