Monthly Archives: August 2013

Discipline is not Pedagogy

The worst school in Texas sounds pretty bad. In a recent Salon article, John Savage details death threats, beatings, and a continual police presence, all part of the school-as-internment-camp so distressingly common in urban areas. He also admits that he was not, after all, the Great White Hope–although one notices that, by writing this article, he still casts himself as the Great White Explainer. (None of the long-time Pearce teachers he lauds are writing this article, after all.) To defend the school against its miserable TAKS scores, Savage praises the school’s faculty and staff:
Mr. Green … was a committed and graceful algebra teacher with an infectious positive energy. Born in Panama, he had as much street cred with the Latino kids as the black kids.
Mrs. Ologban, despite her diminutive stature, displayed absolute control in her classroom. … The first time I observed her I noticed she kept two lists of students on her board — a good list and a bad list. Too simple to work, I thought. But I was amazed when even disaffected students smiled when Mrs. Ologban wrote their name on the good list.
Mr. Parish … had some street in him and knew how to use it. … When a disagreement between the Latino boys from the soccer club and the black boys from the basketball club culminated in a fight, Parish was instrumental in calming everybody down.
In spite of their efforts, Pearce was still a failure — at least according to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). The TAKS is just a test, and by no means the only indicator — or even a good indicator — of the commitment of a school’s teachers and administrators.
With all due respect to these committed teachers, John Savage hasn’t made the case that this school deserves to be considered anything but a failure. Mr. Green is “upbeat” and has “street cred”; Mrs. Ologban has “absolute control” in her classroom; Mr. Parish also “had some street in him” and manages to prevent a fight. These are all admirable qualitiesand they say nothing about the kind of learning that does or doesn’t go on in a classroom. Savage’s point here seems to be that the school should be considered a success because it has some teachers who are good disciplinarians and capable of relating to the students. Both of these skills might be prerequisites for actual learning–but they don’t actually constitute learning.
Certainly there are valid criticisms against to make against standardized testing, and let me be clear: I fundamentally agree with Savage. Focusing on teacher performance rather than the underlying socioeconomic causes of bad schools is idiotic and immoral. However, let’s not sugarcoat things: strict discipline does not an effective teacher make, and schools aren’t graded on behavior. Suggesting that a teacher is good because she’s found an effective method of discipline is just as wrongheaded–and unfair to Pearce’s students–as suggesting that a teacher is bad because she can’t singlehandedly overcome generations of poverty and neglect.
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