Public School Notebook Advocates Compromising Rights of Many for Rights of Few

by Christopher Paslay

The Notebook continues to lobby to keep violent and unruly students in classrooms, suggesting that America’s discipline policies are racist and culturally insensitive.  

Despite recent accolades from the New York Times and the Philadelphia City Paper for their investigative reporting, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook remains committed to its roots: lobbying for the disenfranchised on the fringes of the educational system.  As a result, they often compromise the rights of the many to stand up for the rights of the few.         

This was the case when the Notebook supported the conclusions drawn by Youth United for Change’s two controversial reports—“Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia” and “Pushed Out”—both of which rely heavily on the testimonies of disgruntled youth to paint dropouts and chronic rule breakers as victims of an intolerant and racist school system.  Both lobby for keeping incorrigible students in classrooms where they consistently rob other children of their right to learn; the Notebook’s Winter 2009 article “A growing expulsion pipeline” did much of the same.       

Most recently, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, the Notebook ran the story “Expulsion epidemic draws national attention,” which also lobbies to keep problem students in schools, calling for alternative forms of remediation that are often unrealistic or achieve limited success.  The story, like the YUC reports, portrays students expelled from schools across the country as victims caught in an oppressive and racist system, despite the findings of reports such as the Inquirer’sAssault on Learning,” which reveals how disruptive student behavior in Philadelphia schools negatively impacts achievement and learning. 

To protect the rights of the hardworking 90 percent of America’s children struggling to learn in environments tainted by the violent and unruly, I wrote a comment on the Notebook’s website trying to shed some light on the issue:   

“Expulsions in America’s public schools do not happen willy-nilly.  Students are given due process and granted a hearing before they are removed from the system.  In addition, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) protects students with anger management issues and the emotionally disturbed (many minorities are diagnosed as such) from being removed from a school, and the “Stay-Put Provision” law allows such students to remain in school even during the actual hearings.  In Philadelphia from 2002 – 2008, not a single student was expelled from the District.  Not that the District is free from violence, or those who perpetrate violence against other students; just read the Inquirer’s “Assault on Learning” series and look at the numbers.  It is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to expel a student from a district (in Philadelphia, even the “permanently expelled” can reapply for admission after their punishment is served), and this is in light of the fact that many serious discipline incidents go unreported.    

[Your article] bills expulsion as an unfair “epidemic” gaining “national attention,” but it ignores the everyday offenses of troubled youth and focuses on the outliers.  The real victims in this situation are the 85-90 percent of America’s public school children who are being held hostage by the violent and unruly few.  Yet somehow the Notebook consistently fails to address THIS issue.  They campaign against a discipline system that is already lacking real teeth, which is counterproductive to establishing a culture of learning in all schools.  If we want to save the education of the masses, we should advocate for better parenting, call for a return of traditional values in our schools and communities, and demand that ALL children respect each other, as well as their teachers, parents, and other authority figures. . . .”

Paul Socolar, the Notebook’s editor, responded to my post by writing the following:

“Some quick comments from the editor to explain the Notebook’s continued interest in this topic of high rates of expulsion as an issue of educational quality and equity.

Philadelphians ought to be considering what approaches to discipline and to curtailing school violence are effective. We know that what many schools are doing now is not effective. There is a growing body of evidence in support of less punitive approaches to school discipline such as restorative justice. We are open to other topics for our reporting. We haven’t seen a similar body of evidence that more systematic implementation of the traditional approach of suspensions and transfers to disciplinary schools advocated here by commenters is effective.

In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world (that hasn’t alleviated high crime rates), the issue of whether harsh school disciplinary policies not only mirror our ineffective criminal justice policies but also create a school-to-prison pipeline is a real concern to many in Philadelphia.

Study after study provides evidence that harsh disciplinary actions are not meted out in a color-blind fashion. This article points to the finding from North Carolina that Black students were more than twice as likely to be suspended for a first-time cell phone offense compared to White students. . . .”

I followed-up Socolar’s comments with the following post on the Notebook (Socolar never did address the fact that the Notebook compromises the rights of the many for the rights of the few):

“. . . Schools must do what they can to address and remediate the behavioral and psychological problems of their students, but there will come a time when a line must be drawn.  There IS a protocol that public schools follow, and by law, a series of interventions in most cases DOES take place before an expulsion.  But when these interventions meet with limited success (including Positive Behavior Supports and Restorative Justice, both of which can only be done effectively in small, one-on-one situations), there will need to be a policy in place to keep the learning environment safe and organized, a policy that allows the majority of hard working students to get an education, and that policy is expulsion. 

As for The Notebook’s obsession with race and their need to keep reminding everyone that expulsions “are not meted out in a color-blind fashion,” I’d like to ask what they are insinuating by this?  It seems clear that they are suggesting that teachers and administrators in public schools are either racist, or culturally ignorant or insensitive.  As an urban schoolteacher of 15 years, as a coach, as a mentor, and as a citizen of Philadelphia, I would have to beg to differ.  Although this may have been the case 30 years ago (or in very limited situations today), I think the disparity in disciplinary measures by race has more to do with environmental factors such as poverty, education and employment; it’s documented that a higher number of minorities are impoverished, have a higher incidence of out-of-wedlock births, have poor nutrition, etc.  These factors all impact a student’s behavior.  Likewise, these factors impact a student’s ATTITUDE when responding to authority, which may explain why a cooperative student, who surrenders his cellphone with little resistance, may not get suspended for the infraction, while another student, who has a difficult home life and has not learned to deal with authority in a positive manner, might get hit with a suspension for a simple cellphone violation. 

The hardworking motivated students should have a right to learn.  Generally speaking, expulsions are the only reasonable way to accomplish this, in light of the tragic condition of American families, poor parenting, society’s attitude of entitlement, and the overall decline in respect for authority.”

This comment was not rebutted by the editor.

Crackdown on Cheating in Schools Must Address Misuse of Cellphones

by Christopher Paslay

 Cheating in public schools goes beyond state exams.  Students regularly use cellphones in class to steal answers.    

Cheating is a growing problem facing public education.  PA Education Secretary Ron Tomalis recently ordered the state to investigate 49 school districts across Pennsylvania for alleged cheating on PSSA tests taken since 2009.  A recent report by the Georgia governor’s office showed that for years, Atlanta public school teachers altered student answer sheets on state tests.      

What has gotten systematically ignored by school leaders and politicians, ironically, is the daily cheating that goes on in American classrooms at the hands of cellphones.     

In 2009, Common Sense Media commissioned the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct extensive interviews with teenage students about the use of digital media for cheating in school.  The report concluded that 83 percent of students had cellphones and that in an average week, teens sent 440 text messages—110 of which were sent during class.  Sixty-five percent of teens used their cellphones in the building despite school policy.  Thirty-five percent admitted to cheating on a test at least once with their cellphone, while 65 percent said they knew of somebody who had cheated with a cellphone. 

To cut down on cheating, and to eliminate unwanted distractions, some educators have banned cellphones from their classrooms altogether.  If a cellphone is seen or heard in class, it is immediately confiscated and not returned until the end of the period.          

Interestingly, teachers who ban the use of cellphones are often labeled as old fashioned.  There is a growing pressure from society to embrace technology in all its glory, and this includes using cellphones as a learning tool in the classroom.  Education is nearing a point when all schools will be paperless, when the electronic word will replace the printed word, when laptops will serve the function of books.          

When you cut through all the rhetoric about technology, however, cellphones are an addiction.  A cellphone might be good for accessing the internet to do research, or it might have other multimedia uses and applications, but there’s going to be a time when the cellphone will need to be turned off and put away.  And too many teens do not have the self discipline to do so.     

Cell phone companies undoubtedly understand this addiction, but they’re not going to stop advertising to teens or let disruptions in learning get in the way of making billions of dollars in profit.  To ward off complaints by teachers and meet objections from educators before they can be adequately raised, cellphone companies have been donating a piece of their extremely large profits to education.

Verizon, for example, has started, a website that offers free lesson plans and professional development for teachers, after school activities for children, education news, and the like. To lay it on even thicker, they also launched, a website that boasts of a goal to “improve literacy and strengthen educational achievement for children and adults by preparing them for success in the 21st Century.”  Verizon even offers educational awards and grants to certain schools.

Not everyone associated with technology is so intent on keeping up a glowing image, however.  “Baby Shaker,” the 2009 Apple multimedia application that allowed users to shake their iPhone and in the process silence a crying baby on the screen is one example.  Although Apple apologized and removed the program from their website because of complaints from child welfare groups, it’s inconceivable as to why Apple would have placed a game like this on the market in the first place.

For those who thought Baby Shaker was just a harmless gag, they should understand what researchers in early childhood education have been saying for decades: the development of a child’s vocabulary and later academic achievement has a direct correlation to their interaction with their parents in infancy.  A child who grows up in a home where his parents shake him or shout discouragements is more likely to have a lower IQ later in life.    

Technology has a place in education, although as a culture we must be careful not to abuse it.  Just as school leaders have been careful to police state tests, so too must they fight against the misuse of cellphones in classrooms.

Teens and cellphones: Some startling statistics



by Christopher Paslay


Recently, Common Sense Media and Benenson Strategy Group conducted over 2,000 interviews with teenagers about their cellphone use.  Here are some of their findings:


          –Eight in 10 teenagers have cell phones.


          –In an average week, teens send 440 text messages.


          –110 of these text messages are sent during class.


          –65 percent of teens use their cellphones in the building  despite school policy.


          –35 percent admitted to cheating on a test at least once with their cellphone.


          –65 percent say they know of somebody who has cheated with a cellphone.


          –Only 41 percent say that cheating with a cellphone is a serious offense.       


Although technology is obviously here to stay, and progressive educators must find innovative ways to use this technology to their students’ benefit, I believe we are nearing critical mass when it comes to cellphones and the classroom.  Something has got to give: the cellphone or academic integrity.


In my opinion, cellphones in schools are going to eventually go in the direction of cellphones in cars—there will be stricter rules and regulations put in place to keep teens from abusing technology.


Let’s just hope principals and education policy makers come to their senses sooner rather than later.


Apple and Twitter: Hampering education and ruining work ethic



by Christopher Paslay


In the Philadelphia School District, teachers are often evaluated on their use of technology in the classroom.  Administrators want to know if we’re using laptops and Smartboards—if we’ve completed the latest training to bring us up to speed on Governor Rendell’s Classrooms For The Future—and if we’re taking full advantage of educational resources on the internet.


The theme seems to be the same in the world of business: Success is equated with the latest technology.  If you don’t have the newest version of the Blackberry or iPhone—the one that sends real-time stock quotes along with up-to-the-minute baseball scores—then you are living in the stone ages.     


But not all technology is positive, and as educators, we must resist the urge to buy into the hype and accept it blindly.  I could go into a long-winded lecture about how electronic gadgets are killing our willpower and destroying our attention spans (not to mention how they are preventing us from living in the present moment), but I don’t want to go into that here; I’ll save that rant for another time.


What I do want to talk about are Baby Shaker and SpreadTweet, two examples of how technology is having a harmful effect on education and ruining work ethic in America.


Let’s start with Baby Shaker, the Apple multimedia application that allows users to shake their iPhone and in the process, silence the crying baby on the screen.  Although Apple apologized and removed the program from their website because of complaints from child welfare groups, it’s inconceivable as to why Apple would have placed a game like this on the market in the first place.


For those who think Baby Shaker was just a harmless gag, they should understand what researchers in early childhood education have been saying for decades: the formation of a child’s IQ has a direct correlation to their interaction with their parents in infancy.  A child who grows up in a home where his parents smack or shake him (as opposed to a home where his mother and father communicate non-violently), will not develop the vocabulary and reading comprehension skills to keep him on grade level. 


So what does Apple’s Baby Shaker say about our society?  What does it say about parents and their ability to make their children school ready?  Call me behind the times, but Baby Shaker isn’t the best tool for improving education in America.


Then you have SpreadTweet—the latest creation for the trendy Twitter, the web-based communication service that allows people to stay connected to friends and celebrities through the exchange of quick, frequent, one-line text-messages. 


When you subscribe to someone on Twitter, every time they send out a “Tweet” (a quick one-line text), you receive the message. 


If Brittany Spears “Tweets” that she just got a sunburn, or if Snoop Dog lets it be known he just smoked a big fat blunt, you’ll get the message.  Now multiply that by 50 celebrities and 75 of your friends, and you’ll be getting Tweets non-stop all day long.


But what happens to your Twitter addiction at work, when it’s time to head to the office?  Well, tech geeks have got that all figured out.  A maveric web designer recently created SpreadTweet, a page on your computer that looks like a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet.  According to a recent posting on AppScout, a technology website that reviews computer applications and other software, “If you’re a Twitter addict but work in an office that doesn’t condone your tweeting habits, you have a few options: You could actually do work; you could make yourself paranoid by looking over your shoulder as you post, or you could download SpreadTweet, an Adobe AIR-based Twitter client that looks exactly like a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. It’ll let you post to Twitter freely, and when the boss walks by behind you, he’ll think you’re working—as long as he  doesn’t lean in to see which spreadsheet you’re working on.”


It’s only a matter of time before a wise-cracking web geek creates a similar page for students who want to Tweet their friends while working in the school library.  Instead of a spreadsheet, all these unconscionable techies need to do is build a page that looks like a phony research paper or chemistry project, and even more teachers will be on their students’ pay-no-mind-list. 


Not all technology is positive.  As educators, we must guard against the insidious effects of the latest software and electronic gadgets, and demand that big corporations have some moral fiber and stop pandering to society’s lowest common denominator.   


Is cursive writing worth teaching?

by Christopher Paslay


“Are the flowing curves and fancy loops of cursive writing disappearing from elementary school classrooms?” asks writer Megan Downs in a recent USA Today article, “Schools debate: Is cursive writing worth teaching?”


Call me old-school, but I think penmanship is an important skill and should continue to be taught in all schools across America.  Technology is great, but there is a down side to it.  Computers and cell phones are having a negative impact on students’ handwriting and the writing process in general.  There’s too much copy-and-pasting going on during research assignments, and the penmanship of America’s youth is getting weaker.       


According to a report titled Handwriting development, competency, and intervention by  Katya P. Feder and Annette Majnemer, therapists with the Canadian Institute of Health Research and the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University, “Failure to attain handwriting competency during the school-age years often has far-reaching negative effects on both academic success and self-esteem.”


What do you think about the issue?  Take the poll below.



District Must Declare War on Cell Phones

by Christopher Paslay


In an article last spring in the Philadelphia Inquirer, local radio talk show host Michael Smerconish proposed that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should take the death penalty off the books because it is so rarely enforced. 


“. . . the death penalty in the commonwealth is a sham, a paper tiger, and a form of punishment that exists in name only.”  Smerconish wrote.  “Consider that there are currently 228 individuals on death row in Pennsylvania. Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, three people have been put to death (the last was Gary Heidnick nine years ago)—and only after each of the three gave up his appeal. It’s time to stop kidding ourselves. The death penalty needs to be removed from the Pennsylvania sentencing options, at least until the appellate procedure is streamlined by a legislature willing to oversee judicial obfuscation.”    


I believe the same actions should be taken with the Philadelphia School District’s cell phone policy: It should be properly enforced or taken off the books. 


The District’s cell phone policy can be found in the Student Code of Conduct for the 2008-08 school year.  Article 6.5. (Retention of Beepers, Cell Phones and Telephonic Devices Policy) states:


 The School District prohibits the possession and use of telephonic paging devices, or pagers, on school grounds, at school sponsored activities and on buses or other vehicles provided by the School District.


In addition, the District prohibits students from using personal cell phones on school grounds during school hours. The principal has the authority to address issues that are disruptive to the academic environment that may arise from the improper use of telecommunication devices. A copy of the complete policy can be found on


The District’s cell phone policy in the Student Code of Conduct described above is interesting when you look at it closely.  Students are prohibited from possessing pagers, but not cell phones.  Students are simply prohibited from using personal cell phones on school grounds during school hours. 


And even if students were flat out prohibited from bringing cell phones to school (this used to be the case a while back), there is a gigantic loophole built into the system: Principals have the right to grant students permission to carry a cell phone under special circumstances.  Special circumstances usually involve safety issues—such as a long commute to and from school—but in many cases, a “special circumstance” is nothing more than a way for a school to absolve itself from trying to enforce an unenforceable rule.


Ten years ago, before cell phones, there were no “special circumstances”.  Family emergencies were handled by school counselors, and important phone calls were made in the main office.  Today, cell phone companies, along with a generation of teenagers addicted to electronic gadgets, have convinced us that “special circumstances” are legitimate.  


I have very good classroom management.  The high school where I teach made AYP two out of the last three years, and the scores on my students’ benchmark tests are 10% higher than the District average.     


But with that said, I am fighting what I call the “cell phone epidemic” on a daily basis.  Every time these multi-billion dollar cell phone companies come out with a new form of technological crack, my students get more and more hooked.  It is pathetic.  Some of my student’s cell phones are their entire existence.  They are addicted in every sense of the word: Psychologically, emotionally, and even physiologically.  Studies have proven this is possible.  Just as pornography is chemically addictive (because of the release of chemicals in the pleasure centers of the brain), so are cell phones.


I watch students struggle with their addictions every day.  Some literally can’t put their phone away for a full class period.  They just CANNOT do it.  They try, but they go back to their iPhone or BlackBerry the way an overeater goes back to a bag of potato chips.  They text message on the sly, quietly hiding their phone under their desk or in their pocket.  And they check their phones all the time.  Five, ten, fifteen times a period. 


I’ve battled my students for years over their cell phones.  Made rules, called parents, wrote detentions, used all types of positive reinforcements.  And do you know what?  I’m losing the battle.  Why?  Because I’m swimming up stream against the current.  I’m battling society and the greedy, socially irresponsible cell phone industry.  I’m battling the kids.  I’m battling the parents.  Just last week a student got a call from her mother on her cell phone in the middle of class (I checked the ID and it was her mother).  The student answered and started talking right in the middle of my lesson.  I immediately took the student out in the hall to talk to her, but it was of no consequence; the student was empowered by her own mother, and insisted it was an emergency.


If parents aren’t following the rules, how can we expect the kids to?  Worse still, how can we enforce the cell phone policy when there is no adequate repercussion for abusing the rules?  Have you ever tried taking a phone away from a child?  It’s an incredible ordeal.  Some students simply WILL NOT relinquish their phone.  Period.  They are as adamant about their phones as NRA members are about their beloved guns: You’ll take away my phone when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.


Cell phones are a city-wide problem.  In my opinion, there is only one way to stop this epidemic: total abstinence.  Just like with problem drinkers in AA, students should not be permitted to have a phone in school.  End of discussion.    


So the District must do one of two things: Ban ALL cell phones in ALL schools at ALL times (they must be confiscated by school security when used or found on a student’s person).  Or the District must give up its cell phone charade altogether: Just take the policy off the books and be done with it.


The former would be my choice.  If we’re going to have a cell phone policy, let’s put some teeth into it.  We must declare war on all electronic devices and stem this epidemic while there’s still time.