Monday, October 14, 2013

A comprehensive bullying prevention program for selective schools

The proliferation of Social and Emotional Learning programs is part and parcel of the American school system’s campaign against bullying. Ironically, as I’ve noted earlier, these programs often end up further enabling the bullies:

Socially savvy kids can take advantage of zero tolerance policies and subtly goad a more socially clueless peer into lashing out. The victim rather than the perpetrator is then the one who gets punished. In whole class discussions in which children are supposed to share their experiences with bullying, the victims may be too uncomfortable to do so, especially if those experiences involved subtle, difficult-to-articulate forms of bullying like shunning, and especially if the victims expect subtle reprisals from peers once the adults are out of earshot.
Also worsening the social climate for quirky kids is the rise of group-centered learning, which proponents claim teaches valuable cooperative skills:
The anecdotes I collected for my book strongly suggest that group learning environments, rather than preventing bullying, are often arenas for it. Bullying can be quite subtle and difficult to detect; teachers cannot supervise multiple groups simultaneously; unsocial and socially awkward children regularly report being teased and ignored as the social hierarchy of the playground creeps into the classroom's "cooperative groups"--whenever the teacher is out of earshot.
For those whose families can afford it, certain private schools--those that have lower student-to-staff ratios and more traditional, less group-centered classrooms--potentially provide somewhat of a refuge. However, I’ve been hearing more and more anecdotes lately suggesting that it’s become harder and harder for quirky kids to get into private schools. Schools that once were known for their Aspy-friendliness are increasingly looking at “the whole child,” where “whole” favors those who show social skills that, according to neurotypical norms, are commensurate with their cognitive skills. Quirky, asymmetrical development is insufficiently “whole”—particular when what’s deficient is social normality.

When it comes to discriminating against quirky, unsocial kids, some of the worst offenders around here (with one refreshing exception) are our Quaker schools. Bastions of tolerance though they supposed are, their admissions officers don't hesitate to tell parents that their kids are “scary” or “really need to be evaluated” or, at the very least, “not a good fit for our school.”

Why are private schools so skittish about quirky kids these days? Ironically, this may have something to do with America's anti-bullying campaign. This has made a reputation for friendliness more desirable than ever. More and more, private schools, particularly the Quaker schools, tout their ability to create friendly, supportive environments in which all students are kind to one another.

However, just like selective magnet schools, private schools can cherry-pick those applicants who allow them to coast towards their goals. The easiest way to obtain high test scores isn’t through the hard work of providing students of all ability levels with appropriately challenging instruction, but through the simpler process of only admitting students who already have high test scores to begin with. Similarly, the easiest way to foster a friendly, supportive environment isn’t through the hard work of monitoring students, providing incentives for good behavior, and minimizing opportunities for bullying, but through the simpler process of only admitting students who already seem to have friendly and supportive personalities. And this, indeed, seems to be one of the biggest admissions priorities of our so-called Friends schools.

But quirky kids can be at least as friendly and supportive as more typical kids. So how does rejecting them foster friendliness and prevent bullying? To see why, all you have to do is consider what a comprehensive anti-bullying admissions program requires. No matter how carefully you screen out the potential perpetrators, some of the subtler ones will slip through the cracks. So you must also screen out the potential victims. And the victims are, overwhelmingly, those quirky, socially awkward kids. Keep them out as well, and you can claim a school culture that is friendly, supportive, and open minded.

Never mind that the type of social open mindedness that is in shortest supply is that which pertains to the deepest way in which one person differs from another. By this I mean not diversity of skin color or of religion or of sexual orientation (though we can always use more openness in these areas), but diversity of personality.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

So bullying prevention can best be accomplished by proper casting?

Isn't that the same technique the charter schools use to achieve higher test scores?

Katharine Beals said...

The "proper casting" approach is what I'm criticizing here! (Great phrase, by the way).

And yes, it's the same technique schools use to achieve higher test scores--schools that are able to be selective, that is.

Many charters are *not* allowed to be selective. Here in Philly, for example, charters must base decisions on a random lottery.

Anonymous said...

Random lotteries no problem for charter school casting. It just means they get to help three-quarters of their students "choose a more appropriate path" between freshman and senior years, and baseline their test score improvement on the tests of the kids they kicked out.

Katharine Beals said...

'they get to help three-quarters of their students "choose a more appropriate path" between freshman and senior years'

References?

Anonymous said...

I only know the way the racket works here in Boston, where 2/3 is more accurate.

"Academy of the Pacific Rim had 81 5th graders in the 2005-2006 school year. Only 26 of those students remain as 12th graders this year.."

http://bluemassgroup.com/2013/03/charter-school-attrition/

I understand that real estate fraud and outright racketeering are bigger problems in the charter school business in Philly. Charter school success in Philly means the CEO is not under indictment, right?

Katharine Beals said...

To the extent that this problem extends beyond The Academy of the Pacific rim (which is the most extreme case on the link you've provided), achieving high test scores through selectivity/attrition (your link does not contain data on how the attrition affects test scores) is not specific to charter schools. Private schools do the same thing, as do public magnet schools. Even some non-magnet public schools can do this--either through attrition, or through neighborhood gentrification, or through non-random approaches to admission when the school doesn't have enough room for everyone in its catchment area.

A better measure of whether a school really does add value is what people are choosing when choice exists. Among the schools with very long waiting lists are charter schools like KIPP, BASIS, and Independence Charter here in Philadelphia.

FedUpMom said...

Katharine says:

"Many charters are *not* allowed to be selective. Here in Philly, for example, charters must base decisions on a random lottery."

Actually, the lottery is selective, because you have to apply for it. Thus it selects for parents who are savvy, informed, involved, and literate in English. It's not the same as taking all the kids in a particular catchment area.

Katharine Beals said...

"Actually, the lottery is selective, because you have to apply for it."

Good point.

Most neighborhood schools are selective, too, because most neighborhoods have socio-economic barriers to living there.

Anonymous said...

The GAO reports that charter schools enroll about 25% fewer special education students than traditional schools. This is compounded by the fact that the SPED students that charter schools do enroll tend to have much more mild disabilities. While in theory most charter schools are forbidden from discriminating against special needs students, the GAO noted anecdotal evidence of counseling students out or failing to provide services.

Choice can be a problem for parents of special needs students. While we may want to believe that in an ideal society people would value human diversity, in reality many, perhaps a majority, of the parents of neuro-typical children may not be eager to have their children in a class with socially challenged students. I am not confident that "A better measure of whether a school really does add value is what people are choosing when choice exists". Perhaps they are simply choosing to insulate themselves from difficult students.

Katharine Beals said...

"While we may want to believe that in an ideal society people would value human diversity, in reality many, perhaps a majority, of the parents of neuro-typical children may not be eager to have their children in a class with socially challenged students. "

Ah, now we're finally moving off this tangent on test scores, and back to the original point of my post! Cf:

"the type of social open mindedness that is in shortest supply is that which pertains to the deepest way in which one person differs from another. By this I mean not diversity of skin color or of religion or of sexual orientation (though we can always use more openness in these areas), but diversity of personality."