Tag Archives: Manhattan Institute

Suspensions: Useful Tool to Improve Student Behavior, or, Racist Acts, or, the Inevitable Outcomes from “Truly Disadvantaged” Poverty?

School suspensions, the removal of students from classes for a specific period of time for a violation of school rules, are one of those topics that never seems to be resolved. The Manhattan Institute held its snow-delayed forum discussing the release of a report, “School Discipline Reform and Disorder: Evidence from New York City Public Schools, 2012 – 2016.”  Max Eden, the author of the study avers;  while data shows far more suspensions of Afro-American males than any other group it does not necessarily mean that the suspension system is discriminatory: correlation does not mean causation. Over the last few years the Department has sharply reduced suspensions.. Eden examined student and teacher surveys of school climate and reports that during the recent (2015-16) period sharp decreases in school suspensions coupled with an easing of the Discipline Code; both students and teacher in high poverty schools report  increases discipline problems, in sharp contrast to the Department of Education who praise their own efforts. Lois Herrera, the Department rep had her own set of favorable data and Derek Jackson, the Director Local 237, the School Safety Agent union pointed to significant changes in the methods of reporting, what had been a summons, has become a warning letter, possession of marijuana is not longer a crime, etc., Jackson argues the city data is far from reality. Read the report here. Howard Husock, a Manhattan Institute vice president did an excellent job of moderating a contentious session;.

I wrote about the issue a month ago, “The Suspension Conundrum: Do Suspensions Improve Behavior and Academic Outcomes for All Students or Are Suspensions a Pipeline to Dropping Out and Prison,” Read here.

On one side of the fence  the “pipeline to prison” folk who argue that reducing or eliminating suspensions would dramatically improve outcomes for young men of color versus the, for lack of a better term, law and order folk, who argue that disruptive students interfere with learning and erode outcomes for the other students in the class.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a Harvard historian whose research focuses on racial criminalization and the origins of the carceral state  is the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2010),  Muhammad would argue that extremely high suspension rates of Afro-American males is a continuation of policies that emanate from the end of reconstruction to Jim Crow laws, to prisons that re-enslaved blacks continuing up to modern day America, crack laws meant prison, powder cocaine, a fine, and even today opiate abuse, mostly in white communities is a health crisis, possession of crack in a black neighborhood means prison.

For the sake of this argument lets decouple the prison “criminalization” issue for school discipline.

For me, suspension is a post-event response, we require pre-event interventions. Are students, who are subject to high poverty risk load factors, more likely to be suspended, and, if so, can we intervene early to correct unacceptable behavior before suspendable events?

Unfortunately the feds, the United States Department of Education response, the Obama-Duncan-King approach bypasses schools, school districts and states and imposes well meaning and deeply flawed “solutions.”   $4.3 billions in Race to the Top dollars encouraged states to impose student test scored based teacher evaluations, the Common Core and Common Core based accountability testing  and succeeded in alienating teachers and parents and are responsible for beginning an assault on public education.

The attack on student suspensions comes from the USDE. Secretaries of Education issue “Dear Colleague Letters,” in theory clarifying laws or regulations, in reality a way of threatening school districts and states with a loss of federal funding if they fail to comply with specific laws or regulations as interpreted by the Secretary.

In January, 2014 the Secretary of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter,

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.

The letter begins with a supportive tone,

The Departments strongly support schools in their efforts to create and maintain safe and orderly educational environments that allow our nation’s students to learn and thrive. Many schools have adopted comprehensive, appropriate, and effective programs demonstrated to: (1) reduce disruption and misconduct; (2) support and reinforce positive behavior and character development; and (3) help students succeed. Successful programs may incorporate a wide range of strategies to reduce misbehavior and maintain a safe learning environment, including conflict resolution, restorative practices, counseling, and structured systems of positive interventions. The Departments recognize that schools may use disciplinary measures as part of a program to promote safe and orderly educational environments.

The letter changes tone and conflates suspensions with violations of federal law,

Regardless of the program adopted, Federal law prohibits public school districts from discriminating in the administration of student discipline based on certain personal characteristics.

The Departments initiate investigations of student discipline policies and practices at particular schools based on complaints the Departments receive from students, parents, community members, and others about possible racial discrimination in student discipline.3 The Departments also may initiate investigations based on public reports of racial disparities in student discipline combined with other information, or as part of their regular compliance monitoring activities.

Schools are reminded, however, that they must ensure that their discipline policies and practices comply with all applicable constitutional requirements and Federal laws, including civil rights statutes and regulations.

The letter makes a case for what is referred to as “disproportionality,”

The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC),5 conducted by OCR, has demonstrated that students of certain racial or ethnic groups6 tend to be disciplined more than their peers. For example, African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.

The Departments recognize that disparities in student discipline rates in a school or district may be caused by a range of factors. However, research suggests that the substantial racial disparities of the kind reflected in the CRDC data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.7 Although statistical and quantitative data would not end an inquiry under Title IV or Title VI, significant and unexplained racial disparities in student discipline give rise to concerns that schools may be engaging in racial discrimination that violates the Federal civil rights laws.

The use of the term, “research suggests” is disturbing, as is the use of “may be engaging in racial discrimination.”  The letter goes on to fully support the school “pipeline to prison” trope, and, not so subtly encourages school districts to abandon suspensions and implement alternatives to suspension,

Schools are safer when all students feel comfortable and are engaged in the school community, and when teachers and administrators have the tools and training to prevent and address conflicts and challenges as they arise. Equipping school officials with an array of tools to support positive student behavior – thereby providing a range of options to prevent and address misconduct – will both promote safety and avoid the use of discipline policies that are discriminatory or inappropriate.

The feds skip to a chilling determination, the referring of a student for disciplinary action, like sending to a counselor, or a dean or the principal may be a discriminatory act on the part of the school, “…the initial referral of a student to the principal’s office for misconduct is a decision point that can raise concerns, to the extent that it entails the subjective exercise of unguided discretion in which racial biases or stereotypes may be manifested.

 In their investigations of school discipline, the Departments have noted that the initial referral of a student to the principal’s office for misconduct is a decision point that can raise concerns, to the extent that it entails the subjective exercise of unguided discretion in which racial biases or stereotypes may be manifested. If a school refers students for discipline because of their race, the school has engaged in discriminatory conduct regardless of whether the student referred has engaged in misbehavior. And even if the referrals do not ultimately lead to the imposition of disciplinary sanctions, the referrals alone result in reduced classroom time and academic instruction for the referred student. Furthermore, if a sanction from a discriminatory referral becomes part of the student’s school record, it could potentially enhance the penalty for subsequent misconduct and follow the student throughout the student’s academic career. Therefore, it is incumbent upon a school to take effective steps to eliminate all racial discrimination in initial discipline referrals.

The letter raises the legal principle of “disparate impact,”

… policy itself does not mention race – and is administered in an evenhanded manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.

“Disparate impact” equates to discrimination.

Bottom line: if greater percentages of students in “protected categories” are suspended this is evidence of discrimination.

The letter goes on for page after page spelling out scores of examples and defining, well, sort of defining which situations would be violations of federal statute. Simply, if you suspend more Afro-American than students white students the feds will consider this data evidence of discrimination on the part of the school district.

The larger unaddressed issue is the authority of the feds to impose these types of rules on schools. Aren’t issues like suspension policy, and curriculum, and teacher certification, etc., issues best left to the states? The new Every School Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires each state to create a state accountability plan – namely, identifying the lowest achieving Title 1 schools in the state. The easing of the federal role under the current Secretary may result in the rescission of the suspension “Dear Colleague” letter, and, probably also abandoning the active pursuit of school districts for alleged discriminatory acts around suspension policies.

New York State juvenile justice statistics show that juvenile crime is heavily concentrated in a few neighborhoods. You can superimpose poverty by zip code over the same areas as well as poverty risk load factors, not surprisingly the same schools with high suspension rates are located in high crime communities along with unemployment,  shelters, etc. Within these geographic catchments schools have high rates of suspension, and, a few virtually no suspensions.  Are the schools accepting chaos? Or, have they figured out alternatives?

A number of years ago I worked in a consultant capacity on a high suspension high school campus. The Department school safety folk showed us how to map suspensions: identifying the geographic location in the school of the precipitating event. The most common area: classrooms or outside of classrooms of inexperienced and/or less effective teachers. We worked with specific teachers, improving the quality of instruction and reduced suspensions.

I don’t oppose the restorative practices, I’m just not confident that interceding after the event is an effective approach.  Unless what takes place during the period of suspension: counseling, meeting with the parent, etc.,  improves behavior, the suspension process is not effective.

I fear we are not selecting school leaders with the proper skills as well as properly providing teachers with the requisite skills. Once again, the “answer” is not in Washington.

What are the qualities of teachers, school leaders and school communities with low or no suspensions in high suspension catchment areas?

A topic for another blog: for me, the crux of the issue.

The Suspension Conundrum: Do Suspensions Improve Behavior and Academic Outcomes for All Students or, a Pipeline to Dropping Out and Prison?

A few weeks after the election of de Blasio in 2013 I dropped by the transition tent to listen to a panel of community activists talk education. The panel trashed the Department of Education over excessive numbers of student suspensions, for the panelists, evidence that the “school to prison pipeline” was alive and well.

(Read here, here  and here).

The data is clear, students who are suspended in the 4th grade are likely not to graduate high school and the more frequent the suspensions the more likely the student will enter the criminal justice system.

As a reaction school districts have sharply curtailed the numbers of suspensions, especially in urban school systems.

Twenty-seven states have revised their laws to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, and more than 50 of America’s largest school districts, serving more than 6.35 million students, have implemented discipline reforms. From 2011–12 to 2013–14, the number of suspensions nationwide fell by nearly 20%.

Is there a downside to reducing suspensions?

Advocates of discipline reform claim that a suspension may have negative effects on the student being disciplined. Critics are concerned that lax discipline may lead to more disruptive behavior, disrupting classrooms and harming students who want to learn.

A just-released report from the Manhattan Institute (“School Discipline Reform and Disorder: Evidence from New York City Public School, 2012 – 2016 “) takes a deep dive into the suspension and school climate data.

The report concludes,

[School discipline] deteriorated rapidly under de Blasio’s. Specifically, teachers report [note: using school survey data] less order and discipline, and students report less mutual respect among their peers, as well as more violence, drug and alcohol use, and gang activity. There was also a significant differential racial impact: nonelementary schools where more than 90% of students were minorities experienced the worst shift in school climate under the de Blasio reform.

Supporters of the regulations limiting suspensions argue that new approaches, restorative justice and, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports  are in the beginning phases of implementation, it will take a number of years to train school staffs and assess the effectiveness.

What is missing from the debate are the underlying questions:

* Are students actually exhibiting behaviors that are inappropriate in school settings, and, if so, why?

* Is the failure of teachers to address these behaviors the cause of the suspensions? Is the preparation of school leaders/teachers inadequate? Are school leaders/teachers culturally and racially insensitive?

* Do suspensions modify the behavior of the students who are suspended?

* Do suspensions improve the outcomes for the remainder of the students in the classes?

and a core question,

Why do schools with similar populations have such different rates of suspension?  Are we preparing and selecting the “right” school leaders?

I was visiting a middle school in community (in)famous for handgun violence. One school was on the first two floors and another on the top floor. As I walked up the stairs it was sadly clear that the school on the lower floors was out-of-control. The school on the top floor was totally in order. Same kids from the same community, different school leaders with different skill sets and different outcomes.

A campus high school, four schools in a building, had a long history of school suspensions. A since retired head of school safety looked over the data and explained how to construct a school safety grid. We mapped the “precipitating event” and time of the “event” on a map of the school. It was fascinating!!  The “precipitating events” took place in and around the student cafeteria and in the hallways. The hallway events were clustered near classrooms with newer and/or less effective teachers.  More supervision in the cafeteria and more help for targeted teachers led to a more orderly school, at least , for a while.

The key to reducing suspension are the effectiveness of the school leaders and the classroom teachers. Should Lisa Delpit (““The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,”) be a foundational text for every teacher preparation classroom, or, because it is the foundational text, is that the source of poorly prepared teachers?

Will increasing the numbers of black teachers improve outcomes and reduce suspensions of black students? and, if so, why? (Read research findings here)

…there is compelling evidence that when students have a teacher of the same race, they tend to learn more at school (see “The Race Connection,” research, Spring 2004).

Those findings raise a parallel question: Does having a teacher of the same race make it more or less likely that students are subject to exclusionary school discipline?

David Kirkland, A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men (Teachers College Press, 2013)

… argues that educators need to understand the social worlds of African-American males to break the school-to-prison pipeline cycle.  The book asks the education community to listen to the voices of black youth to better understand what it means to be literate in a multicultural, democratic society.

Once again, is the source of the “problem” the failure to properly prepare teachers and school leaders?

If we expect student behavior to improve we must modify our behaviors. Suspension is a last resort, yes, occasionally the “street” does win. Schools reflect the cultures of their communities. The role of a school is to convince students to become “bi-cultural,” to accept that the culture of the street is not acceptable in a school setting. Teachers have argued that a suspension may “straighten out” a kid, and, is a lesson for the other kids: misbehave and you’ll be next to be suspended.  Does zero tolerance or suspensions improve outcomes for the remainder of the class?

The most common place for pickpockets to ply there trade was at the hangings of pickpockets. The area of deterrence theory may be applicable to the question of school discipline “The Deterrence Hypothesis and Picking Pockets at the Pickpocket’s Hanging,”

This study examines the premise that criminals make informed and calculated decisions. The findings suggest that 76% of active criminals and 89% of the most violent criminals either perceive no risk of apprehension or are incognizant of the likely punishments for their crimes.

Studying behaviors of principals in low suspension schools in high suspensions districts is a place to begin. Unfortunately school district leadership usually looks for the quick fix, the “program” that will “fix” the problem. I have no objection to restorative practices or PBIS, I have rarely seen a program that fixes such a deep-seated issue. “Turning off the faucet,” changing the regs to limit suspensions, does not resolve the underlying issue. Harsh and rigid suspension rules do not  appear to impact the suspended student or the remainder of the students.

Some principals and teachers have figured this out, maybe we should find them and listen to them.