Author: Alex Medler

Beyond Graduation Rate Scandals

Recent scandals in places like Washington, D.C. have prompted debates over high school graduation requirements. Many observers rightfully express concern that students who are unprepared for the next stage of…

Recent scandals in places like Washington, D.C. have prompted debates over high school graduation requirements. Many observers rightfully express concern that students who are unprepared for the next stage of their lives might receive meaningless diplomas. They propose that we strictly enforce requirements.

If we take this advice, presumably fewer people will walk across a stage to receive a diploma they didn’t earn. On the plus side, these changes will make our school systems more honest about what high schools have achieved; and they will better inform graduates about their preparation for higher education. Unfortunately, along the way we may reduce opportunities for many young people to get the help they need to succeed as independent adults. People can argue about who deserves to graduate, however, if we decide to keep more kids from graduating, we should also agree that kids who don’t graduate deserve more public support that will also prepares them for the rest of their lives.

Instead of making a more strictly-enforced sorting device that denies more young people access to a good future, future systems that increase our ability to document a young person’s suitability for further study or training ought to tell us about all young people.  We should learn what dropouts know and can do. That way we can help them all transition to the next stage in their education, training, or work.

Recent years have seen significant increases high school graduation rates. Today’s scandals indicate that some of this increase has more to do with lowering standards than to gains in learning. Many districts now award diplomas to 15 percent more of their students than they did a decade ago. When it comes to the next phase of their lives, however, do we really think the bottom 10 percent of graduates are that different from the top 10 percent of dropouts?  And if both groups need a lot more help to become self-sufficient adults, we ought to not use the diploma to judge who is worthy of our continued support.

Diplomas have different uses for different audiences.  For students, they are a motivation. To be crass, the diploma is a reward for sitting still for four years, behaving as expected, and for doing all the work to master basic material. For employers and higher education institutions, a diploma is expected to certify that a student is ready for the next stage in their learning and growth. For society, leaving high school is a proxy for adult-hood; and the diploma means that the new adult succeeded at being a teenager. But our current diplomas don’t necessarily fulfill each audience’s needs.

Among both graduates and dropouts, there is a wide range in students’ knowledge and skills. Some of these new graduates may be academically closer to the better prepared dropouts than they are other graduates. Admittedly, this is more likely due to a generally poor state preparation than it is to large numbers of dropouts with strong skills.

But there are many dropouts who were doing fine in high school before things went poorly; just as there are many graduates who skated through high school with very low grades in classes that expected little of them.  If we learn more about both types of students, we can help them both.

Most of the debates over high graduation standards focus on attendance. Students were given credit for classes even though they had more absences than allowed in district policy. Technically, they should have failed their courses, which would have meant they didn’t earn enough credit to graduate.

In addition to “seat time”, diplomas signal mastery of content and the student’s ability to persevere and follow rules. But when a young person lacks a diploma, we don’t know why. Some didn’t attend class enough to pass. Others misbehaved. Others, attended and behaved, but didn’t learn the material well enough to pass. Labeling a person as a dropout doesn’t tell us which of these challenges tripped them up, only that they did not achieve all three.

Instead of focusing on what they lack, for both graduates and dropouts, it would help if we could better understand and certify what they have accomplished and what they are able to do. It is helpful to know if they could behave, if they persevered enough to attend regularly, and what they learned and are able to do.  And as we identify these strengths and assets, we can match them to services and programs where they are most likely to succeed. Ideally, more young people can be encouraged to do all the challenging work required in the next step, and we can counsel them to the most appropriate opportunities – where they can gain the skills and knowledge they need for whatever it is they want to do next.

There are some who argue that if we give a diploma away too easily, we “aren’t doing them any favors.”  I think I disagree. As long as many opportunities for further study or other support are tied to high school completion, and so many young people need more study and help, then a diploma may constitute a favor.  As we argue about where we draw the line between dropout and graduate, if we don’t invest enough in dropouts, we ought to revisit what it means to draw the line at all.

Giving fewer young people a diploma will increase our confidence that most of the remaining graduates are prepared, but it could also swell the ranks of the dropouts, who are less willing or able to continue their studies or prepare for well-paying work.

There’s a lot of handwringing about the graduation scandal at D.C. Public Schools. But there is little discussion about the underlying problem of the failures of American public education.

Instead of a slow-moving tragedy, recent debates could be helpful if they drive discussions about how we prepare all young people for the workforce or for further study and career training.

Far too many high school graduates and dropouts are not prepared to succeed after they leave high school. There are remarkable exceptions, including charter networks with strong records preparing more young people to earn college degrees. We should explore how to use similar strategies and tools to help more young people, regardless of where they are, transition successfully.

As it stands, American higher education (which includes traditional colleges as well as workforce training programs run by community colleges), and the kinds of jobs that include training, are all more likely to be available to high school graduates than they are to dropouts. Many programs explicitly target dropouts, and some of these opportunities are open to both graduates and dropouts.  But many young people who dropout decide not to try, or they don’t know how to pursue the most beneficial pathways. Compounding these individual tragedies, as a society, we are too comfortable with dropouts’ subsequent self-limiting decisions.

Unless we change our attitudes toward dropouts, efforts to deny diplomas to more young people are likely to reduce their access to further training – as well as the accompanying public investments in their futures.

We should certainly use this current debate to push for changes that clarify what it takes to earn a diploma. But we should also expand what we do as a society to prepare all these young people to succeed – even if they don’t graduate.

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Beyond Moskowitz on School Discipline Reform

Contrary to the opinions of many traditionalists and more than a few reformers, the much-necessary discussion about overuse of harsh school discipline in traditional districts and public charter schools should…

Contrary to the opinions of many traditionalists and more than a few reformers, the much-necessary discussion about overuse of harsh school discipline in traditional districts and public charter schools should be understood as an opportunity for people in schools to revisit their practices and results, and to consider how they might adjust strategies. For those of us who focus on policy and research, it is helpful to appreciate how many people are already working on the issue.

transformersSince the New York Times and other outlets raised new questions about the school discipline practices of Success Academy last year, I’ve heard from lots of school leaders and teachers who have been wrestling with student discipline. These are men and women who have taken great pains to engage in introspection, both about discipline as well as other practices related to instruction and leadership.

These people talk about discipline. But they also talk about school culture and how to make their schools more successful with all students. We may not always agree with the practices they may use. The criticisms, regardless of who lodges them, may be valid. At the same time, let’s admit that these people are not engaging in surprising or novel exercises.

Personal observations can never substitute for objective data and evidence. But in my own research and interactions, the school leaders and teachers I deal with are downright obsessed with keeping kids on task and with thinking about how to help more kids succeed. They truly “own” the issue of student discipline. They examine data. They look at what they are doing in their classrooms and hallways. They talk together about their values, their practices, and how to adjust what they do. They try to figure out how their practices affect how children behave.  They want children to learn, want to reduce the likelihood that a few kids will act out in ways that make it hard for all kids to learn, and also keep children who are misbehaving from failing and leaving school.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education convened leaders from charter school operators that receive replication and expansion grants under the Charter School Program.  This was a group of very successful charter operators with impressive academic performance. The issue of student discipline was a big priority for the U.S. Department. I honestly came to the meeting a little anxious that there might be too much “talking down” to school people about what they needed to do, or too much defensiveness from the school operators. I was wrong on both fronts.

To its credit, the Obama Administration brought forward the issue as a real challenge that we must collectively address both in charters as well as within traditional districts. They presented the issue as one on which we should all problem-solve. Charter school operators, in turn, came to the topic equally ready to talk about the work. Perhaps because of the careful set-up, there was no defensiveness, no denial of the issues’ importance, or bemoaning how opponents were blowing a few cases out of proportion.

Instead, leaders talked about the conversations they were having with their staff, the examination of data, their brainstorming around what they do when children misbehave, and the ways they can adjust their procedures and programs to support strong learning environments while reducing the practices that lead to suspension or expulsion.  They were talking about how to build consensus about the need for change, and the details of work that might make things better.

The charter school operators at the session weren’t looking to abandon their approaches to schooling. Their schools are highly successful. They have developed innovative programs — and their approaches produce results. At the same time, they realized that the current debate over discipline as an opportunity to leverage what is working well, to engage in serious introspection about their own practices, and to encourage their colleagues to change particular practices that may not always be helpful in improving student learning. All this was in order to design changes that they believe will lead to even better results for even more children.

What we have here is not a “gotcha” for opponents of school choice.  The notion that some single unified approach to schooling has been shown to be unacceptable and that now we will abandon “no excuses” schooling is an incredibly simplistic and unreasonable characterization of what is going on. It is equally simplistic to argue that no introspection or rethinking of how we educate children isn’t in order. Instead, people who work in schools — people that live and breathe student behavior every day — have been stirred by events and a little external pressure to start important conversations.

There are of important mid-course adjustments in the works, and I look forward to talking with them about these changes as they make them.

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Bring Families into School Discipline Reform

There is a conversation about reforming school discipline that we must have — but it hasn’t happened yet. It could have happened back in October when the spotlight was focused…

There is a conversation about reforming school discipline that we must have — but it hasn’t happened yet. It could have happened back in October when the spotlight was focused on Success Academy and how it deals with the behavior of children in the care of its schools — especially after it was revealed that one of its school leaders took the absolutely unacceptable and intolerable step of compiling a list of children it wanted to push out for various degrees of misbehavior. But save for Dropout Nation‘s discourse on the issue, all we got from all sides was rancor and defensiveness when what was needed was a nuanced conversation about how schools should help all children while also ensuring cultures of high-quality learning.

geniuslogoYet we still have an opportunity to reform school discipline. I propose that this starts by focusing on how discipline is experienced by all children and their families. A family-friendly approach to school discipline will not make navigating the issue simpler. But it does place the goal of our journey where it belongs – with the interest of children.

What would a common sense, family-friendly approach to school discipline look? Before we find the answers, let’s understand the challenge. We want schools to have healthy learning environments in which children can learn, ones which reflect their interests. Developing those cultures ultimately depends on how the adults deal with the behaviors of the children they serve. This is the problem. Children sometimes behave as adults expect them to. Sometimes they don’t. But even that isn’t as clear as anyone thinks. What counts as bad behavior to one adult isn’t always so to another. Without ground rules in place, different adults will deal with those behaviors differently and arbitrarily.

To provide healthy learning environments, you need to make sure that children aren’t engaging in inappropriate behavior. After all, when schools have a healthy learning environment, one which is safe and orderly, in which children are actively engaged and can achieve their fullest potential, they learn a lot more. Parents value such schools. It is the family-friendly thing to do.

But as I have written, what constitutes misbehavior according to one adult in school isn’t treated the same by another. There are some behaviors that are clearly not okay in any school, like stabbing or bullying classmates and other forms of violent behavior. Suspensions and expulsions have always existed to address those extreme acts of misbehavior. But then there are episodes of “disruptive” behavior that may be harmful to a child’s own learning and could make it harder for teachers to teach. But should suspensions and expulsions be used to address those issues when other tools are at our disposal?

Suspending or expelling a child may create order in the classroom they leave, letting the remaining kids learn more. However, it is extremely harmful to the child being expelled or suspended. These tools can be necessary sometimes. But as data has shown, they can (and have been) overused and in ways that are discriminatory and disproportionately affect different groups of students.

Short of suspension and expulsion, there are many tools and strategies that schools use to shape their disciplinary environment. These tools can also be used well, or they can be handled poorly and in ways that are discriminatory. That is not a charter or non-charter thing. It is how this particular tricky issue plays out, again, and again.

A school’s disciplinary environment can be considered along a ten point scale. We could give a school in total chaos a one, and the most severely-disciplined environment a ten. Scoring one on this spectrum, we might find the hypothetical “Lord of the Flies Middle School” where kids are bullied, fear for their safety, and are forced to choose between disengagement and learning. On the other end of the scale would be “Alcatraz in Lockdown High”, where kids are subjected to arbitrary and draconian rules of conduct that leave no room for expression, individualism, or just being a child.

In a family-friendly system of schools, we can presume there should be no ones or twos, and no nines or 10s. But we should have rules, procedures, and accountability mechanisms that collectively ensure all our schools operate safely, orderly, and reasonably somewhere along the fours to the sevens, or the middle of the spectrum.

One family might believe their child will be best served by a seven. Another might look for a four. Under this model, schools can communicate clearly where they stand on this family so that families can know that their children will be in safe, orderly schools that also won’t take away the right to learn in the name of enforcing unreasonable or unfair disciplinary practices.

A family-friendly set of practices around student discipline would allow for the rare application of expulsion and suspension under clearly-defined circumstances and with real due process. They will also define acts of misbehavior that should be addressed through other means. For children and families, there will be due process so that they can address situations in which they feel they have been treated unfairly.

Under such an approach, parents have a justifiable expectation that their child will not be in an environment where another child could harm them, or where learning is impossible because of disengagement. They also have a right to know their child will not be denied the right to stay in the school they prefer because they wore mismatched socks, failed to tuck in their shirt once too often, spoke without raising their hand in class, or talked with friends while walking between classrooms. Paramount among these assurances, students should not be kicked out of schools because of a disability that can contribute to behavioral challenges.

A key point in a family-friendly approach is ensuring that the schools are not allowed to choose their students. Instead, it should be families who pick a school that they believe will match their own child’s needs and that handles teaching and learning the way they believe it should be handled. Rather than having all parents insist that all schools behave the same way, the idea is that parents who prefer a particular approach, have the data needed to identify and then pick a school with that approach. Other families who feel differently can pick a different school that reflects their own view of what their child needs.

This means that parents know how schools operate, that all schools operate within acceptable boundaries, parents can then pick schools they prefer, and that schools are allowed to operate differently from one another while articulating how they pursue their particular approach, but are not allowed to select or remove children.

Some places have adopted different pieces of these family-friendly practices. Others districts should do the same and even go further. District of Columbia’s Public Charter School Board, for example, promotes transparency around school discipline through online equity reports that use comparable data to show exactly how each school uses or misuses suspensions and expulsions. This holds schools accountable through a degree of public shaming, but also by informing parent’s choices. Charter oversight in the district also revisits these metrics related to discipline actions.

In Louisiana, the authorizer that oversees almost all the schools serving New Orleans has adopted common practices over expulsion. Schools still have flexibility over the remainder of their discipline policies, but the removal of children from a school must be pursued according to common standards and transparent procedures. Several cities use a common enrollment and application process, which can help ensure parents rather than schools are making decisions about where their kids go to school.

This isn’t to say that the family-friendly approach to discipline is perfect. Families have different expectations for discipline, even when data and evidence suggest there are better ways of addressing the behavior of children. But it is to suggest that we focus on what should be done to help all children succeed. We should adopt an approach that focuses on how we help all children grow and that gives parents what they need to know to help them make important choices that affect their kids’ lives.

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