No Hats in School: The Data Supports It

Fifteen years ago, when I began at my current school, the rules were clear.  We had a dress code: Shorts and skirts could be no longer than your knuckles when arms hung by your side; tops had to have straps two fingers wide; no underwear could be showing.  And, of course, NO HATS.

Much of this has gone by the wayside.  The short shorts and skirt issues, plus ones around cleavage, were disproportionally enforced on girls with curves (the first graders had crazy short shorts, but their teachers wagged their fingers at my middle schoolers).  There was also some body shaming going on.  Our focus has shifted to clothing disrupting the learning process (profane or offensive, or really shiny) and being unable to participate in activities (dumb shoes).

Except for hats.

We have debated hats on a number of issues–many surrounding learning social norms and cultural currency.  The fact is that if you don’t wear a hat no one cares, but if you do some people will hold it against you.  Not everyone is convinced that it matters, and, as a result, enforcement is lax.  A rule that is not enforced is not worth having.  Still, I fight the battle.

But I am a person of data.  Is there, I wondered, a reason for banning hats that is supported with data?  When I thought about my own dislike of students wearing hats (against the rules) it came down to a gut reaction–students who wore hats (and were constantly flaunting the rule) always seemed to be in trouble in some other way.

Was this true or was it just an impression?

Method: After a year with a grade level, I broke students into several groups: Behavior problems, No behavior problems, and Recent behavior problems.  Then, I tagged those who generally wore hats (against the rules) and those who did not.  Here are the results:

hats pie graph

Behavior Issues; Wears Hat: 20.6%
Behavior Issues: Does Not Wear Hat: 17.5%
Recent Behavior Issues; Recently Began Wearing a Hat: 7.9%
No Behavior Issues; Does Not Wear Hat: 3.2%
No Behavior Issues; Does Not Wear Hat: 50.%

Conclusion: Not all students with behavior issues wear hats, but nearly all kids who wear hats have behavior issues.

Why?  I see the wearing of the hat as the canary in the coal mine.  If a kid cannot come in and follow that basic rule, why would we expect them to follow other rules?  Those with recent behavior issues are the most interesting because their wearing hats coincided with the change.  Perhaps baseball is a poor influence?

Besides wearing hats being anachronistic, the argument I hear is that we have other battles to fight.  My response is that if a student will not adhere to this basic rule, why do we think they will respond to others?  It has been argued that, “if they get their work done, what does it matter?”  By that measure, students who get work done don’t have to follow any rules.  There are students who don’t even need to come to school and they’d be fine!  It is extreme (I’ve been told), but how many rules are arbitrary when measured with production?  Hats are arbitrary (beyond cultural norms), but they are also a useful nod to being part of a larger community.

Bonus: Paul Young is a music teacher who wrote a nice post on hats and music performance etiquette.  Here, he measures a hat-ratio.  Check out “The No Hat Rule” here.

And try your own experiment as I did.  Were the results the same?  I’m curious about classroom and schools that have no hat policy–do the results hold even when hat wearing breaks no rules?

The Boy Problem: Noise Obfuscation of True Problems

While a bunch of us were chatting, our administrator noted how all of the discipline cases he is dealing with are boys.  He then noted how most of our failing students are also boys, and that most of our top students are girls.  Not alone in this observation, he pondered what is perennially proposed: A different program for boys than girls.

Bad idea.

The problem of using gender to model programs is that it offers no path to a solution, except if the problem is gender discrimination.

In the data world they call this issue “the signal in the noise.”  9780143125082The signal is the problem–behavior and academic achievement–while classifications (gender, race, age) are the noise.  We identify the boy problem because gender is an easy way to categorize people.  We notice it.  Evolutionary, we are built to recognize patterns as a means of survival.  But our intuition can cause us to fall to, create and reinforce stereotypes.  We create more noise, and lose the signal.  Every stereotype has some truth at its core, but it ultimately binds the person it is being done to–we put the person in a box.  And, it makes others blind to the real problem and its solution.

To say that our school does not serve boys is to say that there is only one way to be a boy.  It’s a box we put people in.  For the sake of argument, let’s use the stereotype that “boys need movement.”  And let’s say that 80% of boys need movement.  That leaves us missing 20%.  And if the needs are reversed for girls–only 20% need movement–that leaves that group missing out, too   Everyone is in a box.

Instead, we might build a program around students needing movement, and another program(s) around something else.  Now, those student who need it (half) get movement.  That 20% of non-movement boys are now free to pursue their needs, along with 80% of the girls.  Win-win.

We track gender, race, SES and the like for two reasons.  First, some elements of an identified group we can address–SES kids, by definition, need to be fed. But that use is limited. Second, we identify groups because some have been discriminated against, historically.  That was the reason NCLB required those designations.  When a group comes up short, this provides a place for schools to start the conversation–is the cause discrimination?

After that has been answered in the negative (hopefully) the use of such designations should then move to characteristics of the individual students in question and their needs.  Why are these students getting into trouble?  How large an issue is that, and how can it be addressed?  In looking back at NCLB the one area that using the data made a big difference was with SES students.  Interestingly, the solution was like the 80:20 above–many needed something the school was not providing (but not all), and some non-SES students benefited from those same programs.  Win-win.  It was not because of discrimination, but in starting there schools took a fresh look at a problem and identified the true root cause.  Focusing on gender instead places the needs of some on the larger demographic while excluding others–it is not an efficient solution and can create new problems.

So what is our school’s problem?  We are too indulgent.  In our desire to provide to students what they need to succeed we have failed to hold them accountable.  We take off limits but do not demand responsibility as part of the bargain.  For example, I allowed music last fall because students benefited as it canceled out distracting noise.  Now, it is the distraction.  And music has creeped into other activities and classrooms.  Snacks have become meals.  Fidgets have become toys.  Water and bathroom breaks are a right.  In the end, I should have a product.  Not always.  In opening the barn door first I have now set up my enforcement of academics as conflict, not an inspired goal.  Too often, the work reflects this shift in tone from support to scold.  The exception is the rule.  We indulge.

We have reached the tipping point: As we approach 20% of students being an exception, the exception becomes the rule.  When music left the classroom, using during essay writing only, it became an exception.  As 20% of classrooms had exceptions (hats, music, no lines, snacks) it becomes harder to hold to the rule.

There are two fixes for this.  The first is to hold the rule.  No hats.  No music.  Lines.  The second is to add responsibility and accountability to the privilege.  Currently, we ask nothing in return for privilege.  Why?  Because monitoring it is difficult and it sets up conflict.  But that’s exactly how we creep towards the tipping point–we let those with the least amount of respect for others redefine the rule.  When those 20% change expectations the number of rules pushed grow and the number of students breaking them grows, too.

Those kids are defending by packs of adults, all justifying why they need it and apologizing for transgressions.  It’s not the exception that is the problem, but the transgression and accountability.  We are starting with an assumption that this thing bestowed–music, gum, movement–is a right to be taken away, not a privilege to be earned.  This is the exact opposite of how the adult world works–the most responsible gets the privileges while those lacking control either get few rewards or confinement.  And we excuse them in academics, too, for the same reasons.  We are doing these kids a disservice.

All of this is hard.  You can’t penalize a kid for the lack of structure provided up until the moment they cross a line.  The Responsive and Developmental Design programs offer those systems and protocols, but they require time and commitment from the group.

I would argue that it appears boys are the problem because success involves awareness and impulse control.  Boys seem to have more of a problem with this, but they are not alone.  Because society excuses much of it based on stereotypes (“boys will be boys” and “you can’t expect a boy to sit for an hour”) they hear that and internalize it.  When we lean on punishment, though, we are teaching students not to be caught.  Our data does not account for those who appear to follow rules but who skate the line constantly–take a census of how many are not where most of their peers are, or doing outlier behaviors, and you’ll find “they have permission.”  Plus, we have behaviors that are more personal, and do not affect others.  Even with academics, Tier II is filled with those who flail openly and dramatically.  When we stop looking at the major behavior data, but instead account for minor behaviors and any deviations from the rule, a true picture of our ailments become clear.  The solution is not movement but accountability to norms and earned privilege.

This Wall Street Journal article is a nice summing-up of the balance between challenge and aspiration.