There is plenty to say about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel facing a runoff against AFT-backed Jesus Martinez after failing to gain a majority in yesterday’s mayoral elections. There’s also a few words for the news coming out today that the Obama Administration will veto a reauthorized version of the No Child Left Behind Act if it resembles anything like the legislation House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline is likely to pass out of federal lower house by week’s end. But those are discussions for later on.
Right now, however, school reformers need to have an important conversation about the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that sends our kids onto the path to poverty and prison. Especially in light of a series of reports this week detailing how school operators of all sorts are engaging in practices that do little to address the underlying educational woes at the heart of children acting out in school, it is high time for the movement to end its myopia on actions that can only be called educational abuse and malpractice.
Certainly it is good to hear from the California Department of Education that districts and other school operators reduced out-of-school suspensions by 15.2 percent between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. Yet plenty of bad news remains. This includes the fact that the out-of-school suspension rates of 11.9 percent for black kids and 8.9 percent for American Indian and Alaska Native peers are more than double the 4.4 percent out-of-school suspension rate overall.
Even worse is that 67 percent of all out-of-school suspensions meted out by school operators in the Golden State aren’t for violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession, but for so-called “willful defiance” or what other states call disruptive behavior that school leaders and teachers can address through more-effective means. That willful defiance can be arbitrarily determined by adults in schools — including child asking a peer for a pencil during a classroom exercise (and trying to explain his action) — means that schools are putting children onto the path to academic and social failure for no good reason at all.
Then there’s news out of New York City this week, courtesy of analysis by the local branch of the Chalkbeat collection of news sites, that 11 public charter schools meted out-of-school suspensions to three out of every 10 children attending the schools in 2011-2012. While Chalkbeat‘s determination that Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy collection of charters suspended 17 percent of its students was no surprise at all; after all, Dropout Nation editorialized two years ago on its shameful approach to school discipline and the ardent defense of it by Moskowitz and an amen corner that includes Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
But the fact that other big-named charter operators such as KIPP (whose D.C. branch was scrutinized along with other Beltway districts by Dropout Nation last October) and Uncommon Schools were suspending as many as 25 percent of their students, often for behaviors resulting from learning issues, is both shocking and appalling. [Uncommon says it has since overhauled its school discipline approaches.] Even worse, the news comes on the heels of a report released last week by Advocates for Children of New York that discipline policies for some charters may actually be in violation of Empire State law. Especially given the fierce debate over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to expand charter schools, the news is allowing traditionalists to argue that the success of charters is due more to pushing kids out of school than to providing kids with high-quality education.
Meanwhile, as a report issued this week by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows, overuse of harsh school discipline isn’t limited to school operations on the coasts. As a team led by Daniel Losen shows, three of the highest-suspending districts in the country are located in Missouri, which has become an epicenter of the battles over overhauling criminal justice and public education systems since Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of now-former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson last July. [Dropout Nation noted the overuse of harsh discipline by the Ferguson-Florissant and other issues in St. Louis-area districts.] This includes the traditional district in the St Louis suburb of Normandy, whose schools Brown attended before his tragic and senseless slaying, which meted out-of-school and in-school suspensions to 21.7 percent of students in 2011-2012. In fact, the Show-Me State has the nation’s highest suspension rate for black children in elementary grades as well as the widest disparity in rates in suspensions between black and white students.
The overuse of harsh school discipline isn’t just borne upon children black and brown. Children in the nation’s special ed ghettos, already subjected to barbaric practices such as restraints and seclusion (also known to prisoners as solitary confinement), are suspended at rates double those of their peers in regular classrooms. In Florida, where school operators meted out-of-school and in-school suspensions to 37 percent of middle- and high-schoolers in special ed in 2011-2012, nearly double the already-high 19 percent average; the Sunshine State’s suspension rate for kids in special ed is the highest in the nation. Children in English Language Learner programs are also subjected to overuse of harsh school discipline. Districts in Montana, for example, meted out suspensions to 19 percent of ELL students, nearly three times the average for the overall population; since ELL students in Big Sky Country tend to be those from Native tribes, this means that a children already subjected to the worst American public education offers are abused even more.
The news of the past two weeks, along with reports on lawsuits such as that filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of eight children against the Birmingham district for using pepper spray on children, should horrify the school reform movement. The fact that some charter school operators, who should be innovating on the school discipline front, are embracing the worst of traditionalist practices should anger them especially. Given the decades of evidence from researchers such as Indiana University’s Russell Skiba and John Wallace of the University of Pittsburgh that traditional school discipline practices do little to improve student achievement, enhance school cultures, or make kids safer, reformers should be demanding charter school outfits such as Success to stop damaging children in their care.
In fact, the movement’s leading lights should be teaming up with researchers on school discipline and criminal justice reform advocates to work on addressing the underlying causes of overusing harsh discipline: The failure to provide functionally-illiterate children with intensive reading remediation; low-quality teaching and classroom management; shoddy, arbitrary school leadership; and the belief among adults in schools that kids from poor and minority backgrounds are troublemakers and thus, unworthy of high-quality education.
Yet as has always been the case when it comes to school discipline (as well as on many issues involving the school-to-prison pipeline), there is silence from many reformers when there should be outrage and action. Certainly this isn’t true of all reformers; from former California State Senator Gloria Romero (with whom your editor has co-written a series of pieces on ending the school-to-prison pipeline) to Educators4Excellence, there are reformers demanding better for our kids. They should even be applauding moves by the Obama Administration to force districts overusing suspensions to overhaul their school discipline practices as well as backing efforts such as California’s move last year to restrict schools from suspending kids for willful defiance.
But as evidenced by Petrilli in some claptrap written for the New York Times in December proclaiming that kids suspended by charters don’t care about their education, as well as in pieces from colleagues such as former New Schools for New Orleans boss Neerav Kingsland, there are far too many instances of reformers making excuses for overusing suspensions as well as for discipline practices that should never be used by any adult proclaiming to care for kids.
These reformers will argue, as Petrilli has done in the past, that poor and minority children are somehow worse-behaved than peers from white and middle class households. Yet three decades of evidence disproves the assertion. Losen and his team once again point this out in their analysis, noting that 51 districts meted out suspensions to fewer than three percent of black kids (as well as children overall); that black students account for 25 percent or more of enrollment further proves the reality that the problem lies not with the children, but with the teachers and school leaders charged with helping them succeed.
This isn’t exactly surprising. Given that most out-of-school and in-school suspensions are meted out for what are arbitrarily determined by teachers and school leaders to be disruptive behavior, the use of harsh school discipline is less about the children than about the adults making the decisions. And in nearly all cases, school operators use harsh school discipline as ways to excuse themselves from dealing with the learning issues of the children they are supposed to serve.
The so-called reformers will proclaim that overusing harsh school discipline helps schools maintain order. Yet as Skiba and others have pointed out ad nauseam, the highest-suspending school operations in the nation also tend to be the worst of American public education’s dropout factories and failure mills. This includes the Pontiac district in Michigan (a subject of a Dropout Nation commentary on the problems of laggard black teachers and school leaders), which meted out suspensions to 31.7 percent of elementary students in 2011-2012, the highest levels of such educational abuse in the nation.
The fact that some charter school operators are outliers to the trend doesn’t justify overusing harsh discipline, especially when restorative practices that do a better job of teaching kids how to behave are available. As charters in New Orleans (at the behest of the Recovery School District and community activists) have shown in reducing suspensions, and as charters in New York City have proven in their reduction of kids labeled special ed, charters can actually provide kids with high-quality education without resorting to traditionalist practices that should be used only for the worst situations (if at all). School choice cannot help all kids succeed if it simply means subjecting kids to bad practices
Meanwhile these reformers will even try to declare that the views of teachers and school leaders towards poor and minority children isn’t the reason for high levels of suspensions meted out to them. Such arguments are belied by the evidence. This includes Wallace’s 2008 study on referrals to dean’s offices, which showed that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts.
When you look at how American public education damages black children (especially in overlabeling them as special ed cases), sensible reformers can’t help but agree with Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly’s determination that adults in schools end up labeling certain groups of students as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way. By against the evidence, reformers such as Petrilli end up engaging in the intellectually sophomoric thinking that policies and practices are only racialist or biased if they explicitly targets a race or ethnicity. As history has shown over and over again, the consequences of policies and practices can be as biased against particular people as overt and explicit acts.
But reformers must understand the consequences of overusing school discipline extend beyond classrooms. When districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. This matters because schools account for the second-most referrals of status cases into juvenile courts as well as because districts have come to use law enforcement agencies (including the 250 police departments they control) to handle discipline. The results of this criminalization of youth (especially young black men) by schools can be seen in Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Steve Loomis argument to Politico‘s Connie Schultz that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was “menacing” because he was the height of an average grown man, and thus, deserved to be murdered by police officer Timothy Loehmann within seconds of arriving on scene for playing with a toy gun.
What reformers must remember that we are like born-again Christians, having publicly declared that we behave and conduct ourselves differently than those who defend traditionalist thinking. This means we cannot defend harsh school discipline practices that cannot be defended empirically or otherwise. Particularly on this key culprit in pushing kids into the school-to-prison pipeline, reformers can’t take positions that even a teachers’ union such as the AFT’s Chicago Teachers Union would look askance.
So reformers can’t remain silent on addressing overuse of harsh school discipline, or worse, aid and abet those practices. We must push all school operators — especially those with who we share common cause — to do better by all of our children.