Tag: School Discipline Reform

Why Student Protest Should Not Be Punished

Your editor hasn’t spent much time on today’s National Student Walkout mostly because there has been plenty of coverage and commentary from other corners. Yet I find myself writing briefly…

Your editor hasn’t spent much time on today’s National Student Walkout mostly because there has been plenty of coverage and commentary from other corners. Yet I find myself writing briefly about the protests by high school students on behalf of gun control laws spurred by last month’s massacre of 17 students and teachers at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., because the event inadvertently intersects with an issue school reformers continue to deal with badly: The debate over stemming the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline.

Ever since the walkout was announced, there has been an array of responses from traditional districts and other school operators. Some, notably the Mooresville district in Indiana, have actively encouraged the protests and, as in the case of New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (who oversees the Big Apple’s traditional district) are participating in it. Others are merely offering spaces on campuses where protests can be held without leaving school grounds (and thus, keeping the students safe without infringing on their First Amendment rights).

Yet there are other districts who have decided that the response to nonviolent student protest is political and educational reprisal. This includes the Bentonville district, which serves the city that is home to retail giant Wal-Mart, which threatened to mete out three-day suspensions for engaging in the protests, and the Needville Independent School District in Texas (whose threat was met with protests from the American Civil Liberties Union and others, who noted that it also violated the district’s discipline guidelines). Another district, Bexley City, is planning to put all students protestors from its high school on detention for their action.

So you shouldn’t be surprised that conservative and centrist Democrat school reformers — who have generally been all too supportive of the overuse of harsh school discipline — were also supportive of the actions being taken by Bentonville and other districts. Robert Pondiscio, the vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (and, like his boss, Mike Petrilli, a longstanding opponent of school discipline reform), was particularly bellicose in his defense of suspending protestors, declaring that children should be punished for their own good. Why? Because the only way they can gain a “teachable moment” about protests and civil disobedience (especially those of civil rights leaders of the last century) is to suffer some form of punishment. The kids can’t just be allowed to actually exercise free speech.

There are a lot of problems with Pondiscio’s overall argument. The first? That schools aren’t allowed to explicitly or even covertly punish children for engaging in protests and other forms of free speech. This was first established by the U.S. Supreme Court 50 years ago in Tinker v. De Moines Independent Community School District and even before then in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (which first recognized the First Amendment rights of students by declaring that they couldn’t be forced by districts to recite the Pledge of Allegiance against their religious and social consciences).

Districts can discipline students for incidental violations of school policies that result during the protests (as well as for disrupting classroom instruction and walking off campus). But they cannot directly punish youth for their protest rallies and cannot level punishments beyond what is already prescribed in discipline codes. Which is why most districts are wisely treading cautiously on this front.

This leads to the second problem: Pondiscio and others are essentially arguing that school leaders should harshly punish students for minor infractions, even when the actions don’t actually harm other children. This is particularly clear with the National Student Walkout and other political protests organized by youth. Considering the vast number of students who are participating in the walkouts — as well as the numbers of their peers who support them — school leaders cannot honestly argue that these actions are somehow damaging children.

Just as importantly, given that the protests will not lead to a tangible loss of time for instruction and learning, meting out suspensions and detentions is overkill. If anything, school leaders who suspend protesting students are actually doing more damage to children by meting out detentions and suspensions that keep them out of school (and thus, from learning) for hours and days at a time.

Students such as those at Bowie High School in Prince George’s County, Md., are learning plenty without suffering reprisals from school leaders engaging in arbitrary action. (Photo courtesy of Bowie Living.)

In advocating for arbitrary and capricious punishment based on the whims of school leaders, Pondiscio and others are exacerbating one of the problems that have led to school discipline reform efforts in the first place. Three decades of research that shows that teachers and school leaders often punish children, especially those Black and Brown, with little in the way of reason or nuance. This includes University of Pittsburgh Professor John Wallace’s 2008 study showing that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be referred deanā€™s offices ā€” and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended ā€” for the same offenses than white peers, and a 2015 study by Adam Wright of University of California, Santa Barbara determining that beliefs among White teachers that Black children are unruly and poorly-behaved explain why they are more-likely to be referred for discipline and suspended than their White peers.

In the context of National Student Walkout — and as exemplified in protests led by minority youth in St. Louis and other locales — you can imagine principals and deans of discipline punishing Black students more-harshly than their White peers for exercising their First Amendment rights.

In arguing that National Student Walkout participants should be disciplined, Pondiscio and others are arguing is that children should not actually learn civic engagement, and ultimately, not take up their rightful roles as future leaders of American society. As men and women dedicated to helping our children be successful in school and in life, this line of thinking should be especially offensive. Certainly our children should read original texts to learn about the origins of the issues that still plague this nation. But classroom learning isn’t enough.

They must be participants in the political processes that can be used to either bend the arc of history towards progress or suppress the liberties of Black, Latino, and immigrant communities. Which is what the students participating in National School Walkout are doing. While your editor may not necessarily agree with all of their policy solutions (and note that much of their proposals ignore the consequences of the War on Drugs in perpetuating gun-related homicides), I also believe that our youth, our future adults and leaders, have a right and moral obligation to be engaged in the real world. This applies even to those youth whose activism may be objectionable to me as well as to their fellow students.

Finally, Pondiscio and his allies are basing their argument in part on a romanticized notion of “civil disobedience”, especially the protests conducted by the Civil Rights activists of the last century. Contrary to their notions, the reality is that the collegians who fueled the Freedom Rides and the Birmingham youth in the Children’s Campaign were arrested, jailed, beaten and hosed down with water canons on the technical grounds of violating laws and injunctions against protests. In reality, these activists were punished by Jim Crow state and local governments who opposed the fight against state-sanctioned bigotry and denial of equal opportunity through the use of police departments and courts (as well as through their support of the Klu Klux Klan organizations).

If the Bull Connors of the time weren’t using laws to engage in suppression of freedom and equality, the civil rights protests wouldn’t be called civil disobedience; they would have just been the rightful (and peaceful) protests against government actions protected by the Bill of Rights. As with other peaceful protests throughout American history by activists who weren’t actively opposed by governments, the protests of those activists would have been just as meaningful even without the threats to their lives. Put simply, Pondiscio and company are being ahistorical and intellectually dishonest to boot.

Instead of encouraging school leaders and teachers to overuse harsh school discipline against actions that harm no one — and perpetuating the woeful state of affairs in far too many districts — we should push them to limit suspensions and other discipline to the few acts of misbehavior (including weapons possession and assault) that truly harm the lives of other people. And we should stand by our youth as they take their rightful places in the world as well as learn how to be citizens and leaders in their communities and the nation as a whole.

Featured photo courtesy of the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation.

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Banishing Bad Anti-School Discipline Reform Reports

Last week’s Dropout Nation exposes of the use of shoddy data and analysis by anti-school discipline reform types such as Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute and Thomas B. Fordham…

Last week’s Dropout Nation exposes of the use of shoddy data and analysis by anti-school discipline reform types such as Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute and Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli generated a lot of discussion, both on social media and within education policy circles. This is good. Exposing intellectual sophistry, especially the kinds of data manipulation and trumpeting of poorly-constructed research as done by Eden, Petrilli and their ilk (along with their willing ignorance of high-quality studies based on longitudinal student data that they prefer to ignore) is critical to honest policy and practice in the overhaul of American public education.

Yet we must continually remember that the problem with bad studies based on shoddy data is that they don’t disappear. If anything, they are recycled over and over again, both by advocates who deliberately engage in sophistry in order to further their cause (and influence policymakers who want to agree) as well as by well-meaning pundits who only read the executive statements, less-than-thorough news reports and little else.

Two analysts at the D.C. Policy Center, Chelsea Coffin and Kathryn Zickuhr made this mistake earlier this month when they cited several low-quality anti-school discipline reform studies in their otherwise-interesting policy paper advising the District of Columbia’s city council to provide adequate support for implementing a proposed ban on meting out suspensions for minor infractions. As some of you may know, the Nation’s Capital is considering a proposal from Councilmember David Grosso (who chairs the council’s education oversight panel) that addresses concerns raised by families, traditionalists and some reformers, both over the overuse of harsh discipline by both D.C. Public Schools and charter school operators, as well as revelations that some operators have been understating their out-of-school suspension levels.

One mistake made by Coffin and Zickuhr? Citing the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s latest study of Philadelphia’s school discipline reform efforts. As Dropout Nation pointed out last week, the report’s assertions that asserts that reducing suspensions for non-violent offenses have little effect on achievement is based on two years of school level data that doesn’t actually measure how the reforms impact individual or subgroups student learning. It also doesn’t consider how well individual schools implemented the reforms in that period, a matter that is discussed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education in a similar study also released last month. [By the way: D.C. Policy Center doesn’t even link to University of Pennsylvania’s findings.] As a team of researchers led by Karega Rausch, a leading expert on school discipline who now heads research for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, pointed out last year in a report for the Center for Reinventing Public Education, longitudinal student data, which shows how children are affected by changes in discipline policies, is the best measure, one that Fordham’s researchers could have accessed if they worked with the City of Brotherly Love’s traditional district.

Another problem with Coffin’s and Zickhur’s report? That it also links to Eden’s ‘study’ released on school climate throughout the city and the school discipline reform efforts undertaken by the New York City Department of Education under Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his successor, Bill de Blasio. As your editor also noted last week, it is also too flawed to be taken seriously. One reason why? Eden didn’t just simply measure the raw results from the Big Apple’s school climate studies over the five-year period (2011-2012 to 2015-2016) being measured, which is the most-reliable way of analyzing what is already unreliable subjective data. Instead, Eden cobbled together a “distribution-of-differences” analysis in which any change of 15 percentage points on each of the questions represented “a substantial shift” in attitudes on school safety, especially for each school in the district. How did he arrive at 15 percentage points instead of, say, 20 or 10 or even five? Eden doesn’t explain. The data alchemy, along with the substandard nature of the underlying survey data, makes Eden’s report even less-reliable than it already appears.

Your editor can’t totally blame Coffin and Zickhur for relying on shoddy research. As with everything in education policy, it takes years for the release of high-quality research. In the case of impacts of school discipline reforms that are currently being undertaken in places such as Philadelphia, the need for four-to-eight years of longitudinal student data to gain a good handle on what is happening will make life more-difficult for pundits and wonks who care a lot about policy wins and making big splashes. Which means it will be tempting to base opinions and recommendations on shoddier work product, especially from big-named think tanks who are willing to shovel out shoddy white papers instead of doing solid work.

That said, Coffin and Zickhur could have easily looked at University of Pennsylvania’s report, whose interviews provide much-stronger insights on the challenges districts can face during the first two years of implementing a discipline reform (as well as how schools are implementing them at the beginning), or even gain access to a study of Minneapolis Public Schools’ pilot program to use restorative justice for children facing expulsion for violent infractions (which gives an idea of possible benefits as well as issues in implementation at scale). Both have limitations, but can add some color to the discussion if properly limited. [Happily, Coffin and Zickuhr do cite one of University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s two reports on school discipline reform efforts in Chicago, which, unfortunately, don’t provide longitudinal student achievement results.] A call to school and community leaders on the ground working on this issue would have also help. This includes Oakland Education Fund Executive Director Brian Stanley, who helped implement the Bay Area district’s ban on suspensions for minor infractions.

As for other wonks and polemicists (as well as traditional news reporters) looking to write more-thoughtful pieces on school discipline reform? Your editor offers some advice. The first? Always read beyond the executive summaries. This includes reading the list of cited references and sources usually in the back of a report or study. Put this way: If the study’s citation and reference lists include the likes of Eden and his Manhattan Institute colleague, Heather Mac Donald (the latter of whom focuses law enforcement and immigration, and tends to dismiss any discussion about racial disparities), ignore it.

Also, if it doesn’t mention work by respected researchers on school discipline such as Russell Skiba of Indiana University, Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Balfanz, John Wallace of the University of Pittsburgh or Rausch (all of whom use longitudinal student data in their research), then it deserves no consideration at all. Therefore, ignore this anti-school discipline white paper on Wisconsin’s efforts making the rounds this week — unless you want to give your child paper for cutting and origami. [Which is what happens to a lot of white papers coming to my office.]

Another alarm bell: When the report or study makes assertions that it later admits cannot be supported either by the underlying data or after going through additional analyses, including stress tests to verify results. In the case of discipline studies using school-level data championed by the anti-school discipline reform crowd, the results are often not going to be “granular enough” (or offer enough detail on how individual or groups of students are impacted by a reform or intervention) to support anything more than the most-tepid assertions.

Additionally, if the study doesn’t admit that other research bears out other sensible reasons supported by research and data for embarking on a school discipline reform, then it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Why? Because the failure to admit this is evidence that the study is little better than the kind of white papers that you would expect out of Forrester Research and other market insight firms whose predictions, as legendary former Forbes Editor William Baldwin would say, won’t come within a country mile of being realized. This is why a study by Boston University grad student Dominic Zarecki, which was used by Eden in an op-ed last week, has little value to anyone seriously discussing school discipline reform.

Finally, school reformers, most-notably those who are champions of discipline reform, must challenge, call out and dismiss shoddy data, especially when used by allies opposed to overhauling how children are corrected in schools. Researchers such as Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, along with advocates on the ground, already do this. There’s no reason why colleagues are allowed to engage in patently dishonest data usage, especially when they chant the mantra of using high-quality data when addressing other issues.

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