A Tough Love Message to Charter Schools About the Dangers of Zero-Tolerance Discipline Policies

Mar 28, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Marilyn Rhames

I’m an avid supporter of charter schools. I work at one. I send my kids to one. I donate to one. I’m making this disclaimer early, lest what’s to come is misconstrued as anything other than a healthy dose of tough love. Charter schools were established to be innovators, trailblazers of educational best practices and new models of education that traditional schools could emulate. So when The New York Times reported on a study showing that in 2011-12, charter schools suspended black students four times as often as they did white kids, I was disheartened. I wasn’t one of those die-hard fans who asked, “Why pick on charters, traditional schools are just as bad?” The charter movement is and has never been a battle for the lesser of two evils. Early education reformers opened charters because they wanted to bring high-quality educational options to the poorest of children. Therefore, for charters to continue to make a case for their existence or growth, they need to be better than or at least just as good (not bad) as district schools. Charters cannot boast of providing school choice to parents if choosing them is as equally unattractive as the non-charter alternative. In addition to the vast racial disparity in discipline practices, the study purported that charters (as well as traditional schools) suspended students with disabilities two to three times more often than students without disabilities. That’s a double whammy for me as a mother of an African-American child with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Obviously all public schools—district and charter—need to ask themselves this hard question: Are our discipline policies reproducing the same racial injustice rampant in the criminal justice system (i.e., higher black arrest rates and prisons jam-packed with nonviolent offenders of color, many who suffer from mental illnesses)? If the answer is “yes,” then the next question these schools need to ask themselves is, “How are we going to fix it?”

It's Not About Being the Same

Charters are uniquely positioned to attack the last question with a vengeance. They have the autonomy to dream up all sorts of behavioral interventions for students and to form partnerships with community organizations that can offer support. They can creatively use their public and philanthropic dollars to invest in a disciplinary code revolution. Some smaller, more independent charters are already doing it. For example, Perspectives Charter Schools, which has five campuses in African-American communities in Chicago, launched a student-led peace initiative in 2014 that brought thousands of teens from across the city together, drawing national media attention. They have also made social-emotional learning an integral part of their college-prep educational model. Some of the nation’s larger “big-box” charter networks have super-strict discipline policies that falsely define how the public sees all charter schools. If the largest charter management organization in a school district has a “zero-tolerance” or “no-excuses” one-size-fits-all style discipline code, then that philosophy tends to dominate the charter debate, even when smaller charters fervently oppose those practices. The beauty about charter schools is that they are not supposed to be the same. Sameness is the antithesis of the innovation they are supposed to produce.

Here's the Problem

The problem, as I see it, is that the fundamental mission of innovation has drifted into an obsession with a “college-readiness” stance that asks students to play follow-the-leader rather than empowering them to actually be leaders. This approach also elevates achieving high ACT scores over building students’ sense of self-worth through cultural awareness, critical thinking and student-driven knowledge acquisition. Academic rigor is god, and a kid’s socio-emotional learning is whatever lesson he internalizes after he’s been punished. This discipline strategy manages high school student behavior by dictating what kids can wear; what colors they can dye their hair; how straight they sit at their desks; how closely they track their teacher; and even how silently they walk in the hallways during passing periods. Breaking these arbitrary rules can rack up demerits, which can lead to a detention, which can lead to a suspension, which can lead to grade retention. I was shocked by the resemblance to jail mentality when my 12-year-old nephew and my 13-year-old brother, both of whom attend a zero-tolerance charter school, discussed amongst themselves how they had “served their time” and how their “records were expunged.” Their school discipline is built on fear and compliance, not on ethics and community. It’s not restorative, just punitive. “Educators should not be teaching kids discipline,” an African-American leader of a national network of charter schools recently told me. “Discipline is just the tactic; keeping kids safe is the goal.” I’m under no delusion that it’s easy to educate children from America’s most ravaged communities. I’ve taught such kids, and while they embody so much hope and potential, their lives are also often filled with anxiety and pain. [pullquote]Much like the streets, zero-tolerance schools leave no room for mercy when these kids make inevitable mistakes.[/pullquote] To do our jobs well, charter and district schools have to prioritize social-emotional learning and value it as an essential component of a true “college-prep” curriculum. Teaching kids how to process and learn from their mistakes will give them tools for better intrinsic decision-making in college. Yes, restorative justice strategies are laborious, messy, and sometimes frustrating for adults, but studies show that the easy way out—suspension—actually does students harm, ushering otherwise non-violent kids onto streets that eventually lure them into criminal behavior. The New York Times article was embarrassing, but it presents a golden opportunity for all schools to begin to confront the issue of race and equity in discipline head on. I hope the study pushes charter schools that have implemented ultra-strict discipline policies to return to their original charge of creating bold, new paradigms to solve public education’s most pressing problems, including ending racially-charged suspensions.  

Marilyn Rhames

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” She is currently on the design team for Harvard University's Leaders' Institute for Faith and Education (LIFE). Marilyn has 14 years experience teaching in Chicago Public Schools, but before becoming an educator Marilyn worked as a journalist for People and Time magazines and for newspapers including New York Newsday and The Journal News. She currently writes for Education Post and has published pieces in the Huffington Post, Black Enterprise and RealClearEducation. Marilyn was named 2013 Commentator/Blogger of the Year by the Bammy Awards for her Education Week blog, entitled “Charting My Own Course." She was a 2016 Surge Institute Fellow and a Teach Plus teaching policy fellow from 2010-1012. Through her consulting firm Rhames Consulting, Marilyn offers a full range of services from education content editing to providing professional development on community engagement to public speaking on issues of faith, race, writing, and education. Marilyn has served as an education commentator on 90.1 FM Moody Radio Chicago; the presenter of a 2013 TEDx talk entitled “Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo”; and a 2017 speaker at the Yale University Education Leadership Conference. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a master’s degree in education from National Louis University. Marilyn is a wife and mother of three. In August 2017, she came together with more than 40 other African-American parents, students and teachers to talk about the Black experience in America's public schools. These conversations were released as a video series in Getting Real About Education: A Conversation With Black Parents, Teachers and Students.

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