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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Fool's Errand: Reforming Discipline without Also Addressing School Quality

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
April 12, 2016

"Social science increasingly demonstrates that discipline rates are a function of school quality and vice versa. In other words, low quality educational opportunities lead to discipline problems, and discipline problems lead to low quality education. Thus, one cannot be fixed without the other."

When districts attempt to reduce suspensions and expulsions, the message many teachers hear is "no more suspensions." Whether that it is the unstated and implied policy in some districts is unclear. I heard from a reliable source that this was the unwritten but stated policy a few years ago in a major district that had come under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights (given my inability to confirm this, I will keep the district's name to myself).

The more likely and prevalent explanation, however, is that school leaders and teachers are missing the all-important aspect of implementing new discipline policies. No doubt, severely reducing suspensions and expulsions is the goal of discipline reform, but that goal cannot be appropriately and responsibly achieved without changing teachers' and principals' orientation toward discipline.

This, of course, does not happen overnight and does not happen simply by stating a new goal. It requires resources, training, practice, and a cultural shift. In the absence of those changes, teachers think they are simply being told to tolerate egregious behavior. And maybe they are.

Take this story in the NY Post this week:

"Under pressure from Obama educrats, public school districts are no longer suspending even violent students; but now, under pressure from Black Lives Matter, they are suspending teachers who complain about not suspending bad kids.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, a high school teacher was put on administrative leave last month after Black Lives Matter threatened to shut down the school because the teacher complained about lenient discipline policies that have led to a string of assaults on fellow teachers.

Last month, two students at Como Park Senior High School punched and body slammed a business teacher unconscious, opening a head wound that required staples. And earlier in the year, another student choked a science teacher into a partial coma that left him hospitalized for several days.

In both cases, the teachers were white and the students black.

Theo Olson, a teacher at the school, complained on Facebook about new district policies that fail to punish kids for fighting and drug-dealing. Like dozens of cities across the country — including New York — St. Paul adopted the policies in compliance with new discipline guidelines issued by the Obama administration.

The Education Department has threatened school districts with lawsuits and funding cuts wherever if finds racial “disparities” in suspensions and expulsions, arguing such disparities have created a “school-to-prison pipeline” for African-Americans children. The agency claims such disparities are the product of racism in schools."

The danger in these conversations is pitting students and teachers against one another. If it is the case that schools are not supporting and training teachers in the transition to new discipline systems, then teachers become victims, of a sort, as well.

I have little doubt that under-supported discipline systems are the norm in many places where the education system is abysmal as a general matter. Take Philadelphia, for instance. The school district has been woefully underfunded by the state for years, is bleeding students to charter schools, suffers from a problematic reimbursement system by which it must send large amounts of money to charters, and was on the brink of collapse during the recession when the most basic of staff and resources were eliminated.

More recently, the entire state's education system faced shut downs because the state could not/would not pass a budget. Under these circumstances, one wonders how much serious attention and how many resources are devoted to training school staff on discipline and providing positive behavioral supports for students and teachers.

In the absence of these resources, it is no surprise that Philadelphia Teachers' Union was livid about the district's insistence that suspension and expulsion rates drop precipitously.

As the foregoing suggests, the missing link in districts' strategies and teachers' perception is school quality itself. Social science increasingly demonstrates that discipline rates are a function of school quality and vice versa. In other words, low quality educational opportunities lead to discipline problems, and discipline problems lead to low quality education. Thus, one cannot be fixed without the other.

Equally important, discipline systems matter for more than just the "misbehaving student." They matter for "innocent bystanders." When schools fail to invest in pedagogically sound discipline practices, they harm all students, not just the so-called bad apples. And by harm, I mean reduced educational outcomes and achievement.

In this respect, the solution to our discipline problems is the solution to our education quality challenges. I flesh out a full explanation of this social science and argument here.

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