Monday, October 18, 2021

Can removing troublemakers save urban schools?


A member of the advisory board for the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, Maine, has spoken up in a Baltimore Sun op-ed about last week’s firing of a Baltimore City Pubic Schools teacher who used the N-word in class.

Jonathan David Farley suggests that removing disruptive students from the classroom will allow teachers the freedom to provide fuller support for high-achieving students. Disruptive students, he writes, “would not be left to rot in jail but would have the opportunity to get their GEDs once they see that McDonald’s wages can’t get them the latest iPhone.”

I told [my] students [at an urban high school in Rochester, New York] that kids in India, where I was a visiting professor for a summer, would love to have the facilities the students at my school enjoyed. One of the students said that India was irrelevant.

In another class, I tried to point out that education was the route by which they could escape their current circumstances, that people like Frederick Douglass had endured far worse and emerged victorious. Rather than rise to the example of Douglass, one girl said that maybe they had a different learning style than he.

Students angrily erupted if I corrected their grammar, with [one] student insisting that the students not correct their grammatical mistakes. If I corrected a student’s Ebonics, [he] would shout out once more the ungrammatical statement that the other student had made.

When we reported this story from Harlem Park Middle School, we did note that video footage showing a teacher using a racial epithet at a classroom full of students started in the middle of the episode. We had no knowledge of what had happened prior to that, either one minute or a week before, but we called for better training in classroom management for teachers.

It’s hard to oppose her firing after seeing the video, but if anyone can help prevent such episodes, they need to know more about why she burst out in the first place.

Mr Farley turns the focus away from the teacher and lays it directly on the shoulder of the disruptive students. He says schools must recognize that there are likely to be “ringleaders” who instigate episodes of misbehavior and should move quickly to rid the classroom of these students. I agree that students must accept some responsibility for their education.

I’m sure the disruptive students in the video aren’t the most well-behaved students in Baltimore City, but that doesn’t excuse the schools from the legal requirement to educate them. Mr Farley suggests more students at low-performing schools are rude to teachers than at high-performing schools, and taking disruptive students out of the classroom would help the teacher, the removed students who would realize they need an education, and the remaining students in the class, since they’d be free to engage more successfully with the teacher and the learning process.

Mr Farley’s point relies on anecdotal evidence and can be dismissed on those grounds, but most importantly, I note that schools have a duty to educate all students, not just the ones who want to learn or can treat teachers with the respect they deserve. But in order to use anecdotal evidence to support any change in school policy, we would need many more case studies.

Furthermore, his proposed solution assumes the future behavior of hypothetical students in urban settings. My experience is that the typical suspended kid wouldn’t think about the price of an iPhone or the wages at McDonald’s and would instead enjoy the few free days off.

But I agree that high-achieving kids who want to learn have just as much a right to an education as the low-achieving disruptive kids. If a teacher is unable to teach those kids because a few disruptive students “don’t want to learn,” as Mr Farley suggests, either a teacher who can control these behaviors needs to be brought in or the disruptive kids need to be removed. But schools should first address the teacher, then the students.

It’s stunning that Mr Farley would suggest that schools solve the problem by removing students as a first option. We can teach any kid, even a kid who doesn’t want to learn. Better to invest in an education for teachers in classroom management than pay for a one-on-one out-of-classroom education for the disruptive students. We don’t have enough money to provide a special education for all the disruptive kids around the city.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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