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.

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