Turnaround School Ignores Misbehavior All Over Again because "That's What We Do"

06/03/2013 11:44 am ET | Updated Aug 03, 2013

Sara Neufeld's first Hechinger Report article on Newark's Quitman Street Renew School, "A Newark School Prepares - Again - to Reinvent Itself," began with Principal Erskine Glover's belief that weeding out subpar instruction is the single most important factor in school improvement. Now, Neufeld's "Perseverance in a Newark School Despite Mid-Year Teacher Turnover," reports that half of Quitman's core middle school teachers have left, including some of Glover's most promising, handpicked teachers.

The last straw for some teachers was the January decision to demand more work of teachers for an additional hourly wage comparable to a fast food job. But, middle school teachers had already been worn down by the continued tolerance of chronic misbehavior.

A year ago, Glover said that only one or two of his 47 8th graders had significant behavioral issues and most didn't skip school. Only seven were "truly prepared" for high school. That raises a question about Glover's definition of "significant." Neufeld described one of their classes where a dozen middle school boys "trickle into their English class over a 15-minute period, alternately slamming the door behind them and leaving again to use the bathroom. ... One boy comes in playfully hitting another; the teacher kicks them out. ..."

Neufeld described a class with no violence in the room but one student is singing and one "who has been trying to work complains about all the door-slamming. He puts down his pen and goes to talk to a friend working on a computer at the back of the room. The screen shuffles between a grammar assignment ('Which sentence uses correct capitalization?') and NBA standings."

A year later, after telling students that their behavior contributed to the exodus of teachers, Glover says, "Some teachers are going to be upset that this child is throwing footballs in the halls or running the halls. I get that. I love you still."

I suspect the problem is not simply Glover's failure to take classroom disruptions seriously. I suspect the problem is that he is articulating a normative position of school leaders working in urban systems that refuse to address chronic misbehavior. Quitman is one of six Newark's "renew" schools that receive extra funding and the power to recruit and select their own staffs. As of now, one of those schools lost its principal during the year. The others have not had turnover like Quitman, but Neufeld reports that they still face challenges over the quality of instruction.

I would not be surprised to learn that other principals face a pattern similar to Glover's. He says that progress is being made in the primary grades, but the teachers' energy has waned in third through fifth grades.

Not surprisingly, the blame game has taken off. The real villain, however, is the claim that the willpower of superstar teachers is enough to reverse the legacies of generational poverty.

I have no problem with a principal claiming that improved teaching can turnaround schools. In my experience, administrators are socialized into the naïve belief that teachers can be deputized as the agents for undoing the effects of extreme poverty. It is hard to understand why systems still assert that good instruction is enough to drive improvement of inner city middle schools, even before a respectful learning culture is established.

But, I have a problem with Glover letting his ideology slip into his words to students after chastising them for their behavior. It is great that the principal expresses his love for the students, but then he adds, "And Monday we're going to come back and do it all over. That's what we do."

Until principals and their bosses understand that this cycle of chronic misbehavior must be broken, teachers will continue to give their all, cry themselves to sleep at night, and quit in exhaustion. To his credit, Glover understands the stress. He asks a young teacher how many times she had cried over the job. "'How did you know I'm crying?'" he recalls. "And I said, 'Everybody goes through it. ... That's the nature of our game. ...'"

Schools like Quitman are unlikely to improve until administrators understand that the nature of the game must change. The children are listening as the adults fight. As long as teachers are blamed for chronic disorder, the quality of classroom instruction will suffer. By the time students are in middle school, students understand enough about the way the system works - or doesn't work - so that teens know that they are unlikely to be held responsible for their behavior.

On the other hand, shifting the blame game towards punitive actions against students is not the answer. I hope that the lesson emerges from Quitman, and similar turnarounds, that the better approach is to invest in socio-emotional supports, teaching children to be students, and thus laying the foundation for high-quality instruction. We must express our love for students and still insist that they comport themselves properly. I will be looking forward towards the rest of Neufeld's series for support for either my view or for the Quitman's principal's view on school improvement.