A friend has worked in 3 urban middle schools: a charter, a traditional district school, and a district turnaround. He writes:
The range in school culture of the schools where I worked has been pretty dramatic. If I rate them from 1 to 10, with 10 being completely out of control, and 1 being almost no misbehavior, I'd say:
School 1: 8.5 out of 10 (crazy)
School 2: 4 out of 10 (pretty good)
School 3: Was a 3 for a while, but slipped down to 7.
I asked him: do you think the difference is the kids who walk in the door, or the combination of rules/consequences/teachers? He said:
It's not so much the kids. Yes, there is some truth that district schools have a certain percentage more of "behaviorally tougher kids" than a typical charter. It's nowhere near what charter opponents typically believe, but it's real.
The issue is much much more about consistency / integrity of systems being upheld, and having the fortitude to issue severe consequences for what seem like relatively minor misbehaviors early on. The same systems that work in the top charters can work in the district. But the school leader in particular, as well as the teachers, need to both be consistent *and* invest a ton of time in August, September, and October following up with individual students and parents.
I asked him for something that is often misunderstood in building a culture. He replied:
Out of School Suspension for fairly small infractions. It's usually characterized as "inherently bad" in the national discussion recently. And in most traditional schools, it probably is "bad" -- because they don't close the loop with parents. So a kid is just sent home.
Yet when OSS is done well, it activates a level of parental support / attention that is hard to get otherwise. (By well he means clear, authentic communication with parents, a back and forth).
Yes, the parents then often feel some frustration towards the school -- teachers and principal -- if their child gets an OSS. But a good portion of that frustration is appropriately directed to the student. I think that's ultimately productive....the reaction you want is for the parent to communicate "This Is Not Okay." And it's working when a kid will say "Mom is getting on my case." (It's the very sort of home support that teachers wish could happen without any school intervention).
The alternative, "in-school suspension," where a student alone works in a different room, usually on some assigned work that's supposed to be akin to what is happening in class, that healthy parent reaction almost never happens. (Wish it did. Would be easier. Also, while technically the kid is "in school" and therefore not watching TV or getting into other types of trouble, seems rare that lots of actual learning is happening during ISS. How could it? If the teacher is essential, which she is, then how could simply handing kid a pile of work lead to a ton of learning?)
Like all consequences, out-of-school suspension doesn't "work" on everyone -- perhaps 25% of students are unfazed. Just like speeding tickets deter lots of people, but not everyone. Still, that doesn't lead to outlawing speeding tickets.
Yet I believe even the "heavy hitters" are better off. If OSS can play a big role with 75% of kids behaving well, and create a positive climate overall, then even the "tougher kids" benefit in 2 ways....first, there's more teacher time available to reach out to those more troubled kids, since teachers are less taxed by other kids; second, it's easier for tougher kids to stay focused, because of Broken Windows.
Food for thought.
It's also interesting that folks want anonymity when discussing school culture and discipline. I.e., teachers are more comfortable discussing curriculum, testing, etc. But almost any comment on discipline can lead to someone attacked (too mean or too lax).
I wonder if that's one reason why stressful, negative school culture issues hasn't changed much in the 20 years I've been around schools. That even talking about the issue is challenged -- most teachers feel silenced -- so it's never solved nor ameliorated.
Many teachers ultimately vote with their feet: often from high-poverty schools to middle-class ones, or simply out of the profession.