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'No Excuses' Schools, Irrelevant Discipline, and Culturally Responsive Mediation

Note: This week, L. Trenton Marsh, a doctoral candidate at NYU's Steinhardt School, will be guest-blogging. See his earlier posts here and here.

Yesterday, many around the nation celebrated Rosa Parks' legacy. The official twitter account for the Nobel Prize tweeted, "#OnThis Day 1955, Rosa Parks initiated a new era in the American quest for equality." The New York Times Archive proclaimed, "Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and changed the world, this day in 1955." With such a display of moral courage and resilience, or as she simply put it, "tired of giving in," her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger would spark the Birmingham Bus Boycott. I imagined how a heroic story of nonconformity would resonate with children who attend no-excuses public charter schools—sites of rigidity, order and cultural contestation. As theorized by Freud, order is used to sublimate the contention of human nature and civilization. That is, he believed order could be a "yardstick for civilization" holding groups together. He further defined order as a "compulsion to repeat," as established regulations decide when, where and how a thing shall be done. And while it is not uncommon for schools to make decisions for children, sparing them natural curiosity, hesitation and perhaps indecision, within the context of no-excuses charter schools, the agency of the students being denied can seemingly create a disembodied educational experience.

Often framed as "necessary for students' success"—that is, state-sanctioned success in the form of English Language Arts and math scores—many no-excuses schools' rationales for strict law and order appear worthy. These schools are "giving kids more time"; purportedly "keeping kids safe"; and "[stopping] any confusion" in decision making, before it starts. Yet, similar to "pedagogy of poverty," these acts are performed to the exclusion of other forms of pedagogical taxonomies due to biases and stereotypes about the race and socioeconomic class of students being taught at the schools. Moreover, if students' attempt to regain their human connection through choice and agency—which may result in noncompliant behaviors —students can be met with what I call, "irrelevant discipline." That is, school discipline void of culturally responsive pedagogy, multicultural counseling and caring. The components for culturally responsive classroom management (CRCM), which combined enable students to enact their best selves because teachers identify them accordingly. Therefore, it is important to examine student experiences when CRCM is not embedded. For instance, a student's irrelevant disciplinary action of receiving a five-point deduction on his behavior report that is ostensibly reflective on his "character" for not "having a pencil in a groove." It is important to interrogate what an irrelevant disciplinary action is designed to accomplish when a student decides to wear bright, orange socks instead of the mandated black. It is important to interrogate what might be missing from the big picture if a student comes to school after a major snowstorm, but arrives without wearing the mandated black belt and is now subjected to an irrelevant disciplinary action of lunch detention. It is important to interrogate what is implicitly being inferred by schools and interpreted by students as their Black and Brown bodies are mandated to walk on painted straight lines on linoleum flooring, when "walking in straight lines" does not exist in the real world. Or at least, the real world these students are allegedly being charged with changing. In schools, students who are obedient to the rules are rewarded and regarded highly by school staff, and in some instances, compliant behaviors such as observing classroom rules and demonstrating appropriate classroom behavior are valued more than students' actual academic ability and performance on academic tasks. And those students who do not comply have to endure the irrelevant disciplinary consequences.

In the midst of the latter group, students who endure the irrelevant disciplinary consequences the most are the nonconformists. These are students education advocate Herb Kohl would identify as "willed not to learn." In the context of no-excuses schools, these are students who understand the disciplinary systems and how to 'play the game' of schooling, generally speaking, but refuse because of lack of interpersonal connection or relationship with the adults. But some may argue these students are actually displaying characteristics of leadership, and perhaps destined to be the most successful. That is, if they were supported in their decision to push back on the norms, seeking to be originals.

My argument is not that schools should be places of "chaos," as some teachers and students suggest would exist without strict rigidity. But research indicates schools and classrooms can be more culturally responsive, caring and giving students choice, and be empowering places that affirm their lived experiences. In 2004, Rutgers University professors Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke and Curran developed a five-part concept of CRCM which focuses on adult interventions. The theory is if adults are able to engage and espouse culturally responsive educational and pedagogical practices, then some of the student behaviors that teachers may label as noncompliant, disengaged, and the like, may be assuaged. The five-stage process starts with teachers recognizing their own cultural lens and biases. This is an important place to start because, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and U.S. Department Justice's Civil Rights Division, African American students without disabilities were three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. This data suggests implicit biases and assumptions are being made by teachers concerning the behaviors of specific categories of students, about which they may not even be cognizant.

Next, the model suggests teachers need to develop knowledge of students' cultural backgrounds by discovering students as asset-driven individuals, what New York University Professor David Kirkland refers to as "profit portraits." The model then suggests teachers need to develop an awareness of the broader social, economic and political context in which their students are situated. It is not enough to know a child comes from poverty, but understand, as UCLA Professor Pedro Noguera writes, how stresses related to student poverty include hunger, chronic illness, trauma, and institutionalized racism all continue to pose obstacles to student learning. Next, the model suggests teachers' ability and willingness to use culturally appropriate management strategies, which include students' voices, decision making and incorporation of their familial culture, into the fabric of the classroom experience. The final piece is teachers' commitment to building caring classroom communities, which is rooted in respectful relationships and affirming classroom experiences.

In the end, the goal of CRCM is to create an environment that is empowering and allows for relationships, as opposed to a space rooted in fear of punishment or desire for an external reward. As such, the classroom environment must acknowledge and be responsive to who are the students (culturally, cognitively, socially and emotionally), and as the authors suggest, create a safety net that equitably responds to what teachers know about their students. When this space is created for students, overtime irrelevant discipline should become obsolete.

—L. Trenton Marsh

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