To Help Troubled Students, Teachers Need Support Not 'Guidance'

To Help Troubled Students, Teachers Need Support Not 'Guidance'
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Three students stabbed in one week. That’s how 2018 began for New Rochelle High School in Westchester, New York. These school stabbings came just months after the highly publicized, fatal stabbing of a student at Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx.

As Americans try to understand the increase of violence in their public schools, the Obama administration’s 2014 school discipline reforms have received a lot of attention. The policy, written by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, took the form of a discipline guidance letter. It warned school districts that if their disciplinary procedures showed a disparate impact on students based on race, then the federal government could investigate them for civil rights violations. It also encouraged districts to use alternative discipline programs and classroom management practices in place of traditional discipline policies.

Although the guidance never became a formal regulation, schools districts across America began to implement controversial reforms in an effort to reduce their rates of out-of-school suspensions.

The letter had good intentions. As a former high school teacher in the Fairfax Public Schools, I don’t favor out-of-school suspensions for low-level, first offenses; most of the teachers I know don’t either. Disparities between the out-of-school suspensions of white students and students of color are well-documented, and teachers are acutely aware of the pipeline that runs from out-of-school suspensions to prison.

However, teachers also don’t want their hands tied.

The unintended consequence of discipline reform is that teachers have been hamstringed by hierarchal directives that deprive them of the agency needed to do what’s best for the majority of their students. The top-down message has been clear: Keep disruptive students in your classes at all costs or it will be taken as evidence of poor classroom management and teaching ability.

Four years later, we must face the question: Are these reforms actually harming the learning environment for the majority of low-income and minority students? Teachers and students across the country have reported a less safe school climate, particularly in low-income schools.

Consider the case of Bruce Randolph High School in Denver. Employees there sent an open letter to the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, speaking out against the district’s efforts to reduce suspensions and increase classroom time. Teachers said that since the discipline reforms, student learning had suffered. Even more alarmingly, students had threatened to bring guns to class, harm teachers, and blow up the school without facing meaningful consequences.

Policy directives were unrealistic. One required that teachers call parents prior to sending disruptive students to the counselor's office — an impossible demand when you’re in the middle of teaching 30 other students. “Time and resources that in the past would have been spent on improving instruction,” school employees wrote, are “instead spent by our entire staff … on habitually disruptive students that continually return to our classrooms.”

In October, the Consortium for Policy Research and Education (CPRE) released a report on discipline reform in the School District of Philadelphia. The majority of teachers CPRE researchers surveyed agreed with the following statement: “OSS [out-of-school suspension] is useful for removing disruptive students so that others can learn.” The majority of administrators, on the other hand, viewed the district’s discipline reforms favorably and agreed with the district’s policy banning out-of-school suspensions.  

Teachers and administrators might work in the same buildings, but they live in different worlds.

When a school complies with a top-down initiative, the school’s administrators win favor from higher-ups in the school district. If a school’s out-of-school suspension rates decrease, then it looks as if the district’s policies have led to positive outcomes for the school — at least on paper.

Teachers, on the other hand, must cope with continuously disruptive students in their classes. When administrators don’t value teacher feedback, educators feel unsupported, and an “us v. them” environment develops and damages school climate.

Centralized discipline policies might keep students in the classroom, but they also drive good teachers out. Without good teachers who have the autonomy to manage their classrooms effectively, students won’t receive a quality education, no matter what discipline policies a district embraces.

Since the Obama-era discipline reforms, there’s been a lot of talk about the need to train teachers in the best practices for emotionally supporting challenging students. Like all teachers, I had some challenging students. Moses makes that list.

Moses was on the verge of failing every class, including mine, and, in his other classes, he acted out, resulting in regularly assigned in-school suspension (ISS). Many teachers, like me, support the use of ISS because we believe that students need to be held accountable for missed learning in addition to taking responsibility for disruptive behavior. Although not as widely studied as other discipline methods, if implemented well, ISS can have positive results on student behavior.

Unfortunately, at Moses’s school, in-school suspension was not a well-run program. He once confessed to me that he liked in-school suspension because he could sleep there without teachers bothering him.

I began stopping by the in-school suspension room to “bother” Moses. I usually found him eating Fritos and watching racing videos on his phone instead of doing his assignments. I’d give him a stern talking-to, after which he’d complete the work. It wasn’t stellar, but it reflected basic understanding and some effort. Persistence eventually paid off: Moses learned enough English to pass my class. I had shown him that I cared about his academic success and that I believed he could succeed.

I did not, however, teach him how to cope with personal traumas that might be the source of his disruptive behavior. I was not qualified to do so nor did I want to be. Not all teachers want to be counselors. Many teachers have positive relationships with their students, an understanding of pedagogy, and expertise in their content area. They shouldn’t be required to fulfill the role of a social worker too.

Nearly half of America’s public school students have experienced trauma, but three of nation’s largest urban districts employ more security staff than school counselors and social workers combined. Often, in the absence of such professionals, their responsibilities fall to teachers, who are only qualified to identify signs of trauma, not help students deal with trauma.

If we want highly qualified teachers, we need to create environments where they can engage the majority of their students with content. Instead, we’re effectively insisting that they become emotional caregivers for their most challenging students.

If we want to improve behavioral intervention in schools, we need to direct more resources to schools with large populations of “at risk” students. They can then hire specialists — such as social workers and child psychologists — with the professional training necessary to help disruptive students.

The Trump administration will likely rescind the Obama-era guidance on school discipline. However, the administration has not proposed alternative solutions for addressing the school-to-prison pipeline. Defaulting to “zero tolerance” policies will inevitably harm low-income students of color, and it won’t solve the behavioral problems in our schools. As the administration looks to restore classroom agency to teachers, it should also prepare to provide low-income schools with more resources to support the emotional needs of “at-risk” students.

Emily Langhorne is the project manager and policy analyst for Reinventing America's Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute. She previously worked for Fairfax County Public Schools, teaching high school English and directing writing centers.

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