Ken Plum: Redesigning Our Schools

plumMy first experience in Fairfax County came as a result of being placed as an intern teacher by the University of Virginia in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). My history/political science undergraduate degree from Old Dominion University did not provide me the necessary credentials to teach; the M. Ed. program allowed me to continue my studies in history while completing a year-long supervised internship. The school in which I was placed scheduled me for three periods of the most challenging students in the school from whom I could learn to teach.

That year and the additional two years I was in the classroom before moving into administration continue to be the hardest work I ever have had to do. And I learned a lot from the students. I prided myself on being able to work with the most difficult students, but even I faced challenges I could not meet. One student in particular who had been removed from every class in which he was enrolled was finally removed from my class as well. Years later after I had become director of adult education for FCPS and responsible for the night high school I saw that same student graduate from high school. He had settled down, gotten a job, and many of the complexities of his personal life had been resolved. He was married and seemed very happy.

I was thinking of that student and many others that I may have helped rescue with the alternative schools I helped to start for students who could not make it in the regular school environment when I read an article in the Washington Post recently about a speech from a top school administrator on the school to prison pipeline. Her speech is part of a debate that I am pleased is occurring about the way discipline is handled in the schools.

Zero tolerance policies simplify discipline. You break the rules you are automatically out–no need for administrators or school boards to be concerned as to whether there is a better way. Confusing school discipline with criminal behavior helps shift the burden from the school principal to the school resource officer/cop to take care of the problem. Suspending children as young as four or five may provide some relief in the short run but may contribute to bigger problems in the long run. Enforcing a system of standardized testing based on rigid standards increases anxiety for teachers and students alike, and it may not be the best way to educate children. Assuming that one can teach someone all they need to know for a future decades from now is foolish if we are not teaching the skills of problem solving and learning rather than isolated bits of information.

The simple solutions of the past never worked as well as many would have hoped, and they sometimes led to greater problems. The school model of the past will not meet the diverse needs of children today. I am pleased that discussions are taking place about new models for schools. I am just as pleased that my student of the past found his way back to school after being turned out.