Seattle, WA – There’s ample incendiary debate over student discipline these days, with plenty of finger pointing aimed at “no excuses” charter schools that suspend or expel students at very high rates. But productive solutions that don’t single out charter schools or impose ineffective requirements have been scarce.
A new report released today by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell profiles two leading efforts to bring consistency and fairness to both district and charter school discipline practices.
Grappling with Discipline in Autonomous Schools: New Approaches from D.C. and New Orleans examines how charter, district, and community leaders in these two cities have collaborated to address discipline problems. The report finds that their efforts have brought more transparency and scrutiny to the school discipline process. In both cities, expulsion rates—and in some cases suspensions—have dropped, likely due to the interventions. All of this has been done while still respecting charter schools’ autonomy over their educational approach and mission.
“Early results from systemic efforts in D.C. and New Orleans suggest that equity and autonomy don’t need to be opposing forces,” said CRPE director Robin Lake.
Typically, school discipline practices vary from school to school and even classroom to classroom. The efforts in D.C. and New Orleans demonstrate the possibility for system-level solutions to complex problems.
In Washington, D.C., leaders have focused on boosting transparency and leveraging public scrutiny of high discipline rates in all public schools by producing School Equity Reports that document school-level data on suspension, expulsion, student exit, and midyear enrollment. The DC Public Charter School Board, DC Public Schools, the Mayor’s Office, and the Office of the State Superintendent came together to create the reports, guided by the idea that transparent, common, quality data could compel schools to reconsider excessive use of suspension and expulsion. First published for the 2012-2013 school year, the equity reports through the 2014-2015 school year show citywide drops in suspension rates overall and among specific student groups, such as those with special needs. And expulsion rates fell by almost half, with D.C. charter schools showing sharper declines in expulsions than district schools.
“While the reports have triggered productive citywide conversations on school discipline,” said CRPE research director Betheny Gross, who led the D.C. study, “in order to see widespread overhauls of discipline policy and practice, schools will need more help in shaping and implementing new approaches.”
In New Orleans, the state-run Recovery School District instituted a centralized hearing process for the 2012-2013 school year to review and approve proposed expulsions for all the city’s public schools. Both charter and district public schools must abide by common, agreed-upon standards for expellable offenses. Previously, each school defined its own criteria and expelled students were left to their own devices to find a new school (or not). Since the centralized process began, overall expulsion rates appear to have dropped citywide. More importantly, expelled students are tracked and supported to ensure that they receive appropriate educational services.
Amid the optimism for the centralized hearing process, CRPE interviews surfaced concerns around how the system works for students with special needs. And the centralized system does not address suspensions, which are far more common than expulsions. Early findings suggest New Orleans has made strides toward consistency and creating safety nets for students. However, said CRPE senior research analyst Sarah Yatsko, who authored the study on New Orleans, “it will take continued commitment to move toward the broader goal of fair and effective discipline use in all of New Orleans’ public schools.”
“Our interviews in D.C. and New Orleans made clear that many schools need greater support around discipline decisions. But these cities seem to have mitigated some of the risks of autonomy without dampening the possibilities for innovation. We hope the charter sector can lead in creating successful discipline solutions that others can learn from,” Lake said.
Grappling with Discipline in Autonomous Schools: New Approaches from D.C. and New Orleans, by Betheny Gross, Sivan Tuchman, and Sarah Yatsko, is available at crpe.org.
About the Center on Reinventing Public Education
The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing system-wide solutions for K-12 public education. CRPE’s mission is to find the most innovative, pragmatic, equitable, and successful ways to address the complex challenges in public education. Through research and policy analysis, CRPE offers evidence-based solutions that help educators and administrators do their best work so that every child can have access to an excellent education.