Segregation in the classroom–hurt or help?

New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof edits the regular "On the Ground" column, which publishes essays by teachers in public schools around the US about education and its discontents. Yesterday’s essay, "The Mire," by Chicago inner-city teacher Will Okum, talks about the problem of trying to teach those few students in a class who are genuinely engaged and hungry to learn while the "kids at the back" make noise and trouble for everyone else:

Midway through another brilliant lesson on five-paragraph essays,
chaos erupts in the back row among the students who do not care. My
first-period English class crashes to a standstill as several failing
students ignite a hysteria of insults. Other students stew in
frustration as they wait for me to restore order and continue the
lesson. Sitting in the front row, Kentrail is visibly exasperated that
I cannot do my job. Shatara’s teeth and fists are clenched; she stares
at me with accusatory anger. Finally, Ronetta screams, “Make them shut
up!” Only after the temporary removal of the two instigators six
minutes later does the class return to our discussion of thesis
statements.

Class time not wasted on discipline is often squandered explaining
make-up work to oft-absent students or reviewing remedial skills that
should have been learned in early middle school. Intelligent, motivated
students like Kentrail, Shatara and Ronetta suffer the most on such
days when academic progress is glacial. Too often, their individual
brightness is consumed in the mire of the whole. They should not be in
this class; they should not be in this school.

Did you have a class like this in high school? I know you did. I did too. Sometimes I was one of the kids at the front. More often, alas, I was one of the kids at the back (though I was seldom really loudly disruptive… I was usually just tuned out and scribbling in my notebook).

This situation strikes me as one of the most critical affecting public education. Schools have a mandate to serve every student; students are required by law to attend school.  A handful of students want to be there, or want the reward of the good grade enough that it’s as if they want to be there. A few more are actively unhappy to be there and take out their frustrations on everyone else, demanding more than their share of the teacher’s time and energy. Most of the rest don’t really care and just want the bell to ring so they can get outside and talk smack with their friends or engage in PDAs with their sweeties or drive their cars fast through the parking lot and escape.

What’s the solution? Okum suggests that disruptive kids should be removed entirely and that high-potential, high-achieving kids should never have to suffer the indignity of sitting through another class interrupted by those Rotten Apples. I’m inclined to agree, on one level; but then there’s the problem of what to do with the Rotten Apples. Segregate them all in a big warehouse-like classroom where monitors patrol with stern eyes and Tasers at the ready? Sounds like a perfect prep school for prison. Load them down with punishments so harsh that they’ll just drop out of school altogether and become somebody else’s problem? Once again: fast track to prison (where more than 1 out of 100 US adults are currently cooling their heels, a rate higher than any other country’s–including China’s).

I guess in my happy little liberal puffy-cloud dream world I like to imagine a public school system where different resources exist to serve different needs. Kids who want to master the five-paragraph essay (and beyond! Maybe someday they’ll grow up to join the exalted ranks of bloggers!) could have a nice quiet place to do so. Kids who want to work on cars while listening to speed metal could have a nice speed-metally place to do so. (And I guess kids who want to master five-paragraph essays while listening to speed metal could just be issued iPods or something.) Kids who need some serious mentoring from people who grew up in similar situations to their own and managed to emerge un-pregnant, un-addicted and ready to move on… well, maybe there could be a big living room with couches and books and art supplies and maybe even an Xbox for those kids.*

Pipe dream, yeah… what makes me think that a one-size-fits-all world would ever adopt the radical notion that kids are people… and that people deserve to be treated as individuals, not statistics or prodigies or problems? Hmmm. Crazy dream though it is, it seems to have at least slightly influenced the architects of the Finnish education system–supposedly the best-performing system in Europe. (Imagine: vocational schools pairing up with apprenticeship programs to ensure students have good jobs before they even graduate! A comprehensive lifelong education system designed to allow anyone–regardless of age–to jump back in at any time! Not trying to teach kids ABCs and 123s and the joy of the phonics-based reader until they’re at least seven years old! "Polytechnic" schools that provide advanced career-oriented training for those students who don’t need or want university degrees!)

*I am biting my tongue and not mentioning how much, except for the cars and speed metal part, this idyllic pipe dream resembles the daily scene at Village Home Education Resource Center, our local "homeschool school." Well, OK. Maybe just briefly.

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About Molly Newman

Writer, cook and trivia/spelling bee hostess, living it up in North Portland.
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7 Responses to Segregation in the classroom–hurt or help?

  1. Amy Sorensen says:

    When I was a teacher, I struggled with this SO much. I had many of my “good” students who would come and ask me that question: “Can’t you do something about them?” And holy cow, it is SO difficult, but as a teacher you know you’ve ended up failing everyone.
    I think that part of the solution needs to come in how students are assigned to classes. Now, it’s done fairly randomly. I think if there were more attention paid to personalities within classes, it would help. Some high-achieving students are the BEST classroom disciplinarians.
    Another part of the problem is that there really aren’t many consequences that teachers can place on the obnoxious and rude kids. Like…kick them out of class? That’s a reward. Call their parents? Plenty of them could care less. Send them to the principal? The students don’t care.
    Part of the solution really is smaller class sizes. I had a few very small classes—like 14-16 kids—and even the obnoxious kids were much more manageable with that size of class.
    And part of it has to be getting to the root of those kids’ problems, rather than sending them to the principal’s office. They’re acting that way for a reason. What amazed me was how many parents had given up by the time high school arrived, and acted like “whatever, I can’t control him/her.” Having been a frustrating teenager myself, I see this as a tragedy, because what they NEED is for their parents to stick in there with them. Even when they’re acting like shitheads, you know??? At least, that’s my puffy-cloud dream.

  2. Amy Sorensen says:

    ps, sorry for that gynormous response!

  3. mum says:

    This kind of behavior becomes evident even with primary-age students. Foul language, disrespect, violence are all there even in kindergarten at our school. By fourth grade, the numbers have increased. Most of the students know what they’re in school for, but the critical mass of obnoxious, needy frightened, lost children make themselves known. And middle school? High school? It continues to get worse. I don’t know if I’d choose to teach anymore if I had a choice.

  4. Ashley says:

    Hi there, been lurking on your blog for quite some time and love it. This article struck a chord with me because I have been on both sides of this fence. I was the “student” in the back making a racket and heckling with all my punk rock friends until my junior year. I am still unsure what changed in me, but that year I straightened up in school and actually started to like my classes and subsequently started sitting up front and actually caring. I remember feeling like an ass for ever disrupting a class once the tables were turned. I obviously had no room to talk though so I just sat there frustrated and never told anyone to STFU. I really feel weird about segregating the problem kids from the studious ones though. I think my grades would have plummeted further had I been forced out when I was being a pain in the ass, I already felt like I was given up on, that would have just nailed it home. Thanks for the link to this article, I will definitely be pondering this, also makes me feel even better about our decision to unschool.

  5. We are finally coming to terms with the reality that the public school system which served us fairly well years ago (we’re older than you, but not wiser..), the one that was behind all of our pro-public-school rhetoric, simply does not exist. At least not around here.
    The result? I – the person who always said she’d NEVER put her child into private school – is 90% sure she’s going to put her 8-year-old daughter into a true Montessori program, one that goes through 8th grade, next year.
    Un/Home schooling isn’t a realistic choice for us, either in terms of temperament or geography. I applaud all of you who do it and do it so well.

  6. magpie ima says:

    You raise hard questions. My program is voluntary so the students who show up generally really want to be there. Not so with public school. When they have to be there and see no relevance in what they’re required to do there’s bound to be trouble.

  7. Ute says:

    I wish it was possible to offer public schooled kids a more relaxed approach to learning… the ability to learn a certain skill when they’re ready and to focus on their individual strengths and weaknesses as needed. I’m afraid that Montessori is probably one of the few systems where that actually works to a certain degree.

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