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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Education Reform Must Include Discipline Reform

From Real Clear Education

By Abel McDaniels and Erin Roth
March 27, 2018


As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos prepares to rescind President Obama’s school discipline guidance, the D.C. Council’s Education Committee approved a bold bill that would reaffirm students’ right to a public education. These two strategies stand in stark contrast of one another.

Rescinding federal guidance leaves suspensions and expulsions up to local discretion, regardless of the disproportionate impact on students of color. The District’s proposed legislation, by contrast, would lower the continuing disproportionate impact of exclusionary discipline on historically underserved populations. 

At its heart, the Student Fair Access to Schools Act clarifies expectations for how the city’s district and charter schools should discipline students, and places limits on when schools can remove students from schools.


As D.C. teeters on the precipice of continued school reform, this localized legislation could serve as a strong model in the broader national debate, showing that policy can and should provide clear guidance and parameters about when it is appropriate to remove students from school.

When it comes to large swaths of historically disadvantaged students, data suggests that D.C. public schools may be over-relying on exclusionary discipline. In the last two years, although the total number of out of school suspensions decreased, disparities based on race and income actually worsened.

Moreover, more of these suspensions resulted from highly subjective infractions, such as “disrespect, insubordination, and disruption.” The new legislation sets evidence-based parameters on the use of suspensions for subjective infractions and those such as attendance, tardiness, and uniform violations.

These necessary policy guardrails could go far in attenuating the decades-long disparate impact of exclusionary discipline on students of color in the District.

Some schools have decided to reduce or eliminate suspensions on their own, and are seeing promising results. At Houston Elementary in Ward 7, Principal Rembert Seaward adopted mindfulness training and contracted with Turnaround for Children, an organization that supports student development and achievement in high-poverty schools. Staff were trained in trauma-informed teaching and are able to consult with a mental health provider.

Similarly, the all-male Ron Brown High School emphasizes restorative justice over exclusionary discipline. Multiple organizations that partner with DC schools and students have testified to the continued desire and need for more resources and support for alternative discipline strategies.

Without more holistic reform, student achievement for those most in need may continue to plateau. Across the nation many have looked to D.C. as a model of urban education reform: in particular in light of its transition to mayoral control of schools, the expansion of charter options, and new methods for hiring, evaluating, and compensating teachers and leaders.

The District’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) gains were larger than any other school district’s between 2007 and 2015.

Unfortunately, the progress that has been made in the District has not reached all communities. More than half of both black students (56 percent) and low-income students (58 percent) performed below proficient on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DCAS) in 2015, and, graduation scandal aside, graduation rates remained low for male and low-income students.

The District’s schools will probably continue to face large achievement gaps unless reform efforts expand their scope.

To be clear, this legislation is not perfect. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education should collect qualitative and quantitative data to provide necessary checks and balances and to mitigate unintended consequences, like greater use of in-school suspension. Ideally, this bill would also include the resources educators need to rethink discipline, rather than providing those through a separate appropriations bill.

Still, the Student Fair Access to School Act rightly affirms the vital role of discipline reform in the broader urban education reform movement.

While the bill awaits a full vote from the D.C. Council, conservatives have reignited their support for rolling back Obama-era discipline guidance nationally. Data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and multiple other studies show that disparities in discipline are pervasive across the country.

Yet, conservatives have used faulty, biased analyses to argue that exclusionary discipline makes schools safer, and they are capitalizing on the Parkland shooting in their campaign to roll back discipline reform on the federal level.

Public schools cannot continue to disproportionately discipline students of color and students with disabilities and deny them an education in the process. In jurisdictions that are not proactively reforming discipline policies, rolling back the Obama-era guidance would remove protections for students.

High rates of disproportionate exclusionary discipline are the legacy of systemic disinvestment in schools that serve low-income communities of color. Combined with overaggressive law enforcement policies, they have facilitated the damaging school-to-prison pipeline.

Commentators on both sides of the aisle have recognized the need to reform our criminal justice system, and now it is time for a new paradigm in education as well. Betsy DeVos, Marco Rubio, and other critics of discipline reform should look to the District’s example.

Abel McDaniels is a research associate for K–12 Education at the Center for American Progress. Erin Roth is a senior policy analyst for K–12 Education at the Center.

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