Getting to the bottom of the charter school discipline issue

The Atlantic put together a pretty stunning visual exploration of the heavy concentration of suspensions in schools in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods (and specifically in charter schools).

I knew the numbers were out of whack, but I admit I didn’t know it was this bad:

In New York City, although the charter-school student population represents just under 7 percent of the district’s total enrollment, charter schools accounted for nearly 42 percent of all suspensions, according to the latest available state data, from 2014.

Over the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years, of the 50 New York City schools with the most student suspensions, 46 were charter schools in 2013 and 48 were charter schools in 2014. Looking at suspension rates, 45 were charter schools in 2013 and 48 were charter schools in 2014. (These suspension rates control for student population and do not double-count students who receive multiple suspensions.)

This map (screenshotted because I can’t figure out how to embed it) shows the correlation between charter schools located in black communities and high suspension rates.

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Examining the schools with the most suspensions in New York, D.C., and Boston, a few patterns emerge. In New York, five of the 10 schools with the most total suspensions in 2013 were part of two prominent charter-school chains, Achievement First and Democracy Prep, which have drawn criticism for their strict disciplinary approaches. Both charter school chains have in the past explicitly adapted the NYPD’s “broken windows” approach into their student discipline policies, as the education writer Owen Davis notes in Jacobin.

In a charter-school context, Davis argues, this approach encourages teachers to “rigorously enforce an intricate set of behavioral expectations on students,” who are also mostly black and Latino. Because of this approach, Davis writes, “minor infractions—a hand improperly raised, a shirt untucked … invite escalating punitive measures: demerits, lost privileges, detention, suspension.”

We know that charter schools suspend students at a much higher rate. Critics say that the harsh disciplinary policies are intended to drive out students who are most likely to bring down the school’s test scores. I believe that may be true in some (or many) charter schools. But that can’t be the sole impetus behind the strict disciplinary policies; these are extremely elaborate, almost labrynthine policies that require incredible amounts of capital to enforce. It’s more likely that the disciplinary policies are designed to serve the school’s instructional goals (and the “push-out” mechanism is simply one of the system’s functions).

And while there is no clear consensus that charter school’s perform better than district schools, there’s also no denying that some charter schools perform vastly better than district schools with similar populations. Not just a little better–immensely, almost unbelievably better.

Success Academy Crown Heights had a 98.2% proficiency rate in 3-8 ELA. Schools that handpick students by applications, interviews, and test scores aren’t even coming close to that.

So my question is: what if their disciplinary policies are working? What would it take for opponents of suspension-heavy, overly punitive disciplinary policies (like me) to concede that there is a correlation between punitive disciplinary policies and improved student performance? Can increases in student performance justify the potential harm caused by these policies?


When I wrote the above, my plan was to leave this as an open-ended question. I wanted to highlight charter schools in which academic success was so powerful that it could not be written off as the product of disciplinary push-outs. I pulled up these two lists:

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I also pulled up the 2013-16 charter school data to make sure that this in fact wasn’t the case. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get the actual suspension data (I could probably find it if I looked hard enough, but I’m not really sure where to start), but if I could just ensure that the top performing schools didn’t have out-of-the-norm population drops, I could show that high suspension rates are not hurting academic performance.

But I couldn’t do that, because the schools with the highest test scores really are the ones with the most flagrant push-out rates:

  1. Success Academy Cobble Hill: In 3rd grade, 73 students took the test, for a proficiency rate of 85%. The next year, only 54 students took the test, and the proficiency rate went up to 98%.
  2. Success Academy Bed Stuy:
    • 3rd grade 2014: 85 students, 81% proficiency
    • 5th grade 2016: 56 students, 96% proficiency
  3. Success Academy Upper West:
    • 3rd grade 2014: 75 students, 84%
    • 5th grade 2016: 61 students, 86%
  4. South Bronx Classical Charter School:
    • 3rd grade 2013: 56, 48%
    • 4th grade 2014: 49, 67%
    • 5th grade 2015: 44, 66%
    • 6th grade 2016: 38, 87%


I could go on and on. I’m not cherrypicking here. The best-scoring schools consistently show incredibly large drops in student population: these drops often correspond roughly to the amount by which student test scores increased.

And for those of you who would say that their 3rd grade scores are still pretty remarkable, you have to understand that I only have the demographic numbers for 3rd grade, the first year of state testing; God knows how many kids started in kindergarten and were already pushed out by 3rd grade.

So, the question remains: is it possible that “bad” discipline policies are actually “working” for charter schools? The answer has to be no. If you require the poor-performing students to leave in order to produce good results, are you really even a public school at all? If your disciplinary policies only work for some kids, then they don’t work at all.




One school’s long and winding road with restorative discipline

One school’s long and winding road with restorative discipline

This week’s Times Magazine has an exhaustive exploration of one principal’s attempt to implement restorative practices in a New York City high school.

Phil Santos, the principal of Leadership and Public Service High School, began the long road to implementation by pushing teachers to build relationships with students and mediate conflict independent of the school’s deans:

Leadership had long been the kind of school where many teachers saw their job solely as teaching; managing discipline was the role of deans, whom they would call to the classroom “for anything more than the crumpling of a paper,” says Sara Mitchell, a music teacher who started at Leadership two years before Santos. Santos’s priority was to shift that habit; he urged teachers to take the time to talk to the student, calmly, outside the classroom, to work on building the relationship — even to take responsibility for possibly inflaming a situation with a harsh tone of voice.

Many teachers decided that the school, under Santos, was not, in fact, for them. Eleven out of 51 left at the end of his first year. Some would have retired or moved anyway, but others were skeptical about his empathy-based approach. (“What are we, going to get in a circle and sing ‘Kumbaya’?” one was heard to mutter during a faculty meeting.) Some worried that Santos wanted to cede too much control to students, while others felt he wanted more work from them on their own time than was reasonable. “I think they felt, Are you saying I am not pushing myself enough already?” says Candace Thomas-Rennie, a guidance counselor at Leadership whom Santos hired in his first year as principal. “That’s insulting for a veteran who has the results to back up their own practice.”

It’s an unfortunate truth that even the best implementation model may “leave some teachers behind” (like the 20 percent who left after Santos’s first year). The question we have to ask is whether the ends justify the means. Personally, I think fluidity in the teacher job market–for example, when teachers move schools because a new leader is bringing in an approach with which they disagree–is okay. Teaching is an unusually rigid job market in which many teachers will not consider leaving their school no matter what. No principal should strong-arm his staff into a new initiative in year one, but if the vision and implementation is solid, I don’t think we should grieve over a high turnover rate.

The author chronicles Santos’s young dean’s slow but steady attempts to get teachers to shift they way they thought and talked about discipline:

She also coached teachers on how to use language that set a welcoming rather than punitive tone. “As opposed to, ‘You’re late, sign this late log,’ it’s, ‘Hey, this class is not complete without you — I need you to be here,’ ” Dunlevy says. But she frequently felt the staff had not yet had enough time to internalize the philosophy. “A teacher would say, ‘I need you to restore this kid,’ ” she says, “as if it was my job to fix this kid, instead of what was supposed to be happening, which was the teacher making an effort to repair the relationship.” She recognized that it takes work for teachers to interrupt a classroom lesson to step outside with a troublesome student, or to ramp up the psychological support they offer. ‘It’s a big ask,” she says. “And they’re working incredibly hard to begin with. I get it.”

Carolina Ibáñez, a Spanish teacher at Leadership, said she always tried to engage with students one on one but acknowledged that if there was a conflict, sometimes she “really did not want to have the conversation.” For her, the challenge of restorative justice entailed internalizing that “being a teacher means addressing more than what’s in the book. To get to the book, you really have to address the child’s emotional state first.” Even more challenging, Dunlevy says, the shift requires teachers to rethink the very concept of justice, rejecting a model of punishment in which most were trained and most likely raised.

It’s great that the Times isn’t interested in a miracle school-discipline turnaround story, and the subjects interviewed willingly concede the difficulties of implementing restorative practices in challenging school environments.

Santos is far from ready to consider his tenure a success; much of his staff still hasn’t been trained. “Sixty-four suspensions, that’s still a lot,” he says. The school still labored under chronic absenteeism rates that were higher than the citywide average and college-readiness rates that lingered below the average. While studies have shown that restorative practices curb suspensions, research on their influence on test scores and grades is inconclusive.

Santos remains committed to restorative practices, though he rarely discussed them without acknowledging how trying they could be. “Let’s say you met with a group of students for an hour, and you think there’s been major progress — but then one of the kids gets on social media and just destroys everything you’ve attempted to do,” he says. “And then you have to circle again. Because what are you going to do, let them fight? Suspend everybody? You need to circle, and keep circling, because what’s the alternative?”

There isn’t all that much in this article that’s new to those who’ve been following the recent debates in school discipline. A school goes all-in on implementing restorative practices; it’s hard, it’s frustrating, and it takes a long time. Ultimately, the school sees progress.

That’s what we’re likely to get from the implementation of restorative practices: something that’s flawed but better than the alternative. What our leaders need to decide is whether that’s worth the trouble. I think it is.

Why the advice everyone will give you about letting students create their own rules is wrong

Why the advice everyone will give you about letting students create their own rules is wrong

It’s common to hear teachers advised to “create rules with students on the first day of school.” The justification given for this is that it shows students that you are willing to accept their input and that they have agency over how the classroom environment is structured and run.

But “collaborating” with students to make rules is a manipulative and ultimately self-defeating practice.

It’s a trick, and one that can easily backfire.

For one, most schools already have a schoolwide discipline code that lays out clear rules and guidelines and codifies different levels of infraction for different offenses. And teachers already know what they want the rules of their classroom to be.

Asking students to create the rules is phony because teachers know they will be subtly guiding students toward creating the rules they already had in mind. And there are some proposed rules that simply can’t or won’t be codified into the class rules, even if students all agree and can eloquently articulate the logic behind the rule, either because this is not a preferred rule of the teacher or the proposed rule contravenes an already established school rule.

What if, for example, your students all decide that gum chewing should be allowed? They point to the research that gum chewing helps concentration, and propose a one-strike rule in which gum chewers who do not properly dispose of gum lose gum chewing privileges. You’d admire their ingenuity, but if you are a school in which gum-chewing is banned building-wide, you’re not accepting that rule.

That may seem harmless, but the message you send is destructive to the nascent teacher-class relationship. You are in effect showing students that their input is valued only when it matches your own beliefs, opinions, and value system. You’ve also shown them that you’re willing to make them do purposeless work; this won’t kill their trust in you altogether, but it’s the “first straw,” if you will.

Frankly, this is just an annoying process for the kids to go through.

But there are ways to do this right that not only introduce kids to the rules but also teach them a lesson in understanding power structures.

You might, for example, explain that in your class you will be creating the rules. Explain why–because you are an agent of the state government, selected by government officials who work for representatives who were elected by and whose salaries are paid by their parents. As such, you are responsible and accountable for the well-being of all 30-something kids in the class in a way they most certainly are not. It’s your job to create good rules because if something goes wrong, you’re responsible.

Explain that your positional authority grants you that ability, but that your interest in also creating and maintaining relational authority–trust, rapportetc.–impels you to seek their input on the rules. Tell them that you are far from perfect and would like their feedback, but be sure to explain up front that just because they give feedback or suggestions does not mean you will accept it. Then give them a copy of your proposed rules and provide them with structures for evaluating the fairness and appropriateness of each rule. Review their feedback and decide whether or not you will make any changes to the rules.

You don’t have to do it exactly like that, of course. But being up front and honest with kids about the power structures underlying the classroom will go much farther in building trust and rapport than a phony exercise in which they try to guess what’s in your head.

(Michael Linsin also has a great article on why this is a bad practice; we agree that it’s bad but we don’t quite agree on why.)

Six ideas to ensure effective re-entry after a disciplinary removal

Six ideas to ensure effective re-entry after a disciplinary removal

Even those who are most vocally critical of suspensions as a disciplinary tool agree that there are certain times–though their duration may be shorter in some schools than others–in which students will have to leave the learning environment as a result of their behavior.

While many focus on the particulars of the way in which a school implements that removal from class (in-school? out of school?), few have written about how to help students successfully re-enter the learning environment. In Better than Carrots and Sticks, Fisher and Frey lay out six major principles of successful re-entry.

Regardless of the amount of time students have missed, they will find themselves having to reintegrate into the instructional flow of the classroom. The return can be marked with high emotions, and reactions from classmates can trigger further problematic behavior from the student.

As with most aspects of school discipline, managing the emotions of those involved is important.

1. Rehearse with the student. Discuss with the student how he or she might respond to different scenarios upon returning to the learning environment. We like to practice using phrases such as “It’s OK now” or “It’s over now” with students to answer prying questions from classmates.

Role-playing can help equip students with the tools they’ll need to handle the social stresses that come with returning after a disciplinary absence.

2. Identify a lifeline, if needed. Students returning to class or school from an emotionally charged event may find themselves more anxious or uneasy than anticipated. In such cases, educators should work with them to identify a “lifeline” they might use in case they need to take a short break upon their return.

I could see this taking a number of forms. It could be a peer with whom the student can briefly take a break, a signal to the teacher, or even another teacher in the building with whom the student has an especially close relationship. Giving students this option models a proactive problem solving approach; this should be used strategically so that students who find themselves in behaviorally challenging situations begin to make finding these “lifelines” a habit.

3. Schedule short follow-up intervals and adhere to them. Checking in with students once or twice a day after they’ve returned from an imposed absence can help to anchor their days and gives students a safety valve.

Like #2, this can be taught in such a way that students generalize this “temperature-taking” to their own lives.

4. Close the loop with the adults involved so that they can more effectively respond to students’ emotions. Teachers may have unrealistic expectations for for students who have been removed from the instructional flow, assuming they’ll be able to pick up right where they left off. Educators in charge of students’ re-entry plans should escort their students back to class on their return so that they can apprise teachers both of the students’ current state of mind and of the commitments they’ve made.

In most schools, it probably won’t be realistic to accompany the student to every class, but this can also be accomplished at a grade-level or teacher-team meeting.

5. Arrange an end-of-day check-in. These types of follow-ups can provide students with the excuse they need to peel away from friends who might otherwise escalate their misbehavior. They also give educators one more opportunity to provide students with guidance and positive affirmations.

For some students, the challenges of avoiding certain behaviors only intensifies at the end of the day (especially when a long day of successfully exercising self-control has left them cognitively “spent” and more vulnerable to lapses). A check-in can help reset and remind students of the new plan in place.

6. Implement the follow-up plan. Long-term change can only be realized when students are able to truly reflect on the harm they’ve caused and what they’ve learned since. We are not suggesting that students be forced to dwell on the past forever, but regular follow-up conversations following a major event can reduce reoccurrence and build stronger relationships between students and adults.

One of the key tenets of the restorative approach is that retributive discipline–discipline in which the goal is (implicitly or explicitly) to use aversive punishments to hold students accountable and prevent future maladaptive behavior–has been shown to be an ineffective deterrent.

But a restorative approach, while it avoids the harm done by retribute punishments such as out-of-school suspension, is unlikely to succeed either without a detailed and purposeful plan for what happens next. Fisher and Frey’s principles should go a long way toward ensuring that schools help students bounce back and prevent regression.

Can we be honest about in-school suspensions?

Can we be honest about in-school suspensions?

I’m surprised that in all of the hubbub over school suspensions, little attention is paid to the distinction between out-of-school and in-school suspensions. Advocates who oppose suspensions rarely or never clarify whether they are against all suspensions or merely suspensions that remove students from school grounds altogether.

If it seems like a distinction without a difference, it’s not. Or at least I don’t believe it is. There is a real case to be made for the value of in-school suspensions, and one of the major texts of restorative discipline–The School Leader’s Guide to Restorative School Discipline–even devotes an entire chapter to it. The authors’ justification for in-school suspensions is as follows:

A restorative approach to serious behavior allows the student to make amends, works to repair damage, and maintains the school’s major purpose to be educative by ensuring that the student in suspension does not fall further behind academically while suspended. In-school suspension for severe behavior shifts the ostensible purpose of suspension from punishment (which it often is not) to natural consequences, clearly communicating that behavior is unacceptable in a manner that doesn’t introduce further risks but is instead restorative and maintains high expectations for the student.

I suppose that the consequence is “natural” in the sense that removal from a community following an offense has been common in almost all societies historically, but certainly not in the sense that being cold is a “natural” consequence for forgetting one’s coat. And while I do actually support in-school suspensions, I don’t necessarily agree that they “shift the purpose away from punishment”–let’s be honest, it’s still a punishment. In some ways, it’s still something that we do simply because we feel we have to do something, or because we feel that the individual who has made others suffer should be made to suffer in some way. The author says that in-school suspensions clearly communicate that behavior is unacceptable, but certainly there are other ways to communicate that (such as a conference) without removing a child from the primary learning environment, even if you do create a secondary learning environment within the in-school suspension.

Meyer and Evans lay out key principles for in-school suspension within a restorative framework:

  1. The student remains a valued member of the school community even while serious consequences are being delivered for unacceptable behavior.
  2. The student continues to be responsible for learning, and negative behavior does not provide a pathway to avoid school work and completion of curriculum requirements.
  3. The student will participate in constructive, educative processes toward reshaping more positive behavior as well as continuing to learn throughout disciplinary procedures.
  4. Both adults and the student engage in a process of restoration and mutual understanding, rather than a process of blame and punishment.
  5. The school maintains its commitment to every student’s full participation in the school community and the learning opportunities it offers.
  6. Consequences for behavior will not be delivered at the expense of learning and opportunity for positive behavioral change.

Again, I’ll say that I support in-school suspension as an intervention, but the logic used here is clearly flawed. I agree with #1 wholeheartedly, and the message that is sent by asking students to come and learn every day no matter what is powerful. That’s a message that’s lost with out-of-school suspensions, which communicate that the child’s membership in the learning community is conditional.

I also agree with #2, as in-school suspension does logistically provide a way to encourage students to learn and hold them accountable for learning.

#3 is great in theory but seems challenging to implement. There is a fine line between using this time to engage students in educative reflection that can lead to personal growth and aversive “punishment work” or “busy work.” The teachers who would be the best at facilitating that kind of growth are also the ones who have the greatest impact in the classroom and are thus unlikely to be utilized to supervise ISS. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it does take an enlightened administration to make this happen.

#4 is difficult but feasible.

It’s #5 and #6 that are hard to justify. There’s no way to argue that the learning experience inside of in-school suspension is equivalent to that inside of a full classroom with a teacher. And if there are cases in which this is true (if, for example, ISS students simply get “the work” that the students are doing in class) that does not speak well of the quality of instruction. Isolation prevents students from engaging in collaboration and discussion and ensures the student will not be able to get learning support from the teacher and other students (yes, there is probably a certified teacher in ISS but certainly not one who can teach every subject in the school).

I accept the argument that the benefits of in-school suspension outweigh the costs, but it doesn’t do the restorative movement any favors to claim that ISS does not in any way disrupt the learning process. Rather we should accept it for what it is–an aversive punishment that nonetheless can ultimately be productive for the student–and seek to mitigate the harm committed to the learning process during its enforcement.

Too fast or too slow? On implementation of restorative discipline practices

Too fast or too slow? On implementation of restorative discipline practices

Rick Hess has an examination of each side of the recent debates over school discipline out on the AEI Education Blog. I’ve long been a fan of Hess’ work, particularly The Same Thing Over and Over (although I admit I put down Cage Busting Leadership at the beach this summer, not because I didn’t enjoy it but because I felt I basically got the point in the first 50 pages. Maybe I’ll go back to it at some point…).

School discipline has become an increasingly contentious topic. Critics argue that schools suspend students too readily, punish students too harshly, and are unfair in their treatment of black and Latino youth. These charges have been particularly leveled at charter schools, by advocacy groups and media outlets. Of course, relaxing discipline may come at a price, in terms of school climate and by threatening the learning and safety of other students.  It seems to me self-evident that there is at least some truth to each position. Yet, given the state of the current debate, the salient points and opportunities for good-faith compromise risk getting buried under invective and hysteria.

Even and well-reasoned introduction, in the Hess tradition…

Here’s Max Eden, senior fellow of education policy at the Manhattan Institute:

Critics of school suspensions may be onto something, and there’s no doubt that their hearts are in the right place. But that doesn’t mean that they know what should be done. History shows time and time again that it’s always possible to go too far when trying to solve a social problem. Fundamentally, it seems that there are two ways discipline reform could play out.

This is a great point. See my post on ahistorical traps on school discipline. Hess wrote about this “rubber band” effect in school reform in The Same Thing Over and Over (see also Ravitch, Left Back).

From the ground up: If we believe that the disparities are due to tractable racial bias and sub-optimal classroom management strategies, then a professional development initiative coupled with a more intentional disciplinary culture would do a great deal of good. By all means, devote additional money to cultural training and alternative approaches to maintain classroom order; perhaps mandate a meeting between a teacher and a principal every time a teacher thinks she needs to suspend a student. It’s hard to imagine damage from such an approach, though the pace of it might disappoint reformers.

From the top down: Changing discipline practices from the district superintendent’s office sends a clear message to teachers: we don’t trust you to fix yourselves by yourselves. When a district bans suspensions for subjective reasons, like in LA, it tells teachers: we don’t trust your judgment. When a district bans suspensions altogether for some grades, like in NYC, it tells students: you can get away with anything now. Top-down reforms can fundamentally change the dynamic between teacher and administrator, and between student and teacher. They should be approached with extreme caution.

“Perhaps by pushing reckless, large-scale, administrative overhauls of school discipline, reformers may well be hurting the kids they’re trying to help.”

No one fought harder to elect NYC Bill de Blasio than the United Federation of Teachers. Yet last week, Mulgrew broke with de Blasio in a high-profile op-ed, arguing that “teachers need the power to suspend.” Mulgrew argued that NYC “adopts policies without understanding how they will play out in schools and then ignores its responsibility for turning policy into reality,” when better management and more professional support would, “result in more schools developing a positive culture of discipline and respect.”

Now, it’s rare for a conservative to make an appeal to the authority of a teachers’ union president. But Mulgrew wouldn’t have broken so publicly with the man he helped to elect if he didn’t have a good reason. That should give reformers everywhere pause that perhaps by pushing reckless, large-scale, administrative overhauls of school discipline, reformers may well be hurting the kids they’re trying to help.

Large-scale administrative overhauls aren’t reckless by definition, and yet in practice that’s too often the case. But I disagree with Eden’s point that Mulgrew wouldn’t have done it if he “didn’t have a good reason”–the reason is that this measure is strongly opposed by the rank and file. But that doesn’t mean that Mulgrew and co. are right (full disclosure: I am a UFT member). I don’t blame teachers for being skeptical about this reform; they have every right to be skeptical of anything coming out of central, given their track record. So the question is: how do you get teachers to see beyond a concept–retributory discipline–that is so deeply ingrained not only in our schools but in our culture at large that other options are almost inconceivable.

Eden seems to be advocating an incremental approach, to which I say, “sure.”

And now, Hailly Korman:

School suspensions don’t address the root cause of misbehavior

There is no such thing as “going too far” when trying to keep kids in school. Suspension and expulsion rates have exploded, far outpacing any rise in school violence. They have done so in response to minor misbehavior and with a disproportionate impact on identifiable groups of students. The elimination of opportunities to suspend or expel students has placed greater pressure on schools to develop new strategies to deescalate conflict, improve school climate, increase student engagement, and focus more closely on the skillset of teachers… and that is a good thing!

Placing greater pressure on schools to develop new strategies to de-escalate conflict is only a workable option if you believe schools have the capacity to develop such strategies. I do, but it comes at great cost–capital that would be better spent on proactive training rather than the assumption that because I’ve taken away one of your tools you’ll learn how to invent another. You might–or you might not; I’m not sure that’s a risk we should be willing to take.

Most of the existing school discipline reform efforts are around discretionary suspensions and expulsions — those incidents for which school site staff may, but aren’t required to, invoke a punitive school removal. Discipline reformers want to minimize both total discretionary suspensions and the comparative rates of suspension across identity categories. The vast majority of incidents leading up to suspension or expulsion are non-serious or non-violent infractions, disruptions, and misbehaviors.

“Suspending or expelling disruptive students does not lead to lead to increased safety, better academic outcomes, or improved school climate.”

National data indicate that the majority of suspensions are for minor misbehavior, classified as “disruptive behavior,” “insubordination,” or school fights. In fact, even the most serious punitive sanctions, such as suspension for the remainder of the school year and transfer to a disciplinary alternative school, are applied to minor incidents. In the 2007-08 school year, “insubordination” was the most common reason for imposing these serious school removals (43% of all such sanctions).

These suspensions and expulsions cause known and documented harm to the students who are punished and, by extension, their families and communities. Suspending or expelling disruptive students does not lead to lead to increased safety, better academic outcomes, or improved school climate. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a rigid practice of punitive school removals has, in fact, the opposite effect. Most recently, after California banned suspensions for willful defiance, academic indicators improved. At schools where suspensions went down, academic achievement went up — every year. And the correlation was especially pronounced for Black students.

At its core, school removal isn’t a logical consequence and it doesn’t address the root cause of the misbehavior. The only message that it sends is “I am out of ideas and so I have given up on you.” And we’re sending that message to a group of students who are least capable of consciously recalibrating their behavior. As the scientific community learns more about brain development, it is clear from the research that childhood trauma (which includes chronic poverty) can appear as generalized fear responses, hyperarousal, increased internalizing, impaired executive functioning, delays in meeting developmental milestones, diminished capacity to respond to positive feedback, and difficulty navigating social interactions. For too many frustrated teachers, associated misbehaviors are treated like causes — not symptoms.

This is a problem of our own making: by allowing schools to freely wield suspensions and expulsions, we haven’t invested enough in equipping staff with a more robust toolkit to respond to disruptions and frustrations. An adult who excludes a student from school because he just doesn’t know what else to do is an adult who needs more training and support. A student who cannot function in a conventional classroom space because of pressing mental health or social needs is a child in need of more intensive care, not less.

This isn’t an either/or proposition: we need to both keep kids in school and provide them (and their teachers) with a robust support structure to create environments where good instruction is possible. Schools that are doing this well are investing in some of the research-supportedfront-end resources to improve school culture and building relationships with students while training teachers in alternative behavior management techniques and replacement discipline strategies, like formal restorative justice programs. Simultaneously, they are putting railings on themselves by establishing strict guidelines for the use of discretionary punitive school removals.

Let’s all take a cue from Nancy Hanks and take a good hard look at who we are in this complex system. As educators, we have a responsibility to both protect the learning time of the class and engage the few who misbehave. That’s an ambitious principle, but I think we’re up to the task.

Korman and Eden aren’t really on opposite sides of this debate. Eden cautions against rash overhauls of school discipline systems that move too fast and go too far. Korman is of the view that lives are in the balance and we don’t have time to wait. While I understand Korman’s need for speed, the fact is that too many promising initiatives have been relegated to the dustbin of “good idea, bad implementation” history, and restorative discipline practices are too important to risk a rushed rollout.