06/24/2011 09:17 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2011

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

The Philadelphia Inquirer's year-long investigation into violence in the city's schools documents the way that assaults and chronic disorder cripple efforts to improve student performance. It is hard to tell which told the more tragic story -- the Inquirer's recent series or its special reports in 2007 after a teacher suffered a broken neck.

The Inquirer cited Edison High School, one of the city's 19 "persistently dangerous schools," where a cellphone camera documented the "explosive violence that all too often engulfs Philadelphia public schools, traumatizing students and teachers and stifling learning."

To comply with NCLB, Edison was required to devise an action plan to enhance safety. Its plan was:

Goal 1: Installation of cameras.
Goal 2: Improve school climate.
Goal 3: Student mentoring/peer mediation.

Another school's plan was specific enough to address tardiness by doing the following:

Have posters and policy printed up and posted
Inform staff, parents and students of policy and procedure
Aquire [sic] shirts for sell

The plan also misspelled the school's name.

These school plans are "thin," said a retired principal, "because people are filling out and documenting what they need to please the district and the government."

Fels High School, where more than seven percent of students experience a violent incident, listed the school's goal as reducing the number of violent incidents by 10 percent. Fels hopes to "reduce the numbers of students running randomly in packs throughout the building,"

The same culture of compliance was demonstrated the last time the Inquirer documented rampant disorder and violence. A 2008 audit found that state education officials did not bother reading the reports prompted by the Inquirer's series or verify whether schools had implemented them. "We believe that there is still a problem with the Department of Education not properly monitoring to make sure the action plans correct the problems," said the department's auditor.

If there is one educational issue that cries out for an open and careful planning process, it is violence prevention. A first step would be the design of a coordinated system to address absenteeism, especially with young students. Then, socio-emotional interventions must be coordinated. In my experience, most inner city teachers and parents want an expansion of alternative schools. Any system that simply dumps kids in separate and unequal alternative slots would be doomed, however. Careful planning would be necessary to overcome any stigma associated with alternative services. Moreover, a significant minority of teachers and parents have sincere reservations about any system that might unduly separate troubled students from the mainstream. And, of course, we must listen to the administrators who would be responsible for implementing a new system.

The first step in turning around our toughest neighborhood schools must be the recognition that we have a problem. Theorists and central office administrators must face the hard fact that student performance in the classroom can not be improved systemically until the anarchy in the schools is addressed. It is understandable that adults are afraid of touching the issue of safe and orderly schools. If adults had to experience the fear and the discord faced by our children, however, we would come together and thrash out comprehensive plans. If adults had to endure the indignities dumped on students, we would find the political will to work our plans.