Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Backlash to School Discipline Reform Is Ignoring Two Major Points

Yesterday, Bloomberg published an editorial that summed up the views of those who want the U.S. Department of Education to rescind its guidance on racial disparities in school discipline.  The editorial argued:

When students misbehave in the classroom -- and, so long as the prefrontal cortex continues to be the last part of the human brain to develop, they will -- they should have to answer to their teachers. The federal government need not get involved.

Yet federal policies currently discourage schools from suspending chronically disruptive kids, harming the vast majority of students who actually want to learn. In 2014, the federal government warned school districts that they could be investigated for civil rights violations if their disciplinary policies were found to have a disparate impact on students based on race.

The most remarkable lines of the editorial admit that "black students are suspended at nearly four times the rate as white students, and that African-American students are more likely to receive heavier punishments for the same offenses."  I cannot fathom how this is not the business of the federal government. 

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits racial discrimination in all programs receiving federal funds.  Department of Education regulations further prohibit policies whose effect is to discriminate based on racial.  As a practical matter, these regulations are say that if a school's policies produce large racial disparities, the school should have a good explanation for those disparities.  If it does, fine.  If not, the district should change.

When districts suspend African Americans at four times the rate of whites, they should have to explain the disparity.  If the answer is that African Americans are misbehaving more and the districts need to suspend them, fine, they can continue as is.  But if African Americans are receiving heavier punishments for the same offenses--which the editorial admits--the district must change because the district is discriminating.

I cannot imagine a theory under which the federal government would say, "that's okay.  You guys figure out a solution that suits you."  We certainly would not say that the very people who are engaging in discrimination--whether it is conscious or subconscious bias--are the ones best suited to devise a solution.  Yet, that is exactly what the Bloomberg editorial says: "Student discipline should be handled at the local level -- and as much as possible, left to the discretion of individual principals and teachers."

With that said, I am sympathetic to another point the editorial raises.  It points to studies that find bans or serious limits on suspensions and expulsions have had negative effects on well-behaving students.  Yet the conclusions it draws from this research are all wrong.

In writing and discussing Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline, I have always been clear that while we must end punitive discipline policies that quickly suspend and expel students, if that is all we do, we are wasting our time.  The proposed reform has never been to simply end school exclusion.  The obvious result would be to make schools more chaotic.

But the proposed reform is to rework school discipline entirely--to replace school exclusion with positive behavioral support and restorative justice programs.  Those programs improve student behavior so that there is less misbehavior for which to suspend students. The problem is not that the federal guidance is attempting to curb suspension and expulsions.  The problem is that schools are not devoting the necessary resources to the positive behavioral supports and restorative justice programs that the guidance also recommends.

The claim that reform hurts the "good" kids also ignores the cost of doing nothing.  Doing nothing--and thus retaining zero tolerance-- also hurts the good kids.  We just don't talk about it enough because it is not as intuitive.  Yet, a growing body of research makes the negative effects of harsh discipline on innocent bystanders clear.  

Summarizing and citing that research, I write in Reforming School Discipline,

Current research goes far beyond the simplistic notion that if misbehaving students are disrupting their classmates, their classmates learn less. If that were all the data revealed, schools might reasonably exclude the misbehaving student in the interest of preserving the educational environment for others. Nuanced studies indicate that a school’s approach to discipline and frequency of suspensions heavily influence student achievement. Even after controlling for race, poverty, and school type, suspension rates predict more than one-third of a school’s overall academic achievement. With all other things being equal, academic achievement is lower in schools with higher suspension rates. As one study put it, “serving a high percentage of poor minority children does not mean that a school will necessarily have a high suspension rate,” but having a high suspension rate does seem to mean that academic achievement, as measured by test scores, will decline.

These findings would appear to fly in the face of conventional wisdom that believes excluding misbehaving students ensures orderly learning environments for everyone else. The explanation lies in the fact that while schools must address and prevent misbehavior, how schools respond matters immensely. First, schools’ response to student misbehavior—not just the misbehavior itself—affects the learning environment. Suspending students on a regular basis negatively affects the general student body’s perception of school authority and the school’s climate.

Second, as discipline becomes overly strict or harsh, the general student body—including well-behaved students—begins to perceive school authorities as arbitrary and unfair. At that point, students may have any number of negative reactions, including resentment, opposition, fear, or disillusionment. Some students who previously had no behavioral problems begin to act out, and misbehavior among “bad” students becomes all the more frequent. Schools that persist in the idea that the problems with the school climate stem solely from misbehaving students, rather than the school’s discipline policies, can spiral into complete dysfunction. In short, schools cannot simply suspend their way out of discipline problems.

Third, negative climates seemingly combine with escalating student misbehavior to drive down the academic achievement of “innocent bystanders.” New studies focus on how innocent bystanders suffer the “collateral consequences” of harsh discipline policies. Tracking student suspensions and math achievement across years, researchers find that high levels of exclusionary discipline negatively affect the academic achievement of nonsuspended students. The effect is strongest in schools with low levels of violence and high levels of exclusionary discipline. 

Finally, environmental climates and student achievement also have reciprocal effects on students’ access to the most vital educational resource: quality teachers. Teachers in negative environments are more likely to be absent from school, transfer schools, or quit teaching altogether. The result is a further lowering of instructional and teacher quality in these schools. The lowering of the quality of teaching further depresses a school’s academic achievement, which makes it more difficult to attract quality teachers. In short, once climate, discipline, achievement, and teacher quality begin to interact negatively, a vicious cycle can form, from which it is hard to escape.

In that article, I also make the stern warning that we cannot pit "good" students against "bad" students.  As long as that is the frame of the debate, good students will always win.  More important, that framing entirely misunderstands school discipline.  It is not an "us versus them" issue.

School discipline is about school quality.  Though we always discuss quality and discipline as distinct issues, they are inseparable in the real world.  The key to improving school quality is improving school discipline and vice versa.  Again, I explain:

Empirical evidence indicates that schools cannot consistently deliver equal and adequate education opportunities without also ensuring effective discipline policy. Dysfunctional disciplinary environments deprive all students, including well-behaved students, of access to equal and adequate educational opportunities. . . .

[Because] punitive discipline undermines educational quality in general, . . . punitive discipline [is] the enemy of quality educational opportunities and, thus, the interests of all students. With that framing, non-punitive approaches to discipline that emphasize positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior and early individualized interventions for students showing signs of misbehavior become a strategy to improve overall educational outcomes.

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