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When it comes to the use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and other forms of harsh school discipline, a few things have become immediately clear after three decades of research. The first is that far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school. The second: That children from poor and minority households, especially young black, Latino, and poor white men, are more likely to be suspended and expelled than middle class peers. Third: More often than not, the underlying reasons for such discipline have little to do with violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession. As analysis of state-level discipline data by researchers such as Indiana University’s Russ Skiba, along with reports I wrote in 20052006, and 2007 for the Indianapolis Star has shown, most suspensions occur in categories such as disruptive behavior and attendance — which teachers and school leaders can deal with through more-effective means —  while students are also expelled for chronic truancy.

The fourth fact is that there is no evidence that such discipline (especially those occurring as a result of zero tolerance policies) improves school cultures or improves safety for children attending school. The American Psychological Association concluded this four years ago, and most studies show this to be the case; as Dropout Nation contributing editor Steve Peha noted two years ago in his piece on overhauling school discipline, suspensions and expulsions do little more than let adults in schools off the hook for not looking at the underlying causes of misbehavior (which, as I’ll show later, has as much to do with low-quality teaching and curricula, as with lack of discipline at home), while letting students escape the consequences of disrupting their peers and teachers. And finally, the consequences of such use of discipline often lead to kids dropping out into poverty and prison. Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later. Considering the high likelihood of young men dropping out of school landing into prison — especially young black male dropouts, who have a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34 — suspensions and expulsions often leads to academic, economic, and social failure.

So the report on the overuse of harsh school discipline released yesterday by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA offered little in the way of surprises. If perfect insanity is doing the same thing over and over, then American public education has gotten it down to a science. The data, based on the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database for the 2009-210 school year, doesn’t fully reflect the impact of suspensions and expulsions on American Indian and Alaska Native students (in part because as many as 44 percent of such students are likely counted in the “two or more race” category”) and doesn’t break down suspension and expulsions by category (including disruptive behavior and insubordination, information which states already collect). But the abysmally high levels of suspensions determined by the Civil Rights Project’s analysis — especially the 17 percent suspension rate for all black children in elementary and secondary grades — serve as another reminder of the high cost paid by young men and women for adult decisions. Nor was it shocking that suspension rates for kids condemned to the nation’s special education ghettos were suspended at twice the rate of kids in regular classrooms (including one out of every four young black men labeled as special ed); there is nothing special about way-stations used by adults in schools to toss out children they can’t (and often, don’t) want to teach.

Yet you have otherwise thoughtful folks such as few folks such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute education czar Mike Petrilli asking if racism is still a factor. Proclaiming earlier today on the think tank’s Flypaper site that the higher levels of suspensions and expulsions seem in line with the higher levels of incarceration for black adults, Petrilli argues that “pathologies” such as single motherhood and poverty that lead to poor minorities being more likely to end up in prison could also be a reason for them being suspended as well.

Yeah. Petrilli is once again arguing that Personal Responsibility myth in education that seems to be in vogue among a few reformers who should know better. And as I noted last year, it doesn’t hold up. Given that young white men are also suspended at high levels (albeit lower than that for young black men), Petrilli’s argument fails to hold water. [Your editor had a less thoughtful initial reaction. But a dental drill and Novocaine helped him calm down.]

Certainly Petrilli is right in noting that race isn’t the only issue when it comes to the overuse of school discipline. After all, Some of the highest-suspending districts surveyed by the Civil Rights Project include Memphis before its merger with the Shelby County district in Tennessee (which suspended 53 percent of young black men in special ed), and Pontiac, Mich. (which suspended two out of every three black students overall) are run by black school leaders and have large numbers of black teachers on staff. The class biases of many teachers and school leaders against poor and minority children and families regardless of color, which is often reinforced by the degree- and seniority-based pay scales that connote inflated opinions of intelligence, is as much a factor as race in the overuse of suspensions and expulsions. As Dropout Nation pointed out earlier this year in its analysis of comments about racial disparities in school discipline made by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, federal officials need to do a better job on collecting data (especially by category) in order to make a stronger case.

But Petrilli’s declaration fails to consider the impact of racialist policies such as ability-tracking and the comprehensive high school model (which were based on the notion that only white middle class children of Protestant backgrounds were capable of college preparatory learning, while blacks and immigrants — especially of Italian and Slavic backgrounds — were considered too feeble-minded to learn) on the attitudes of many teachers and school leaders today. This is especially clear when it comes to another symptom of the nation’s education crisis: The overdiagnosis of children as special ed cases. As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, adults in schools have a tendency to confuse the statistical probability that certain ethnic and gender groups may end up being diagnosed with a learning disability with the ethnic composition with ethnic composition within a disability category, essentially deciding that certain racial and ethnic groups of students will be learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way. When one also looks at how middle class black and Latino families and their children — almost all of whom are two-parent households with strong values — are treated with disdain within suburban districts, it is hard for Petrilli or anyone else to say that race isn’t still a problem within many of our schools.

Yet at the same time, Petrilli unintentionally hits upon this reality: That the overuse of suspensions and expulsions are symptoms of the deeper problems within American public education. This starts with the low quality of instruction and curricula, especially in addressing the illiteracy at the heart of the nation’s education crisis.

As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study of children from low-income households, third-grade reading performance is strongly associated with social skills. Children with strong reading skills in the early grades tend to also have good social habits (including the executive function of self-control), while those are struggling with reading tend to have disciplinary problems. A third-grader who is functionally illiterate is more-likely to end up engaging in the kind of aggressive behavior that leads to suspension and expulsion; in fact, low literacy in third grade is predictive of school discipline issues two years later in fifth grade. This makes sense. Children who are struggling in school act out because they don’t know how (and are afraid to) to admit they can’t read, and don’t know how to ask for help from teachers (who in many cases, may not be equipped or have the desire to help them anyway).

Illiteracy is also a driving factor in children, especially young men of all backgrounds, ending up in special ed and being subjected to suspensions and expulsions. As Reid Lyon noted in 1997, young black men end up being labeled special ed because they are struggling with literacy; literacy can often be mistaken for mild retardation or developmental delays. Because the areas of the brain that involve reading develop more-slowly in young men than in female peers (as well as because of their natural rambunctiousness is of great contrast to the more-docile behavior of their female classmates), boys are particularly vulnerable to being condemned to special ed ghettos and being subject to harsh school discipline.

Reading experts have spent years developing new ways to help lagging students improve reading before they reach fifth grade and work with boys to get them up to speed. This includes identifying poor readers early on through response through intervention and other techniques, as well as intensive teaching of linguistic skills every day. Yet few districts have embraced these techniques or focused on intense remediation in the early grades. The fact that the nation’s university schools of education do such a poor job of training aspiring teachers in the science of reading means that far too many teachers lacking the expertise to teach reading. The fact that ed schools also do poorly in training teachers overall — especially in classroom management — also results in instructors being too quick to refer children to principal’s offices for suspension. Add in the fact that we don’t recruit aspiring teachers and leaders for their ability to empathize with all children (along with subject matter competency, and entrepreneurial self-starter ability), and one can see why so many kids are suspended from school.

Overhauling how we recruit and train teachers, especially in reading, would result in fewer kids being illiterate and thus, reduce their likelihood of misbehaving. Having aspiring teachers apprentice in classrooms alongside high-quality teachers (who are also skilled in managing classrooms) would also help. Meanwhile addressing the other issues at the heart of the nation’s education crisis — including the abysmal school leadership within districts and school buildings – – would also help reduce suspensions and expulsions. This includes embracing approaches to discipline that addresses underlying issues arising from struggles with learning.

Until we fully reform American public education, the insanity of harsh school discipline will continue to condemn far too many kids to economic and social despair.

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