The No Failures Program: Teaching Discipline in American Schools

I wrote this essay and sent it to the Albuquerque Journal.  The paper declined to publish it because it was too long to fit on their Op-Ed page.

American schools, including those in Albuquerque, can be competitive.  It doesn’t require much at all.  Not even a lot of money.  A little, sure, but not as much and not in the way you think.   Read on.  This is a description of a program that was tried in a setting similar to that found in Albuquerque Public Schools.

Another teacher and I did it.  We designed our own program and ran it for a few months.  The other teacher was a math teacher and I taught science.  He was a noted disciplinarian; I was a science teacher and a theoretician.  We needed both our talents while we were designing the program and working out some of the bugs.  The program began as mandatory tutoring and evolved over time; we called it “No Failures”.  We had the support of the principal at our school and he had money in the budget to pay teachers for tutoring after school.  We started with just the two of us and then we added other teachers (at $15 an hour, the going rate then for after-school tutoring; salaries and paper/ink were our only costs) as the student numbers increased.  Toward the end of the school year we added student tutors and were trying to figure a way to get them paid, although I don’t remember if we ever managed that.  We were working on this and other improvements to the program when we were both kicked out of the school during a “reconstitution”.  It was something like what has recently happened at a Rhode Island school in the national news, but we all still had jobs.  We were just forced to transfer to another school.

The program worked this way: any teacher or administrator could assign any student to the program.  Once assigned, attendance was mandatory. It was like detention in that respect, but students could be assigned for anything, disciplinary infractions, excessive tardiness, for failing a test, or for not doing homework.  No excuses accepted; you’re in the program, although teachers exercised their own judgment as to when assigning a student to No Failures was the best course to follow.  The assigning teacher or administrator then gave us the name (attendance was required on the day after being assigned; that way, the student could notify his parent and make such arrangements as needed) and we waited for the student.  If he didn’t report after school, then the next day either his last-period teacher brought him or we went to get him before school was out, and he got extra days for not reporting on his own.  When the student got to where we were holding the program (a classroom at first; then it was the cafeteria) he got either a math or language arts worksheet (occasionally social studies or science if a teacher requested it), and he was there until he finished and had the work checked. We had different levels of work available and assigned the sheets based on what the student needed. The sheets were designed to last about 40 minutes if the student worked at completing them, and there was help from us when a student needed it.  If the work was not done properly, the student got to do it over, with help.  We really were tutoring, just that our tutoring involved behavior as well as academics.  At first a couple of the students with behavior problems decided to try us out, not work, just sit and do nothing.  So we waited too.  One lasted almost three hours, and we were not angry.  We were being paid for our time, and it was important for the student to learn to cooperate with the education process.  After that the word got around.  No more three-hour waits; soon most of the students were being dismissed in 30 minutes or so (a bonus for working).  That allowed us to concentrate then on the students that really needed academic help.  At the end of an hour these were dismissed.  Most of the students had the ability to do the work, but simply had gotten into the habit of not using their abilities.  For a couple of students that simply wouldn’t cooperate, we called in parents and asked that a parent attend the program with their child.  That’s something the worst behavior cases didn’t want, sitting after school with Momma.  Your friends laugh at you; peer pressure now was working for us.  A number of students made real progress because of what we did in the short time that the program ran.

That year the teachers at our school voted our program the best thing that had happened at the school that year.  Surprisingly, so did the students, including a number of our repeat offenders.  For a change, someone took them seriously and didn’t accept the excuses that they had been cultivating since elementary school.

At the end of the year, the superintendent, working with the school board, decided to “reconstitute” the school.  We all had to reapply for our positions and neither my partner nor I was selected to remain.  So the program died before it had a real chance to make a difference.  The plan to reconstitute the school had been in place for months, although we teachers didn’t know it.   The reconstitution failed.  That school is still on the list for lack of academic progress, and it’s now been 15 years since the “reconstitution”.  I transferred to a different school, immediately became the department chair for science, and over the next ten years brought my department’s annual test scores from the low 70’s to over 90%.   My associate, a math teacher, went on to a different school and did well too.  Despite the “reconstitution”, it was never about the teachers.  I don’t think it was about the teachers in Rhode Island and I don’t think it’s the teachers in Albuquerque, either.

The point of this long-winded discussion is to illustrate that our students aren’t stupid.  They are often lazy, they will get away with anything that adults let them get away with, and no teacher has much influence over them.  Teachers see students for an hour or so each day, administrators usually much less.  Peer pressure rules.  But–they aren’t stupid.  Make it easier to pass than it is to fail, and they will pass. I don’t mean give them a grade; make them earn it.  But have a program in place that consists of both incentives (help when they need it, possibly being employed to work with other students who have problems and getting paid for their work) and penalties.  Take their time away.  Keep them after school.  Keep them on Saturday and if that doesn’t work, keep them on Sunday.  Church?  Get a volunteer minister or priest to come in to the school and hold services.  No driver’s license until they pass the final AYP exam.  Pay the teachers for the extra work they do.  Get students involved and pay them for their work. When you do this, the peer pressure works for you, the parents and educators, instead of against you.  I always figured that if you gave the kids a chance to succeed, they would, and self esteem would take care of itself from there.  Successful students have high self-esteem.  They succeed in school and also after they leave school.

Oh, and our students at that school were 99% Hispanic, and almost all of them received free or reduced-price lunches.

School boards, why not give something like this a try?  Parents, why not make sure that your school board members push for a program that is fitted for the schools in their district?  Superintendents, principals, try it.  It’s a lot cheaper than paying teachers thousands of dollars in stipends, and it looks like APS won’t be getting any of those extra federal grants.  If parents and community members get involved, students will respond.  You won’t need a state-run committee or liaison officer.

Two principles that we followed made our program succeed: hold the student responsible for his own learning, and accept no excuses.  It was working for us, and it can work in Albuquerque too.

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