by Christopher Paslay
To help The Philadelphia Public School Notebook bring quality and equality to all public schools, I am posting a regular forum here on Chalk and Talk called Eye on The Notebook. Its purpose is to provide The Notebook and its readers with constructive feedback from teachers who work day-to-day in real classrooms and experience the district’s problems firsthand. Although The Notebook analyzes a wide variety of educational issues, too often their conclusions are limited in scope and perspective.
Eye on The Notebook will attempt to bring a more grounded analysis of issues that face our city’s public schools. I will dissect selected Notebook articles and add depth to their findings. In tandem with The Notebook, this blog hopes to uncover the true root causes of problems concerning the Philadelphia School District and offer practical, realistic solutions.
In their recent article, “A national trend: Black and Latino boys predominate in emotional support classes,” the Notebook explains that a disproportionate number of black and Latino boys are placed in special education. Although they effectively shine a light on this issue, they oversimplify the problem by blaming it primarily on racism.
“Many say racial biases among those who refer and evaluate students for special education are a factor,” the Notebook writes. They also suggest there is an “unconscious racial discrimination by school authorities.”
As an experienced, hard-working teacher in the Philadelphia School District, I find this reasoning off-base and offensive. There may exist a cultural gap between students and teachers, but to insinuate that minority students predominate in emotional support classes because they are being discriminated against by racially prejudiced teachers and counselors, most of whom are white, is insulting and intentionally misleading.
The Notebook is too far removed from the day-to-day reality of urban classrooms to accurately diagnose problems, and as a result, they offer generic solutions.
There are two layers to the problem of minorities and special education. First is the fact that black and Latino males are “acting out” too often in school. Second is that teachers are sometimes misinterpreting this behavior. The Notebook does a marvelous job of overlooking the former and highlighting the latter. Even if we succeed in reducing the number of black and Latino boys in emotional support classes, their unruly behavior will still remain. And where will we be then?
In the end, the student’s behavior is everything. No employer is going to put up with a young man who continues to act out.
So how do we change a student’s behavior?
One solution is providing students with Positive Behavior Supports. According to a plan designed by the Institute for Human Development at Northern Arizona University, “Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is an approach to helping people improve their difficult behavior that is based on four things:
1. An Understanding that people (even caregivers) do not control others, but seek to support others in their own behavior change process;
2. A Belief that there is a reason behind most difficult behavior, that people with difficult behavior should be treated with compassion and respect, and that they are entitled to lives of quality as well as effective services;
3. The Application of a large and growing body of knowledge about how to better understand people and make humane changes in their lives that can reduce the occurrence of difficult behavior; and
4. A Conviction to continually move away from coercion – the use of unpleasant events to manage behavior.
PBS is effective because it treats the problems (poor communication and anger management skills)—not the symptoms (a false label). If used correctly, it can literally change a student’s entire life.
Instead of making sweeping generalizations and pulling the race card, The Notebook should focus its attention on a process that can rectify misbehaviors and give students back control of their educations. Doing so might be more beneficial for students, and less offensive and insulting to teachers.