It’s Time for a Discipline Revolution in Our Schools

Aug 29, 2018 12:00:00 AM


It’s back-to-school season and, this year more than ever, it is time to rethink how we approach student discipline. Dramatic current events, a steady drumbeat of data and research and vocal activists have created an urgent case for change. For this reason, the families and educators I've had the pleasure of working with across the country are declaring this [pullquote position="right"]the year of the discipline revolution.[/pullquote] This school year, more and more families and educators know that suspending students doesn't actually help change their behavior. In many cases, it can actually cause more problems. This school year, more and more families and educators are walking through their school doors knowing that building healthy relationships is key to getting better outcomes for their students, in school and in life. Research shows that students who have experienced childhood trauma are far more likely to excel when they develop trusting relationships with adults. This school year, more and more teachers, students and families are embracing new strategies to hold students accountable while building trust and relationships. [pullquote position="left"]Shaming and excluding students—even when they are making mistakes—doesn't build trust.[/pullquote] It’s time for a discipline revolution.

School Safety

Just about every teacher and administrator is walking into school this year with safety on their minds (think about it, both the Parkland students and Betsy DeVos have separately been on tour talking about it). More and more educators, students and policymakers are realizing that they can't punish and suspend their way to an inclusive, positive school climate. Here’s the thing about school safety. The schools where students feel emotionally and physically safe have clear community-wide expectations that are crafted and enforced by adults and students. In these schools, students are treated as unique individuals with different needs and motivations, just like adults. Missteps, conflict and bullying—explicit and subtle—are handled skillfully so harm-doers and harm-experiencers can hear, be heard and grow. As a result, students feel more, not less accountable to change. In these schools, lessons are hard, fun, expertly crafted and action-packed so there is limited time for off-task behavior. [pullquote]The adults believe young people can learn things like self-regulation and cooperation just like they can learn algebra.[/pullquote] Moreover, they feel accountable for teaching these skills. Schools see families as true partners in helping their students grow and change. Educators ask families, well before something serious happens, what works—and they genuinely want to know. Students are clear about their interpersonal goals and feel like adults at home and at school are working together to help them realize them. Parents are not just called and informed of an incident and the child’s punishment, but rather engaged in the underlying cause and a plan to move forward for everyone involved. It’s time for a discipline revolution.

Race Matters

We also have to acknowledge that race is a factor. Thanks to viral cell phone videos and the efforts of Black Lives Matters activists, the public is finally waking up to the fact that our society routinely and unjustly criminalizes Black skin. And schools are certainly not immune. Black students, for example, are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers—very often for the same behavior. In kindergarten, Black boys are more likely to receive negative attention for simply acting like little kids and Black girls are labeled “less innocent” by adults. Black students and long-term English learners are more likely to be labeled “emotionally disturbed” and placed in segregated classrooms where their school and life outcomes are far worse than their White peers. More and more educators are waking up to their own biases, and more districts and charter management organizations are taking a hard look at school cultures that perpetuate White dominance. This year, more and more schools of all types are shifting policies and incentives to pursue more humane, effective and purposeful paths to ensuring school safety and a culture of learning and achievement for students of color. Educators, students and families thrive when students experience high expectations for academics and behavior and when students’ racial and cultural identities are affirmed. It’s time for a discipline revolution.

We’re Ready to Do the Work

This transformative change in our schools and society is challenging, and there will be bumps along the way. Fortunately, we have some momentum. Federal guidance—which is currently under threat—lights the way, gives urgency to the work to support the our most marginalized students and could propel greater equity. This year, more and more districts, schools and teachers are innovating with new approaches that keep kids safe, learning and valued. Families and students are stepping up to do their part. [pullquote]We know what works—and what doesn’t work—to help schools create the conditions for students to grow academically, socially and emotionally.[/pullquote] Moreover, the consequences of inaction are dire not just for students who already face the longest odds, but for our nation, as we seek to create a safe and equitable society. As educators, families and policymakers, we need to come together to radically rethink how we help students become their best selves. It’s time for a discipline revolution.

Cami Anderson

Cami Anderson is a lifelong educator and advocate for the nation’s most vulnerable students. After 20 years as a chief executive in government and nonprofits focused on equity for the most underserved populations in our country, Cami now leads ThirdWay Solutions, an organization dedicated to finding innovative, 21st century solutions to the most intractable challenges leaders face in pursuit of ambitious goals. Her organization recently launched The Discipline Revolution Project, a collective of education leaders from across the country working to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Cami spent a decade leading high-profile turnaround efforts, starting out as superintendent of New York City’s alternative high schools, focusing on students facing the longest odds: programs for pregnant and parenting teens, schools on Rikers Island, career and technical training for adults returning to school and services for students in need of significant mental health and family support.   After that, she led Newark Public Schools, putting in place key reforms that have led to notable increases outcomes for all students in the once-struggling district. Cami has also served as executive director of Teach For America New York, chief program officer of New Leaders for New Schools, issues and strategy director for the Friends of Cory Booker and a middle school teacher. Cami is a lifelong advocate for gender equity, intersectional feminism and Title IX, spearheading successful legal action against the University of California for gender discrimination in sports and helping found A Harlem Women's Movement. She was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people and is the recipient of the Peter Jennings Award for Civic Excellence, the National Points of Light Award for Service, among other honors. She’s widely published from The Wall Street Journal to The Hill to Education Week on issues of leadership and equity. A sister to 11 and aunt to 18, Cami speaks and conducts trainings all over the country and lives with her partner and son in Harlem, New York. You can hear more about Cami’s approach to education in her TEDx talk and read about her work on ending biases in student discipline here and here.

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