Thursday, December 2, 2010

School Reform - Suspensions

School reform is another one of those issues that I find fairly interesting...although a lot of the discussion of it lately is more frustrating than anything else. This article in the New York Times isn't too bad though.

It's about the superintendent of Baltimore, and I think the most interest part of it is his decision that it was important to decrease suspensions. He created a requirement that someone in his office had to sign off on a suspension of more than 5 days. (5 days?! Admittedly, I didn't exactly get in a whole lot of trouble in school, or keep close track of the people that did, but 5 days is a pretty long suspension, right?). He's managed to cut down suspensions from 26,000 a year to less than 10,000 a year in six years. Obviously, that doesn't necessarily mean that the kids are better behaved...but in the same time the dropout rate has fallen by half, which is definitely significant.

I took P.E. my senior year of high school, which is a bad, bad idea if you are already fed up with the immaturity and stupidity of people younger than you. There was this kid in the class...a sophomore, obviously a stoner, who barely ever bothered to show up. And then, the one day he did, the teacher got on his case about the shoes he was wearing (some kind of Timberlands or something...not good P.E. shoes but he also wasn't going to die putting in the same lackluster effort towards P.E. that the rest of us were planning on) and sent him out of class. That still sticks out in my memory of one of the worst instances of teaching I ever witnessed. Who knows if that guy ended up graduating or not, but if he thanks to her.

I can see how a culture where suspension is the solution to every problem could completely undermine the message that school is important and dropping out means missed opportunities. Hell, it's practically like handing out free samples, and students who are already frustrated at school aren't likely to like it any better when they come back two weeks behind in all their classes. The trade off, of course, is that suspension is easier on teachers than a lot of other options...and if you are going to ask them to use a more labor intensive form of discipline, you have to accept that they are going to have less time for other things. But it might be a worthwhile trade off, and I think that whatever gains there are to be found in school reform are going to come from figuring out which of these kinds of things are most effective. (Rather than say, setting some arbitrary goal and offering to keep firing teachers and replacing them with shiny but not necessarily better new ones until it happens).

Also, the article mentions that the superintendent compares himself to a character in War and excellent excuse to bring up the fact that I read that book. (I read War and Peace, did you know? Mostly just so I could say I read it, but as it turns out, it's pretty decent). Which character though? It makes a big difference, since one of the main characters of the book is actually a guy who gets swept up in silly political ideologies but is completely inept at actually implementing them. Was it that guy? The failure of the writer to pursue this further makes me suspect that unlike me, he has not read War and Peace. In which case, woohoo! I am smarter than people who write for the New York Times by a completely arbitrary metric!

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