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.

 

 

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