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.


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