From chaos to ‘climate for learning’

Print More
Tools of the discipline trade

Joe Gallo

Tools of the discipline trade

On a Wednesday morning in November, about two dozen children are working in groups scattered around Helen Boghosian’s 4th-grade classroom at Pope Elementary. Boghosian sits at her desk talking with one young girl. The overall noise level, while not excessive, is loud enough to distract students who are trying to concentrate.

Many teachers, immersed in a one-on-one conversation with a student, might not have noticed the noise or let it slide. At most, they might quiet things down with a “Shhh!” or by yelling out to the class.

Instead, Boghosian stands up, walks to the middle of the room and raises both hands in the air. One or two students close their mouths instantly and raise their hands as well. Others follow. Within a few seconds, everyone’s hands are in the air—and the room has fallen silent.

“Thank you,” Boghosian says to the class. “I need for you to use your five-inch voices. There are people in here who are trying to read.”

The “quiet signal”—in this case, raised hands—is one example of the strategies that staff members at Pope and four other North Lawndale schools learned from their training in Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline, a program developed by a professor at the University of Houston. In Houston, discipline referrals in 71 schools using the program have dropped an average of 25 percent.

Staff members at Pope say the program has paid off with better behavior and helped raise student achievement.

Some schools in Austin are considering adopting the program, too. But budget constraints and other pressures have put the schools’ plans, and the successes already achieved, in jeopardy.

Consistency Management’s strategies are based on research showing that classrooms that foster mutual consideration between students and teachers are more effective learning environments.

Pope students agree.

“It’s more respectful,” says 7th-grader Brian Thompson. Besides, he adds, “When you yell at people, they don’t listen.”

‘From tourists to citizens’

Consistency Management includes elements important to successful discipline: a few clear rules, designed with student input; rewards and consequences for good and bad behavior; responsibilities that make students stakeholders in their classrooms; and a variety of small but significant strategies that ease the management burden on teachers. For instance, teachers can use popsicle sticks to track who they’ve called on in class and ensure everyone gets a turn, preventing arguments about favoritism.

Ideally, the strategies are used schoolwide, by aides and other staff, not just teachers.

“This is a program that teaches students and teachers to share responsibility for a climate of learning,” observes Randi Starr, a consultant and former executive director of the McDougal Family Foundation, which helped pay for teacher training.

“It helps students move from being tourists in their classroom to citizens.”

Three schools in North Lawndale—Johnson in 1997, Chalmers and Gregory in 1998—launched Consistency Management and saw improvement by 2000. Discipline referrals dropped at Chalmers and Gregory, and at all three schools, growth in reading test scores outpaced the city average.

Seeing the success, nearby Pope adopted the program in 2000, and Mason in 2001.

Classrooms disrupted

Faculty at Pope had been interested in Consistency Management for a number of years, but the school was involved in a different reform effort and the program’s facilitators thought tackling a second initiative would be too much. But in 1998, newly arrived Principal Jacqueline Baker agreed with teachers that discipline problems were severe and had to be addressed. “This place was total chaos,” Baker recalls.

“The children were out of control, running through the halls. There was great disruption in the classrooms,” says physical education teacher Judith Sands, one of six veterans at Pope. “One student would start picking on another, which led to verbal confrontations, and if the teacher didn’t intervene, it might lead to a physical fight.”

With limited funds, Pope sent a small group of teachers, including Sands, to Houston for intensive training, and new teachers were then given time away from their classrooms to attend training workshops at North Lawndale Learning Community Network offices. Sands now coordinates the program for the school.

“It was great that first year, and it’s continued to be useful,” says writing teacher Mike McKinney. “I like that they have a bag of techniques and you choose what works for you.”

Teachers were coached by Cynthia Falconer, who then worked for North Lawndale Learning Community and is now with the CPS professional development office. “When teachers said, ‘I’m trying and trying, and I can’t find a way to make this work,’ Cynthia would come up with a solution,” says Baker. “She was also very good at knowing who was trying to work the program, as opposed to who was trying to work her.”

The business of learning

Consistency Management usually works with schools on planning for six months, and then for three years on training and follow-up. The cost is one percent of a school’s budget for the first year, and three to five percent for years two and three.

The Learning Community Network, funded through local foundations, paid half the cost for North Lawndale schools. But taking it on was still a sacrifice. “I had to choose between buying a classroom teacher and buying support from Houston,” says Baker.

However, the investment appears to be paying dividends, including an improved learning climate and higher test scores. “When I take kids out of the building for sports, I get compliments everywhere for how well our children behave,” says Sands. The day Catalyst visited Pope, classrooms and hallways were orderly, and staff quickly controlled a brief shoving match in the lunchroom.

Sands says teachers are using instructional strategies such as learning centers and cooperative groups more often now, since the program eased concerns that such techniques would cause them to lose control of their class.

And Pope’s reading achievement has more than tripled: 38 percent of students scored at or above national norms on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in 2003, up from 12.5 percent in 1998. One reason has undoubtedly been the arrival of Baker, a respected principal. But Assistant Principal Carolyn Rice says Consistency Management definitely helped, by getting students to “settle down and be about the business of learning.”

Critical need, but no money

Pope is having difficulty maintaining this headway, however.

At the beginning of the year, Sands spent time in class with two new teachers, but since Pope no longer has money to pay for a substitute to cover her class, she can’t offer real-time help. She now meets with teachers at the end of the day.

“Catching them helter-skelter is not really the support system they need,” Sands says. “I don’t have the time to go into classrooms to see if any of the information I’ve given them is being put to use.”

Other North Lawndale schools are in similar straits. Principals Catalyst contacted said they were only using Consistency Management with new teachers, who need the most help with discipline.

“If I had the funding, I would do it throughout the whole school,” says Leonard Moore, principal of Dvorak Elementary.

Starr says McDougal helped support training for new teachers during the 2002 and 2003 school years. And Cynthia Falconer, who trained teachers while at North Lawndale Learning Community, tried to continue to help new teachers when she took her current post with CPS but found it too hard to do both and gave it up this year. And some schools have been hurt by turnover among trained teachers and principals.

Schools in the Austin Local School Council Network identified discipline as their top priority and began eyeing Consistency Management after seeing the successes in North Lawndale schools.

But money from private grants had dried up. According to Nancy Jones, a former organizer for Community Organizing and Family Issues, who has been working with the network, says the district has told them “there’s no money.”

Starr has had no success finding money either. She says pressure to raise test scores has put Consistency Management on the back burner because “it’s not the kind of direct curriculum-related stuff people put stress on.”

Implementing the Consistency Management strategies effectively takes time, and is difficult to do when teachers face pressure to raise achievement, she says. “We want quick fixes.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.