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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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The Damage Done by Data-Driven Absenteeism Accountability

By Guest Blogger — February 22, 2018 6 min read

Kicking off the next six weeks of guest bloggers is John Thompson, a former inner-city teacher and self-described “anti-reformer.” In a previous life, John was an award-winning historian before shifting gears to teach high school in Oklahoma City. In 2015, he published A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to our Kids, arguing that test-fueled reform is doomed to fail.

I hope the anecdotes I’ve shared throughout the week illuminate the inherent downsides of data-driven accountability. They especially illustrate the inherent difficulty in holding individuals that don’t set policy accountable for test-score growth.

In the 1990s, a chronically tardy student (who I’ll call Anne) and an administrator interrupted my class, demanding an explanation why I hadn’t admitted the girl after she arrived late. I recounted the argument Anne started upon trying to enter class. “No I did not!” she replied, “I know what you are like about your class. I did not enter your class.” Anne took a step back, drew an invisible line at the doorway, and proclaimed, “I stood right here, in the hall.”

Looking at Anne’s defiance another way, she respected that our classroom was treated as a sanctuary of learning, where the chaos of the hallway wasn’t allowed. She made a point of engaging in hallway behavior only in the hallway!

If only we had more Annes who could maintain that distinction.

I often worked with administrators who believed that good instruction would make discipline problems disappear. But we had others who would do whatever was politically possible to help create somewhat safer learning environments. Before NCLB, those administrators and teachers implemented compromises which allowed our school to improve more than any other neighborhood high school in the district. With accountability-driven reform, however, making data look good became the top priority, and our progress in improving the school climate was reversed.

Once the school was held accountable for increasing attendance and graduation rates, the priorities became “working absences off” and “passing kids on.” And the students knew it. Most continued to come to class on time and study conscientiously, but attending class became optional. There was nothing new with dozens of kids walking the hall, but when hundreds of students realized they could skip class in return for doing a worksheet afterwards, a tipping point was crossed. Educators were pushed into an impossible situation when many kids were coming to class or to “credit recovery” sessions only when they were caught cutting. The result was even more efforts to make the numbers look better by erasing more absences.

At first, many teachers maintained our hard-earned progress. My students would inventory the things we did well, and work on strategies for defusing conflicts outside of class. We even made checklists and plans to avoid trouble in the hallways. We’d often invest the last five to ten minutes of class reviewing ways to exhibit self-control for the rest of the day.

When fights were about to erupt, I’d deliver a pep talk before the dismissal bell, students would promise to make good choices, and peace would reign for the first sixty seconds of the passing periods. But many of my seemingly mature students would get caught up by peer pressure and join the brawls.

I wish micromanaging reformers could have learned from “T.” He was a basketball buddy of mine and created no problems in class. “T” started a disproportionate number of fights, but it was not a coincidence that he would challenge his rivals in public areas where adults would intervene. The point was that “T” was motivated by fear. He was not worried about a black eye or short suspensions, but by the mortal threats that came with gang fights in secluded areas.

“T” was shot after he graduated, ending his college basketball career. He later told me it was a cheap price to pay for the wake-up call that was the key to his survival.

One of my best assets had always been these relationships built playing basketball during lunch and my planning period. My teammates and I would arrive in the gym where a couple hundred students would be hanging out with no supervision except a substitute teacher working on a laptop. It was easy to identify the visitor’s locker room as the place where students were taken to be beaten. Hal, the 300-pound gang leader, led the brutality.

I stopped the extreme violence, curtailed the drug dealing, and repeatedly offered to help gain control of the area. The administration told me to mind my own business. In fairness to them, we had no capacity for addressing the real causes of truancy, low graduation rates, and chronic disorder and violence—which was due to kids acting out the pain they’d endured. And we’d all known that the widespread practice of “passing kids on” would result in the same disasters produced by the policy’s previous incarnations.

Throughout all this, our basketball games remained as orderly as ever. In the bleachers on opposite sides of the gym, about a hundred class-cutters hung out. Usually, these two opposing groups kept a safe distance from each other. Periodically, though, the gym door would burst open and a group of students, who had been in class before receiving a text message, would rush to the spot where a fight was scheduled.

One day, while I was playing defense, I felt a blow to my head and crumpled to my knees, semiconscious. Staggering to my feet, I saw the embarrassed looks of fellow ballplayers. I had been blindsided by Hal. I told him to keep away from the court and he knew to comply. I played through the hit, eventually regaining full consciousness.

A few weeks later, after an incident elsewhere, I felt no resentment toward Hal as I watched him walk to his final long-term suspension hearing. Seeing Hal hold his grandmother’s hand as she approached one last humiliation, I felt equal sadness for him, his many victims, and his guardian. A couple years later, Hal and I had a nice conversation at the Martin Luther King Day parade. I did not get an explicit apology, but received the closest thing to it.

After an assistant principal was injured during another fight, the administration set out to regain control of the school. This meant we had to enforce the tardy and attendance policies, at least during the lunch periods. That was a new experience for many freshmen, so a couple administrators worked with the teachers who enforced the tardy policy during lunches.

One teacher said he’d quit if he wasn’t relieved of teaching 9th graders, and I took over his classes. We had a parental conference with Bill, a chronically disruptive student, who protested, “I have always looked forward to being in your class.” After agreeing to make it to class on time, Bill was late again and tried to barge through the door. I blocked his entry. He returned with a principal and again tried to push past me. As the administrator dragged him away, the student screamed, “I did not try to barge through! On my dead brother, I did not!”

I hope it is clear that punishment isn’t the answer for the behaviors that grow out of our kids’ pain. But neither are shortcuts that play with numbers without addressing the hard facts of the matter. I must concede that conservatives often are more grounded in reality when considering reforms in disciplinary procedures than many neoliberal reformers. But too many reformers of all kinds are too willing to ignore facts within schools, leap before they look, and pretend that the resulting accountability metrics do more good than harm in schools.

John Thompson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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