School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Disruptors

By Nancy Flanagan — December 16, 2014 3 min read
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I spent 30 years in the classroom. So I know a little something about kids who disrupt the flow of learning, having faced them frequently—say, daily—for those three decades. And if there’s one thing I know for sure about kids who are disruptive, it’s this: they’re all different.

Kids who disrupt are extroverts and introverts, high achievers and failing students, angry and sunny, attention-seeking and furtive, smart and struggling. They come from the wrong side of the tracks as well as Beaver Cleaver families. Some bring diagnosed difficulties—things they’re medicated for, conditions that cry out for special attention. Some have terrible home lives and desperate secrets, and find school one of the few safe spaces in their lives. Others are just naturally unable to contain themselves in a highly structured, rule-bound environment.

None of this is reason to give up on a child, to decide that everyone would be better off if Jason were permanently removed from the premises, and sent to—oh, anywhere else. Usually, what needs to change is not the child, but the conditions and relationships that are feeding the disruptive behavior.

School is also a place where what constitutes “disruption” is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder.

Any veteran teacher can tell you stories about parents whose chief concern is keeping their kids (who “want to learn”) separated from the “bad kids” (who “don’t care”). This happens at all levels and in all school models, by the way—from publicly funded pre-school to academically select private academies. It’s not an exclusive feature of public education.

The student whose behavior is problematic in one classroom may level out—or shine—in another context, even with a different teacher. I have had conversations with parents who are convinced that their child would be a paragon of academic effort, were it not for the bad actor sitting behind her, when I have first-hand evidence to the contrary. And I have had parents apologize for what I considered their child’s refreshing, even brilliant, classroom antics.

What I have not heard (until last week) was disruptive children’s behavior referred to as a “classroom cancer"—or a completely unsubstantiated assertion that charter schools are desirable secular forms of Catholic education, with strong, positive climates—unlike traditional public schools, which “please no one.” Here’s Michael Petrilli, in the NY Times:

Yet the needs of these students are often overlooked in today's debates, as some advocates focus narrowly on the consequences for disruptive kids. To be sure, we should worry about the "school to prison pipeline," and shouldn't suspend or expel students any more frequently than necessary. But we also shouldn't allow disruptive students to hold their classrooms hostage. It's no surprise, then, that both parents and educators flock to schools with strong, positive climates and a sense of order. Once upon a time that often meant urban Catholic schools, with their school uniforms and ample supply of tough love. Increasingly it means urban charter schools, many of which are secular forms of the Catholic schools of old. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That's a feature, not a bug. It's not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools -- especially schools of choice -- that allow their students to flourish.

The mere fact that Petrilli puts “school to prison pipeline” in quotes is telling. The other blah-blah, about the magical powers of Catholic school uniforms, tough love, holding classrooms hostage, and labeling students’ behavior as cancerous, is indication that the man is bent on inflammatory rhetoric over substance. He’s making an over-the-top, short-on-facts case for charter schools.

Let me inject a dose of reality here.

Plenty of traditional public schools have safe, positive climates with no single classroom “held hostage” to unacceptable student behaviors. (I know. I taught in one.) And plenty of charter schools have not yet mastered the hard work of building such a climate over time.

Kicking kids out for misbehavior is easy. Figuring out why they’re misbehaving and addressing those needs is the real challenge.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a real, substantiated thing. Schools that cannot accept students who bring the challenging conditions of their lives with them into the classroom should not be allowed to take public money. Because public money should be spent on building a better society, not isolating the easy-to-educate.

And—disruption is not a cancer. It is a symptom. It’s up to us to figure out the disease.

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