kitchen table math, the sequel: Palisadesk on violence on schools & bad principals

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Palisadesk on violence on schools & bad principals

On the question of whether some schools are more violent than others, palisadesk writes:
I can speak to this with some assurance. I have been in 3 schools in the last decade, all within the same neighborhood (if you positioned them on a map, they would make an uneven triangle, each less than a mile from the others).

The area has a great deal of gang activity, drug dealing, drive-by shootings and vandalism, little of which is evident in the daytime; except for drug paraphernalia in the parking lot and conspicuous police cars, I rarely see any evidence of crime. We have had several lockdowns due to armed suspects in the area, and the school is locked down until police inform us it is safe. The reason they give is that they don't want an offender entering a school and attempting to take hostages.

Actual crime is really not that big a deal for the most part. Crime and violence in elementary schools has not, in my experience, ever been a big issue (I am talking K-8 elementary), and has not increased in my experience.

But, violence in elementary schools does occur and is of a lesser order than crime. It includes the usual bullying and schoolyard fights that have always been with us, occasionally punctuated by an incident of a student with a weapon. Violence and disorder are more of the disruption and uncontrolled-behavior sort, where there are kids running around unsupervised, taunting, harassment in the bathrooms, egregious swearing and opprobrious epithets, minor assaults, mostly against each other but also staff, etc.

A measurable portion (I wouldn't want to estimate an exact percentage) is due to increased numbers of mentally ill children and children with severe autism. Whereas we used to have other facilities for kids with real psychiatric disorders, most of them have been closed, and those children are in our schools, often with no support. Most children with autism are also included in general ed classes, although we do have some segregated programs as well.

Given all that, there is a huge difference among the last three schools where school climate and student behavior are concerned. The poverty level is about the same; school size about the same (550-700), demographics about the same (1-2% white, 2-3% Asian, a mixture of many black and brown subgroups). No middle class families.

Yet, school A, where I spent 8 years, was pretty well-disciplined and positive, with some good strategies for dealing with offenders and problems WITHOUT using suspension and expulsion. For one thing, suspension rewards the ones who don't want to be there in the first place, and they misbehave on purpose to get a free pass to the mall for a few days.

After a change in administration, however, things started to slide, and now, 5 years later, the place is a zoo and its academic standing is practically the lowest in the district where it was formerly respectably in the middle. School B had a lot of neighborhood issues due to being in the middle of a housing project (so non-students were often on the grounds etc), and the older students were more likely to be involved in undesirable extracurriculars. Still, the environment was relatively calm and classes orderly and children learning -- but one knew that it was a matter of constant vigilance.

Now I am at school C, a Frisbee throw away, and it is a completely different world. I am told it was pretty much like the first two some years back but a new principal came in and over time it has become a high-achieving, calm, enthusiastic place. The staff are outstanding, families love the school and support it in a variety of ways, we have lots of special activities to help kids broaden their horizons and gain background knowledge (principal is an active campaign for sponsors for different projects). In 4 years I have never seen or heard of a student fight, playground brawl or weapons issue. No drugs.

Academically, we outperform not only all the other schools in the (low-SES) area, but many of the middle-class and upper-class ones as well.

I think strong leadership of the best kind is what is needed -- and is in very short supply. An outstanding principal can transform a school (incrementally), and a bad one -- and I have worked for several -- can destroy one for years to come.

With all the yadda yadda about good teachers and bad teachers, you would think we would hear something about bad principals, the harm they do, and the need for great ones.

I've been active in reform efforts for a long time and the silence is deafening.
I completely agree, though I think NCLB focused much more on the school, as opposed to the teacher. At least from my perspective, it's been the Race to the Top era that has produced such a single-minded focus on the individual teacher.

Which reminds me....Sandra Stotsky has just posted a comparison of NCLB to RttT.

It's obvious to me we're not going to fix schools by linking teacher evaluations to Common Core tests. (Just typing those words -- 'fix schools by linking teacher evaluations to Common Core tests' -- plunges me into yet another Something happened in 1985 reverie.)

The person at the top sets the tone, and the person at the top is the principal. Individual teachers can't create a school climate. ("It's the culture, stupid.")

By happenstance, just this week I read an op-ed titled: What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?

Agree completely with this passage:
The first [incorrect] belief is that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” This statement became known in education policies through the influential McKinsey & Company report titled “How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top”. Although the report takes a broader view on enhancing the status of teachers by better pay and careful recruitment this statement implies that the quality of an education system is defined by its teachers. By doing this, the report assumes that teachers work independently from one another. But teachers in most schools today, in the United States and elsewhere, work as teams when the end result of their work is their joint effort.

The role of an individual teacher in a school is like a player on a football team: all teachers are vital, but the culture of the school is even more important for the quality of the school. Team sports offer numerous examples of teams that have performed beyond expectations because of leadership, commitment and spirit. Take the U.S. ice hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, when a team of college kids beat both Soviets and Finland in the final round and won the gold medal. The quality of Team USA certainly exceeded the quality of its players. So can an education system.
I had a shocking experience of this phenomenon nearly two years ago.

I had attended Morningside Academy's Summer Institute, and had student taught there.

After that experience, I visited another precision-teaching school.

The difference was shocking.

I remember reading the same thing on the DI list. Even when a school is using Direct Instruction curricula and the teachers are well-trained, school culture is still the most important factor determining whether students actually learn. (I probably can't find that email any more, but that's what I recall.)


Hainish said...

I think your example argues against the inverse statement: The quality of the teaching cannot exceed the quality of the system.

Anonymous said...

--Individual teachers can't create a school climate. ("It's the culture, stupid.")

Well, if an individual teacher can't, why is it different for a principal? Often it isn't.

Some schools are teacher driven; the principals and supers come and go, but the school doesn't change. Some schools are admin driven; teachers come and go but the school doesn't change. Some schools are just dysfunctional. Getting everything right is tricky, and it is easy to degrade from that, and precious hard to build to it.

An individual does not often, or even usually, determine the culture even if they are at the top. That is why *leaders* matter. It is unusual for anyone to change the status quo.

Cultures are their own organisms, exhibiting homeostasis. Change even a large fraction the individuals, and strangely enough, the organism behaves as it did before. This is why dorms, churches, and companies maintain culture, even when 25% of the people in them change yearly. The incoming individuals in them learn their place, typically. Despite their personality and preferences, the individuals learn to take on the traits the organism expects. Usually this is subconscious, and yet, like clockwork.

I look at it more like leadership in companies: even after decades of time and effort studying models of leadership, the business world still has precious few companies that get it right, and even gen, it is transient. Talented leadership is rare and difficult to cultivate. Aligning the stars for it is tremendous hard work and not an insignificant amount of luck.

Moat school districts have few or no processes in place that naturally encourage leadership. There is no formula for success that is widgetizable other than the high level "hire the best people, and hold them accountable for their choices", and that isn't on the table in most districts for reasons too numerous to mention here.

Auntie Ann said...

I finally got around to reading the what if Finnish teachers taught here article, and found the whole thing naive when it comes to the American system. Again and again the argument went back to education schools accepting better applicants and making the entry process more competitive. Nowhere was the quality of education schools themselves discussed, nor the actual training that teachers receive there. Since there have been studies which show ed school is often irrelevant to teacher quality, with non-traditionally trained teachers doing just as well after training-in in real classrooms, you have to question what role ed schools are actually playing. Yes, taking better students into a weak ed school system will improve things, but only because you have better-educated people to begin with, not because they went to ed school.

The author seemed to assume that once you get good people into ed school, they will come out the other side as magnificent and brilliant teachers who should be allowed to use their fabulous magical teaching skills to develop their classrooms independently with little external supervision, because they are oh, so fabulous!

I find that laughable.

lgm said...

Suspension is not effective if they just go hang out. What is done here is alternative school, in school suspension,l or homebound for middle and high school. The police and school and sometimes a judge partner with the family to come up with a solution. Elementary uses a lot of 1:1 aides for the violent and those that cant or wont cooperate...they leave the classroom if disruptive and work with the staff to get to the pont where the6 can participate.
Based on comments at school board meetings, many of the families feel it is not appropriate to expect a student not to bring street behavior into the classroom and use it on the teacher. The principals and law enforcement spend a lot of time educating those folks, pointing out the behavior necessary to be legally employed in a profession other than wrestling.