NPR and School Discipline

Guest blog by Ross T.

This American Life recently did an extended inquiry into a broken nationwide school discipline system. It's worth a listen. 

Like many who read this blog, I've had my own journey in school discipline.  Over time, as a Creative Writing and English teacher, I realized that it's possible (though challenging) to create a positive climate that is both warm and strict.  Both parts are hard.  The strict meant enforcing rules consistently.  The warm meant many, many hours of my time out of class building relationships with each kid (and often their parents, through phone calls).  Whether it's possible to maintain the "warm" for many years of teaching, especially when you have your own family, is a topic for another time. 

Now to the NPR story. There's a moment where Reporter Chana Jaffe-Walt has just finished interviewing middle school teacher Rousseau Mieze about his professional journey—from “No Excuses” student in Boston to “No Excuses” teacher in Brooklyn—when she witnesses him giving a demerit to a student for talking during a silent transition.

The occurrence is “super confusing” to her, because Mr. Mieze had previously expressed ambivalence about how his own high school had punished him for not being able to stay quiet. According to Jaffe-Walt, Mieze is motivated to exert control in this way by the same thing that motivated his teachers: Fear. Fear for the well-being of their students, fear that they “won’t graduate, won’t get to college, will get suspended or arrested for horsing around or being rowdy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I can relate. I felt that fear, for my own part. What follows next, though, I disagree with. 

Jaffe-Walt then says that while Mieze is trying to relinquish some control over his students, “his fear gets in the way.”  The implication is that he knows that the discipline he enacts is wrongheaded, but a sort of hysteria of good intentions blinds his better judgment. And this strict disciplinary road, paved with good intentions, could lead Mieze’s students to prison.

TAL framed Mieze’s vignette by discussing the “Schools to Prison Pipeline,” a theory that demonstrates how disciplinary measures like school suspensions—disproportionately leveled against students of color—correlate with future incarceration. The idea is that minority kids will get suspended (often unfairly), miss school, become frustrated and garner more suspensions by misbehaving out of frustration. Moreover, this cycle of punishment could lead to students self-perceiving as “bad kids.”

It will be possible to empirically measure Jaffe-Walt's argument.  Economists like MIT's Josh Angrist are tracking No Excuses charter school grads against "lottery losers" who vied for admission but didn't get in.  We already know the charter school kids do way better on state exams.  In the coming years, we'll learn if these charters actually drive college outcomes much higher, income higher, and things like going to prison -- lower. 

Right now, I could offer my own “anecdata,” stories about gang-involved kids I’ve known at Match in Boston and KIPP in Oakland who reported that a charter teacher changed their lives. But ultimately, social scientists like Angrist can have the last word. 

As a contrast to Mieze’s school, Achievement First Bushwick in Brooklyn, NPR looks at a nearby middle and high school called Lyons Community School. Lyons employs a restorative justice discipline system wherein students that misbehave or make poor decisions are guided through various layers of staff and student-led reflection and mediation.

Jaffe-Walt is clearly impressed with the commitment to dialogue, and introduces us to multiple students who have been “Lyonized,” or transformed into more reflective, socially adept community members. It’s a glowing report. The exposé concludes with an anecdote about a group of Lyons students being victimized on the subway by an antagonistic police officer, in a confrontation where an uncompromising criminal justice system holds sway, not reconciliation and restoration.

Interestingly, TAL didn’t discuss academic results or student outcomes of either AF Bushwick or Lyons. (The AF school earned straight As on its 2012-13 DOE progress report, while Lyons’ middle school earned Ds and Cs, and its high school had lower graduation rates than peer schools in its district.  Remember that these academic results are based in part of gains -- so AF can't earn a high score by attracting top kids.)

NPR’s decision not to include academic results in their story is in this way a curious one. Perhaps they complicated the story too much.

It might be fairly said that a No Excuses charter schools strive to prepare students for the world as they will find it: a place where a college degree is still the best salve against intergenerational poverty; where the criminal justice system may prosecute you unfairly based on your race; where you must succeed in the system before you can transform it.

And it might fairly be said that a school like Lyons strives to prepare students for the world as it should be: a place where measured discussion takes place between antagonists; where rehabilitation and reconciliation are privileged over punishment.

But which ethos is the right one? Clearly it’s more complicated than that. Herein lies Mr. Mieze’s well-articulated ambivalence about his own “No Excuses” education, without which he believes he would not even have attended college.

Sure, he is afraid for his students. Who among us is not? But I suspect it’s not a hysterical fear that leads him to and say things that—deep down—he knows are misguided. Rather, it’s the justified fear that without a diploma they won’t even have a fighting chance to do their part to remake an imperfect society.

I will reach out to Mr. Mieze and see if he'd be willing to comment.  I'd be curious to hear his reaction to the story.

Guest Post: Best Math Class Ever?

Hi folks,

Today's post is by Paul Friedmann.  Paul himself is an excellent math teacher at Boston's Edward Brooke Charter School.  He visited a couple charters in Chicago.  He writes:

Best Math Class in America?

Regular readers of this blog know that I have strong opinions about math instruction (understatement of the year?). I’ve been teaching 7th grade math in two Boston charter schools for over 10 years now and I’ve gotten to see lots of different teachers at my schools and other schools I’ve visited. Some have been great; others have been meh. I’ve learned something from all of them. Usually, though, it’s been an incremental thing. Last week, though, I watched a class that forever changed my perspective on what a math class can be.

A group of seven of us from Brooke flew out to Chicago for the day to see math instruction at two schools in the Noble network.

One was Chicago Bulls College Prep near the United Center. We saw their principal, Tyson Kane, teach AP Calculus AB.

It’s a tiny room and already felt crowded with 7 visitors before the kids came it. When they arrived, they immediately procured chairs for each of us (like dwarves in a hobbit hole) and quickly rearranged the desks in the cramped room into 4 pods of 6-7 students. All the students were seniors, primarily African-American and Latino, and seemed relaxed, but focused as they strolled in and took out their homework. Tyson came in, chatted with the students a bit, and then quickly said “4 minutes.” Immediately, the groups started discussing their previous night’s homework with a high level of focus. There were three questions on the assignment, but they were only focused on the first one. It became clear that none of them were really confident about their answers. They all had some part of it done, but they were working furiously to figure it out together. And then it became clear why. Tyson’s watch beeped, he turned to a student, and said, “Let’s do it.”

The expectation was that the student would be able to speak coherently for two minutes about the problem. That’s a high pressure situation, but the student did well...for about 30 seconds.

When she started to falter, he said, “ So you need more time. Cool. Two more minutes.”

And the kids dove right back into the problem with their groups. After two minutes, he called on another student who attempted the same thing.

This cycle of two minutes of group work, followed by a student being put on the spot to explain the problem, continued until he felt they all had it. It took about 40 minutes to finish the problem.

During group time, Tyson almost never talked to the students. When students were “on stage,” he would occasionally intervene, usually when kids were being vague or unclear. The word “it” and other non-specific pronouns were verboten. As a result, the vocabulary usage was outstanding. Sometimes, a student would ask a probing question if the speaker was finished. Most of the time, though, Tyson sent it back to the groups so they could refine their understanding. At one point, he thought that about 30% of them had the answer satisfactorily, so he sent it back to the groups so that the other 70% could nail it down. After that, a few students were still unsure about one part of the problem. He asked one of them to do the 2 minute drill, and she still struggled. When they came out of group, she was not really gung ho about trying again, but her team rallied behind her and she acquitted herself well.

It was amazing to see this group of kids, with a little prodding and no direct instruction, develop a precise description of this complex calculus problem as a team. Powerful stuff.

Key Takeaways:

Homework was limited, but completely relevant; it was preparation for the next day’s class. This wasn’t practice, but a problem-solving exercise that they needed to tackle at home. According to both kids and teacher, everyone always did their homework for fear of not being able to contribute to the team the next day. Teacher never checked HW; it was too shameful for students to skip it so he could assume it was done.
The kids did all the heavy lifting - both in and out of class - but they didn’t do it in isolation.

Precision was the name of the game. Kids needed to be precise to meet expectations. New vocabulary, notation, etc. was introduced on homework and was expected to be used in class.

Tyson believed, and got his students to believe, that they could figure out the answer themselves. This was not the cliche of teamwork; this was inspiring teamwork.

The group was the key to learning. By having more than one or two minds working together on a problem, the ability to problem solve was enhanced in major ways.

Tyson believed that even the most confused kid in class would be able to give a two minute oration on the problem before the class could move on.

Key Questions:

How does this work with mixed ability classes?

How does this work with younger kids?

How do kids master these skills without much practice?

How do you write three questions per day that hit the exact point you want to make?


Tyson said that last year, 75% of the class passed the AP exam with about 30% earning the top score of 5.

If you ever get a chance to see this class, don’t pass it up. It’s amazing!

Mike G again:

Thanks Paul.  Since the Chicago Bulls will crush the Boston Celtics this year, I'd be remiss if I didn't tout Boston's competence in this area as well.  Match teacher Eddie Jou had 90% of his class pass the AP Calc exam last year.  Sounds like we could get a friendly competition going....?  The Escalante Cup? 

Widget Effect Revisited

TNTP had a blog series last week.  They looked at the 5 years since their report called The Widget Effect.  Tim Daly writes:

The paper identified a striking and nearly universal problem in America’s schools: a near total failure to acknowledge differences in teacher effectiveness. Each place we looked (and we examined a diverse set of 12 school districts spanning four states), we found that schools were treating teachers like interchangeable parts—as though one were the same as any other.

We called this phenomenon “the widget effect,” and it manifested itself in many different ways. Most notably, we found that virtually all teachers were rated “good” or “great” on their formal evaluations, and that almost nobody was rated poorly.

If a report (plus a larger policy effort) is measured by "Did public awareness change?  Are there new laws?"...the answer was yes.  Newspapers hit this issue frequently.  30 states passed new laws or regs.

And yet.  Tim continues:

But there’s a hard truth that must be admitted: the widget effect is nearly as strong today as it was in 2009. It persists in many school systems that have modernized their teacher evaluations—and in the even greater number that have made few or no changes. Across the country, nearly all teachers are still rated “good” or “great.”

Most teachers are still not getting the honest feedback they deserve as professionals. Excellence is still not being recognized—not with raises, promotions, or even a pat on the back. And poor performance is still going unaddressed, to the point where we found in our 2012 report The Irreplaceables that approximately 40 percent of teachers with more than seven years of experience are performing at or below the level of a brand-new teacher.

In short, the culture of indifference toward instructional quality endures. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since a problem that accumulated over generations was never going to disappear in a few years. Still, these early results have understandably sparked a conversation about whether all the focus on teacher evaluations has been worth it, and whether it really has the potential to transform schools for the better over the long run.

We think the answer is “yes,” but the question deserves serious discussion.

Some good additional policy thoughts on the TNTP blog are here.



2013-2014 School Results

Guest post by Stig Leschly, CEO of Match Education

Hi all.  Stig here.

We just posted our full school results from 2013-14 on AP exams, the SAT, MCAS and college success, as well as our final attrition and demographics statistics for the year.

You can see all the numbers here, in our annual letter.  It was our strongest year ever, we think.

And below are three scatter plots that capture a few of the major plot lines from 2013-14 in our schools.

Scatter Plot 1: Student Attrition

In 2013-14, attrition across our schools was 8% from September to September. Our elementary grades had 4% attrition, our middle school grades had 13% attrition, and our high school grades had 8% attrition.   These are low numbers.  The graph below plots attrition for all public schools in Boston. 

Scatter Plot 2: Advanced Placement Exams

Our AP results sky-rocketed in last year.  Specifically, in 2013-14, 72% of juniors and seniors at Match participated in at least one AP class. And 51% of AP exams administered to our high-school students in 2013-14 resulted in a passing grade (3+).  We found out last week that Match High School had more African-American students pass calculus than any other high school in Massachusetts.

Scatter Plot 3: MCAS Growth

Our MCAS scores in 2013-14 were stronger than ever.  As importantly (maybe more importantly), equally strong were our student growth rates on MCAS.  In Massachusetts, Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) measure how students perform on MCAS compared to peers state-wide who have similar prior MCAS results.  For example, a student with an SGP of 50% scored average among students state-wide with a comparable MCAS history.  The graph below plots the median student SGPs in math and ELA for all district and charter schools in Boston.

What Students Actually Need to Be College Ready

Hmm.  Maybe one of my readers can check this out?  It's on Rick Hess's Edweek blog

As for the third half-truth, I don't know if you know the work being done by Marc Tucker's NCEE group developing Board Examination Systems (I am on the Technical Advisory Committee). For the first time, we know what students actually need to know to be college-ready, and it's nothing like what most people think!

That piqued my attention.  Anyone want to track it down?