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You may have heard me say it here before: California is the world’s largest open-air asylum. I’ve always thought that, but it became much clearer to me after I decamped from my native Golden State to Tennessee last year. Now every time that I sent foot back on California soil — as I did last night — I’m struck by the air of unreality that characterizes the place. All you have to do is look around for a few minutes before you start thinking “Is it possible that there’s a gas leak in this entire state that no one knows about?” That’s about the same reaction I had reading through the San Francisco Chronicle this morning, which notes this — ahem — innovation taking place in Oakland schools:
Mouthing off in class or failing to follow a teacher’s instructions will no longer lead to suspension in Oakland schools, a ban that will be phased in and be fully in effect just over a year from now, the school board unanimously decided Wednesday night.
Oakland Unified will become one of a handful of California school districts that restrict suspensions to more serious offenses and eliminate the punishment for willful defiance — a broad category of misbehavior that includes minor offenses such as refusing to take a hat off or ignoring teacher requests to stop texting and more severe incidents like swearing at a teacher or storming out of class. San Francisco and Los Angeles are also among those districts.
The state already bans suspension for willful defiance from kindergarten through third grade, and Oakland’s decision extends it through high school. The new policy, which goes into full effect July 1, 2016, also bans expulsions and the practice of involuntary transfers — moving students from one school to another — for willful defiance infractions.
Now, this would probably be a bad idea anywhere. But it’s a spectacularly bad idea in Oakland, where classrooms sometimes take on the appearance of war zones. As Paul Sperry noted in March in the New York Post:
Violence is still a problem in Oakland schools after officials there substituted … restorative counseling for suspensions on … orders from Obama educrats.
“There have been serious threats against teachers,” Oakland High School science teacher Nancy Caruso told the Christian Science Monitor, and yet the students weren’t expelled. She notes a student who set another student’s hair on fire received a “restorative” talk in lieu of suspension.
Yet the administration is holding up Oakland’s new discipline program as a national model. Little wonder: Teacher training for the program, led by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, includes sessions titled, “Race and Restorative Justice” and “African-Centered Restorative Justice Approaches.”
Yes, that’s right. There are federal fingerprints all over this. Oakland began this shift under pressure from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which concluded in 2012 that, because African-American kids made up 32 percent of the school district’s enrollment but constituted 63 percent of suspensions, there was an implicit racial bias permeating disciplinary policies. As a result, the onus is now on teachers and administrators to rationalize misconduct. From today’s Chronicle piece:
Student Dan’enicole Williams, a McClymonds High School sophomore, said the ban will force educators and administrators to focus on why students are behaving a certain way rather than just suspending them.
“They never take time out, if someone is sleeping in class, to ask what’s wrong,” she said. “They may be acting that way because they didn’t eat the night before.”
Which might be a more compelling argument if classroom narcolepsy was the primary problem here. Either way, a policy that focuses on understanding the “root causes” (the mother of all liberal dodges) behind bad behavior rather than arresting that behavior is sure to be a recipe for even more unwieldy classrooms. Oakland schools were already hemorrhaging students before they got into the cosmic justice business. That trend will likely only speed up. How could any parent, in good conscience, justify throwing their children into this lion’s den?
By the way, it’s worth noting that Oakland does have an alternative model for successful education: the one employed by Dr. Ben Chavis in his American Indian Model Schools charter system (I highly recommend Chavis’ book, Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City, for those who haven’t read it). As my friend and colleague Ben Boychuk noted in City Journal in 2013:
By every measure, the American Indian Model Schools (AIMS), a charter school system based in Oakland, California, puts that embattled city’s traditional public schools to shame. One of AIMS’s three campuses, the American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS), ranked fifth last year among the state’s middle schools in the Academic Performance Index, California’s instrument for assessing its public schools. The American Indian Public Charter School II, which serves 650 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, ranked first in the district and fourth in the state. U.S. News and World Report placed the system’s third campus, the American Indian Public High School, 38th on its list of the best high schools in America. In the state’s English language arts tests, 87 percent of AIMS students score as “proficient” or “advanced,” compared with 47 percent district-wide. In math, the breakdown is 88 percent for AIMS versus 46 percent for the district; in history and social science, it’s 98 percent versus 31 percent. Oh, and AIMS accomplishes all that while spending roughly half the amount of money per pupil that the district does.
The salient point here: Chavis’ approach to discipline is 180 degrees from the one being embraced in Oakland Unified. From a 2008 profile by George Will:
Telling young people what they must do is what Chavis does. With close-cropped hair and a short beard flecked with gray, he looks somewhat like Lenin but is less democratic. A Lumbee Indian from North Carolina, he ran track, earned a PhD from the University of Arizona, got rich in real estate (“I wanted to buy back America and lease it to the whites”) and decided to fix the world, beginning with AIPCS.
A visitor to an AIPCS classroom notices that the children do not notice visitors. Students are taught to sit properly — no slumping — and keep their eyes on the teacher. No makeup, no jewelry, no electronic devices. AIPCS’s 200 pupils take just 20 minutes for lunch and are with the same teacher in the same classroom all day. Rotating would consume at least 10 minutes, seven times a day. Seventy minutes a day in AIPCS’s extra-long 196-day school year would be a lot of lost instruction. The school does not close for Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day or César Chávez Day.
Every student takes four pre-AP (Advanced Placement) classes. There are three hours of homework a night, three weeks of summer math instruction. Seventh-graders take the SAT. College is assumed.
Paternalism is the restriction of freedom for the good of the person restricted. AIPCS acts in loco parentis because Chavis, who is cool toward parental involvement, wants an enveloping school culture that combats the culture of poverty and the streets.
He and other practitioners of the new paternalism — once upon a time, schooling was understood as democracy’s permissible, indeed obligatory, paternalism — are proving that cultural pessimists are mistaken: We know how to close the achievement gap that often separates minorities from whites before kindergarten and widens through high school. A growing cohort of people possess the pedagogic skills to make “no excuses” schools flourish.
Yes, they do. It’s just a shame that none of them are welcomed to the table in Oakland Unified.