Punitive and Unsympathetic: Mathews is SOOOO Wrong on KIPP

Jay Mathews is an education talking head, columnist, blogger and huge cheerleader for KIPP schools. KIPP is under fire for their attrition again— this time due to discipline in D.C. Mathews’ explanation and justification for KIPP actions were punitive and unsympathetic. Jay Mathews is clearly not an expert on this issue, so I asked someone who actually knows something about school discipline to respond. Here are Heather Cole’s thoughts. —Julian

A few days ago, The University of Texas at Austin hosted a special conference on trauma-informed care and at-risk youth. The purpose of the conference was to talk about different approaches to addressing the needs of young people in various systems including schools, home, foster care and treatment facilities. The keynote speaker was Dr. Bruce Perry, a trauma expert and the founder and director of the Child Trauma Academy. Dr. Perry spoke at length about the inability of society to meet the developmental needs of our children. He made several critical comments about the ways our schools are organized and the failure of teachers and administrators to identify the cognitive and emotional developmental stage of students. This lack of awareness and knowledge feeds into their inability to understand that for many children, the demands being placed upon them are simply not achievable. This does not mean that with assistance, demands, both academic and behavioral can be met. However, when demands are so beyond the developmental stage of the student, we are simply setting him or her up to fail. He acknowledged the incredible pressure teachers are under with overcrowded classrooms and their own stressors related to accountability requirements and performance expectations. The sad reality he so eloquently captured is that we do not live in a world that has time to stop and think about a child’s true needs. We are not therapeutic in our approach; we are punitive and unsympathetic.

As I listened throughout the day of the conference to speaker after speaker talk about the need to develop relationships of trust, about the trauma induced by so many adults in young people’s lives blaming, excluding and demonizing them, I could not help but think about Mr. Mathews recent article. In his continued defense of KIPP Charter schools, he attempts to justify the expulsion of students. Mr. Mathews argues that students “who cannot control themselves” should be expelled to “a school just for them.” He argues that we do not know how to consistently address young people and “their damaging urges” and that until we do, charter schools and indeed, even public schools, are not the place for them. I vehemently disagree. The solution is not just to penalize these students one more time, tell them they are unwanted and ship them off somewhere they are likely to receive inadequate education, punitive treatment and be congregated with a number of other children with maladaptive behaviors.

Most psychologists or behavioral specialists will tell you, if you want to change behaviors, you want to integrate children with others that can model appropriate behaviors, not teach them even more problematic responses. What we know from studies that have looked at the impact of alternative placements is that students do not fare well when they are placed in these settings. In Texas, where it is required by law that students who are suspended or expelled attend alternative educational programs, the impact of such placements has been disastrous. According to a recent report released by the Council of State Governments (go here), students who were suspended and/or expelled, particularly those who were repeatedly disciplined, were more likely to be held back a grade or to drop out than students not involved in the disciplinary system. In addition, when a student was suspended or expelled, his or her likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system the subsequent year increased significantly.

Mr. Mathews is wrong when he claims that we do not know how to address young people’s behavior. We do know how to do it and we have interventions, research-based and empirically supported interventions, that have been proven to be highly effective in addressing behavioral issues. Dr. Perry’s work has been well-researched and let’s not forget about Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports which has a ton of research behind it to support its effectiveness (go here for numerous citations to effective PBIS practices). But, we don’t utilize these interventions and when we do, it is without fidelity and often partnered with practices that even contradict the interventions, e.g. school-wide zero tolerance and military style, boot camp alternative schools. What we are really lacking is empathy for these students who do not automatically conform to our adult expectations. Again, Dr. Perry has written about this phenomenon. We expect young people to treat us with respect, to comply with our rules, to fit our models of acceptability but we treat them with disrespect, we don’t work with them to assist them or to teach them, we just choose the easy route and send them somewhere else because we don’t want to bother to help them.

So many of these youth are already the unwanted of our society, the poor, the minorities and the children with disabilities. They are the disenfranchised and our disciplinary procedures disproportionately affect them (many have written at length on this idea of disproportionality – for a comprehensive overview go here). When we force them out of their schools, whether they be charters or the public school, we just reinforce that we don’t want them. It is not a big surprise that these children drop out of school, are often homeless, jobless and end up in our justice system. Mr. Mathews argues that sometimes, we must sacrifice a few of the betterment of the rest, but is this even true? And, if it is, is that the message we want to give our children? The weak don’t matter…the defenseless are the ones we should care the least about. Should not the message be the opposite? We judge societies not by what they do with those with the greatest power, but how they treat those unable to protect themselves. When it comes to our young people, suspending and expelling students can never be the solution. We need to serve all our students, not just those we think are the easiest to assist.

Heather Cole Ph.D. candidate, Department of Special Education, University of Texas at Austin. B.A. Hons., Queen’s University, Canada, 1991; L.L.B., Queen’s University, 1996; M.P.A., Queen’s University, 2000; M.Ed., University of Texas at Austin, 2007.


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  • I’m sympathetic to the need to assist all students, especially those evincing the most need. Then I started teaching and witnessed a greater travesty:

    Honor classes are composed mostly of white students whose compliant behavior facilitates the teaching of more rigorous material.

    Unfortunately, standard classes are disproportionately populated with minority students, and the egregious antics of a few troublemakers make it impossible to teach rigorous content to the majority of the class.

    Hence the real victims of these out-of-control troublemakers are Hispanic and African-American students, especially ESL students, who have the misfortune to be placed in standard classes with them.

    So these minority students who comply with classroom rules and want to learn are not learning – their education is being hijacked by students with extreme behavioral problems. When teachers have to take inordinate amount of time in class to address these behavioral issues even with positive interventions, the rest of the class lags behind in covering content. Often students in class simply ask that these troublemakers be kicked out — even when questioned about effective ways to address these problems, former troublemakers share that kicking a student out would be an effective, common sense approach. Otherwise, the majority of minority students suffer as a result.

    When you say that the way to help unruly kids is to surround them with students modelling appropriate behavior, I contend the opposite – keeping these recalcitrant students in class leads other students to copy their misbehavior in order to gain “cred,” act cool, because they see these confidently misbehaving students as acting like alpha males and females to emulate. Therefore, by allowing the actions of a few to dominate the atmosphere of the class as a whole, we are inculcating an ethos of disrespect and laziness among underprivileged youth, setting them up to fail in the future.

    I’m a Hispanic woman who teaches ESL and often co-teach inclusion in content areas. This is what I have observed, and it troubles me greatly! In the efforts to placate socially and emotionally disturbed students, the rest of the class is held hostage in terms of academic progress. The very sad thing is that these compliant students don’t realize the true extent to which their educational progress is stymied by these recurring behavioral issues.

    As a female I can tell you that I’ve been scared sometimes by their aggressive maladaptive behaviors. Perhaps men who teach can exercise more influence and control by virtue of their stature and physical strength, but women are at a higher risk of bodily injury by these truant pupils, especially at the high school level.

    What I propose is this: Create a 2-tier standard class level that involves student choice. Students can either A) enlist in Standard A class that mandates a list of classroom behavior expectations as condition for entry; or B) choose Standard B class which will be smaller containing students with a record of maladaptive behaviors. In that way, experienced teachers who are experts at addressing these extreme cases of acting out in class would have smaller classes to contend with.

    Hence compliant minority students who can not yet tackle a Honors-level course will still have a fighting chance for a quality education that is not disrupted by profanity, bullying and threats of physical violence.


  • Pingback: Naughty List?: Thoughts on Texas Legislature, KIPP, Carstarphen, and College | Cloaking Inequity

  • “Mr. Mathews argues that sometimes, we must sacrifice a few of the betterment of the rest, but is this even true?”

    Yes, it’s called triage. But I question the phrasing and the implied premise of your question. “Sacrifice” in this context implies innocence, undeservedness of their fate. As a 7-12 schoolteacher for 19 years (17 in public schools, most of those years in urban schools), I have to ask on what basis do you assume that students who are “cast out” did not in fact earn it? Perhaps some do not, but your implication sounds more global, and that claim is simply unwarranted.


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