Writing Off “Those Kids”

Just curious… does anyone else find this New York Times “Room For Debate” piece by Michael Petrilli, president of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which ran under the headline “Charters Can Do What’s Best For Students Who Care,” as breathtakingly offensive as I do? What boggles my mind is that this man is a leading voice among the so-called education reformers. His honesty is, at least, honest, I suppose. Unlike the DFERs, at least he’s not out there shouting that access to charter schools is the new civil rights movement of our time. He’s not out there suggesting that charter schools don’t cherry-pick and weed out students. So there’s that. I guess.

Instead, Petrilli’s saying that the fact that tax-dollar-funded charter schools kick out large numbers of students is “a feature, not a bug.” And that when it comes to discipline, “[t]raditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one.”

And this guy is a thought-leader for the education reform movement.  His institute’s tagline is “Advancing Educational Excellence.”  I guess a more accurate version would read, “Advancing Education Excellent For Some.”

Judge for yourself.  Here are the money paragraphs from Petrilli:

Because [charter schools] are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.

This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.

It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.

In other words, we should divide students into those who care and those who don’t. We should provide resources to those who care, and warehouse the rest.  And when our public schools actually attempt to meet kids where they are and to reach all kids, they’re engaged in compromises that “please[] no one.”

Of course Petrilli eliminated two key words from his last sentence.  It should read: “We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow [some of] their students to flourish.”

I’m flabbergasted.

Is it really okay to openly advocate for charter school discipline policies that weed out a significant portion of the student body (without, in most cases, replacing those expelled or “counseled out” students, of course)?

Is it really okay to say that our public schools are places of compromises that please no one?

Is it really okay to imply that public schools truly are the schools of last resort, that their highest and best purpose is to serve as dumping grounds for those students who are not good enough (or malleable enough, or terrified enough, or controllable enough) to succeed in charters?

On Twitter, Petrilli argued that he’s saying that public schools should be able to kick kids out with impunity as well, as if that somehow makes his proposal okay. I asked him what he suggests doing with all of the kids he suggests kicking out. His response was that we can send those kids to “alternative schools.” In other words, we’re supposed to warehouse “those kids” in faux-schools until they drop out or end up in prison, but there’s no point in trying to motivate them, reach them, or educate them. We should just separate them from the rest of us.  We should just face facts and write them off. Because they don’t care. They are ungovernable. Unteachable.  And so we owe “those children” nothing.  Despite the fact that they are children.

According to Petrilli, apparently the fundamental problem with traditional public schools is that they don’t kick out more kids.  If only the public schools expelled more children, then they’d be “advancing educational excellence.”  The real problem with American education is that we just don’t have enough high school drop-outs, I guess.  It’s not inequitable allocation of resources.  It’s not failing to combat poverty and inequality.  It’s really just the low school expulsion rate that’s to blame.

Presumably in an all-charter system this will mean dumping the unwanted students into low-performing charters until those charters either kick them out or are closed and a new batch of substandard charters arise to take them on. In a mixed public/charter district, this will mean dumping those kids back into the traditional public schools, further damaged by the alienation, sense of failure, and disruption that go along with getting kicked or counseled out of a charter school. But according to Petrilli, there is no need to worry about that, since bringing stability to the lives of students with anger or behavior issues is apparently not a priority. And stratification of students in publicly funded schools is apparently “a feature, not a bug.”

I am just amazed that someone who is, for better or for worse, a leading voice in education policy setting will openly come out and state that some kids just suck, and the best thing we can do is to just weed them out and get rid of them.

“Those kids” are apparently not worth educating.

“Those kids” are apparently not worth reaching.

“Those kids” apparently don’t belong in classrooms with the rest of our kids.

So, here’s my question: at what age do we write kids off?

When is a child old enough to be thrown away?

When does a child go from being a cute little boy or girl to becoming one of “those kids”?

And how do we distinguish kids worth educating from kids who should be warehoused in alternative environments?  Are we weeding out the rebels?  The creative thinkers?  Those who question authority?  Are we rewarding malleability, conformity, and keeping your head down?

This isn’t even code for active advocacy of re-segregation of schools. It’s a blatant statement that we should re-segregate schools. With impunity. As we cloak ourselves in righteousness. Because you know, there are kids who matter, and kids who don’t. And if socio-economic factors happen to determine who belongs in which category for the vast majority of those kids, who cares? Because why care about a kid who doesn’t care, regardless of why that kid appears to “not care”?

I’m still trying to figure out why my tax dollars are supporting quasi-“public” charter schools that their own proponents encourage to refuse to serve certain kids. Their own proponents agree that the charter schools do — and agree that they should — weed out “those kids” with impunity. Can someone please explain to me how that is preparing kids for citizenship in a democratic society? Unless, of course, the goal is to create a permanent underclass of citizens who are uneducated, easily manipulated, and disenfranchised.

Why don’t we just kill two birds with one stone? We can expel students who have problems with authority from school and just send them directly to prison. After all, justice and equity are irrelevant to Petrilli’s vision. And why bother with trials if we’re not going to be judged by jurors with access to basic education?

In Petrilli’s world, order is apparently the order of the day. Children don’t deserve second chances. Late bloomers have no opportunities to turn themselves around. Troublemakers should be warehoused. And public education with public funds owes nothing to the public.

Perhaps I’m just naive, but I, for one, am outraged. You should be too.  Even — and perhaps especially — if you support charter schools.

20 thoughts on “Writing Off “Those Kids”

  1. The big irony: once “those kids” do end up “in the system” (prison, jail…), the cost to taxpayers for their keep is far more than the cost to educate them appropriately (small class size, counselors, etc.). In California, the state spends over $14,000 per year, per prisoner on health insurance alone. California spends half that amount, per student, per year for their entire education.


  2. I, too, found Petrilli’s commentary to be outrageous. However, it is refreshing to hear that “choice” advocates are publicly acknowledging their modus operendi. The problem is that charter schools can establish so many rules that they can label almost any kid as disruptive and remove any that don’t bring to the school the capital of high test scores. So — parents — beware — your kid may become “that kid” within the choice/charter system.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It is shocking how many people are willing to accept and write off a permanent underclass…much to the delight of the private prison industry. As the parent of one of “those kids” I can only be thankful that a team of dedicated public school teachers and administrators stood by him as he stumbled his way along to finally getting his feet firmly planted on the path to a good, happy and successful life.

    The stratification of American society is not a new phenomenon. What is new is the increasingly high wall topped with razor wire that divides the underclass from the rest. Those walls are beginning to be constructed around the shrinking middle class as our society becomes more and more divided between the haves and have nots.

    As a thought leader in the field of education Petrilli will of course appeal to those who already subscribe to the notions that some people just aren’t worth the trouble and that we owe nothing to our fellow human beings. Petrilli and his ilk are beyond misguided. It is correct to say the current system isn’t working but the plan to replace it with one that simply refuses to deal with those who need the most help is dangerous.


    1. I’m the mom of one of “those kids” too–and while I always felt sorry for those kids, I never imagined my sweet, compliant girl would be one!

      She’s a first grader whose reading and comprehension skills have been tested at a sixth grade level. She has the fine motor skills of a kindergartener, the stamina of a preschooler, is extremely sensitive and eager to please (though she does pretty much everything physical incorrectly–which looks like behavior issues if you don’t have time to watch carefully). She’s incredibly difficult to educate. Our goal is to get her to sixth grade okay. I think if we can do that, she’ll be fine. She gets in trouble at school all the time: too slow, not following directions, when really she just can’t get the crayon box closed or whatever the heck it is.

      I have moved down to part time work to advocate. We pay for expensive tests and therapies. And to top it all off, her delays aren’t even major. But because her body and intelligence are so out of synch, schools don’t have time to teach executive function skills or even writing because all they have time for is math and reading (neither of which she needs grade level instruction in) and because there really are no accommodations for either minorly delayed children or gifted children, these small issues have become major problems. I can not imagine how drastically she would fail at a highly regimented charter school.

      A lot of really great babies are getting thrown out with the bathwater. Every day I thank God we’re middle class. It may not be easy for us to get her what she needs, but at least it is possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “Those kids” are disproportionately children living in poverty.

    “Those kids” are disproportionately children of color.

    “Those kids” disproportionately have special needs.

    “Those kids” are disproportionately boys.

    So kicking “those kids” out is one of the reasons we see so much segregation between charter and district public schools by race, income, English language proficiency, special needs and even gender.

    While it is no longer OK to justify overt segregation, it apparently is still OK to justify defacto segregation by implying that the victims are somehow responsible for it through their own behavior.

    Never mind that what constitutes “acting out” is in the eyes of the beholder and that low-income children, boys, and children of color are disproportionately and unfairly perceived as unruly by authority figures, who are disproportionately white and middle class.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am a teacher of some of “those” kids. I have already told them I will not give up on them. And I won’t. What many don’t seem to realize is that diversity brings a richness, a depth of life and experiences. Trying to weed out anything difficult will never work for long. Kids rise to fill whatever spots are available. I’ve seen average kids become cream in rooms where the “cream” kids have gone elsewhere, but I’ve also noticed that challenging kids will arise when other “challenging” kids go elsewhere, too. Art Linkletter had it right – we have to listen to each of them, they are All valuable! And I still remember the Worst behaved girl in my school (1970’s) being removed from our school and sent to an alternative school – it was a school for gifted children. She was finally excelling and happy the next time I saw her! It was an eye-opener to me. Bad behavior is only the symptom – we must take time to meet our kids – all of them – where they are, with our best tools of understanding. If we don’t, we are never going to realize that we are losing some of our best and brightest! Charter schools are private schools with government funding. It’s kin to the same notion that thinks PAC money isn’t legal bribery. If I weren’t so full of hope in my student’s futures, I might despair and start selling hand baskets! I choose teaching – especially “those” students – over anything else, every time! I don’t want “malleable” adults running our country – I want those who can and do think for themselves. Thanks for sharing this article. I hadn’t seen it, but his clarity just confirms what I already expected. Charter schools are about the money (in most cases – i don’t know about each one, somebody could actually have a started a charter FOR THE CHILDREN), not for the children. We don’t teach for the paycheck…….

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wait, wait, wait. I thought bad teachers were the problem. That accountability, abolishing tenure, and high expectations (and rigor!) that would bring us to the promised land. And now, Mike, you’re telling me that it’s the bad kids that are holding us all back? I’ll need to see a data wall before I can form any kind of opinion this turn of events…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “DIS like”. “Charters Can Do What’s Best For Students Who Care.” No serious competitive vulnerability there, at least no necessity to risk capital . Unexposed to competition, in reality . . . . How is that a “market” ? Just sayin’


  8. My son attends an urban high school. He tells me the number one problem at school is classroom disruption. He said some teachers handle it, some don’t. He said that in his chemistry class, they go over and over and over the same thing because of the disruption in class. What would you say to him? Does he not deserve the opportunity to spend his day in an environment that is conducive to learning? How would you help him?


  9. “How do you want us to help him?”

    That’s what I’m asking you. Nobody wants to “write off” students. So what plans do you have for students who want to learn when they are grouped with those who, for whatever reason, don’t?

    “What did the principal tell you is the reason the disruptors are in the class?”

    The principal is well aware of what he has. As I said, teachers either deal with it or they don’t. But, good question. What would you tell the principal?


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