Restorative justice is here–is it working?

Restorative justice is here–is it working?

Thoughtful article today in The Atlantic by Sascha Brodsky about conflicting views on the rise (or fall) of school violence and the role of restorative justice.

Brodsky takes an interesting tack here. She begins with a few anecdotes of violence in schools seemingly condoned by school administrators–enough to get the attention of any concerned citizen who might be afraid that violence is coming to a school near them. But she quickly reverses by adding that these incidents might not tell the whole story about violence in schools:

But a lack of hard data and conflicting views on safety measures make it difficult to assess whether school violence is in fact increasing—and whether those measures are actually effective. Some observers worry that the absence of concrete information and confusion over the amount of violence in schools are hindering efforts to reduce violence and bullying.

And she’s right. The data is, unfortunately, all over the place.

Despite the concerns expressed by parents like those in the lawsuit, many experts say that the incidence of school violence is dropping. New York City school officials contend that violence on campus is on the decline, a trend that experts say is mirrored across the country.

At the local level, statistics on school violence can vary depending on the source. Walden pointed to state statistics showing that the number of violent episodes in New York City schools rose 23 percent from the 2013-14 school year to the one that ended in June 2015. But the New York City school administration uses police data showing that crime in the city’s schools declined 29 percent from the 2011–12 school year to the 2014–15 year. Some observers have said that the state data does not make a distinction between minor disciplinary problems in schools and more serious acts of violence and bullying. Critics also emphasize that the state data isn’t verified.

This is a nightmare for researchers, to be sure, but what does it mean for school-based staff? Brodsky goes back and forth between commentary and data that show the escalation of school violence–and commentary and data that show the opposite.

The truth is, analyzing national, state, or local trends doesn’t necessarily help school-based administrators make important decisions. Even if a system is working perfectly somewhere else, it doesn’t mean that that system will work perfectly in your school setting (if it works at all). (I am again reminded of Richard Allington’s dictum on literacy programs: every program works somewhere, no program works everywhere).

That being said, restorative justice, which is undoubtably the number one trend in school discipline nationwide right now, seems to be holding serious promise for troubled schools:

Chicago Public Schools have, unsurprisingly, seen a drop in suspensions since implementing restorative-justice practices; such tactics are often explicitly adopted as an alternative form of disciplineOne report found that in the 2013–14 school year, 16 percent of high-school students received an out-of-school suspension, down from 23 percent in 2008–09. “There’s been enormous progress in reducing disciplinary problems in Chicago schools since we started practicing restorative justice,” said Nancy J. Michaels, the associate director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation in Chicago.

The danger with restorative justice is that the desire to scale up quickly within schools and districts has the potential to poison the well of implementation, so to speak. A program like restorative justice cannot simply be “grafted” upon a school or a community. Teachers need extensive training, students and community members need to understand the purpose and procedures involved.

Just as there are no miracle cures for teaching reading or helping students with autism, there are no silver bullets for “fixing” broken school discipline systems. I have a feeling that in places where restorative justice is succeeding, it is succeeding more because of dedicated professionals who are motivated to do whatever it takes to help kids with challenges rather than because of any particular aspect of the program itself.


How tough is too tough? King talks to charters on discipline

How tough is too tough? King talks to charters on discipline

In a speech to the National Charter School Conference in Nashville, US Secretary of Education John King urged charter schools to rethink discipline.

Charter schools, which have recently come under scrutiny for high suspension rates, need to rethink school disciplinary practices, Secretary of Education John King plans to say Tuesday.

“Discipline is a nuanced and complicated issue,” King says in remarks prepared for delivery during a speech Tuesday at the National Charter School Conference in Nashville. “Yet the public discussion of these issues is often binary – pitting one extreme against another. It’s ‘zero tolerance’ or chaos. Authoritarian control or no discipline at all.”

The purpose of this blog is to explore big ideas in school discipline, not to call politicians on the carpet, but it’s hard not to be cynical about King’s latest comments coming on a wave of state legislatures voting to ease zero tolerance discipline policies. King’s point about binaries is, of course, correct.

Charter schools, including some of the most well-known and heralded like Success Academy, Achievement First, Kipp Academy and others, are known for their zero-tolerance policies. Leaders say it’s essential to ensuring success for the types of students they serve – students who typically live in economically devastated communities, who come to school hungry, who are being raised by a single parent or by their grandparents and who have no structure in their lives outside school.

But such policies can result in high suspension rates and are often criticized for pushing out the students who need the most help.

This is a tough issue to talk about with educators. I’ve talked to anti-charter teachers who have spent their entire careers working in the suburbs and have never worked with a challenging population. I don’t mean to suggest that their opinion isn’t valid, or that they don’t have a seat at the table in this conversation–all teachers do. But I do wish they would at least open their minds a little bit about the fact that different discipline systems work differently with different populations.

That being said, I do find some of the uber-Skinnerian and more-than-a-little draconian discipline policies I’ve observed in charter schools hard to watch (I’ve seen these both in the many videos published by the charter networks and when my own school was co-located with a charter).

Indeed, a recent analysis from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA found that, on the whole, charter schools have higher suspension rates than traditional public schools, and that students of color and those with disabilities are suspended at charter schools at higher rates than their peers.

Moreover, that study also found that Roxbury Preparatory Academy – a school that’s been praised for its students’ academic performance and one that was co-founded by King himself – boasted a suspension rate of 40 percent, the 12th highest-suspending school in Massachusetts.

As we always point out here, higher suspension rates in and of themselves do not indicate that students are learning less, although we often intuitively link the two. But good God, what does a suspension rate of forty percent even mean? Does that really mean 40 percent of students are suspended each year? Really?

“I’ll say up front: I am not here to offer any hard-and-fast rules or directives,” King says in his remarks. “But I believe the goal for all schools should be to create a school culture that motivates students to want to do their best, to support their classmates and to give back to their community, and to communicate to our students and educators in ways big and small that their potential is unlimited.”

King has clearly learned valuable lessons from his predecessor about avoiding the appearance of federal overreach. But school discipline is taking its rightful place as a central issue in public education and I believe it will continue be there for the next 5-10 years.

But there is a real danger here: just as the push for higher test scores under NCLB resulted in a do-whatever-it-takes, no-sacrifice-too-big drive for ever-rising numbers, I fear that the push to lower suspension rates will mean that some schools lower suspension rates without anything meaningful to show for it.

When suspension rates come down, it should mean that (1) the student behavior that would have resulted in suspensions is no longer happening (2) students who might previously have been suspended are being taught the skills to navigate the situations they were previously unable to successfully navigate (3) students who would have been out of school suspended are not only in school but learning more as a result of being in school (4) students who were not suspended are not adversely affected by the presence of students who would otherwise have not been part of the learning environment had they been suspended.

Here’s to hoping we don’t put the drive to lower the stats ahead of what’s really important here.

Part 10: Review of Laurie Boyd’s “Beyond Classroom Management: Building Your Schoolwide Discipline System”: Chapter 13

Part 10: Review of Laurie Boyd’s “Beyond Classroom Management: Building Your Schoolwide Discipline System”: Chapter 13

Boyd’s plan begins with a progressive four-step discipline process within the individual classroom. Once students reach the fourth step, they are assigned a “time-owed,” a two-hour detention to be served either on Monday or Thursday. If students further disrupt this time-owed, they are assigned a full day of out-of-school suspension.

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This is a crucial aspect of the schoolwide discipline plan that Boyd seems to gloss over in favor of delving deeper into the specifics of policies and consequences. Perhaps I am alone here, but it’s this practice–the recovery room teacher “triaging with the student about how to avoid consequences in the future”–that seems to be the key point here.

How does this triage work? Is it effective? This is what we need to know!

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Here we finally get some insight into the rehabilitative nature of Boyd’s schoolwide discipline plan. Impersonal consequences are simply a burden to be borne–if you can sweat it out through the two hours, you’re in the clear. But establishing or mending the trusting relationship during the consequence serves a double purpose–the consequence is still onerous and thus still serves as a deterrent (for most, at least), but while the consequence is being served the student and teacher can begin to work on a plan to prevent future occurrences of the unproductive behavior.

Using the anecdotes offered, I was able to distill some of Boyd’s principles for those working with students while serving consequences:

  • express genuine empathy for the student’s situation
  • do not speak with sarcasm or display exasperation
  • communicate authentic care for the student’s future

Boyd goes on to say that approaches that seek to curtail suspensions at all costs actually undermine effective school discipline. Suspensions should be a last resort, but the possibility of a suspension shows students that we do have a “bottom line” beyond which no behavior can be tolerated, she says.

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It’s interesting to see Boyd acknowledge that her schoolwide discipline is aimed at the “95%.” This makes sense. Unfortunately, she says that most of her strategies for working with the other 5% are in her next book (I’ve got to check Amazon, but I’m not sure it ever came out…).




Review of “Beyond Discipline” Part 1

Review of “Beyond Discipline” Part 1

In this series I’ll be exploring Alfie Kohn’s Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community.

Kohn’s first chapter–“The Nature of Children”–seeks to dispel what he believes are common myths about the “true nature” of children, and in doing so banish the systems on which these false beliefs are predicated.

There is no one better at tearing down educational dogma than Alfie Kohn, and he is at his best here.

Myth 1: If the teacher isn’t in control of the class, the most likely result is chaos.

Kohn is not suggesting that students can function without any adult-created structures; he is simply challenging the idea that there must always be a visible and significant external control operating on children at all times in order for them to exhibit adults’  preferred behaviors.

Myth 2: Children need to be told exactly what the adult expects of them, as well as what will happen if they don’t do what they’re told.

Kohn says that this belief implies that reasonable expectations cannot be met without threat of punishment. I don’t necessarily agree. While I wouldn’t say that children “need to be told” exactly what to do and what not to do, I do think we help kids when we show them what pro-social behavior does and doesn’t look like.

Myth 3: You need to give positive reinforcement to a child who does something nice if you want him to keep acting that way.

See my post on the problems with token economies for my thoughts here. Not only is myth 3 not true, I actually think giving external rewards for pro-social behavior makes that behavior less likely to happen in the long term.

Myth 4: At the heart of moral education is the need to help people control their impulses.

Here is the crux of Kohn’s argument in chapter 1: he believes that children are not fundamentally “selfish, aggressive, or otherwise unpleasant,” and he believes that any system predicated on this belief is doomed to fail (or even if it “works,” is not in the best interest of children).

Now here’s where it becomes easy to jump in and accuse Kohn of being a pie-in-the-sky idealist. He says that’s not the case. He also doesn’t believe that all children are fundamentally wonderful. Rather, he believes that operating from the premise that children can learn to “be good” in the absence of command and coercion is the first step toward helping them become responsible adults.

When taking a hard line on discipline goes wrong

When taking a hard line on discipline goes wrong

A principal in Montgomery County, Maryland, told students at her high school that if they were caught drunk at senior prom, they would not be allowed to walk at graduation. 

Some kids were caught drunk at senior prom, so they were not allowed to walk at graduation … until the superintendent of Montgomery County intervened and reversed the principal’s decision. The students were allowed to walk, and it’s unclear what, if any, consequences they received.

This is a tricky one.

On the one hand, it’s unfortunate to see an administrator undermined in this way, as you’d have to think this will make it more difficult for her to enforce consequences in the future. She did lay out the policy before prom. Students knew full well the chance they were taking when they decided to drink. Seen through this lens, the only conclusion you can draw is that the superintendent capitulated to parent pressure and in doing so made a mockery of the school’s attempt to take a hardline on students’ alcohol abuse.

But did the principal really make the best decision here?

When the principal created the stiff penalty for drinking, this must have been in response to either previous incidents or a general knowledge of the likelihood that students will drink. In this sense, the principal acknowledged a likely violation of policy (good) and proactively attempted to address the situation (also good).

But did the threat of not being able to participate in graduation have the anticipated effect of stopping students from drinking at prom? Clearly not. In fact, it would be hard to think of any threat that would be able to fully stop students from drinking before prom. And since you know students will still drink, that means you know that at least some students will not get to walk at graduation. And since you know how big of a deal this would be due to the extremely public nature of this punishment, you’d better clear this with your boss first, right? I guess not.

A better policy would be to have extremely strict barriers to entry for any student exhibiting any signs of intoxication. Check every student and throw out anyone who is intoxicated. There’s simply too long of a “lag time” in between the event and the punishment for the threat of not walking at graduation to have any real effect. I’d also consider creating an alternative pre-prom event sponsored by the school (only if the school had a history of alcohol-related prom incidents).


What message do schoolwide token economies send?

What message do schoolwide token economies send?

A “token economy” is a system in which students earn “tokens” for exhibiting targeted behaviors. These tokens can then be exchanged for rewards or reinforcers (e.g., a pizza party, homework pass, etc.).

These are common in the classrooms of new or inexperienced teachers, and usually used over a short period of time. Some schools, however, adopt a schoolwide system in which tokens are given out to students who are “caught being good.” Thus, students can receive tokens at any time from any staff member.

My question is not, “Are token economies effective?” The answer to this is indisputably yes, as long as by “effective” we mean that the use of token economies can reduce unproductive behaviors and increase targeted behaviors over a short period.

What I am curious about is the message that they send and the long-term effect of that message. Whenever adults offer an external reinforcer as a reward for exhibiting a preferred behavior, are we not in essence telling the student that she is unlikely to want to exhibit the preferred behavior in the absence of the external reinforcer?

The list of targeted behaviors varies from school to school, obviously, but I’m certain that any behaviors that are on a school’s list are behaviors that we would want those students to exhibit naturally. When we tell them that we will give them candy if they exhibit those behaviors, are we not basically giving up on the idea that they would want to exhibit those behaviors on their own?

The last thing I want to do is denigrate the work of well-meaning educators who find this system effective in improving their school’s learning environment. When it’s Monday morning, you do what works to enable your school to run effectively. I get that. But the cost of the token economy just doesn’t seem worth the sacrifice of losing the opportunity to teach kids how to exhibit productive behaviors without needing to be “paid.”

Part 9: Review of Laurie Boyd’s “Beyond Classroom Management: Building Your Schoolwide Discipline System”: Chapters 9-12

Part 9: Review of Laurie Boyd’s “Beyond Classroom Management: Building Your Schoolwide Discipline System”: Chapters 9-12

Chapters 9-13 of Boyd’s book relay her key ideas about individual classroom management. Since this site focuses on schoolwide discipline, we’ll gloss over most of this. But here are some key points from these chapters that are relevant to our work here:

  • every class needs a clear classroom management plan with pre-planned consequences
  • teachers should over prepare for how they will introduce their classroom management plan (Boyd even suggests mandating all new teachers write out a script for exactly how they will introduce it)
  • teachers should plan for every tiny thing that might disrupt learning (no matter how small) and coach students on how to act to avoid these
  • teachers must practice all routines regularly with students and give targeted feedback as necessary
  • administrators should create a set of common rules for all classrooms
    • This would definitely be controversial in some schools. But Boyd’s reasoning is that if every class has the same rules, parents will develop a clear understanding that if a student is consequenced, it is not the result of one teacher’s arbitrary will but the result of not following a school-wide rule
  • in reality, it doesn’t matter exactly which rules you list as long as you actually enforce them
  • she suggests a school-wide 4-step progressive consequence system with a warning, phone call home, detention, and office referral

Nothing out of the ordinary if you’ve read the literature on classroom management, but I appreciate Boyd’s insistence on consistency throughout classes and schoolwide standards and expectations.