Once a month a thousand or so teacher unionists file into Shanker Hall at the United Federation of Teachers for the monthly Delegate Assembly, the elected delegates are incredibly diverse, by gender, race and ethnicity. After the president’s report the meeting moves to a question period, one delegate asked, “My principal asked me to raise an issue, a student came to school with a knife, the Department of Education would only allow a short in-school suspension because the knife was only 4” long, shouldn’t we be able to impose a longer out of school suspension? The kid has to learn a lesson?” The union president agreed, the Discipline Code , the size of a phone book, might be overly restrictive, and then asked, “Shouldn’t the question be why he brought the knife to school?”
On one side: “School is a pipeline to prison, suspensions are racist and must be eliminated,” on the other, “There must be consequences for inappropriate behavior and suspensions must be one of the options.”
The suspension question is complicated, and, the “sides” are deeply entrenched.
There are 14,000 school districts, fifty states and thousands of charter schools, all of whom have a discipline code, plus, the Department of Education (USDE).
Some school districts employ “exclusionary suspensions,” meaning out-of-school suspensions while others, including New York City, only have in-school suspensions.
Some districts employ “zero tolerance” policies, suspensions for low level behavioral infringements while others, including New York City, require a ladder of discipline culminating in a suspension and at the long-term level requiring a hearing with legal representation available.
The evidence that suspensions improve behavior is absent; the evidence that suspensions have negative outcomes is overwhelming.
The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA has published reports with significant evidence challenging the efficacy of out of school suspensions, aka, exclusionary suspensions.
Especially relevant is “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?”
In January 2014 the Obama/Duncan Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter, a method of avoiding the lengthy process to change regulations, warning and threatening school districts with legal actions,
The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (Departments) are issuing this guidance to assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
… statistical evidence may indicate that groups of students have been subjected to different treatment or that a school policy or practice may have an adverse discriminatory impact. Indeed, the Departments’ investigations, which consider quantitative data as part of a wide array of evidence, have revealed racial discrimination in the administration of student discipline. For example, in our investigations we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students. In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.
This line of reasoning is called “disparate impact theory,” and has been primarily used in employment discrimination; Griggs v Duke Power Company (1970) is a unanimous Supreme Court decision barring the use of restrictive employment barriers.
One could argue that the Obama administration overextended its authority; suspensions are a state issue and fall beyond the authority of the federal government; however, I’m not arguing the role of the federal government; the data is overwhelming, students of color are suspended at rates far beyond other students, and, the consequences of suspensions are dire.
The Trump-deVos administration has withdrawn the Obama-Duncan “Dear Colleague” letter.
There is no evidence that suspensions work, that students who are suspended do not commit further “suspendable” offenses, or, that classrooms are more orderly after students are suspended.
Districts have moved to restorative justice and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports strategies, (PBIS ) with mixed results .. In a major study in the Pittsburgh schools the results were both encouraging and depressing. In elementary suspensions decreased however the results in middle schools were disturbing.
The policies appear especially unhelpful in middle school grades, where they didn’t reduce suspension rates but did hurt test scores. The shift did not boost student learning on the whole, and black students in particular actually saw significant reductions in test scores.
In my own totally unscientific discussions with teachers the major complaint was time. Who is going to teach my class while I counsel the offending students, another, “They want to turn us into guidance counselors.”
System-wide professional development may, or, may not impact rates of suspension and academic outcomes; however, are there differences in comparable schools, schools with similar populations in similar neighborhoods, and if so, why? Can it be the race of the teacher or school leader? A North Carolina study explored the race of the teacher,
Does having a teacher of the same race make it more or less likely that students are subject to exclusionary school discipline?
In this study …we find consistent evidence that North Carolina students are less likely to be removed from school as punishment when they and their teachers are the same race. This effect is driven almost entirely by black students, especially black boys, who are markedly less likely to be subjected to exclusionary discipline when taught by black teachers. There is little evidence of any benefit for white students of being matched with white teachers.
Other studies support the North Carolina study,
… we provide a theoretical model that formalizes the notion of “role model effects” as distinct from teacher effectiveness. We envision role model effects as information provision: black teachers provide a crucial signal that leads black students to update their beliefs about the returns to effort and what educational outcomes are possible. Using testable implications generated by the theory, we provide suggestive evidence that role model effects help to explain why black teachers increase the educational attainment of black students.
While studies are interesting none are dispositive.
Mike Petrilli in an excellent article entitled, “Humility When It Comes to Evidence-Based Practice” emphasizes “teacher buy-in and implementation.”
… the contexts of our schools… vary dramatically making the use of evidence an inherently complex and fraught challenge. Plus, in a field where implementation is everything, the only way “doing what works” can be effective is with teacher buy-in and engagement. They call it “winning hearts and minds” for a reason; we can’t expect that evidence alone will win the day.
“Comparable schools” schools with low suspension rates, in my experience, are schools that have strong cultures and are highly collaborative: a strong school leader with distributive teacher leadership.
- Exclusionary (out-of-school) suspensions and zero tolerance practices have the odor of blatant racism and must be rejected.
- All suspensions must be in-school or in an educational setting coupled with intensive counseling and educational supports
- Restorative justice and other alternative strategies can be useful if there is teacher buy-in and engagement
- Hiring more male school leaders and teachers of color are essential.
- There are student behaviors that require the removal from a classroom setting, we cannot totally reject suspensions.
If we want students to change behaviors we must explore our own behaviors. New York State has released Cultural Responseness and Sustainability Frameworks for public comment.
Will these Frameworks change your relationships with students? At least, make you explore your view of classroom practices?