Three new briefs from CRPE shed light on the debate.
School Discipline Isn’t Working. Let’s Not Attack It or Defend It, Let’s Fix It
Last month, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute put out talking points on six education issues for the 2016 presidential candidates. A number of these positions—strong accountability, parent choice, paying attention to our poor standing globally, and providing instruction on civics—enjoy support from all sides of the political spectrum. More importantly, these positions are largely supported by the current research (some of which Fordham cites).
However, Fordham includes what I read as a seriously out-of-step talking point for even a hard right candidate—that “school discipline is under attack.” Maybe the quote they include from Eva Moscowitz, implying that young and often times chronically abused and traumatized children who act out learn about the real world by being “fired” from schools, really is what voters want to hear. But that approach to school discipline is not supported by even the most basic data about what helps disruptive students get back on track.
As Fordham’s statistics convey, teachers feel frustrated and overwhelmed by how to deal with hard-to-manage children. But teachers also know what a suspension means for a student and they do not want to use it. They see disruptive and troubled kids being bounced from school to school with no one taking responsibility for addressing underlying mental health or behavioral issues. They know that with every suspension or expulsion, kids lose more and more learning time until they are so far behind they eventually drop out. Research supports this downward spiral effect (see here and here) and shows that students from traditionally marginalized groups (low-income, minority, special education, etc.) are more likely to face suspensions and expulsions, even when committing the same infractions.
It’s true that quickly removing a really disruptive student from school allows other students to continue learning. This approach should remain an option when the behavior warrants it. But the sheer number of suspended and expelled students—3.5 million in one school year—must make us question just how disruptive all those children are. These numbers should also push us to consider what schools can do to prevent rather than just react to disruptive behavior. We must not ignore what we now know are the consequences of school removal on the lives of children. Far from learning a life lesson and getting back on track, studies show that students who are expelled or suspended are more likely to disengage from or drop out of school, and to come into contact with the criminal justice system. Like a squeezed balloon, the problem doesn’t go away when students are removed from school, it blows up elsewhere.
Far from being “under attack,” school discipline rates are at record highs, with nearly 6 out of every 10 children removed from school at some point over the course of their K-12 education. Not surprisingly, the bar for what can get a student temporarily or permanently removed from school is at an alarming low. Suspensions for “disobedience” or “defiance” are twice as likely as those for fighting or violence. Yet teachers are desperate for tools that will help them maintain an orderly classroom, so that they can send all kids to college, not some to college and others to prison. The problem is that in most cases, no one is offering them that tool.
The good news is that there are tools that work. Some schools have used short-term or in-school suspension as a lever for improvement. Kids get the message and with the support of educators return to the classroom quickly. We need to understand what these schools do and what it really means for student outcomes. Models like restorative justice and Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) may sound like coddling to some, but the results are impressive. These strategies actually DO teach students emotional regulation and negotiation skills that they can use later in life. And because they are taught in a group setting, they can also improve overall school culture, teacher satisfaction, and the ability of all students to learn.
Of course suspensions and expulsions are sometimes necessary. No one is suggesting that we prevent schools from disciplining students and maintaining orderly classrooms. The debate should not be about whether discipline is good or bad. It should be about promoting policies and school practices that work.
In trying to reduce a complex issue to a snappy soundbite, Fordham ignores the research, or at least presents only one side of it. If we’re going to provide guidance to presidential contenders, let’s make sure they have the full picture. Expulsions and suspensions are overused, inequitably applied, and have a long-lasting impact on children and society. Studies are beginning to show that schools that kick students out at high rates become less stable, which may negatively impact learning for those left behind. As the churn of students goes up, the trust in teachers and school staff can go down. The stats Fordham does include should be a call to action. Not to halt the “attack on school discipline,” but to ramp up the efforts to make it more fair, humane, and effective for all students.
Studies blaming long-standing problems in public education on charter schools make it harder to identify real solutions.