Lost at School

1. Ross G

A new Mother Jones magazine article is entitled "What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?"

Psychologist Ross Greene, who has taught at Harvard and Virginia Tech, has developed a near cult following among parents and educators who deal with challenging children. What Richard Ferber’s sleep-training method meant to parents desperate for an easy bedtime, Greene’s disciplinary method has been for parents of kids with behavior problems, who often pass around copies of his books, The Explosive Child and Lost at School, as though they were holy writ.

His model was honed in children’s psychiatric clinics and battle-tested in state juvenile facilities, and in 2006 it formally made its way into a smattering of public and private schools. The results thus far have been dramatic, with schools reporting drops as great as 80 percent in disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and incidents of peer aggression. “We know if we keep doing what isn’t working for those kids, we lose them,” Greene told me. “Eventually there’s this whole population of kids we refer to as overcorrected, overdirected, and overpunished. Anyone who works with kids who are behaviorally challenging knows these kids: They’ve habituated to punishment.”

Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

2. Ben

I asked Ben Marcovitz for this thoughts here.  Ben is one of the most thoughtful educators I know. Here is a recent story about his New Orleans charter schools, called Collegiate Academies, and their efforts to launch programs to serve students with severe special needs.

Ben's organization recently went from a suspension rate of 50+% annually to one below 5% annually.  They did this all through restorative programs (which he says costs 'a boatload of money').  So I asked him for his thoughts on the article.  

Ben writes:

A. What the article gets right:

• I love me some Ross Greene. Lost At School is a landmark. The view that behavioral skill deficits should be treated with a similar mindset to academic skill deficits has no downside I can think of, and generally tends to benefit both the teachers who have that mindset, the the kids they teach.

• Skinner-esque behavioralism does not benefit all kids. It will almost always fail as a one-size-fits-all measure for student populations with any diversity at all.

• Greene’s methods aren’t the only ones, but i generally think that using his stuff where behavioralism fails—and indeed with any kid—is typically better than any alternative i know.

B. What the article gets wrong:

Teacher time.

The school profiled in the article? It’s in Central Maine. I’m guessing there’s not a huge number of behavioral challenges. Teachers can do a better job with the few who struggle.

The article—as with so many like it—just doesn’t address how much more time-consuming these approaches are, or how this approach plays out in a school with a tougher population. Without doing that, it fails to recognize the real reason schools don’t tend to do a lot of this: to most it is inconceivable to scale these methods across a school, with the skill level most teachers have (and the time they have). The implication can be to vilify educators who don’t use these methods, painting them as retributive tyrants who just “get mad” at kids who misbehave (sometimes true), rather than teachers who wish they had time for more effective interventions (more often true).

Let’s take a typical high-poverty school. Teachers may be already working overtime to keep academics above water. The Greene approach leads to some very tough choices. You’re basically telling hard-working teachers to either put in many more hours per week, or to substitute academic work (planning lessons, tutoring strugglers after school, using data, meeting with other teachers) for 1:1 conversations with students about strategies.

Collegiate Academies were able to partially bypass this tough choice. We are fortunate in that our academic success has led to fundraising prowess, which I suspect many traditional schools don’t have. So our team includes:

• additional aides to help our kids with special needs in more specialized ways
• additional tutors to close a giant grade-level math/reading gap across the board in our schools
• additional mental health personnel to confront the extraordinary trauma our student population faces as a whole
• more robust extra-curriculars to invest kids who’ve had a terrible relationship with school for ten years before finding us
• a national recruitment program to find the best possible adults to help in all of the above

C. What the article doesn’t address

• It’s true, I think, that the typical high-poverty public schools in the USA are a mess. That is probably true of many “typical” charter schools. I’m not sure, however, that these schools are flourishing when they adopt restorative justice. Time-strapped teachers already on the brink? I’d like to see some reporting there.

• The outlier group of high-performing charters, however, often combine “traditional consequences” with lots of joy, consistency, and proactive parent outreach. For every 1 kid who gets detention and it makes their behavior worse, there are 10 who initially learned to curb their negative impulses in order to avoid detention. That is a big omission. In fact, in many schools where teachers have limited time, I wonder about restorative justice versus attending to these 3.

• There remains a big disconnect between teachers who see these highly volatile behaviors each day, and those outsiders who are most concerned with discipline “reform” (whether scholars, activists, parents, reporters, or educators from suburban or selective schools). The RSD in New Orleans held a community roundtable on discipline. They mediated it quite well. They asked the many advocates and community members (both pro-charter and anti-charter) to write down “what behaviors actually warrant suspension?” School folks wrote down things like “purposely urinating on school property” and “throwing a staple gun at a teacher’s head.” The activists who opposed suspension tended to say things like “verbal sexual harassment” and “refusing directions more than once.” Wow! They were “harder” on kids than we (the supposed hardliners) were! Which just goes to show, many of the activists are not sitting with a teacher, embedded for a full week or two, to see the true range of behaviors that a teacher sees. Because then I believe we’d agree on a lot more.

3. My thoughts (just speaking for myself, not Match)

It's hard to use public policy to tell teachers what to do -- that goes for everything, not just discipline.  It just seems like the Law of Unintended Consequences tends to win most of the time, when you regulate from afar.  

I tend to like the combination of: school choice for teachers, school choice for parents, transparency on the policies (stated rules and consequences), transparency on the outcomes.  

The last one seems quite problematic right now.  We're in a period where discipline outcomes are measured by suspensions and expulsions.  That drives the public narrative.  Because that data is available!  Wow, that is a huge problem.  

Measuring just on suspensions is like measuring football entirely on turnovers.  Yes, you would like to avoid them.  But at what price?  You can avoid fumbles by handing it to a sure-handed beefy runner....but maybe one who is slow not very good at helping your team score.  You can avoid interceptions by never passing, etc.  That's not a recipe for success.  If you cut suspensions, but teacher departure rises, student enrollment falls, and achievement falls -- is that a good outcome? 

I would think most people would agree: we care about "total climate."  That would include - what's the typical class like?  How many minutes are lost to misbehavior?  How much authentic positive stuff happens?  Is there legit joy, smiling, laughter (that doesn't come from teasing other kids, or being rude to the teacher, etc)?  How often does the teacher make what Ted Sizer called the compromise -- give easy academic work in exchange for no flagrant misbehavior?  What about the hallways between class, or the lunchroom, or the bathroom -- what are they like?  Are some kids scared?  Bullied?  

I like the NYC approach to measuring school climate.  Multiple measures.  They survey parents, teachers, and kids each year.  Here, take a look at this snapshot from Bayside High, a big school in Queens.  These are student responses. 

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You can read the whole Bayside High report here.   

Unfortunately, my sense is: this wonderful NYC data is too buried to drive the policy conversation.  Maybe I'm wrong.

Is anyone aware of scholars and reporters digging deep into this data set?  Is there any other data set in the USA just as good?  

I think it'd be hugely productive to identify NYC schools which have made progress in "Total Climate" -- and then study why.  Sometimes you'll just find good old-fashioned leadership and teamwork, without any fancy new policies.  

And to study the "low tail" as well -- which NYC schools have culture which plummeted.  I suspect sometimes you'd find that a few key staff departed, and it turned out "They were the glue that held it all together."