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Large Schools Should Take Lessons from Small Schools


Share According to the National Education Goals Panel, smaller schools have fewer discipline problems, and large schools can learn a few lessons from those schools. Included: Attributes that make smaller schools more orderly.

Stories about school shootings grab the national headlines, but school violence isn't business as usual in the nation's schools. Disruptive student behavior does top the list of challenges that classroom teachers face, though.

Violent incidents are infrequent and unexpected, even in urban and urban-fringe schools that tend to report more violence. Seasoned educator Sandra Baker has spent the last decade in urban schools, nine of them in the South Bronx before moving in 1999 to Hartford, Connecticut. School violence still surprises her, especially if it stems from a parent.

An irate mother confronted Baker, principal of Hartford's Dwight Elementary School. Upset because her son was being suspended, the mother roughed up Baker by pushing a table into her stomach, swinging a set of keys at her, and then threatening to come after her later. "In my mindset, I was just handling it," Baker told Education World. "I said to her 'you're upset, let's talk about this.' " The situation quickly escalated, however. The parent was arrested and the child was transferred to another school.

"It's uncommon," Baker said. "You don't have kids who are out of control like that." What is common is that kids bring their problems to school, and many of them are angry, she said.

Real-world classrooms, outside the corridors of pedagogy and higher education courses, are places where not all students want or are ready to learn or cooperate. Baker said teachers must know how to handle disruptive students -- and, sometimes, very emotional parents. Teachers can learn strategies, including anger and classroom management, from their college experience, through in-service staff development programs, and support from school administrators, she said.

Baker recommended that teachers develop close relationships with the school's students. One way of combating the anonymity large schools foster, where, according to experts, the lack of a sense of social accountability contributes to school violence, is to set up ways for teachers to track students throughout their school years.

"I think it [creating close relationships] has a lot to do with the culture in the school," Baker said. "I think it is critical that everyone works toward the success of every child in the school."

"YOU CAN'T GET ANONYMITY HERE"

Baker's philosophy is in keeping with the 2000 recommendations of the National Education Goals Panel, which suggested that educators learn from states with the lowest levels of classroom disruption. Those states -- North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming -- have rates far below the national average for the number of classroom interruptions disorderly students caused.

The panel reported that states characterized by low population density and small communities and schools have the lowest percentages of public secondary student disruptions that interfere with teaching. North Dakota had the best record in the country; 33 percent of public secondary teachers reported that student behavior disrupted their classrooms, significantly lower than the national average of 46 percent of all public and private school teachers, according to the NEPG.

"I'm sure smallness has a lot to do with it," said Linda Johnson, director of school health programs for North Dakota's Department of Public Instruction. The average high school enrolls about 109 students, she said. "You can't get that anonymity here. If you do something here, there goes your uncle down the street."

The state attributes high parental expectations, a high number of students going on to college, a good work ethic, and respect for adults -- all factors that help put North Dakota at the top of the pack, Johnson told Education World. Although other school districts teach their teachers how to manage discipline problems, there hasn't been a need to spend professional development funds for that in North Dakota, she said.

Although North Dakota has small size and family cohesiveness in its favor, the state economy is permeated by the problems affecting the agriculture industry. "We still have many two-parent families, but we are poor and 85 percent of our moms are working moms," Johnson said.

Not all states enjoy North Dakota's track record. The lack of classroom discipline has been a primary concern of the public for the past 30 years, according to the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll . From 1969 to 1985, discipline problems topped each poll but one. Since 1985, the lack of discipline is still among the top three concerns in education. Fighting, violence, and gangs headed up the discipline list in 1999.

Teachers agree. The American Federation of Teachers recommended a clear discipline code with fair and consistently enforced consequences for misbehavior as essential for student learning to occur.

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
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Originally published 05/23/2000; updated 03/26/2007