THE PRINCIPLE OF DECENCY

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Walk into a school and you can tell almost at once if it is a decent place to be. The signals are everywhere: in the way teachers and students speak to each other, the way work is carried out at every level, and the way rules are made and bent and broken, even the slumps or smiles of the office or custodial staff. What is valued in a school comes across in a hundred subtle ways, rarely articulated? Yet in the end, everything by which we conventionally judge schools may depend on it –whether students show up; what they strive for and achieve; how they use their minds to solve the problems that confront them.

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Probably the most difficult to define of the nine principles Essential Schools hold in common is the seventh, which calls for decency, trust, and “unanxious expectation” as integral aspects of a good school. Depending on who they are, people may mean vastly different things by decency. Does a decent school hire teachers supplied by the district’s bureaucracy, for instance, even if they share no common cause with the program? Does it assign them only as many students in a day as they can reasonably know individually? Does it ask students to memorize the Bill of Rights in history class, then order them to shut up and sit down, or else? Does it honour through rituals the intellectual and social qualities it purports to value, and publicly expose those it condemns? How does it decide what is fair?

How individuals answer questions like these contributes to a definition of decency that cannot be pinned down to one aspect of what we have come to call school culture. Nor can it be isolated from the definition offered implicitly by the community, whose attitudes and expectations profoundly influence students long before they enter the doors of the school. Instead, decency is a dynamic habit of mind and behaviour that permeates a school and its surrounding context at every level, in both formal and informal ways. Exploring the elements of that dynamic, and the connections between these elements can reveal much not only about a school’s outlook on what is desirable behaviour but about its commitment to other Essential School principals as well.

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  • Respect

“When a school’s culture reflects respect for kids and their potential, that’s a tone of decency,” says Pat Wasley, a Coalition researcher who spends much of her time observing in schools and writing case studies about school change. “In good schools, teachers don’t blame students for their deficiencies, but instead reflect on their role in bringing them along.” But over the last few decades, Wasley says, conditions in our society have changed to the point where the very norms of respect have altered as well. Teachers who no longer feel valued themselves grow used to an adversary atmosphere among teachers, administrators, parents, and students; they may devalue their students unthinkingly, passing along an ethic of thoughtless disrespect as a matter of course. This can show up as sarcasm or ridicule in the classroom and as something close to despair as teachers talk privately among themselves.

THE PRINCIPLE OF DECENCY
THE PRINCIPLE OF DECENCY

Contrasting two public schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools offers a striking illustration of how pervasively and fundamentally the climate of respect in a district and community can affect teachers and students in the classroom. Both examples are well-established schools in small cities; both started in the 1970s with a core of deeply committed and idealistic teachers, many of whom grew up in the district and are still teaching there today. Both serve no more than 500 students, housed in old but well-kept school buildings in poor sections of town. Both have a sturdy advisory system in place, which links each teacher to fifteen or so students; a casual, distinctly personal atmosphere prevails in the halls and classrooms of each.

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But sit with teachers in the faculty lounge for long, and at one of these schools an underlying bitterness, anger, and ennui begin to emerge attitudes which sometimes carry over into the classrooms in the form of low expectations and conventionally passive instructional techniques. “This school used to be my whole life,” one teacher told me. “l would live here on weekends; the kids would call me Mom. Now I look around and kids are lying to me; they don’t come through on their commitments; the parents don’t come to conferences and exhibitions. I’m just not willing to be everything for these kids that the world isn’t willing to do. Not for this salary. Not at my age.” She sighed and shook her head. “We’re getting old,” she said. “All of us idealistic young teachers are getting old and tired. And we have mortgages.”

It was a comment echoed several times by her colleagues, explaining why they used traditional texts and worksheets instead of projects and presentations, why they limited their emotional investment in their students. “We used to teach across the disciplines, even if it didn’t fit precise curriculum categories,” one said. “Now the district and the state are insisting on strict adherence to our certification specialities; our evaluations and our jobs depend on it. It kind of takes the wind out of your wanting to try new things.” Another teacher asked angrily, “What are these kids doing from two in the afternoon to ten at night? They’re not reading; they’re not doing their homework. I have to read to them in class to make sure they even know what we’re talking about. You start sending me kids whose parents care about them; stop giving me 135 kids in a day, in classes of over 30 at a time. Pay me enough so I don’t have to run a business in the rest of my time, just to make a decent living. Then I’ll talk about changing the way I teach.”

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  • Intellectual Decency

How does that trust or mistrust, respect or disrespect affect what goes on at the heart of the school, the relation between teachers and students in the classroom? The intellectual tasks set for students, the ways students work with each other, the demonstration and assessment of their skills all reflect fundamental assumptions about what a school considers decent and valuable behaviour.

THE PRINCIPLE OF DECENCY
THE PRINCIPLE OF DECENCY

A good place to start is by looking at the way a teacher exercises intellectual authority in how she organizes a course. Do classes revolve around information passively acquired through lectures and textbooks? Is getting the right answer always the most important thing? Unless students are asked to share in the responsibility for their learning to attain their own authority through exploring ideas on their own they will rely only on hierarchical and authoritarian values, Essential schools believe. The best teachers are learners themselves, organizing their classes around questions whose answers remain open to continual investigation and debate. One of the curriculum’s main goals then becomes that students learn respect for the opinions of others, and ways to evaluate them against other sources as they seek to form opinions of their own.

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These classroom decisions also develop skills that translate readily to non- academic areas of life. “In the classroom, we can show kids that they must listen, must be reflective, must accept individual responsibility for their own words and actions,” says Bob McCarthy, CES’s Director for schools. “Then those habits spill over into the hallways and the streets. When I was a principal my goal was to teach kids to think before they act to go to someone for dialogue and understanding before they retaliate.”

Once again, however, it is impossible to separate a school climate from its context. To get to the point where both pedagogy and personal interactions reflect values of fairness and respect requires a sense of shared purpose and common cause among teachers, students, and the administration that is rare in many high schools. If a school district commonly issues classroom directives to teachers because their superiors “know better” what constitutes good educational practice, if faculty meetings are conducted in a paternalistic or authoritarian fashion, if simple civilities such as providing coffee and soda for an after- school meeting are ignored, a school’s atmosphere can become poisoned with bitterness and cynicism. It is not surprising when teachers in such situations choose to shut their classroom doors and exercise through little tyrannies the only power they are allowed to have. Students swiftly learn to manipulate the system to their own advantage, getting by somewhat as prison inmates do.

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  • Fairness in Grading

A fair system of grading, in fact, is a critical and controversial factor in organizing a school around standards of decency. What happens at grading time, for instance, to collaborative learning approaches in mixed-ability groupings? Are students to be graded on the basis of their effort or their abilities, on how far they have come or how much they know and understand? Is a grading system fairer and more decent if its function is to sort and select students, or if it’s primary aim is to encourage a student to keep on reaching towards intellectual goals?

THE PRINCIPLE OF DECENCY
THE PRINCIPLE OF DECENCY

Some schools address this issue by spelling out what objectives each student is reaching for in a particular classroom endeavour. At Central Park East Secondary School in New York, for example, students in mixed-ability groups make contracts with the teacher to perform different tasks depending on whether they want a grade of “Competent” or “Advanced.” Yet every student, in every class, is expected to learn to ask and answer these questions:

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From whose viewpoint are we seeing or reading or hearing? From what angle or perspective? How do we know when we know? What’s the evidence, and how reliable is it? How are things, events, or people connected to each other? What is the cause and what is the effect? How do they fit together? What’s new and what’s old? Have we run across this idea before? So what? Why does it matter? What does it all mean?

How a teacher uses tests also raises questions about fairness. For example, collaborating on tests has conventionally been regarded as cheating. But if the goal is to enable a student to use and discuss information in society, the ability to collaborate is a legitimate skill to test. In fact, many educators criticize conventional assessment techniques because they do not reflect what good schools want students to know and be able to do. Grant Wiggins, a researcher who has written about exhibitions for the Coalition, describes instead a theory of “authentic performance,” which, he argues, could “test those capacities and habits we think are essential, and test them in context.” Such a performance, he writes in Educational Leadership.

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  • Making and Breaking Rules

How a school’s rules are made and enforced is also a vital sign of its commitment to decency. “Every good school has certain non-negotiable rules an absolute ban on violence is a good example or an insistence on absolute honesty,” says Ted Sizer. “They are part of the contract students and teachers enter into when they join the school community.” But once that fundamental agreement has been undertaken, schools can become an important forum in which to practice the principles of democratic justice they want students to learn.

Rochester’s School Without Walls, for example, has adopted a simple and straightforward democratic process by which any member of the school community can initiate a change in school rules (aside from those required by law). Almost all the rules, procedures, and guidelines in the school’s student handbook were developed and refined using that process. In addition, students and teachers have open to them a clearly defined appeals process with which to resolve anything from a student’s attitude of uninvolvement to a teacher’s evaluation of student performance or an administrator’s supervision of staff. “I refer to the student handbook constantly and base my decisions on it,” says Dan Drmacich, the program administrator at School without Walls. Some Essential schools have chosen a similar student governance system based on psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s notion of the “just community,” which focuses on helping young people learn to make moral decisions. To create conditions in which every student can participate on an individual basis, the just community relies on small advisory groups that discuss issues and delegate certain students to carry out their decisions. The object is to resolve conflicts and disciplinary issues in a way that makes sure people come to terms with their emerging understanding of social justice and decency.

THE PRINCIPLE OF DECENCY
THE PRINCIPLE OF DECENCY

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  • Recognition and Rituals

Taking public notice of student excellence in both academics and other areas such as community service also fosters a culture of respect. Thayer High School, an Essential school in Winchester, New Hampshire, has arranged discounts at local stores and public banquets for students who make the honour roll, a recurring and public benefit for doing well. And several smaller Essential schools honour each student at graduation ceremonies by a very personal tribute spoken by a teacher or adviser.

Another way to undermine a school’s commitment to decent behaviour is its willingness to take strong symbolic steps when its standards are violated. Ted Sizer tells the story of a principal who called the school to a complete halt one day after a racial incident, initiating discussion groups and assemblies instead. He was signalling the importance of the behaviour just as clearly as those schools do who cancel classes for mourning on the day a student dies.

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Community service projects also demonstrate an ethic of involvement and respect that can pervade a school’s culture. Central Park East Secondary School sets aside a three-hour block each week for students to work in the community as teachers meet to plan. And at University Heights High School in the Bronx, the “family groups” that form the core of the school’s advisory system go forth once weekly to help out in nearby old age homes, elementary schools, and even college classes for students of English as a second language. Marion Pearce, who coordinates the program, is already expanding it into an afternoon seminar called “Future Teachers,” in which students tutor elementary and junior high school students on a daily basis. “It has a profound effect on their attitudes,” she says. “One of my students came back one day enraged; she had overheard a kindergarten teacher say that a kid was dumb, within earshot of the child. We talked in class about the effects that have on a young child, and what we could do about it. One of the other students said that the same kind of thing had happened to him as a child; it had ‘ruined seven years of my life,’ he said.”

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