broken window

The back room deals are done. The districts can all chalk up a win. The state has avoided a host of disasters. What’s not to like about the new guidelines on transfer students?

By simply “reorganizing, ” or really renaming, the Normandy school district, the state wiped clean the stigma of lost accreditation. Normandy gets a mulligan on performance. Adjoining districts like Francis Howell who received Normandy students can get back to working with the families they are used to. No more need for extra hall monitors or reading teachers. Normandy doesn’t face another bankruptcy because of lost students and higher transportation costs. They can focus on fixing their schools.

Dr. Stanton Lawrence, who resigned as Superintendent of Normandy School District in Jun of 2013, wrote that the decision by the Missouri State Board of Education two years ago to merge the failing Wellston school district into Normandy predictably resulted in the now failing Normandy district. Both districts, he said, were populated by predominantly low income, single parent African American families.

“Not surprisingly, a trend line of longitudinal academic data of all school districts in the state of Missouri, when juxtaposed on a trend line reflecting the percentage of African American students from impoverished families in each school district, offers some distressing reflections. There is a near perfect match which reflects that the school districts with the highest percentage of impoverished African American students were performing least well on the state assessment. One can easily make a relatively compelling argument that the state could have easily projected that the Normandy-Wellston merger would, in essence, be disastrous from the outset and that it would not turn out well for any of the students involved.”

It does not appear that the decision two years ago kept the children in mind. Many lament, if only the adults in the room had considered the children.

Dr. Lawrence went on to state that combining a poor and poorly performing district with a high performing district would have produced much better results. That is essentially the experiment that occurred last year as many of the Normandy students went to the high performing Francis Howell district. Let’s set aside the status of the districts, the financial impacts and the liability to the state of this experiment and let’s focus on the just the kids. How did it work for Normandy students to be surrounded by better performing students and “higher quality” teachers? I put higher quality in quotes because teacher quality, like CEO salaries is dependent on what the market will bear. Given what FHSD teachers saw of student behavior in the last year, it is doubtful any of them would want to work in a school full of such students. The market simply can’t pay good teachers enough to work in those conditions.

Let’s look at student performance. In order to help teachers understand where these incoming students stood academically, all students were required to take a reading test at the very beginning of the year. At one middle school a couple dozen students tested below grade level for reading comprehension so additional reading teachers were hired to bring their performance up. It took only one academic quarter to bring 45% of those students up to grade level in reading. Is that because FH teachers are so awesome? I don’t want to disparage them, but it is possible that some of those incoming students simply didn’t give much thought or effort to that initial screening test. Is it possible that none of the Normandy teachers knew what the Francis Howell teachers did so that they could not raise the reading performance of almost 50% of their students in less than a single school year? Does that seem likely to anyone? By the end of the year half of the low tested Normandy transfers were up to grade level and the others had moved significantly closer. Is anyone ready to chalk those results up solely to teacher quality, or was there some other factor that influenced student performance?

During that time the Normandy students had another learning curve, the one of going to school. FHSD had to hire additional hall monitors because NSD students often did not go to class when the bell rang. They hid under stairs, in bathrooms and in any closets that were not locked. They did not comply when teachers told them to get to class if they were found in the hallway. They sometimes took 20 minutes to go to the bathroom. The statistics will show that they received an incredible high rate of detentions and in school suspensions for such infractions and for failing to do the work required. One parent even yelled at a teacher during a parent teacher conference for singling her child out for doing so much homework. They simply did not seem to accept the fact that academic progress required work on the part of the student.

The principal in this school said she spent almost 75% of her time simply dealing with Normandy student behavioral issues. Graffiti began appearing in the bathrooms. The rate of breakage of school technology rose dramatically. There was open defiance towards teaching staff.  If simply being in a better school surrounded by better students and teachers is all takes to improve the performance of African American students, it seems that they need an awful lot of that exposure. One school year was not enough.

And while we are focusing on the kids here, what was the impact on the FH students of having these other students who didn’t know how to “do” school being in their schools? Teaching time was certainly impacted as teachers dealt with more disruptive students or students who needed a lot of extra help to get through the lessons. Human nature being what it is, if we see someone else get away with something we will try to get away with it too.  A misguided sense of compassion or political correctness which could have directed FH staff to look the other way on some of the minor infractions would only have led down a slippery slope to more and more bad behavior, even by the in-district students. That’s why the behavioral report statistics from FH look so very high and disproportionately aimed at African American students. Once the students learned that FH meant it when they said they expected the work to be done, many of the Normandy students eventually complied. But it was not without constant reinforcement of the rules.

Could Dr. Lawrence’s proposal have worked if the Normandy students were allowed to stay longer in Francis Howell or other districts? Maybe. But wouldn’t the better solution be to apply the rules that worked at FH to Normandy? Then kids wouldn’t have to commute long distances to school. They might actually improve their performance and physical plant costs might go down.

I suggest the required summer reading for all Normandy district personnel be Dr. Muel Kaptein’s “Why Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things”   Though aimed at the business world, his review of numerous studies of human behavior are just applicable to the world of education. Some key points form Dr. Kaptein’s book:

  • Setting and achieving goals is important, but single-minded focus on them can blind people to ethical concerns. – Focusing on test scores means teaching to the test and temptation to cheat the test scores.
  • In large organizations, employees can begin to feel more like numbers or cogs in a machine than individuals. When people feel detached from the goals and leadership of their workplace, they are more likely to commit fraud, steal, or hurt the company via neglect. – A massive statewide school district of under performing schools is more likely to breed fraud than produce economies of scale.
  • Self image determines behavior. People who have a strong sense of themselves as individuals are less likely to do unethical things. Alternatively, employees who see themselves as determined by their environment or having their choices made for them are more likely to bend the rules, as they feel less individually responsible. – Students need to feel responsibility for their successes AND failures. You cannot give them self esteem, but you can create the environment where they can learn it.
  • There are dozens of small temptations in any workplace. Stationary, sugar packets, and toilet paper frequently go home with employees. When those small thefts are ignored, larger ones become accepted as well. It doesn’t take long for people to begin pushing those limits. – If you don’t have consequences for the little things because you are too worried about your behavior report statistics, you will start to see more egregious behavior emerge.
  • Extreme wealth, or environments that reflect it can lead to unethical behavior. For employees, seeing excessive bonuses or perks that they don’t show leads to feeling of injustice and jealousy which may lead them to unethical behavior. – Plunking students into a school whose population is notably wealthier than their local neighborhood can actually lead to poorer behavior on the part of the less affluent students.
  • When people see disorder or disorganization, they assume there is no real authority. In that environment, their threshold to overstepping legal and moral boundaries is lower. – This was Rudy Guliani’s broken window theory. Not only should a school be cleaned up but students need a sense of ownership of the property and a recognition that it is a reflection of them. They need to be involved in both its improvement and its maintenance.
Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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