I’m a fan of the Noble Charter School Network in Chicago because parents like the schools, they get good results for low-income kids and they are proving that poverty is not destiny. With a student population that’s 99 percent low-income and 89 percent people of color, their graduation rate approaches the national average, their ACT scores match the state, and 90 percent of their graduates go to college.
But, self-reflection is important for everyone trying to improve public education, so I followed with interest two recent stories on NPR-Illinois about discipline issues at the Noble Network of Charter Schools. I came away concerned but far from convinced.
First of all, the charter network is facing an aggressive unionization push from the Chicago Teachers Union and most of the sources in both stories are former or current teachers, many anonymous. I don’t dismiss anonymous sources and certainly respect teachers’ voices, but given the bitter battle underway, they do raise credibility issues.
Second, the stories include some students and ex-students speaking to the strict discipline culture at Noble schools, but a separate group of students came to Noble’s defense. High school students are innately resistant to discipline and yet students stuck their necks out to defend the school and challenge the veracity of the stories.
Third, there were no parents quoted who were critical of the discipline practices at Noble. In fact, the only parent quoted was a fan of Noble’s no-nonsense approach to discipline. Our conversations last summer with Black parents, teachers and students in Chicago included many from the Noble Network and all of them embraced the school’s strict discipline policy. They knew it helped them learn.
The first story, which appeared on April 3, was attributed to ex-teachers. Beneath headlines screaming “culture shock” and “dehumanizing,” NPR told of strict disciplinary measures, especially in schools serving primarily Black students, where hundreds of demerits can pile up on a student’s record for seemingly minor things, like school uniform violations.
The story also highlighted a teacher turnover rate in the Noble Network of 40 percent, “at the four-year mark,” though it offered no comparative data for the district or the field to see that number in context.
According to the Shanker Institute, named for the legendary teachers union leader Albert Shanker, in schools with poverty levels comparable to Noble, the turnover rate is 22 percent per year, so it’s unclear if Noble’s teacher turnover rate is out of line. Forty percent over four years might be low.
A follow-up story, based entirely on anonymous teachers, described how young women were denied bathroom breaks while menstruating causing staining of their school-required khaki pants. There was no specific incident referenced, implying that it was common. The internet immediately lit up and charter school critics piled on.
Students at one Noble school pushed back in their school newspaper explaining how their school allowed them to wear black pants instead of khakis and how their teachers were helpful when accidents happened. The students were frustrated NPR-Illinois did not reach out to them directly for comment.
In an email to staff following the first story, Noble CEO Constance Jones-Brewer challenged the overall thrust of the reporting. She also urged humility and reflection and affirmed her commitment to address the “rare occasions where our student code of conduct has been applied overzealously.”
After the second story appeared alleging the denial of bathroom privileges to young women, Jones-Brewer again sent a reflective email to staff, insisting that Noble allows bathroom trips “whenever the student needs one.”
With 1,300 adults in the Noble Network serving 12,000 students, it’s inevitable that an individual teacher or administrator will exercise poor judgement now and then, but this is hardly unique to Noble. The internet is filled with countless examples of stupid behavior by adults in public schools.
A New York City teacher asked her Black students to lie on the floor while she walked on their backs to illustrate the dehumanizing effects of slavery. A California teacher, who is also a reserve police officer, accidentally fired a gun in class.
Typically, these articles highlight an individual’s mistake rather than a systemic issue, but when it happens in a charter school, it is often framed as a “culture” problem. For a more nuanced discussion of the Noble culture, read Marilyn Rhames’ conversation with Chris Goins, the principal of a Noble school serving mostly Black students.
If overzealous discipline in Noble schools is really the problem the articles suggest, you would think that parent demand would decline, but so far it hasn’t. That said, reflection is the right response.