A Third Way, Not A Third Rail on School Discipline

A Third Way, Not A Third Rail on School Discipline
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In this Dec. 20, 2013 file photo, students use the entrance for Success Academy and Opportunity Charity schools, both of which share space inside Harlem's P.S. 241, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

RCEd Commentary

Overly harsh and unfair school discipline policies have, for years, been fodder for finger-pointing and the rampant blame game makes it less likely that we will find smart policy solutions for an intractable problem that plagues all school types.

The New York Times recently reported that a principal at a Success Academy charter school in Brooklyn maintained a “Got to Go” list of disruptive students. The article was the smoking gun confirming what those on one side of this vitriolic debate already believed: that strong academic performance of “no excuses” type charter schools such as Success Academy are the result of overly harsh discipline policies that expel disruptive students who might otherwise bring their test scores down. Diane Ravitch, an outspoken critic of Success and of charter schools in general, called the move, “the Secret of Success.”  

Some charter advocates came to a similarly stark, but opposite conclusion: Michael Petrilli, president of D.C. think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, argued that charter schools must be able to remove “disruptors” to protect the learning environment for “strivers.”

By rushing to their predictable corners of the ring on this issue, both sides perpetuate dangerous myths that, if left unchallenged, do kids and schools a profound disservice.

Myth #1: Exclusionary discipline is a charter school problem

“Got to Go” lists are not new. Exclusionary discipline practices in public schools are at record highs. Nationally, roughly 35 percent of all children are suspended at least once between kindergarten and 12th grade. The rate for African American boys is nearly twice this overall rate.

Since the advent of “zero tolerance” school discipline policies, the range of infractions that can result in exclusionary discipline has broadened, and the bar for what can get a student removed from school is at an alarming low.  Over nine out of every 10 out-of-school suspensions nationwide are for nonviolent misbehavior like being disruptive, acting disrespectfully, or dress code violations.  These subjectively determined infractions are much more commonly meted out to Hispanic and African American children than to their white peers. While concerns over high rates of exclusionary discipline has led some school districts, including those in Los Angeles and New York, to introduce discipline reform initiatives, the problem persists in far too many public schools.

The overuse of exclusionary discipline is not confined by school type. Elite public and even private schools practice their own versions of exclusionary discipline.  Principals and teachers in both district and charter schools have the ability to abuse their power and peg certain students as “bad fits” for their school.

Myth #2: Good schools must choose between Disruptors and Strivers

No school, traditional district or charter, should ever treat a child, much less a troubled one, as a problem to be rid of. Yet schools can also not allow a small group of students to continually hinder the learning of many.

Good public schools know that kids are not fixed assets. With proper supports and early interventions, children Petrilli labels as “disrupters” are less likely to disrupt and more likely to be productive learners with the potential to become school and civic leaders. High-poverty charter schools can welcome and support even the most troubled child and provide them with what they need to excel.  

But school reformers race to defend the right of a charter school to discipline students however and whenever they want. At the same time, the anti-reform camp fails to show the same zeal in calling for a correction in the overuse of exclusionary discipline. Neither side recognizes that there are district and charter schools where all children are treated fairly and exclusionary discipline is only used as it was originally intended—as a punishment of last resort.

Some district superintendents regularly tout the strong achievements of local charter schools. Districts, including those in Denver and Cleveland, have forged deep partnerships with charter organizations and have even shifted how the central office manages and supports schools. And like Collegiate Academy charter schools in New Orleans, charter networks could employ the same tactics as districts that have sharply reduced the use of exclusionary discipline.  Such cities include Baltimore where the school district provided principals with alternatives to suspension and revamped the discipline code, Oakland where the district has heavily invested in a restorative justice model of discipline and Los Angeles Unified, which has reduced its overall suspension rates after eliminating suspensions for “willful defiance,” among other changes.

In other words, let’s take all the energy we are wasting in a shrill debate that helps no child, and start understanding what schools that get it right are doing.

Pitting charters against traditional public schools and perpetuating the myth that students fall neatly and statically into the categories of “strivers” and  “disrupters” doesn’t solve the school discipline conundrum.  Charter advocates must lead a “Third Way” solution on school discipline that favors effective interventions. Philanthropies can help by funding pilot programs and research about what works. A panel of experts recently recommended how to get started on a productive research agenda and how to fairly assess the charter sector on discipline.

A new, cross-sector network of charter, district, and even private schools could help by sharing effective practices and combatting sector comparisons. In the meantime, harsh and unfair discipline practices in all schools are worthy of scrutiny and overdue for correction.

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