Contrary to the opinions of many traditionalists and more than a few reformers, the much-necessary discussion about overuse of harsh school discipline in traditional districts and public charter schools should be understood as an opportunity for people in schools to revisit their practices and results, and to consider how they might adjust strategies. For those of us who focus on policy and research, it is helpful to appreciate how many people are already working on the issue.
Since the New York Times and other outlets raised new questions about the school discipline practices of Success Academy last year, I’ve heard from lots of school leaders and teachers who have been wrestling with student discipline. These are men and women who have taken great pains to engage in introspection, both about discipline as well as other practices related to instruction and leadership.
These people talk about discipline. But they also talk about school culture and how to make their schools more successful with all students. We may not always agree with the practices they may use. The criticisms, regardless of who lodges them, may be valid. At the same time, let’s admit that these people are not engaging in surprising or novel exercises.
Personal observations can never substitute for objective data and evidence. But in my own research and interactions, the school leaders and teachers I deal with are downright obsessed with keeping kids on task and with thinking about how to help more kids succeed. They truly “own” the issue of student discipline. They examine data. They look at what they are doing in their classrooms and hallways. They talk together about their values, their practices, and how to adjust what they do. They try to figure out how their practices affect how children behave. They want children to learn, want to reduce the likelihood that a few kids will act out in ways that make it hard for all kids to learn, and also keep children who are misbehaving from failing and leaving school.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education convened leaders from charter school operators that receive replication and expansion grants under the Charter School Program. This was a group of very successful charter operators with impressive academic performance. The issue of student discipline was a big priority for the U.S. Department. I honestly came to the meeting a little anxious that there might be too much “talking down” to school people about what they needed to do, or too much defensiveness from the school operators. I was wrong on both fronts.
To its credit, the Obama Administration brought forward the issue as a real challenge that we must collectively address both in charters as well as within traditional districts. They presented the issue as one on which we should all problem-solve. Charter school operators, in turn, came to the topic equally ready to talk about the work. Perhaps because of the careful set-up, there was no defensiveness, no denial of the issues’ importance, or bemoaning how opponents were blowing a few cases out of proportion.
Instead, leaders talked about the conversations they were having with their staff, the examination of data, their brainstorming around what they do when children misbehave, and the ways they can adjust their procedures and programs to support strong learning environments while reducing the practices that lead to suspension or expulsion. They were talking about how to build consensus about the need for change, and the details of work that might make things better.
The charter school operators at the session weren’t looking to abandon their approaches to schooling. Their schools are highly successful. They have developed innovative programs — and their approaches produce results. At the same time, they realized that the current debate over discipline as an opportunity to leverage what is working well, to engage in serious introspection about their own practices, and to encourage their colleagues to change particular practices that may not always be helpful in improving student learning. All this was in order to design changes that they believe will lead to even better results for even more children.
What we have here is not a “gotcha” for opponents of school choice. The notion that some single unified approach to schooling has been shown to be unacceptable and that now we will abandon “no excuses” schooling is an incredibly simplistic and unreasonable characterization of what is going on. It is equally simplistic to argue that no introspection or rethinking of how we educate children isn’t in order. Instead, people who work in schools — people that live and breathe student behavior every day — have been stirred by events and a little external pressure to start important conversations.
There are of important mid-course adjustments in the works, and I look forward to talking with them about these changes as they make them.