Tag Archives: PBIS

Do Suspensions Work? A Tool to Improve Student Behaviors and/or a Pipeline to Prison?

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.

Bottom lines:

  • 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?

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.