Tuesday, February 26, 2008

School Climate Task Force

The Guilford County Board of Education held a special meeting last night to receive a report from the School Climate Task Force, a group that had been charged with examining ways to address behavior problems and policies in the schools.

The task force was made up of school, parent, and community representatives and met with numerous groups in numerous settings throughout the county over the first part of this school year. They did an enormous amount of work.

Their report is likely to be heavily criticized, in good part because it makes some very expensive and wildly unrealistic recommendations, such as capping the size of all high schools at 800 students and lowering the student-teacher ratio all classes to 17-1. The report also lacks focus, mentioning lots of issues, big and small, without prioritizing or considering how some recommendations might work at cross purposes.

There were some themes in the report, however, that should be useful to the Board of Education and to the schools.

First, even though the entire school system is supposed to follow a common code of conduct, the task force reports that there is a lot of inconsistency with the administration of behavioral policies. Some of this is natural and actually good. Different administrators, different students, and different situations will lead to different implementation. As the Board goes forward, it needs to think about policies that people can live with and realize that one more policy laid on a bunch of others isn't going to accomplish much.

Following the consistency theme, discipline itself is a process. Developing discipline requires thought and planning. The district sets guidelines. From there, the schools each need a plan, and individual classrooms need plans. A lot of people (including me) assume that these plans are in place, but the task force's report suggests otherwise.

The task force advocated one particular planning approach, the Positive Behavior Support (PBS) approach, which emphasizes pro-active and encouraging strategies to prevent rather than react to behavior problems. PBS is currently being implemented in a handful of Guilford schools. There is some evidence that it is associated with better behavioral and educational outcomes. My guess is that those outcomes owe as much to the school community planning for discipline as anything.

One thing that undermines consistency is loading the schools up with so many policies, so many initiatives, and so many reports that no one is able to implement any of them effectively. It appears that many of our schools need to implement better procedures, but we need to recognize that if they are doing this, time is taken away from something else.

All of which gets us back to priorities, if we are serious about accomplishing something, we need to be realistic and recognize that we can't support twenty big initiatives. From all of the items in the report, it looks like school-wide planning would have the biggest immediate pay off.