Tag Archives: student suspensions

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.

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Success Academy Charter School Staff Diversity: Why is the Staff Overwhelming White? Tone Deaf? By Choice? A Diverse Workforce is Essential in the 21st Century.

The NY Daily News reports,

More than 1,000 city charter school teachers will rally for change Wednesday in Manhattan’s Foley Square, officials from a pro-charter school group said Friday.

Families for Excellent Schools’ CEO Jeremiah Kittredge said, “Great teachers change children’s lives every day, … Teachers will stand united to demand an end to this education inequality.”

Families for Excellent Schools is the very deep pocketed advocacy organization that pays for the TV ads, trashes Mayor de Blasio and the teachers union, and, refuses to disclose the source of their millions.

Most of the charter school teachers will come from 34-school Success Academy Charter network led by Eva Moskowitz.

As you look out over the crowd you’ll notice one striking factor – the teachers are overwhelming white. Charter schools proudly proclaim that their hands aren’t tied by union rules or other regulations, in fact, state law give them wide discretion in hiring, they can hire non-certified teachers. It is strange that they choose to hire a less diverse teaching force.

A recent report tallies the diversity among teachers in the Success Academy schools,

The information below was obtained by the Teachers Diversity Committee (TDC) of NYC from Success Academy charter schools that responded to our request. The percentage of white teachers at each Success Academy School is listed below for the 2013-2014 school year:
SA Cobble Hill 82%
SA Crown Heights 57%
SA Fort Green 100%
SA Harlem I 73%
SA Harlem II 63%
SA Harlem III 61%
SA Harlem IV 56%
SA Harlem V 76%
SA Hell’s Kitchen 89%
SA Prospect Heights 91%
SA Upper West 82%
SA Williamsburg 71%
SA Bed-Stuy II 80%
SA Bronx I 74%
SA Bronx II 66%

In 2012 58.6% of teachers in the NYC public schools were white. Out of the 15 Success Academy Charter schools listed above, 13 out of 15 have a higher percentage of white teachers than was the city wide average for public schools in NYC.

The Success Academy did not respond to requests for comment from the Teachers Diversity Committee of NYC, the source of the report above.

Why is the Success Academy network not seeking a more diverse teacher workforce?

Perhaps they will argue they cannot find enough “qualified” teachers of color, an argument that would be pilloried in the public arena.

Perhaps they will argue, they follow the law and are color blind in hiring, they hire the “best and the brightest” regardless of color or ethnicity.

Perhaps they aren’t getting many applicants from prospective teachers of color.

The pedagogy in the Success Academy schools is rote, highly disciplined and punishment, suspensions, are commonplace, perhaps the pedagogical/discipline practices chase away teachers of color.

John Merrow on PBS reports on the high levels of suspensions in kindergarten in the Success Academy schools, that’s right, suspending five year olds, watch the brief U-Tube,

The data on the impact of suspensions is indisputable; students who are frequently suspended are far more likely to drop out of school and far more likely to end up in the prison system – the school to prison pipeline. Perhaps teachers of color choose not to participate in a system that might raise test scores for some while driving out others and beginning their path down the pipeline to prison.

Lingering but unsaid: does race matter? Does the race of the teacher impact student achievement? Should schools, at the K-12 or the college level seek teachers who can serve as mentors, as role models for students of color?

The literature supporting mentoring/role model relationships is vast, at the K – 12 and at college level.

A few weeks ago I was at a tailgate before a football game, as a car passed the window rolled down and someone yelled out the name of the teacher who was standing next to me. A few minutes later, the former student wrapped his former teacher in a bear hug and exclaimed to everyone how the teacher had changed his life. A decade earlier he had been a black student in an overwhelmingly white school with an almost all white staff – the black teacher had “saved” the black student. Yes, an anecdote, a white teacher may have played the same role; however, in my experience role models are extremely important for kids, and diverse teaching forces provide opportunities for role models and developing mentor-mentee relationships.

Race alone does not make for a more effective teaching force; however, a diverse teaching force is vital for the staff as well as for the student body.

Charter schools have a unique “advantage” over public schools as far as test scores are concerned – they can force out the low performers, either through expelling a student for disciplinary reasons or making the student so uncomfortable that the parent withdraws the student. Charter schools also do not enroll the same percentages of students with disabilities or English language learners, and the students with disabilities that they do enroll have lesser handicaps that allow them to score higher on the state tests. If we compare “apples to apples,” general ed students to general ed public schools do as well or better than charter schools in the same district. An interesting study would be the impact of the force out charter school kids on the receiving public schools.

Success Academy and many other charter schools use a “no excuses” system – rigid rules, pre-scripted lessons, 100% focus on preparing for the state tests. The data is not encouraging. What percentage of entering kindergarten kids graduate to middle school in the fifth grade? The erosion of students is far higher than in public schools. Do charter schools fill the empty seats, seats vacated by students who are forced out? The answer is a resounding “no.”

What the Success Academy has been is very successful at attracting philanthropy. The larger charter school networks attract significant dollars to lower class size, train teachers, and provide high quality classrooms well-stocked with supplies. What is the per capita difference? We don’t know – the amount and use of the philanthropic dollars is not public information.

Whether the Success Academy network is simply tone deaf or is actively not seeking teachers of color, the result is the same. Diversity of staffs, for all-minority or all-white or integrated schools is essential.

To be perfectly honest I view with suspicion the hiring practices of the Success network – after all some of those black teachers may be secret Black Panthers, or, may be troublemakers, they may ask hard questions, let’s just only hire “safe” teachers, teachers who will keep their mouths shut and do what they’re told.

Ultimately I fear the Success practices will exacerbate not assuage student achievement gaps, graduation rates and college retention.