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Rhee and StudentsFirst recognizes need for social skills

January 11, 2011

Wow, I never thought I’d see the day.  This morning, former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program to talk about her plans to help reform education through her new not-for-profit, “Students First.”

There was a lot of discussion about the things we have been known to hear from Ms. Rhee — about the problems with teacher tenure, of the values of merit pay, of the importance of keeping good teachers, not just ones who have attained the highest seniority.

One thing I didn’t expect to hear her talk about was the value of social skills.  Commenting on the question about violence in public schools, linking it to the events this past weekend in AZ with Rep. Giffords’ shooting, the conversation went:
(view video portion of her statement here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640)

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Here’s the transcript of that portion of her interview:

Morning Joe: …the larger question of violence in public schools off of what happened in Arizona. Being a public schoolteacher can quite often be dangerous. What do we do about this?

Rhee: One of the things that we realized when I was in DC is that we were putting the majority of our resource into reactive resources so we’d have police officers and safety and security and that sort of — those sorts of people in the schools so that when a fight broke out or when something negative happeneed, they came and reacted. So what we’ve decided to do is deploy some of the resources to thing proactively. How can we train and teach kids, on the front end, conflict resolution so that thaey don’t get into those positions to begin with and I think that’s the way that we have to be thinking more.  Back in the day, school was ust about teaching writing, reading and arithmetic. Now we have to teach kids a lot of the social skills they’re not getting at home.

This is a belief I’ve held and advocated for for a long time, but it surprised me coming from Ms. Rhee.  You may recall that as Chancellor of DC Public Schools, she launched the ill-fated “Capital Gains” program in several middle schools in the district.  Capital Gains’ mission was to pay students each month, in cash, for getting good grades, showing up to school and behaving properly. You could almost say that Capital Gains is the polar opposite of “teaching social skills” because, instead of teaching students to do the right thing because it’s to their advantage and it’s the right thing to do, you taught them to do it because they saw immediate financial gain.

But, I agree with Ms. Rhee in that putting the bulk of your resources on management and mitigation policies and procedures that is reactive once something occurs isn’t nearly as effective — and cost-efficient — and building in prevention models.  Students who are taught the social skills that allow them to recognize and use appropriate and effective behaviors are less likely to get into trouble.  We’ve seen that in our SocialSmarts schools where principals have reported that they no longer have a bullying problem because the kids won’t stand for it.

Schools can be a dangerous place to be, for students and for teachers. I’ve written in the past about everything from the teacher meltdown in Tennessee because of disruptive students, to the Maryland teacher who was beaten in class by her students, to a teacher caught on camera violently beating HER students.  Violence in schools is everywhere, everyday, whether it’s beatings, bullying, shootings and death.

The violence in school is only the extremen outward symptom of the problem. If we truly focus on social skills education we’ll not only take care of lot of the extreme stuff, but we’ll also see more productive classrooms, more productive teachers that accomplish more (leading to achieving merit pay), students who are respectful and courteous, and test scores that go up.  Ms. Rhee didn’t mention that in her interview, but I hope she sees that improving students’ social skills will have not only short-term but also longer-term benefits for everyone involved.

And, as her organization’s name proclaims, that strategy is putting students first. Because students that are not equipped to learn suffer in the classroom now, in the workplace later, and leave a legacy of rudeness, insensitivy and possibly even more violence in their communities.

Will it prevent another AZ shooting like we saw in Tucson?  There’s no simple direct cause/effect relationship here. There are unbalanced people on this earth everywhere.  But, research does show that young people with better social skills have better mental health, better academic achievement and higher economic development. Also, interesting enough, many individuals with mental illness are known to have poor social skills.  I’m not saying that teaching social skills to someone with a mental disorder will miraculously make them “normal;” it doesn’t work that way. But, we do know that positive social skills contribute to better individual well-being as well as make things like learning, building relationships and other things so much easier.

I hope this is the beginning of a real look at the importance of social skills education in our schools. I guess only time will tell, but I will remain optimistic that the energy toward this kind of learning is picking up.

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