Monday, March 12, 2012

We Have No Idea “What Works”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “we know what works” which is often repeated by corporate education reformers such as Wendy Kopp and Geoffrey Canada. Yesterday, I read the latest blog post by veteran math teacher and TFA alum Gary Rubinstein. He warns TFA novices that “If you’re about to begin your career as a TFA teacher, I think you will take your job much more seriously if you know that you are about to attempt something that nobody has really figured out how to conquer yet.”

And the idea that “nobody has really figured [it] out” really struck a chord. As someone who works with some of the toughest kids--kids with significant behavior problems, severe learning disabilities, histories of trauma, abuse, and neglect, cognitive and developmental delays, and mental health problems--I leave my job many days thinking “Wow, I don’t know how to reach that kid.”

Guys, we have no idea how to teach these kids. Most get placed (eventually) in special education (thus the higher numbers of low-income minority children in Sped). Some get further segregated into therapeutic day schools. I’ve visited and worked in many different settings in the spectrum. Inclusion or self-contained, special school or mainstreamed, I am not convinced any of our current ideas really work for a large chunk of kids. I don’t even think that special education is what I am doing many days. It’s more like “chaotic impoverished environment control”.

All I know is this: the best that seems to be out there requires a heck of a lot of resources, really really really small (and I would add mixed-ability) classes, an excess number of adults of various specialties, and a whole big bunch of flexibility and creativity.

More than anything, I worry about segregating these kids into separate classrooms or institutions. In my hospital, we often get the most challenging kids from their respective schools. Imagine that one student who everyone in their school building knows as “the problem kid” all concentrated together in one place. Believe me, there are some days life gets pretty interesting in my classroom. But one of the saving graces about my classroom is that there are usually a number of peers with positive behaviors mixed in. At a mental health facility, we get a number of patients who are extremely depressed or sometimes suicidal, but often very strong academically and behaviorally.

The other big saving grace is of course the extra staff support. Having to run a classroom alone with the kids I work with would be, well, impossible. I often joke that in order to find sanity, I had to work in a mental institution. Before working as a teacher in a psychiatric hospital, I worked in a 99% low-income, 100% African-American elementary school on the south side of Chicago as a special education teacher. Without the resources, staff, or assistive technology to run an effective special education program, those kids were being seriously denied the opportunity to learn. And then to add to that, one of our special ed teachers was a first-year alternative certification teacher who was absolutely unprepared for the task. The Gen Ed teachers had far too many children in their classrooms to do inclusion effectively and our resource room became a dumping ground warehousing any student with behavior problems. And I learned the hard way that no untenured teacher should EVER point out how criminally inadequate the education we were providing these kids was much less try and change it.

Which is why I am absolutely appalled that ed reformers are turning to charters to save the day. In my job, students cycle in and out of the program with an average stay of only about a week or two. We have a forty bed unit serving ages 4-17 so I have worked with literally hundreds and hundreds of kids from around Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. First, I have met countless children with behavior problems who have been told to leave the charter school they were attending. No surprise there as this push-out phenomenon is fairly well reported. All I have to add is that I meet A LOT of these kids, many from the high-profile charter chains here in Chicago.

But there is an even stranger part of the story. Of the children I work with who still go to charters, I have noticed a disturbing trend. Almost without exception, the charter school students with IEPs (or without, but who are being hospitalized for psychiatric issues) are academically strong students who are suffering from depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation. Yes, they officially have “disabilities” (whatever that means), but they are the types of problems which do not affect the rest of the class. They are also the types of problems where, with the right supports, these young people can generally be successful academically.

I really need to do some more research into this phenomenon of “selective disabilities”, but for now let me say that charter schools are very careful to “protect” their learning environments. And I do get that. Without the right resources and supports, the kids with behavior problems are really really hard to work with and to reach. But then why do we throw the burden onto the neighborhood schools which are receiving even less? I have been to the charters in this city. They have more. They could take more of the toughest kids. But they don’t.

Which is why it scares me when people say, “we know what works.” I don’t think we know much at all. Charters have certainly figured out ways to make certain kids sit down and be quiet. And the good charters use that control over the student body to create positive learning environments, at least for the students who can “cut it.”

But I don’t call helping kids at the expense of other children a “success”. I’m sorry, but I don’t want my behavior kids segregated out of opportunity. If all the money, power, and influence is being pumped into charters then I want my students to get some of that! Plus, these kids suffer when they are in classrooms concentrated with negative behaviors, all because no one wanted to invest in the types of supports like small classes, tutors, social workers, and aides that might have given them a fighting chance.

I challenge any of those “We know what works” people to visit my classroom. I want Wendy Kopp and her husband to come to my classroom and try some of their favorite KIPP strategies. Bring that TFA binder too. And good luck with that. I hope they don’t mind having a chair thrown at them while getting cussed out by an 8-year old. (Don’t worry Wendy, I’ll step in and help the child calm. Like most decent teachers, I won’t sit back and let someone else figure out “what works” on an innocent child. For his sake, I’ll help you out.)

We don’t really know what works because every child is different. And the people who think we’ve figured it all out have probably not spent much time with the kids I work with. But we do know some things that help, just most of them require more money. A lot more money. I think the bigger question is not “what works” but how much we are willing to spend on these kids. The answer? Plenty…for their prison cells.


  1. Well done, Katie. I'll add one: If we knew what works, then we wouldn't be concerned with reauthorizing NCLB. We would get ALL of our students to pass their accountability test. Unfortunately, we don't yet know what works to overcome all of the realities that our diverse student pooulations face on a daily basis.

  2. I speak from bitter experience when I say that in districts with high-poverty and low-poverty schools, the latter are taking the cue from charter schools. Every year, around the end of the first quarter my school suddenly receives a few students who had been strongly encouraged to transfer. These students feel rejected, which significantly adds to whatever issues made them attractive transfer candidates. And my school becomes overwhelmed as we take on more than our share of high-needs students without any additional supports.

    For me, the really hard part about not knowing what works is how difficult it can be to get any kind of expert support. I generally have one or two children I think might benefit from some kind of sensory support. I'm willing to provide the support on my own dime if need be, but I'm not an expert. Even getting an OT to do a ten-minute whole class observation and talk to me for five minutes thereafter to give suggestions is an impossibility, unless I am willing to make secretive phone calls and convince an OT to do the observation on the sly. This may be cost-effective in the short-term, but the long-term costs are real and ugly.

    So despite being told repeatedly and often that as a classroom teacher at a high-needs school I'm a failure, I am still supposed to discover what works for each of my students with no support in doing so.

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