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Beyond Quotas: Time for Real Remedies on Harsh Discipline that Excludes Students

Charter schools have come under fire recently around student discipline. As someone who spent a decade working with children at the tragic end of the school-to-prison pipeline, I’m deeply concerned about the real-world ramifications of suspensions and expulsions on students. But overuse of harsh student discipline is not just a charter school issue, it’s a public school issue. The current spotlight on one set of public schools suggests the problem is an isolated one, masking the reality that unfair discipline can—and does—happen to students across all school types. Pointing fingers will only encourage bunker mentality and discourage open dialogue and hard work.

A recent headline-grabbing report from UCLA on discipline takes charter schools to task—and rightly so. But reading beyond the headline shows cause for concern across all public schools, traditional district and charter alike. The report found that in the 2011-12 school year, the average suspension rate for all charter schools combined was 7.8 percent; the average for all non-charter schools was 6.7 percent. The report notes that charter schools suspending students at a lower rate are more numerous than those suspending at a higher rate and says “there are likely many effective charter schools that reserve suspension as a measure of last resort.” Furthermore, the report states that some charter schools “likely offer excellent examples of effective non-punitive approaches to school discipline and could help close the pipeline.” The UCLA report makes it clear that neither sector corners the market on either good or bad discipline practice.

Yet, charter schools—with their built-in flexibility in exchange for accountability on student results—have advantages that could allow them to take the lead on innovating fair and effective student discipline. Some, including the author of the UCLA report, would argue they have an added responsibility to lead the way given the freedoms they enjoy.

As compared to districts, charter schools can more quickly shift their discipline focus (some already have) from reacting to problematic behavior to proactively addressing its root causes. Playing duck and cover on discipline won’t help the charter school movement and it certainly won’t help students. The charter sector must own up to the real problem of schools whose suspension and expulsion rates are through the roof.

To help get there, here are some potential remedies charter schools could take the lead on:

  • Focus on evidence-based prevention programs like Restorative Justice, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and trauma-informed curriculum. These seek to address the root cause of student behavior, de-escalate tension and conflict, and contribute to a school culture where students feel connected to and trust peers, teachers, and administrators—something research tells us is key to school safety and student success.
  • Reimagine the suspension and expulsion tool. Some charter schools use suspension to help stop problematic student behavior rather than trigger an escalating cycle of re-suspension. They’re keeping kids in school whenever possible and, when students are sent home, ensuring school work continues uninterrupted.
  • Track discipline data internally and consider rates for teachers and principals in professional development programming and evaluations. Charter schools have led the way in data-driven instruction. They also have wide latitude to craft professional development and to determine what criteria to use in evaluations. Some discipline research has shown that it is usually a small group of teachers that drives high rates of suspensions in a school. Smart data gathering can quickly identify teachers who struggle with classroom management, need extra tools and support, or should not be in the classroom. Use of discipline can also vary widely between schools even in a highly prescriptive charter management organization (CMO) that runs many schools. These CMOs can track discipline data and work with principals of schools with high rates, or hold up those with low rates as examples or mentors.
  • Curtail arbitrary use or overuse of suspensions/expulsions. The Recovery School District in New Orleans has centralized all expulsion decisions to ensure that all schools use expulsions only as a last resort. The district also created a safety net to make sure students who are expelled continue to receive either in-school or out-of-school educational services.
  • Create common definitions for disciplinary actions, collect and promote transparency of discipline data. Consistently defining what a suspension or an expulsion is helps identify trouble spots and can generate public pressure for change. In Washington, D.C., defining the terms and daylighting discipline data on local public charter and district schools has helped advance citywide debate and reflection on what level of suspensions and expulsions discipline is acceptable. We have seen some charters react with shock when learning how they compare to their peers on the use suspensions or expulsions and have been highly motivated to change practice–some with great success.
  • Collaborate and crowdsource across sectors to unearth good ideas wherever they live. Although charters can be reluctant to consider district schools as a source of learning (often thanks to politics that pit charters against district schools and foster mistrust), they shouldn’t write them off. Charter and district schools with low suspension and expulsion rates and similar demographics can learn from each other. Collaboration talk is usually around instruction—why not discipline, too?

Some charter schools see themselves as laboratories and are testing out these and other ideas. If we want these schools to openly share what they learn, they must feel as though they are part of a broader conversation, not vilified or lumped in with the small subset of schools responsible for the majority of discipline use in the sector. Pressure through shaming alone, even when deserved, will only result in workarounds and off-the-books discipline. Similarly, quotas (setting a permissible suspension and expulsion rate) and any other push to limit the use of the discipline without providing schools with ways to address the root causes of misbehavior will fail students—and the teachers who want and need new tools to keep their students safe and focused on learning.

Bottom line: charter schools, like all public schools, must confront the problem of unfair or overuse of suspensions and expulsions in their midst. Doing nothing is not an option. The carrot of creative remedies—not politics, polemics, or paralysis—will get us there faster than the stick of quotas and shaming. And it will be better for students in the long run.

Note: In June, CRPE will release a report profiling the efforts of two cities – Washington, D.C., and New Orleans – that are taking citywide, cross-sector approaches to discipline. Both show compelling early results and are important models for others to consider. Watch for it next month!

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