After U.S. Education Secretary John King encouraged charters to rethink their discipline policies, many of the ensuing conversations have been problematic.
As someone who has worked on discipline reform for over a decade, I’m troubled by conversations dismissing calls for authorizers and charter schools to publicly report discipline rates in the name of school autonomy.
A long history of research showing that discipline is complicated by race makes clear that data transparency and accountability must be part of any discipline reform.
We Can’t Blame Disruptive Students
Too often, high rates of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions at some charter and other public schools are justified to create orderly classrooms.
But discipline has never been just an issue of disruptive students. Many studies have consistently found that a host of external factors—from school culture to the individual relationship between student and teacher—are a major determinant in how exclusionary discipline is meted out.
In a seminal study still referenced by researchers today, school factors were such strong predictors of student removal that the authors concluded that a student could better reduce his chances of being suspended by simply transferring schools rather than improving his attitude.
More recently, a study of African-American high school students found that the likelihood of students receiving an Office Discipline Referral (ODR) was classroom specific: particular student-teacher relationships produced the vast majority of discipline referrals among these students.
The decision to use discipline isn’t consistent across schools—it’s not even consistent from classroom to classroom within a school. Blaming disruptive students doesn’t hold up.
But even if we set studies like these aside and insist that it’s just misbehaving kids who are being removed from school, or that we should protect the learning environment for kids who want to learn, we still must be honest and discuss the persistent issue of race in suspensions and expulsions.
The Issue of Race
Disciplinary disparities for Black students have been consistently documented going back at least 40 years, beginning with a national report by the Children’s Defense Fund in 1975. Last year, a report from Stanford University found teachers of all races are more likely to punish Black students than their peers. Additionally, some strong and recent longitudinal evidence shows that nearly 2 out of 3 Black boys are suspended at one point in their K-12 careers, with nearly 1 in 5 suspended for an aggregate of a month or more.
Do we really believe that 2 out of every 3 Black boys don’t want to learn and are disruptive?
We need many different approaches to school discipline that keep kids safe and learning. School leaders should have the tools and the autonomy to use them, including the use of suspension and expulsion, when justified. And top-down mandates for reform will be less effective and sustainable compared to change that originates from schools and communities.
Yet it’s only because discipline is carried out so inequitably that we must continue to monitor and report on suspension and expulsion rates. The old adage is true: “What gets measured gets done.” And when schools actively monitor discipline rates, we’ve seen them go down, all while creating orderly, effective learning environments.
A study of three charter schools in Washington, D.C., Center City Public Charter School (PCS), Chavez PCS, and Friendship PCS, looks into how schools are reducing out-of-school suspensions. All three schools focus on building strong relationships between students and teachers—a key finding from emerging research on how to reduce disciplinary disparities—as well as finding the cause of a student’s behavior and engaging parents. In addition to these efforts, these schools track data to monitor their progress.
Another study found that by effectively implementing restorative practices, Denver Public Schools has seen a subsequent reduction in the use of exclusionary discipline and an increase in academic achievement.
We know there is not a one-size-fits-all approach that works for all schools. But many schools—charter and other public schools alike—are committed to turning the tide against harsh school climates using data and transparency.
As our discussion about student discipline continues, we would do well to watch the numbers coming out of these schools that have been studied and learn more about fostering healthier classroom climates for all children.