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« Genetic Algorithms and Their Uses | Main | Luck and Economics »

September 29, 2003

Broken Windows


I have often wondered how educators (and the politicians they report to) think learning is going to take place in schools where such items as peace, quiet, discipline and even personal safety are in short supply. It would seem as if the first requirement of a school would be to ensure an environment where these items—at last report mostly free—are plentiful.

Well, my intuitions seem to have been validated by a September 24 story in the New York Times headlined “A Private School That Thrives on Rules.” (You can read this here.) It is a profile of the Trey Whitfield private school in Brooklyn, which draws a student body identical in its demographics to the New York public schools in the neighborhood:

Students come mostly from working-class families in eastern Brooklyn, the children of nurses' aides and bus drivers, teachers and police officers. Everyone is nonwhite, reflecting the demographics of this swath of Brooklyn. Some live in two-parent households, and others with single mothers or fathers, with grandmothers or in foster homes.

Nor is there any attempt to select for academic performance:

The admissions process is less about a child's I.Q. than a parent's attitude. The children are tested, but only to determine whether to put them back a grade. If a parent resists such a move, [Principal A.B.] Whitfield said, he often encourages them to go elsewhere.

Trey Whitfield’s results, however, are not comparable to those of the local public schools, despite far lower spending levels:

Trey Whitfield students perform two or three years above grade level on national achievement tests. On the state reading and math exams, they rack up 3's and 4's on a 1-to-4 scoring system, while 2's are the norm in public schools. None of these tests are required in private school, but [Principal A.B.] Whitfield knows that without them, "nobody is going to believe us."

What is the school’s “secret?”

The governing principle at the school is that structure, calm and safety are prerequisites for learning. "If we didn't have order, we couldn't teach these kids at all," Mr. Whitfield said, acknowledging that some people find his techniques robotic.

These so-called “robotic” techniques seem to consist of dress codes for teachers, uniforms for students, and prohibitions (apparently enforced) on gold teeth, coarse talk in the hallways and hip-hop fashions. And, given the school’s Christian religious affiliation, daily prayer. Corporal punishment, while permitted by the school’s by-laws, has apparently never been necessary, possibly because of Principal Whitfield’s previous line of work as a professional football player. This former New York public school teacher also takes the time to greet every student from pre-school to 8th grade with either a hug or a formal handshake.

It kind of makes you wonder if America’s schools aren’t failing for lack of well-socialized children, but for lack of leaders who are willing to be—well, you know, adults.



posted by Friedrich at September 29, 2003


Wonder what Teacher X would think of this?

I also wonder what the willingness to put kids back a grade if necessary does? Seems like it would help, as the kids would be at the level they are actually in concert with, rather than runnng ever further behind.

Also, with all the stories everyone has told about the increasingly outrageous fashions of young teens, and the debate about how much of that is competitive fashion with other girls (and the inevitable distraction to boys it creates, regardless of the girls' motivation), it seems that uniforms are a major step in the right direction. I have noticed that every swanky, prestigious private highschool which is placing its students in the best colleges requires uniforms.

Posted by: annette on September 29, 2003 08:17 PM

The problem isn't that educators are unwilling to be adults. Most teachers would love to have an orderly, disciplined, learning environment.

Then why don't they have one? you ask.

Answer: School boards, administrators, departments of education, and the ever-present threat of civil lawsuits hamstring teachers, actively preventing them from attaining and maintaining the well-disciplined environment necessary for students (particularly younger children) to do their work.

This is why many public school teachers willingly accept lower pay to work in private schools, where administrators are willing to provide the basic support they need to do their job.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 29, 2003 08:31 PM

I gotta vote with Tim Hulsey on this one. My parents are both teachers in the public school system, as are several aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., and the overwhelming difference between a chaotic school and a calm, peaceful school is discipline. Not harsh, rigid, authoritarian discipline, where the kids are scared stiff, but reasonable, rational expectations of behavior with enforced consequences - where the administration backs up the teachers.

Posted by: Courtney on September 29, 2003 08:41 PM

Yeah - the administrators, craven as they are, are not the problem - only craven people can survive in that position, since parents will sue at the slightest hint of disipline. The public gets the public schools it wants, and as long as there is no social consensus to maintain school disipline, you won't have it...

Posted by: jimbo on September 29, 2003 09:52 PM

I liked the hug and handshake part. My kids both had a 1st grade teacher who had the most disciplined, contented classroom I have ever seen. She never raised her voice and never threatened. What she said was done and what was done was reasonable. And she gave each kid a hug goodbye every afternoon before they left her classroom. Needless to say, my kids adored her.

Annette, it makes sense to put a kid back one or two grade levels if they arent working at thier chronologically appropriate grade. Not all kids are ready to learn things at the same time and trying to keep up when you havent mastered the preceding skills or materials is only a formula for frustration for anyone. Plus, it says something about the parent who isnt willing to do this, especially in a new school where there arent any preexisting social sanctions to live down.

Posted by: Deb on September 29, 2003 10:07 PM

Given that parents of these kids are willing to put them into such a school means that they are already willing to discipline their kids and enforce the rules. It also means they are taking the school seriously as an educational vehicle instead of a mandatory child-care as with other schools.

Since this is not a high-school, they also escape the most egregious behaviours as the kids are younger and more easily influenced and controlled by their parents.

Posted by: Con Tendem on September 30, 2003 10:37 AM


I don't know if you read the whole story or not, but somebody makes the claim that this school is skimming off the cream of the local student population. Since the school doesn't seem to be trying to focus only on the academically gifted, one can only assume that the "cream" in question are children of parents who take education seriously (at least to the tune of $3000 per year out of their pockets) and who have taught their children to respect authority. However, this is an assumption--it would be interesting to study if there is really such a difference in parental attitudes towards education between the population sending its kids to this school and the population sending its kids to public schools. I wonder if such studies have been done?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 30, 2003 11:03 AM

I went to a school like this one (It was semi-private, I'm not sure how that worked out) and it was a wonderful experience. I didn't realize it at the time, but my High School was one of the more rigourous and strict schools you could get into..and hearing horror stories from J about her high school has made me realize what a leg up I had. (Example, All the parents want is for thier students to get AP credit so they can get into an they pressure the school to put thier children into classes they aren't ready for...and then they drag the whole course down. So you have students in AP classes who don't care or know anything about the material. Other stories included teachers who said you couldn't disagree with the textbook cause it was published and the teaching of Animal Farm as a tale about Pigs and rats...not Communism...ditto the Crucible as a tale about witches, not Hysteria.) Of course, now I'm in a state school...and everyday I wonder about thinking "Dear God, how can these people be this dumb?" Three cheers for the gilded cage, eh?


Posted by: JLeavitt5 on September 30, 2003 11:24 AM

Fried - I believe they've been looking into this sort of thing at Boston Latin for a couple of hundred years. But perhaps the memory fails...

The school has required entrance exams for most of my lifetime - the skimming you describe. Before that it was ragamuffins off the street.

Posted by: j.c. on September 30, 2003 11:25 AM

"Other stories included teachers who said you couldn't disagree with the textbook cause it was published and the teaching of Animal Farm as a tale about Pigs and rats...not Communism...ditto the Crucible as a tale about witches, not Hysteria.)"

Huh??? I thought you had to be smart and well-educated to go to the Ivy League. Sounds like you just have to have the constitution to spit back accurately whatever idiocy you are given. And this is where most of the lawyers and political leaders of our nation are drawn from...

Oh, it's all making sense now...

Posted by: annette on September 30, 2003 11:52 AM

I have (now) an insider's view at acceptance policies at highly selective schools (live with a Dean). When it comes down to the last day and you have a bunch of equally qualified potiental students, it often comes down to chance, need to balance out ratios (we have too many girls..ect) or random chance ..."I like his name" was one such example.

I witnessed alot of naked grade grubbing in my lifetime, tho none to the extent that the Ivy-Obessed students in J's school did.


Posted by: JLeavitt5 on September 30, 2003 12:20 PM

It seems to me that most of the measures proposed to help education (Trey Whitfield, No Child Left Behind) consist of moving out of existing "failing" schools. However, doing so requires a fair amount of participation from parents.

Are we returning to the stage that a child's academic progress is going to be more or less determined by the parent's ability to participate/spend money/etc?

It seems that it is already incredibly tough to learn your way out of a difficult home situation. If we've basically given up on our lower-performing schools, does this condemn students without the active parents to educational oblivion?

More to the point, people talk about education being "spoiled" by difficult students. Does anyone have any ideas as to how to deal with them? Most of the initiatives seem to take the approach of moving everyone else to a different location...

I get this mental image of lower-class public schools a few years hence. The school is almost empty except for 4 or 5 trouble-makers along with a unfortunate student (victim) or two whose parents couldn't transfer them/pay for school in each classroom and a hapless teacher facing them :-)

Posted by: Tom West on September 30, 2003 01:01 PM

Tom West:

It isn't a RETURN to that era, that era never left. Kids who learn, whether in public school or private, have parents who pay attention, back up the school's authority, and insist on performance from their children. No one wants those kids whose parents care, but have no money, to be lost in the system. Hence, vouchers, magnet schools, in-district transfers, whatever.

As for the kids who's parents truly don't care, or think "the school should do it" and don't even bother to take advantage of the proposed programs - they aren't learning much NOW. Maybe that "hapless teacher" faced with 5 troublemakers and 3 or 4 other students now will have time to focus on, and find, ways of reaching said 5 troublemakers. A LOT easier to do when you don't have to juggle "reach troublemaker", "teach average kid", and "keep bright kid from getting totally bored and falling asleep". Yeah, the last is more fun, and the middle is what most teachers signed on for. What that means is that, most of the time today, the first isn't done.

Or maybe when there are 9 kids in the school, maybe we close it and transfer the kids from the failing school into one that isn't failing?

Posted by: rvman on September 30, 2003 02:56 PM

The principal at the first HS I went to was a former NFL player, and looked it (he was also very smart and understood human nature). This was right before CA banned corporal punishment, and he took the school from many fights (and often a knifing or 2) a day to calm and tranquil with a very simple technique.

How did he do it? If one of the very large, and misbehaving alpha-males (normally in sports of some sort) misbehaved, he dragged them into his office and used the paddle. On huge teenage football players. He only had to do this a few times before the entire school fell into line.
(He was also one of those persons who can remember EVERYONE's name. He always greeted you by name whenever he said even so much as hello to someone, which was everyone he encountered).

So in my opinion it comes down to monkey dominance hierarchies, at least as far as misbehaving by the students is concerned. But the PC police will have none of that talk, and corporal punishment is nearly universally banned in the US now (see, lawsuits).

But he only ever used it on the largest alpha-monkeys at our school, which are the only ones you need to whack into line, the rest WILL follow.

Posted by: David Mercer on September 30, 2003 05:47 PM

The public gets the public schools it wants, and as long as there is no social consensus to maintain school disipline, you won't have it...

That's the best argument I can think of to privatize our schools.

Could the problem with public education be that many parents don't want to be adults?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 1, 2003 05:51 AM

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