Lemov himself pushed for data-driven programs that would diagnose individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. But as he went from school to school that winter, he was getting the sinking feeling that there was something deeper he wasn’t reaching. On that particular day, he made a depressing visit to a school in Syracuse, N.Y., that was like so many he’d seen before: “a dispiriting exercise in good people failing,” as he described it to me recently. Sometimes Lemov could diagnose problems as soon as he walked in the door. But not here. Student test scores had dipped so low that administrators worried the state might close down the school. But the teachers seemed to care about their students. They sat down with them on the floor to read and picked activities that should have engaged them. The classes were small. The school had rigorous academic standards and state-of-the-art curriculums and used a software program to analyze test results for each student, pinpointing which skills she still needed to work on.
But when it came to actual teaching, the daily task of getting students to learn, the school floundered. Students disobeyed teachers’ instructions, and class discussions veered away from the lesson plans. In one class Lemov observed, the teacher spent several minutes debating a student about why he didn’t have a pencil. Another divided her students into two groups to practice multiplication together, only to watch them turn to the more interesting work of chatting. A single quiet student soldiered on with the problems. As Lemov drove from Syracuse back to his home in Albany, he tried to figure out what he could do to help. He knew how to advise schools to adopt a better curriculum or raise standards or develop better communication channels between teachers and principals. But he realized that he had no clue how to advise schools about their main event: how to teach.
But are the failures in these examples ones of teaching or of discipline? Perhaps teachers need more institutional support in disciplining their students? Individuals who are skilled at both teaching a useful subject matter and at outwitting knuckleheads in mind games in struggles for personal dominance have better jobs available to them (such as being head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers).
Our society doesn't much emphasize training people in exercising authority anymore, so schools could use more specialization by hiring as Assistant Deans of Discipline the kind of guy who likes putting young punks in their place.
Unfortunately, the trend in public schools, exacerbated by disparate impact lawsuits over suspensions and expulsions falling more heavily on protected classes, has been in the opposite direction toward putting most responsibility for discipline on the shoulders of teachers, who are supposed to call parents.
But the parents of troublemakers are typically overwhelmed themselves, and would often appreciate some help from society's institutions.