“Broken Windows” School Reform
At the New World Foundation we continue to think about schools and that public education is a critical component of any serious effort to establish strong equality.
Increasingly, reform efforts are making schools less and less open to the diverse population of students, unresponsive to learning styles and punitive in approach. As the country gets younger and people of color come to account for greater proportions of the nation’s youth, the school to prison pipeline threatens even more perniciously.
The old James Q. Wilson “broken windows” theory being applied in the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago is a dubious and dangerous addition to the pseudo reform environment.
Some Students Really Pay for Breaking the Rules
by James Warren
Published February 17th, 2012 in the Chicago News Cooperative
As Newt Gingrich urges putting students to work as paid school janitors, a Chicago charter network may one day mull having them pay to sweep and clean toilets.
Goodbye, corporal punishment. Hello, capital punishment. Improved performance and new revenue streams may be on the education horizon, complete with cash registers outside detention halls.
A news-media kerfuffle erupted this week with word that the Noble Network of Charter Schools had collected nearly $400,000 in disciplinary fees from students since 2008 for infractions including not tucking in shirts, being late for class, bringing chips to school, dozing off and not properly tying shoelaces.
We already knew about fines at Noble since The Chicago Reader, WBEZ Radio and Catalyst Chicago, an education journal, had reported it for more than a year. The recent news peg was disclosure by a group of Noble critics of total fines collected via a system that starts at $5.
There are 6,500 students at 10 high schools at Noble. The schools perform much better than Chicago public high schools as a whole, but they are still quite selective, so it is hard to get an accurate comparison. And still almost half of their students fail state achievement exams, and pass rates vary widely by campus.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, our heat-seeking Missile and a strong proponent of charters, heralds Noble for knowing the “secret sauce” of strong educational performance. But challenges posed by a high-poverty student population remain daunting, no matter the sauce.
Noble’s system of fines is unusual, if not unprecedented. And it’s a far cry from the politically incorrect punishments some of us recall from yesteryear. There was paddling and, as a friend recalls from her Catholic elementary school, teachers jamming corks in students’ mouths when they misbehaved.
(I rather like the idea of silence-by-cork. Given the elite support some Chicago charters receive, a limitless supply of corks from bottles of ’90 Bordeaux could surely be procured.)
Michael Milkie, the Noble chief executive, strongly justifies his system by saying a focus on small infractions puts a lid on potentially larger ones and results in safe environments and less distractions for students who do behave.
There are experts who buy into the notion of behavior modification through swift, modest penalties. But the Noble method elicited divergent responses from several principals who asked not to be identified.
One finds the system disgusting, while another considers it an intriguing alternative to his only real punishment tool, which is suspension.
The data-devouring Missile defended Noble, repeating “facts are a stubborn thing,” a favorite mantra, as he lauded its record. But a de facto ends-justify-the-means argument seems a bit lacking in nuance for a subtle intellect like his.
James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago whose research has identified the important role that social and emotional skills play in developing human capital, from birth to job training, said he thought the Noble approach was a crude one. “There are probably better ways to motivate people than with cash,” Mr. Heckman said, “and it’s unfair for really poor students and parents.”
Colin Greer, a Scottish-bred educator who is president of the New World Foundation, which pursues a politically liberal agenda, reiterated such qualms. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is a former chairman of his board.
Mr. Greer is an ideological counterpart to William Bennett, the former secretary of education who wrote “The Book of Virtues,” a set of moral tales from a conservative perspective.
Mr. Greer said the Noble system undermined two critical aims of public education: preparing children for living in a democracy and learning to live with one another.
He likens it to teaching by Pavlovian response, referring to Ivan Pavlov, the Russian psychologist who did pioneering work on conditioned responses.
“You’re responding to punishment, like one of Pavlov’s dogs,” Mr. bando maps Greer said. “You’re not teaching how to behave in a democracy, where you behave in the best interests of a larger community.”
He said the fines were absurd, and at best they created rote, reflex responses and not the sort of flexibility and self-motivation needed in a modern economy.
Haven’t we learned the lessons of getting tough on children from the criminal justice system’s high recidivism rates? Mr. Greer said.
Yeah, I probably should ditch that cork idea.