OP-ED: Common Sense Leads Us Astray in Education, Juvenile Justice

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Judge Steven Teske

StevenTeske-editMany solutions are counterintuitive and so our problems are seldom solved.

For example, when meeting a bear in the woods, our inclination is to run. The counterintuitive is the safest — freeze. Bears outrun humans.

Similarly, people struggle with what works to prevent and reduce crime.

It doesn’t make sense that punitive practices can make kids worse, but they do. Zero tolerance policies should deter misbehavior at school, but they don’t. A couple of nights in jail should teach him a lesson, but it doesn’t. A few days of incarceration won’t hurt her, but it will.

We can arrest our way out of this problem, but we can’t. Without independent research, our intuition gets us so far.

It’s called common sense, or our normal native intelligence developed by our senses — what we see, hear, and touch.

Common sense tells us that you don’t put your hand on the burning-hot stove. I only had to feel the warmth of the fire to validate my mother’s incessant harangue on the dangers of playing with fire.

Common sense is a practical tool. It keeps us safe, calms our fears and is the first step toward scientific study. It gets us to rational thought, but it is not rational thought.

Newton wasn’t shocked when the apple fell on his head — that’s common sense. It’s what we don’t sense that begs an answer.

Common sense had us believing the world was flat and the sun revolved around the Earth because the world looked flat and the sun and moon moved across the sky. What we see can’t always be accurately explained. It took the rational thoughts of Pythagoras and Galileo to prove the conclusions drawn from our common sense false.

Common sense points the way. Rational thought gets us home.

The failure to accept this truism in delinquency prevention and rehabilitation brings serious woes — crime, poverty and economic immobility.

hub_arrow_2-01Common sense informs us that poor self-esteem causes delinquency and so kids were ordered to self-esteem programs. Thanks to rational thought, we have discovered that self-esteem bears no causal relationship to delinquent conduct.

A system relying solely on common sense to decide what best practices are will produce more confident delinquent youth.

A critical partner in combating delinquency is the school system. They too suffer from this paradox of common sense when it comes to improving graduation rates.

School climate is essential to academic success. The common-sense approach has been to push out the disruptive kids to create disruption-free classrooms.

This approach, called zero tolerance, resulted in a dramatic increase in suspensions, expulsions and arrests, but its unintended consequences created the school-to-prison pipeline.

If the schools don’t want them, the streets and gangs will.

They are the disconnected who are reconnected by the criminal justice system. School records are now rap sheets. Teachers are now prison guards; school yards are now prison yards, and what used to be report cards are parole release notices.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Dr. Garry McGiboney, a reform-minded Georgia educator laboring to move us from common sense to rational thought by working to “change the conversation” around school climate.

Such a conversation about school climate can’t occur until “we change the conversation around data,” says McGiboney. “Change that” he says, “and you change the conversation about decision-making.”

For example, a study on the influence of absences on graduation rates found that only 30.73 percent of ninth graders in Georgia with 15 or more absences graduated on time.

This data underscore why school climate is related to graduation rates — a 1 percent improvement in school climate will increase average attendance by 1.6 percent. Improve school climate by 10 percent and attendance will increase by 16 percent.

The study found that suspension rates fell 25 percent and expulsions dropped 53 percent. But changing the conversation about data demands that we ask HOW they dropped to invite the best decision-making.

Knowing that diseases, like behaviors, don’t occur by chance and are not distributed at random, our school leaders turned to epidemiologists for help.

And they found out the suspension rates didn’t drop because students stayed in their home school. They dropped because Georgia increased alternative education by 72 percent. The epidemiologists call that “data shifting.”

This data shift begged the question: Are alternative schools the best alternative to suspensions?

No, says McGiboney, it’s the personal interactions between educators and students that makes the biggest improvement in school climate.

Our common sense informs us that it is outside factors such as student demographics and location that determine school climate, but a study of Georgia education found that the personal interactions of teachers was more controlling.

Schools do have control over school climate just as courts have control over delinquency prevention and rehabilitation.

A key characteristic among all best practices in juvenile justice is positive personal interactions with youth.

The same holds true in education: It’s called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Georgia schools are turning to this approach with dramatic results in reducing suspensions and improving graduation rates.

We must question our common sense by changing our conversations about why we do what we do.

Like meeting a bear, the counterintuitive notions of best practices scare many of us and so we run.

But when we do, it only gets worse.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.

2 thoughts on “OP-ED: Common Sense Leads Us Astray in Education, Juvenile Justice

  1. Judge Steven Teske,

    Thank you for writing this article. For over a year now, I have been wondering if people in DeKalb County were even on the level of “common sense” and “rational thought”. I am the parent of four beautiful sons, a recording vocal artist, a performing artist, and CEO of WizeWordzEntertainment. I work with youth of all backgrounds and disabilities. This gift did not come by surprise, because I’m from a family of educators, ministers, and military officials in every generation. I have recently been drown to move to Georgia from New Jersey almost two years ago. I love it! But this is by far not a vacation like I thought it would be. From day one, youth have been drown to my door. I saw pain, frustration, listened to gruesome stories, watched undercover gang activities, robberies, domestic violence, and more; and, all from a neighborhood community watch development. Law Abiding-Working Senior Citizens, Couples, and Single-Parents are all apart of this community. I’ve made myself known at all the schools my sons were attending, and I speak out very frequently when I feel the need to. I am not liked at all for the knowledge that I carry, and having 3 out of 4 sons with a disability is a time consuming life that I don’t mind living. But a change has to come NOW! The time has come where I need to put this knowledge at task for my community and those who need it. I would like to meet with your Youth Committee to set up a date when we could come to the table and bring life back into what was once called a Neighborhood. We need to work diligently to bring the “Neighbor back to the Hood”! Please help assist me with this task. I believe this article is just the beginning to what my team have to offer.

    Thank you,

    Quint Essence