Monday, February 11, 2013

Won't somebody think of the children? An analysis of the segregation of Boys and Girls from the perspective of a Parent and Educator

Disclaimer: some facts or details from this post may be insufficient or even inaccurate due to the lack of communication parents are receiving from the school in question. That is part of the point. But I will own the inaccuracies in service to the reflection.

Even at Sea World, educators cannot
escape the call for innovation
The @40ishoracle and I were spending a lovely day at Sea World before the official start of #FETC (a decent conference and the best vendor floor that I have been subjected to in years), when i get one of the stomach churning texts from my wife "call me when you get a few minutes" -- In the modern world of texting, voice communication is at a premium. I immediately delayed my progress to the sea-lion show and made a phone call.

Parents of students in my daughter's highly successful 6th grade class had received a letter from the administration explaining that student safety was of the highest priority and that, due to some recent incidents, the 6th grade classroom would be "clustered" for an indeterminate amount of time. As one parent later put it, "if you didn't know what was going on, you would think maybe someone brought a weapon to school" (or possibly was using a make-believe hand-grenade to fight off evil on the playground).

So, some questions that arose:
  1. What was the incident?
  2. What does "clustering" actually mean? (aren't any student groups in more than one classroom clustered? Tracking is a kind of clustering, right?)
  3. Is this clustering a long-term or short-term solution?
  4. Is everyone ok?
  5. Why is everyone being impacted by this "incident" if not everyone was involved in the "incident"?
  6. Is this the only response?
  7. Was my child involved?
  8. What should I be discussing with my child as a concerned and supportive parent?
  9. Not to be repetitive, but what happened?
Most of the explanation that follows comes second or third hand from the most reliable source that was willing to talk to my wife...namely, our 6th grade daughter:

6th grade boys and girls were involved in a "game" that involved inappropriate touching in one of the two 6th grade classes at the school. The incidents were repetitive, had been going on for awhile, and were, in some cases, not consensual. A student had told another student who had told an adult. (This happened at the end of the week before the letter went out). Related to this timeline, a concerned parent may or may not have called either the Indianapolis Public School security (we have an official e-mail that references the IPS police) or the Indianapolis Police Department.

As is often the case with children, concerned parents, and the possibility of legal action, investigations ensued. The culmination, at least from non-directly-involved parents' points-of-view was the aforementioned clustering solution.


CLUSTERING (from Wikipedia): 
an educational process in which four to six gifted and talented (GT) and/or high achieving students are assigned to an otherwise heterogeneous classroom within their grade to be instructed by a teacher that has had specialized training in differentiating for gifted learners.[1] ...Within a cluster, several instructional options are typically used, including: enrichment and extensions, higher-order thinking skills, pretesting and differentiation  compacting, an accelerated pace, and more complexity in content.[5]

Well, that doesn't sound too bad. Except that in this case, the CLUSTER was a euphemism for dividing the 
Went looking for a picture and found a good post
6th grade boys from the 6th grade girls for an indefinite period of time.
  • All academic classes are segregated boys from girls.
  • "Extras" such as art and music are also divided (there is a whole blog post on these things now being just "extras")
  • Students attempting to communicate with other students of the opposite sex in the hallway are called out by the teachers monitoring the hallways with admonitions like "don't talk to them!"
  • This has led to some of the girls passing by the boys quickly saying things like "UNCLEAN!" (I love pretentious Pre-teens). Other reaction have included suggestions of adding "Boys" and "Girls" signs to the drinking fountains.
My wife, an OB/GYN (and much more rational person than I am) wrote a well thought-out letter to the teachers and principal of the school outlining the limited information she knew and her reaction:
  • This approach seems punitive on-face, particularly if a number of boys and girls were not involved
  • While the students involved have been identified as "gifted", they are still pre-teen students with the hormones that accompany that age.
  • Healthy and unhealthy sexual habits form at an early age (unhealthy examples include using sexuality as a bargaining chip, objectifying the opposite sex, and victimization) and this behavior presents one of those all-too-buzzwordy "teachable moments" -- she even went so far as to volunteer the services of medical students and/or residents who would be willing to talk to middle school kids.
The response from one teacher was essentially "I agree, but I am not allowed to talk about it"
The principal gave no response.

That was two weeks ago.

Since then, we get vague ideas from concerned parents who are trying to glean information and from students who are a-buzz with reactions and rumors. The most recent news is that the classes will be reintegrated, but that logistically this cannot happen for at least two weeks since science-project groups have now been assigned! (#edreform snark: This makes no sense. Are there even high-stakes tests associated with the science project? Let's keep our eye on the ball!)


 I do not want this to appear that I am dismissing the "game" or the students who started, participated, or may have covered it up. This can be a serious and traumatic experience and should be dealt with appropriately. Those involved should answer for their actions in a way that respects the severity of the action and the developmental age of the students who participated willingly.

I am also not dismissing the literature on single-gender classrooms. In fact, this has little to do with the research in that area. The school is not making a decision based on a thought-out education policy and review of literature that concluded more effective education occurs in a segregated environment. If that were the case, we would expect to see separation of the 7th and 8th grade classes as well, parents would have been given opportunity to weigh in on the decision and choose whether that was the learning environment best suited for their children. -- This was a consequential reaction. Whether those consequences were a reaction out of a concern for safety or a concern for avoiding litigation cannot be determined.

We do know that the consequence was not out of a concern for the education of the 6th grade class as a whole. The response, lack of communication in the past two weeks, as well as the literal and metaphorical separation from any type of formation or educational opportunity is disturbing but indicative of many trends in education.

Lack Education by Context: 
The use of context acknowledges an individuals background, history, learning style and current situation in order to craft the best learning program. It is the true definition of personalized education. In this case, it would treat students who were tangentially involved differently than students who were directly involved and who may require more in-depth education or even counseling. One can only hope that there is some minimum of context being considered here, but there is no indication of that from the outside looking in.

Lack of Education by Relationship: 
As I have written about in a number of posts, one key to education is the use of relationship to help the learner understand (beyond parroting back answers from a personalized software platform). One concern in the educational reform culture that de-values teachers  in favor of a common curriculum, standardized software metrics, and high-stakes testing is that this essential relationship component is lost and we (students and educators) miss out on key learning opportunities that are indicated by behavioral signs and unique learning moments that arise outside of a lock-step curriculum and its corresponding metrics. 

There are a number of relationships that this current reaction ignores and in some cases attempts to sever: 
  • Boys-Girls -- Boys and Girls are shown that their relationships are, at the core, something that can be dissolved with little consideration and that is probably, at some level, a bad thing that should be avoided if not punished. 
  • Teacher-Student -- Teachers are once again moved along the continuum from guide to enforcer-of-rules which from the student perspective seems arbitrary and ineffective.
  • Parent-School Adults -- Parents are frustrated by the lack of explanation about the thought process behind the platitude of "student-safety" concerns. This makes it difficult to be supportive of the administration and the teachers.
Lack of Education by Reflection: 
Khan Academy notwithstanding, the process of education involves combining new and authentic experiences with past context in a process of reflective questioning and application. While it works in math and world languages and computer programming, this process of reflection is particularly necessary when dealing with inter-personal relationships, demonstrating appropriate behavior, and "figuring out" what kind of person one hopes to be as an adult. When the only message from this incident is "when boys and girls touch each other, there will be consequences for EVERYONE", we have missed out on the most basic form of education, namely being able to talk about the incident with caring adults who are able to guide students, hormones and all, through very complicated feelings and reactions.

Final Thoughts:
At the end of the day, most of these students will be undamaged by their month or so "time-out" from the opposite sex. But the decision making process that led to this separation still deserves examination. If we have moved past making decisions that are developmentally appropriate, we become unable to guide teens and pre-teens through an emotional and confusing time.  if our decisions are no longer those that are educationally indicated, we miss out on key moments that may not come around again (not to mention that we give up the authority that comes from being educational experts in society). Heck, at least if our decisions were made based on test-scores we could have some data at the end of the day (*cringe*)

I am concerned for students who have had one skewed imagery of healthy sexual behavior replaced by a different, but also skewed perspective on gender roles and relationships.

I am concerned that we are so afraid of honest communication, reflection, and context that we are willing to warp our students' social structures on a reactive whim.

I am concerned that, ultimately, our actions reflect those things that we value most and that the values being represented here seem cold and distant from adolescent formation or healthy education.

As a parent and teacher, I am concerned.