First Person

What Eva Moskowitz gets wrong about restorative discipline

Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy Charter Schools CEO, recently denounced “restorative conflict resolution,” saying that the practice makes schools less safe. Students who are violent toward other students need “discipline … not dialogue,” she wrote in the Wall Street Journal, in a piece aimed at criticizing the de Blasio administration’s shift toward restorative justice in new school discipline rules. Without safety, students cannot learn, let alone experience the “joy” of a well-ordered, clean, safe school environment, argues Moskowitz, who boasts that her charter schools suspended 11 percent of students last year.

As a former city schoolteacher who now studies discipline practices, I would argue that self-identified “restorative schools” manage to achieve communities of joy, safety, and learning while maintaining suspension rates below Success Academy’s and below the city average of 4 percent — although they do suspend students and do not tolerate threats to school safety.

Restorative justice theory emphasizes the value of accountability — all students and staff in a school are accountable to each other and to protect their learning environment (read more in discipline guides like “The Little Guide to Restorative Practices for Schools”). Conflict represents a rupture in that community, and that rupture must be “restored” through highly structured dialogue protocols, according to the theory. The particulars of such protocols vary from school to school, but some examples from New York City and Oakland, Calif., schools come in the film “Growing Fairness.”

Critics of restorative practices, including Moskowitz, portray them as anathema to “real discipline.” They say restorative schools are less safe, give students equal standing to educators in discipline matters, and do not offer the kinds of consequences that students will encounter in the real world.

My research has found that none of these arguments accurately characterizes restorative schools. During my three years of ethnographic work about restorative practices as part of my doctoral research, I have interviewed principals, students, and educators at restorative schools across the city. All assure me that any students who fight on campus are removed from the building immediately if there is a threat to student safety. Restorative conferences — which Moskowitz derides as “talking out” how actions “impact others” — are facilitated only after students have had proper time to cool down and, more importantly, have agreed to make amends with each other.

Moskowitz is right that restorative schools don’t always suspend students for fighting. That’s because administrators aim to spot and defuse conflicts before they become physical. Restorative justice is not merely a conflict resolution strategy; its largest component is a set of proactive, community building practices used to promote and protect the type of “purposeful, joyful” and physically safe learning environment that Moskowitz herself endorses.

Moskowitz also expresses concern about the notion of teachers and students engaging in conflict resolution as equals, describing a scenario in which teachers beg or bargain with students who punch other students. This is a caricature of what actually happens during the restorative process. Teachers and students in restorative schools are not “equals” in that they both get to determine the rules of the school or what behavior will be tolerated to maintain a safe school environment, as James Baldwin School founding principal Elijah Hawkes explains in Rethinking Schools. They are equal in that, as human beings who share a space and many experiences together, they have an obligation to understand and be sensitive to each other’s needs.

No child “needs” to punch another child, which is why physical violence is not tolerated in restorative schools. The difference is that those schools see violence as almost always speaking to deeper emotional needs that are going untreated. For students who grow up in violent and/or impoverished neighborhoods, violent behavior is often a symptom of underlying trauma. Those harms—the harm to the child who was hurt and to the child who acted violently—cannot be surfaced through suspension or removal, even if such actions are necessary in the immediate moments after a fight. Ultimately, harms can only be surfaced and restored through discussion, trust, and empathy.

That’s why I am cautiously hopeful about the de Blasio administration’s efforts to reduce the ease with which principals can suspend students for insubordinate behavior (something that federal authorities want urban districts with racially disproportionate suspension rates, such as New York City, to do). It’s also why I am alarmed that Moskowitz could think that purpose and joy are only possible when fewer than 90 percent of students are allowed to attend school year round. If we want our students to grow up able to resolve conflict the way conflict is resolved in the real world — through communication, without running away or banishing each other — we need to teach them the necessary skills.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.