Eric Crampton, from the New Zealand Initiative, pointed out some research recently which resonated with the experience of a lot of people around here.
It’s about the impact of disruptive students on their peers, and after some of those brain-ache inducing calculations that econometrists of education in the USA are fond of, concludes that they have a significantly bad impact on their educational attainment– to the extent of reducing future earnings to a statistically significant extent. Here’s a link to the research.
Not being a researcher, I struggled with the use of children’s exposure to domestic violence as the identifier used to determine that a student is disruptive. Surely if the researchers have access to school records (which they did for test scores) they could have used students who were suspended or expelled from school at some point as the identifier instead – which still wouldn’t be perfect, but would have to be an improvement.
But the final sentence of Eric’s post got me thinking. He writes “The benefits to disruptive students of being in mainstream classrooms would have to be substantial to make integrated classrooms desirable overall.”
This seems somewhat out of touch with how our schools work. The reality is almost all schools in New Zealand see integration (of disruptive students) as desirable. Removing students, from class or from school, is heavily frowned on by the powers that be (unless you’re a charter school apparently), and the vast majority of schools agree.
An example of this is from a very traditional boys’ school I visited a few years ago which had just got rid of the ‘withdrawal room’ where students were sent to cool off when they were playing up in class. Now teachers were expected to deal with the problem; the message teachers were given was “be more interesting and the boys won’t cause trouble”. This is consistent from the top down, when the Minister praises schools for getting the rates of suspensions and expulsions down, and the Ministry of Education’s PB4L action plan is about keeping students engaged and at school.
There are a lot of good things about this, and there are good reasons to believe that school practices can reduce the rates of disruption. But, like with student achievement gaps, school practices on their own almost certainly won’t be able to eliminate the problem.
But Eric also seems to assume that there’s a reasonable alternative for ‘disruptive’ students, which isn’t being in mainstream classrooms. Currently there are around 1800 students in Alternative Education (AE) centres, which are where some of the ‘most challenging’ students end up . While AE providers no doubt are doing the best they can, the outcomes for these students are not good – a 2011 report by ERO found that 37% of the cohort they studied had what they identified as ‘positive outcomes’ after a year.
And AE is only for students aged 13-16 who are “genuinely alienated from the education system”, and specifically not for students who are “difficult to manage in a mainstream setting”. So of the around 230,000 students aged 13-16, there are places for 1800 highly alienated ones in AE centres. What else is there? Very little.
Both practical and ethical considerations mean that we don’t really have a lot of choice about keeping disruptive students in school.
Research we did in 2007 indicated that parents were concerned with disruption in schools – with 18% saying it was a serious problem, and another 43 % saying it was an occasional one. Many expressed a common view of four or five disruptive children per class. Figures reported to the Ministry indicate that, unsurprisingly, rates of formal discipline interventions increase significantly the lower down the decile scale, and the Ministry recognises this by prioritising PB4L support to lower decile schools.
So what else can be done?
Accepting that we shouldn’t, and can’t exclude disruptive students from mainstream education, but that they do, as the research indicates, have a serious impact, particularly when there are multiple disruptive students in a class, maybe the solution is about reducing the numbers of disruptive students in each class?
One way to do this is to dedicate staffing to low decile schools where disruptive students are more prevalent. If classes in those schools went from 25-30 students with 3 or 4 disruptive students to 15-20 with 1-2 that would significantly improve their peers’ learning. This isn’t just backed up by the research Eric points out, it’s also supported by evidence about where class size interventions make the most difference; one of the groups that they make the most difference for is low SES students.
And to go back to Eric’s blog, if parents knew that the low decile school they were considering for their child had significantly smaller class sizes than the alternative, and therefore the teachers would be much better placed to deal with disruptive behaviour, that could encourage them not to ‘choose up’ the decile scale.