Where the well-intended Dear Colleague letter went wrong

Where the well-intended Dear Colleague letter went wrong

Since I last wrote about the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague letter, attorney Hans Bader has published an interesting op-ed over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Two legal foundations are calling for an end to federal pressure on school districts to adopt racial quotas in suspensions. And rightly so: It is wrong for an agency to pressure regulated entities to adopt racial quotas, or make race-based decisions, even if the pressure does not inexorably lead to a quota.  (See Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod v. FCC, 141 F.3d 344 (D.C. Cir. 1998)). I earlier discussed at length how Obama-era rules, issued without notice and comment in 2014, pressured school districts to adopt racial quotas in suspensions, which violated the Constitution; misinterpreted Title VI of the Civil Rights Act; and ignored judicially-recognized limits on disparate-impact liability.

On March 29, Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, sent an email to the Justice Department asking the Trump administration to withdraw these rules, which are contained in the Obama administration’s January 8, 2014 letter to America’s schools, known as the “Dear Colleague letter: Racial Disparities In The Administration Of School Discipline.” Clegg urged “the withdrawal of the January 8, 2014 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter,” which was issued by the Obama Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. He called this letter “unsound as a matter of both law and policy,” citing “a variety of sources that have criticized the letter, again from both policy and legal perspectives.” Clegg is a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division, where he served from 1987-1991.

Like Kirsanow, Bader argues that even if the DOE does not explicitly call for a racial quota, it still may not pressure regulated entities to create what would essentially become racial quotas. I think that the Obama administration’s heart was in the right place, so to speak, when they issued the Dear Colleague letter. I think the letter seeks to address an undeniably real issue; I also think they would be derelict if they did not do something to address the issue.

But the more I turn it over, I simply don’t think path they chose was the right (or Constitutionally sound) one. The Department must envision for itself a higher role than simply demanding that schools bring disciplinary statistics in line with a school’s demographics. If you were overseeing a school in which black students comprised 50% of the population but accounted for 75% of suspensions in 2016, and in the following year suspensions for black students had fallen to 50%, would you be satisfied with that result? I wouldn’t. In fact, I’d be extremely concerned about what had to have been done to achieve that stat. I’d have questions about the legitimacy of the number, and if the number was “legitimate,” I’d have questions about why the solution, if it was truly as easy as the numbers suggest, hadn’t been applied earlier.

Fundamentally, I think this comes back to the general worldview of the Department of Education under Duncan and King regarding why schools aren’t improving. Duncan’s record suggests he believed schools didn’t do better because school leaders were not sufficiently afraid of the consequences of not doing so. Therefore, in order to fix the disparate impact of disciplinary policies, the Department could simply threaten regulatory action if the problem doesn’t get better. But those who work on the ground know that schools would solve their problems if they could solve their problems. If schools had the tools to remedy the disparate impact of their disciplinary policies, wouldn’t they have done it already? The solution then, rather than to threaten, is to seek a better understanding of the problem and better equip schools to solve it.


Will good intentions cause a racial quota system in school discipline?

The National Review is generally not the place I go to for insightful articles about school discipline. But Peter Kirsanow’s recent editorial on the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague Letter on nondiscriminatory school discipline policies got my attention this week.

Some background: The DOE’s letter argues that although school discipline policies are not prima facie discriminatory, their disparate impact on black and Hispanic students (a very real phenomenon) suggests a discriminatory effect.

Kirsanow argues that the consequence of addressing the disparate impact will in effect be a racial quota system. This is not an unreasonable conclusion to draw: if we are only focused on outputs (the number of students suspended of each race) and only measure success by our ability to bring per capita suspensions for each race into alignment, then we may indeed be encouraging schools to simply suspend fewer black and Hispanic students to avoid regulatory punishments.

I’m certainly in no position to question Kirsanow’s bona fides on civil rights issues, but I do find this to be a fairly cynical and circumscribed take. At no point has the DOE said that we should only focus on metrics; that would be preposterous. Every serious person knows that the ultimate goal should be student learning; we seek to curb discipline problems because they prevent students from achieving success in school, not because we want our numbers to look better.

I think the DOE is enlightened enough to realize this. The danger, though, is that schools for whom restorative-type policies aren’t working may resort to an old-fashioned juking of the stats rather than face the wrath of regulators who look only at the bottom line.

While I agree that the disparate impact is troubling and have no doubt that in some or many cases it may be the result of discrimination, the issue is simply too complex to solve by looking at one stat alone.


Combating emotional contagion, part two

Combating emotional contagion, part two

In my last post I wrote about the way in which our own anxieties can will into being the very behaviors we most dread in our students, through the process of emotional contagion.

In their book How to Talk So Little Kids Can Listen, Joanna Faber and Julie King write, “The point is that we can’t behave right when we don’t feel right. And kids can’t behave right when they don’t feel right. If we don’t take care of their feelings first, we have little chance of engaging their cooperation. All we’ll have left going for us is our ability to use greater force.”

The authors are talking about addressing kids’ feelings first before addressing their behavior. But once we understand the concept of emotional contagion, we also understand that addressing our own emotions and anxieties is equally important.

How do we do that?

There is no one universal fix, unfortunately. Each of us has our own “triggers” in the classroom, the situations that bring our anxieties to the surface. But in thinking about my own experiences and the experiences of teachers I’ve known and worked with, here are a couple of tips:

  1. Overplan. Novice teachers often have an understandably tenuous grip on classroom management. With a solid, engaging lesson, they can make it through, but the idea of unstructured time can set their hearts racing. By building extensions and challenges into the end of a lesson, you can eliminate the possibility of finishing a lesson too early. But make sure that if you’re adding, you’re adding on to the end, not the beginning or middle; fear of not finishing a lesson can be just as anxiety-provoking, and when students sense you’re rushing, they may become tense and agitated.
  2. Plan for struggles. little bit of frustration in a well-designed task can be productive; a task that asks for more than students can currently handle without the proper supports can lead to chaos in the classroom. Teachers feel like they are putting out fires as they address the same difficulty over and over with different students. Instead, think about any area where a student might struggle and create a pre-made resource that addresses it. When a student raises their hand and says, “I don’t get ____,” you can say, “Grab one of the blue slips from the center of the table.” Explain beforehand what resources are available for struggling students. You will now be able to relax knowing you have your bases covered and be more present for students who might genuinely need to work with you one on one.
  3. Have a system, stick to the system. Write down the top three (or five, or ten…) things that frustrate or annoy you (e.g., how students enter the room, students who call out, bathroom requests during a mini-lesson, etc.). Create a system or policy for each, and over time teach and stick to the system. Students will learn the systems and when they forget, you can use a simple cue to the remind them. Note: when creating your systems, choose the option that gives the students the most autonomy possible while still remaining appropriate or acceptable to you. Contrary to what you might think, students will not feel they are being “micro-managed”; in fact, they will prefer organized and clear expectations, as long as the systems are not overly restrictive and are age-appropriate.

How to fight emotional contagion in the classroom

How to fight emotional contagion in the classroom

Have you ever sat down at the end of a long and trying school day and thought, knew today was going to be crazy” or “I had a feeling they were going to be off the wall today”? Odds are the answer is yes. At times, we seem to be able to sense a bad behavioral day coming; our own emotional sensors kick in, presaging a day full of raised voices and “bad choices.”

Are teachers psychics? Do we have  a special “spider sense” for those behaviorally challenging days?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think the explanation is almost the complete opposite.

Think back to that time when you “knew” it was going to be challenging behavioral day. Most likely, you felt some combination of anxiety, exhaustion, anger, stress, or resentment that you interpreted as a sense of foreboding for the day to come. Maybe it was a Tuesday, and you hate Tuesdays because you teach four classes in a row in the afternoon plus after-school extra help. Maybe you were dreading the day to come because you knew an assembly was going to rejigger your entire schedule and you hate those kinds of disruptions.

But what if, by interpreting those internal emotional signals as harbingers of a chaotic day to come, you actually willed into existence the very behavior you were dreading?

“Emotional contagion” is the concept wherein certain emotions can silently “spread” from one person to another, or from one person to a group.

It’s something psychologists call emotional contagion, the idea that we really can and do “catch” emotions from the people around us. A 2008 study, for example, showed that happiness spreads throughout a social network sort of like an infection; when a nearby friend of yours becomes happy, it increases your own chance of happiness by 25 percent, foundJames H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis. Mostly, the research has focused on the cheerier, pro-social consequences of emotional contagion, because feeling what the people around us feel seems to increase empathyand understanding, thereby improving communication, according to work by the University of Hawaii’s Elaine Hatfield, considered one of the leaders in this field.

But the contagion effect isn’t always a positive thing, particularly when the emotions you’re catching are negative. Some research has touched on this, too, suggesting that college students whose roommates are depressed are more likely to become depressed themselves, for instance. (New York magazine, April 2015)

Emotional contagion in the workplace has been covered heavily, but rarely has the effect been studied in schools. That’s unfortunate, because the teacher of a class is, for better or worse, more likely than anyone to be able to spread emotional contagion. A teacher commands near constant visual and physical attention, unlike a co-worker or supervisor who may only intermittently be in direct contact with an office worker.

When our students arrive and find us anxious, agitated, angry, stressed, or even depressed, those emotions silently spread. Now, many if not most teachers I know are a little anxious all the time; it seems to come with the territory. I think our low-level anxieties may translate to low-level anxiety for our students, and that’s not good, but it also won’t sabotage your class entirely.

But what about those days when your own negative emotions are firing fast and furious? Because the intensity of the contagion is equal to the intensity of the source, your students may then mirror your frustration, anger, and anxiety. These “big” and powerful emotions are processed by the right side of the brain, and when the right side of the brain is having an “all hands on deck” moment, the left side (tasked with logic and reasoning) is essentially out of commission. In short, students’ ability to self-regulate goes out the window, and that’s when we start to see the maladaptive behaviors we so dreaded on the way in to school that morning.

Now, let’s be real–emotional contagion is not responsible for all transgressive behaviors. Student behavior is a complex cocktail. But the more attuned we become to our own emotions, the more able we’ll become to take a step back and recognize when our own negative thoughts and feelings are driving the negativity in the classroom.

Understanding the concept is a crucial first step, and will take you a long way. Catching yourself before you respond angrily to a student and recognizing the need to calm and redirect your own emotions can help you avoid a messy blowup.

But how do you actually combat this? Teaching is an incredibly stressful, anxiety-inducing, emotionally draining, and unpredictable endeavor. We’d all love to be 20 percent happier at work, especially if we knew that those positive emotions could be “contagious” to our class, resulting in better behavior.

I’m not a psychologist, but I do have some suggestions for reducing our own anxiety in the hopes that our own more positive state can “spread” and lift student behavior. More on that in my next post.

The three needs that must be met if you want to reduce behavioral problems

Smith, Fisher, and Frey, writing in Better than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management, explore Deci and Ryan’s (1985) three fundamental psychological needs:

  1. Relatedness: they want to interact with, be connected to, and experience caring about others
  2. Competence: they seek to control outcomes and to experience mastery
  3. Autonomy: they are compelled to be causal agents of their own lives

There are many competing theories about why students transgress behavioral norms or “act out”; while I tend to favor the idea of the knowledge gap (“if they knew better, they’d do better”), experience and observation tell me that that when these three basic needs aren’t met, the chances for maladaptive behaviors increases significantly.

How can teachers ensure that students’ basic psychological needs are consistently met in the classroom? How can school leaders ensure that these needs are met schoolwide?

Relatedness: While teachers can’t necessarily “force” relatedness on students, they can create the conditions for it to blossom. This means modeling, teaching, celebrating, and providing copious opportunities for prosocial behavior; using lesson structures and learning activities that foster collaboration and healthy interdependence; intervening to proscribe unproductive social behaviors; and identifying students in need of additional social support.

Competence: A couple of years ago I read Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You and completely flipped my view on skills and passion. Most of us grow up believing that you need to be passionate about something to become good at it. Newport thinks this is a myth; he believes that in order to become passionate about something you need to start getting good at it. Students who’ve always struggled at writing tend to exhibit more maladaptive behaviors in writing classes or during writing tasks (some would label this an “avoidance” tactic). If teachers can start to get students to authentically see themselves as budding successful writers, that new feeling of competence can create a virtuous circle in which the student begins to focus more on writing, further reinforcing that feeling of competence. (Of course, it has to be real–simply telling a struggling writer he’s actually “doing great” will most certainly backfire and erode credibility.)

Autonomy: Teachers get paid to help kids, so you can’t blame us for thinking it’s our job to solve all of their problems. That’s why it’s hard–but essential–for teachers to let go and give kids a chance to come up with their own solutions. The dual benefit here is that the solutions kids come up with are often better than ours, and putting the onus on them to do so frees us up mentally and physically to focus on other things. A couple of key questions go a long way here: before you come up with any solution, first ask a student, “What do you think we should do?”; when a student approaches with a problem (as long as it’s not an immediate safety issue), you can ask, “What would you do if I wasn’t here?” Both of these questions empower students to figure things out on their own, building autonomy and making problematic behaviors less likely.

Think about this before you set your next goal

The process of goal-setting has become so axiomatic in schools that we rarely take a step back to examine it. Most effective leaders understand that goal-setting is an integral part of initiative implementation, but what must leaders keep in mind when setting goals in order to ensure successful long-term implementation?

First, we have to acknowledge that goal-setting is a psychological activity with little real-world correlation. In other words–and this is going to sound strange, but go with me for a moment–goal-setting is technically meaningless. Whether you set a goal for 100% of students to achieve proficiency in math or 75% of students to achieve proficiency in math has no direct bearing on whether your students learn math better. Students usually won’t even know what your goal is, or if they do (as some schools have tried) it will rarely be salient or meaningful to them. However, there is a clear, though hard to understand, indirect effect.

The goal you set can have a tremendously positive or negative effect on those implementing the initiative, which is why it’s critical to get feedback on the goal from those involved. Some will advocate the setting of “big, hairy, audacious goals”:

Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is a strategic business statement similar to a vision statement which is created to focus an organization on a single medium-long term organization-wide goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible. (Wikipedia)

Those who advocate for BHAGs often claim that setting a goal thought to be previously unrealistic may redefine what’s thought to be possible. In a school with persistent behavioral or safety issues, a leader may set a BHAG of reducing suspensions by 50%. If life were a movie, we would see initial shock and hesitation on the part of the staff, but gradually we would see teachers get inspired (probably in a montage) by the leader’s courage in setting the BHAG, and eventually the BHAG becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as everyone rallies together to accomplish it.

But life is not a movie, and despite the tantalizing psychological appeal of the BHAG, it should be set with caution. Remember No Child Left Behind’s audacious goal of having 100% of schools proficient by 2014? How’s that going? Audacious goals may impress outsiders and initially draw attention to a leader’s boldness, but ultimately if they are unrealistic they risk undermining the initiative altogether. (That’s why it’s critical to pay attention to the last part of that Wikipedia definition–“likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible.”)

So we’ve established the danger of setting unrealistic goals–but what about the other side? Is there a drawback to setting goals that aren’t audacious enough? That depends. Let’s look back at the school with persistent behavior and safety issues.

Let’s say School X invoked 150 suspensions in the 2016-17 school year. The school plans to implement a restorative discipline program that includes peer mediation, restorative circles, hiring additional guidance counselors, and an advisory program. School X decides that it will use the number of suspensions as a primary metric (a somewhat questionable metric, as I’ve explored previously, but let’s go with it). What goal should the school set for the number of suspensions? Let’s lay out some scenarios:

  1. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 75%. This would be a wildly unrealistic goal. Few within the organization would see this goal as realistic; many might accuse the leader of fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the problem (after all, you don’t get to 150 suspensions unless there are serious underlying issues). The goal is not achieved and the leader’s credibility is severely undermined.
  2. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 50%. Most see this goal as unrealistic; some are willing to try and some truly believe it is possible. Through a series of great leadership moves, the goal is achieved. The leader is a hero and the subject of more than a few articles in Chalkbeat. The leader earns so much leadership capital from the staff that anything seems possible.
  3. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 50%. Most see this goal as unrealistic; some are willing to try and some truly believe it is possible. However, persistent underlying problems prove harder than thought to fix. The goal is not achieved and the leader’s credibility is undermined. What happens next? If the goal was not achieved, there will be demands to change course. But is that the right move? The initiative might have been making significant progress. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and initiatives rarely are fully successful after one year. The right move may be to stay the course and build on small successes. Unfortunately, because not achieving one’s goal is often synonymous with failure (in this case, unfairly so), the leader will be forced to change something.
  4. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 12%. Nearly everyone sees this goal as realistic. Outsiders may clamor that this goal is not bold enough or that the resources expended necessitate a more audacious goal. What the leader does now depends on how much capital she has accrued. If she can weather the initial storm, she can proceed with the 12% goal. At the midyear mark, she may find that the school is well on its way to achieving or surpassing the goal; at that point, she can choose to “up” or maintain the goal. The more modest goal does not inhibit the work of the rockstars on the staff, but may motivate those who are hesitant. At the end of the year, the goal is achieved; the leader has now accrued more capital and flexibility with which to work in year two of the initiative.
  5. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 12%. The goal, while viewed as realistic by all, is not met. This may be catastrophic for the leader because the goal was originally seen as too modest and yet still wasn’t achieved.

Which of these scenarios is the right one to choose? Few would pick the goal of 75%; however, I imagine many might waver on 50% vs. 12%. I could see some claiming that by setting less-than-ultra-audacious goals, we are shortchanging our kids. But I don’t believe this is the case. I understand this is not the heroic, cinematic position to take, but leaders should be more concerned with long-term gains than flashy wins. Setting realistic goals allows you to build on successes and mitigates fear. Teachers’ work is already psychologically perilous and generally full of anxiety; adding worry and anxiety with unrealistic goals simply does not increase effectiveness. We want the reaction of staff to a goal to be generally along the lines of “Okay, I think we can do that” (not, “oh, that’s easy” and not “are you kidding me?”).

Businesses may need to “light a fire” with big, hairy, audacious goals. For most teachers, the fire is already blazing. We should use goals to gauge our progress and support further investment, not as psychological manipulation (teachers don’t need it).


What does school discipline look like in the DeVos era?

Gina Womack, writing in The Hill, expresses strong concern that Betsy Devos will abandon the Obama-era initiative to require schools and states to report on how they discipline students and to disaggregate that data by race.

Womack is concerned that a move away from this requirement would enable schools to return to policies that are disproportionately punitive toward students of color.

The DOE’s current Civil Rights Data Collection national survey, derived from school discipline reports, is a critical resource that alerts us to institutional racism pervading every level of our education system. We need that hard data to force administrators and policymakers in our education system to acknowledge the role they play in school-to-prison pipeline. How can we be sure this reporting and research will continue under DeVos?

Anyone who cares about the fate of black kids in our schools should be concerned when DeVos sidesteps a question about the obligation of schools to report how and who they discipline. Our education system needs a leader who is unafraid to tackle systemic racial prejudice and injustice. Our black kids deserve a secretary of Education who cares about them.

Devos’s clear sidestepping of the question, combined with other verbal evasions on federal vs. state issues, indicate the Department of Education may be stepping away from the more active role it took under Obama.

Whether or not you agree with the policies of the Obama/Duncan/King Department of Education (most educators I know believe those results are mixed at best), this should be a cause for concern among those interested in equitable school discipline policies. The Obama administration’s work was far from done; the administration was effective in bringing the problem of racially disproportionate policies to the foreground. They were only on the edge of the cusp of solving those problems; then again, it’s probably not the role of the feds to prescribe exactly what should happen in schools. In a perfect world, the federal government can use their platform to highlight a problem while still allowing schools flexibility to determine how to solve that problem.

But if the feds don’t see it as a problem, is it likely that schools will take steps to solve it?