Thursday, July 7, 2016

Suspending Belief

This piece was originally published as part of Fordham's forum on discipline practices in America's charter schools.

Magicians rely almost exclusively on the technique of misdirection. In order for us to believe that the dove emerged from the handkerchief, the magician must “misdirect” our attention away from what would otherwise be the obvious sleight of hand.

This is how I see the debate on school discipline. All of our attention is focused on the child who is disrupting class, yelling at his teacher, or refusing to put away her cell phone. All the other problems contributing to that child’s misbehavior are hiding in plain sight, yet we fail to see them. We have been misdirected—first by the disruptive child, and then by the seductive belief that they are the problem and removing them from school is the solution. If we could just take away the handkerchief, there would be no dove.

This is why the debate that Fordham encourages here must be based in research, even though discipline in general—let alone in charter schools—is a tricky thing to study. Good research forces us to look beyond our tendentious and often baseless beliefs and pay attention to what is happening in the magician’s other hand. Luckily, there are researchers who have been studying school discipline since long before most of us were even paying attention.

Here is how researchers help us see beyond what we think we “know.”

What we “know”


What the research says

School discipline is a last resort, rarely used.


Nearly 3.5 million children were suspended or expelled nationally during the 2011–2012 school year.

A child is disciplined based solely on his behavior.


child’s racespecial education status, gender, the race of the teacherthe approach of the school or principal, and sexual orientation are all factors that can affect whether and how a child is disciplined.

Suspensions teach kids a lesson.


Children who have already been suspended are more likely to be re-suspended than their peers who have never been. They are also more likely to drop out of school and be arrested.

The use of suspensions and expulsions help ensure that non-disruptive students can learn.


Overuse of suspensions and expulsions has been shown to destabilize a school and negatively impact learning for all students.

Suspensions and expulsions are often justified as benefiting the “good” kids in school who need to be protected from the bad apples. But that assertion ignores the fact that children who are rule breakers in one school or classroom are often good citizens in another. A recent Stanford study showed that when teachers are encouraged to do something as simple as empathize, some rule breakers “become” rule followers. Secretary of Education John King was once a rule breaker. Luckily he had some teachers who saw him differently, connected with him, and helped him become a model student. 

I spent over ten years working directly with violent teenagers in both juvenile and adult jails and prisons. I can tell you that, with rare exceptions, even children who violently act out also want to learn, follow the rules, and work hard. Children who misbehave in school, often in only minor ways at first, are trying to tell us that something is wrong. But children are unfortunately crude communicators, and we misinterpret the message. We focus on the behavior and then— because we lack the time, training, support, or sometimes just the connection to the child—we move toward punishment. Rarely do we stop to consider what we could be learning from their actions, either about themselves or us.

High-performing, high-poverty charter schools turned the very widely accepted notion that “some kids can’t learn” on its head. This was a revolution. What if charter schools worked just as hard to disprove the myth that “some kids don’t want to learn”? What if they applied the same dogged devotion to data, innovation, and targeted human capital to this problem? Some recently compiled case studies show how innovative charter school discipline practices can dramatically reduce the use of suspension and expulsion and improve academic performance.

This is not an argument for eliminating the option to suspend or expel a student; it’s not even a call to limit their use via directives or quotas. Mandates and prohibitions have perverse effects, and there will always be times when a child needs to be removed from school. It is instead a call for all schools to seek to understand and address the root causes of disruptive behavior before drastic measures become the only safe option. Schools are already testing both simple and revolutionary ideas, and research provides clues to what works best in diverse school settings. Restorative justice models, trauma-informed approaches, and positive behavioral supports are three that are currently in fashion. Charter schools have the freedom to adopt these models, improve them, or create new ones. But our underlying approach must be focused on the causes and not the symptoms of disruptive behavior. Even though it seems like we need magic, the answers are hiding in plain sight.

Tue, 12/03/2019

Attackers and defenders of charter schools are free to pick cases and attach labels, but we shouldn’t lump actual corruption or theft in with debatably unwise uses of funds.

Wed, 11/20/2019

Our network participants are already showing the potential benefits of the shift toward local problem solving.

Mon, 11/18/2019

Settling for cherry-picked or incomplete evidence isn't necessary.