Katherine Kersten’s commentary about the discipline problem in St. Paul schools (“Mollycoddle no more,” March 20) contains no suggestion whatever that the kind of schooling the district offers might have anything to do with the way students behave. This is a serious omission.

Certainly, factors outside school do influence student behavior. And clearly schools need to set and enforce rules. But schools motivating young people to learn will be less likely to have serious problems of misbehavior.

A useful example is High School for the Recording Arts in Saint Paul. With so many over-age and under-credited students, many homeless, it is not without behavior problems. But with its students engaged in useful activity and each on an “individual learning plan,” it is an orderly and successful school.

For several years there have been warning signs about what an insider in Minneapolis calls the “regimented instruction” — “focused instruction” in Minneapolis, “managed instruction” in St. Paul. This was promoted apparently by the Council of Great City Schools, anxious to raise “performance” in its member districts. The idea is that schools and teachers should teach exactly what students would be expected to know, for the new standards coming in.

Soon teachers were being tightly scripted on what to teach, how to teach it and when; directed (as last fall I heard a former teacher tell Jean O’Connell, a holdover member of the St. Paul school board) not to adapt instruction in any way or for any student, and required to deliver the prescribed curriculum “with fidelity.” That was bound to produce problems, with teachers and with students.

Jack Frymier talked with some of us once about this. From his career in curriculum and instruction, he advised: “If young people want to learn, they will; if they don’t, you probably can’t make ’em. So any successful effort to improve learning will begin by improving student motivation. Motivation is individual. The teacher’s job is to understand those differences and to adapt the instruction to the individual student.”

The original concept of standards did not propose standardizing instruction; it contemplated flexibility. Politically, though, the notion was to “make ’em learn.” So regimented instruction has gone largely undiscussed.

Unmotivated students probably will misbehave. “Schools’ dysfunctional disciplinary practices have emerged in part because of predictable patterns of student disengagement in school,” writes Julia Freeland Fisher of the Christensen Institute. Some thoughtful foundations are urging approaches to learning that engage students better. New England is moving toward competency-based learning. There is a growing interest in personalization.

Former Burnsville Superintendent Jim Rickabaugh is involved with an initiative by Wisconsin superintendents to personalize learning, now operating in four states. Asked recently how it works, his first comment was about how the indices of misbehavior have declined.

I showed Kersten’s piece to James Lytle, who as principal turned around “a very troubled and violent high school” in central Philadelphia.

“We listened to students who asked for help. Let new programs emerge from the faculty rather than implementing canned solutions from some corporate entity. Respected the students’ language, dress and conventions.

“Discipline problems were sharply reduced, graduation rates were up by 64 percent, and mildly handicapped students were in regular classes. Test scores were up; course failures down. Students reported being cared about by teachers and support staff, and faculty morale was high. Three years later parents were lined up to get their kids into the school.

“I came to understand why our students did not trust us: frequent teacher and principal turnover, limited [school] resources, tedious curriculum, abusive staff. As we built trust with students they began to carry the school culture and ensure their classmates behaved within acceptable norms. ”

Richard Murnane of Harvard and Frank Levy of MIT said essentially this in the Phi Delta Kappan magazine in 1996, comparing school districts with General Motors, both then being widely criticized. Their product actually wasn’t worse than before, but expectations had risen.

Improving is hard enough in business where all front-line workers are on the payroll, they wrote, it is harder in a school where teachers are paid but the other workers, the students, are not. “Simple top-down commands don’t work. To elicit improvement, jobs have to be designed so all front-line workers have incentives and opportunities to contribute to solutions.”

It should be easy to see whether a different approach to learning — along with “climate improvements” — would improve behavior by better engaging students. St. Paul, like Minneapolis, is considering giving greater flexibility to schools that seek it. Personalization would motivate. Try it, see what the teachers would do. See if the students don’t respond.


Ted Kolderie is senior associate at Education Evolving.