What Do We Actually Know About Discipline Reform?

Feb 7, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Question: Which does more harm?
  • Over-suspending disruptive kids, which denies them learning time and contributes to the dropout rate.
  • Under-suspending disruptive kids, which undermines the education of well-behaved kids and, in theory, makes schools less safe.
Answer: No one has any idea. But that hasn’t stop some conservatives from running a campaign to get rid of federal guidance urging schools to reduce suspensions in the wake of national data showing that Black students are three times more likely to be suspended than White kids. Students with disabilities are also disproportionately suspended. Sadly, the federal data includes preschool, where Black toddlers are much more frequently sent home from school for misbehaving than White toddlers. In 2014, the Obama administration issued guidance encouraging school districts to reform disciplinary practices to reduce the “disparate impact” on kids of color and students with disabilities. In response, some predicted it would trigger a tidal wave of investigations, school districts would simply stop suspending, and chaos would follow. As the term implies, “guidance” is not a requirement but rather a suggestion, though it carries with it the possibility of federal intervention for civil rights violations. It is a common communications tool used by federal agencies to help states and localities figure out how to implement federal laws, which are often vague and even contradictory. Nevertheless, small-government conservatives hate guidance when it applies to education, which they see as strictly a local responsibility. Many of them wish the Department of Education ceased to exist.

Many Districts Were Already Ahead of the Curve

We further know that, even before the guidance was issued in 2014, many school districts concerned about over-suspension of Black and Latino students began implementing restorative justice programs, aimed at resolving conflicts through individual counseling, group discussion and other “non-exclusionary” approaches. One teacher explains how a simple demonstration of care and trust is often all that’s needed. One result of these efforts is that, in the last few years, suspensions are down by 20 percent nationwide. This may be contributing to the nation’s rising high school graduation rate and may also be contributing to the recent decline in the prison population, given the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline. What we absolutely do not know is whether public schools are any less safe because of the federal guidance or because of the adoption of restorative justice practices.

We Have Decades of Evidence That Should Calm Conservatives’ Nerves

Finally, we know that, in response to complaints, the federal government has been investigating school districts for unfair discipline practices for decades. It’s a standard function of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education. But here’s one other very important thing we know—and it comes directly from the former assistant secretary for OCR. The DOE has never launched an investigation based on “disparate impact.” Conservative worries of heavy-handed federal lawyers launching investigations willy-nilly are entirely unfounded. It did not happen. Nevertheless, this absence of evidence of schools in chaos or of lawyers run amok has not deterred them in their determination to roll back the Obama guidance. Instead, they cobbled together school climate surveys, random anecdotes and data-driven guesswork to argue that “evidence” shows these policies cause harm and put kids at risk. Their argument rests on the divisive assertion that poor kids of color have demonstrably worse behavior than middle-class White kids and therefore higher suspension rates are not only justified but are a moral necessity. Like the protagonists in “The Blues Brothers,” they believe they are on a mission from God and are quick to downplay alternate theories for the disparity like bias among White teachers and administrators. The negative reaction from progressives and people of color was swift—ranging from outright accusations of racism to reasoned arguments about higher levels of trauma facing low-income kids of color and students with special needs. Progressive education reformers argue for additional counseling services and more training for teachers as well as a greater focus on student engagement; many kids act out in class simply because they are bored. Given the divide, let’s stipulate that our common goal should be neither zero tolerance nor zero discipline but as few suspensions as possible without compromising student safety or sacrificing student learning. We can also agree that we can’t have a productive debate if we aren’t honest about what we know and don’t know—and the one thing we absolutely know is existing discipline policies disproportionately hurt students of color. The discipline issue plays out every day in schools across America and in conversations like this one in Chicago, where parents, teachers and students of color are serious about both discipline and learning. Ideologues more concerned with limiting the federal role than with protecting students should get out of their bubble and spend more time listening to them.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and Foolproofme.com, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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