Monday, January 7, 2013

Suspended learning

What's the point?

Crazy suspension and expulsion stories have become almost commonplace in this era of zero tolerance, especially in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. The Washington Post ran a story last week about a 6-year-old boy being suspended in Montgomery County, Md. for pointing his finger at another student and saying "pow."

Then there's the story of Courtni Webb, the 17-year old San Francisco high school student, suspended for a poem she wrote about Sandy Hook.

But these incidents, often an ill-considered, bureaucratic response to the real fears of gun violence, mask the bigger story buried deeper in the WaPo piece.
Across the Washington region, school systems have suspended thousands of students in the early grades, according to a 2012 Washington Post analysis that showed kindergartners and first-graders had been ousted for disciplinary offenses in nearly every local school system.
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Suspensions and expulsions have become the main currency of behavior-modification educational practices as teachers become increasingly dis-empowered when it comes to treating classroom behavioral issues. Decisions about the treatment of behavioral infractions have become removed from the classroom and the local school and are mainly driven by laws such as No Child Left Behind and arbitrary rulings by state and district bureaucrats with an eye on potential litigation.

About 3 million students each year are booted from schools, with black and Latino students as well as students with disabilities, being suspended at about three times the rate of white and abled students often for similar infractions. If you want to learn more about the growing suspension wave and the racial discipline gap, read "Suspended Education" (2010), an important study done by Russell Skiba and Daniel Losen for the Souther Poverty Law Center. They reveal the connection between suspension from middle school and the potential from dropping out and even future incarceration. Another good, more recent study was done by Gary Orfield and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, "Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School."

One other stunning bit of news on this topic comes from Saturday's WaPo, "D.C. charter schools expel students at far higher rates than traditional public schools." Emma Brown writes:
D.C. charter schools expelled 676 students in the past three years, while the city’s traditional public schools expelled 24, according to a Washington Post review of school data. During the 2011-12 school year, when charters enrolled 41 percent of the city’s students, they removed 227 children for discipline violations and had an expulsion rate of 72 per 10,000 students; the District school system removed three and had an expulsion rate of less than 1 per 10,000 students.
Privately-run, but publicly-funded charter schools have long abandoned their original public school mission of serving all children and increasingly base their marketing and recruitment policies on their ability to exclude and drive-out students with behavioral issues, English-language learners or students with lower test scores.

Possible solutions to suspended education lie in the consideration by schools and districts of alternative discipline approaches, like Chicago's restorative justice and others that directly involve students and teachers. Charter schools should be made to enroll and maintain their student population in the same fashion as neighborhood public schools, which are now seen in many districts as dumping grounds for problem students.

More on this to come in future posts.

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