In the Classroom

A shortage everyone can agree on: Indianapolis schools don't have enough black teachers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Teachers, education students and other educators gather at a recruitment event held by the Indianapolis Alliance of Black School Educators in November.

In the two years David McGuire taught at Indianapolis Public School’s Howe High School, he and another teacher were the only black men there out of a staff of 56.

When he went to get his principal’s license at Marian University, he was again, just one of two. In his doctoral program at IUPUI, he was one of three.

It was a trend he couldn’t ignore. It’s also the kind of shortage that’s indisputable: Indianapolis needs minority teachers.

“African-American boys are historically the lowest-performing students,” McGuire said. “African-American men make up the lowest percentage of teachers. No one has ever thought about that connection?”

More than half of Marion County students are black and Hispanic, yet just 12 percent of the county’s teachers are black or Hispanic. A teaching force that isn’t representative of the students in schools is a pervasive problem both in Indiana and nationwide.

Several studies have suggested minority teachers have higher academic expectations for minority students and can serve as important role models for all kids, helping to dispel stereotypes and learn to succeed in a diverse society. And those are just a few benefits that come when students and teacher diversity reflect each other.

But few Indianapolis schools appear to be in a position to take advantage of those positive effects.

According to Indiana Department of Education data from 2015, about 37 percent of Marion County students were black, 19 percent were Hispanic and 39 percent were white. In 2014, about 86 percent of the county’s 8,900 teachers were white, 11 percent were black and a little more than 1 percent were Hispanic.

Across the state, the numbers are no better. In 2014, black, Hispanic, Asian and other minority students made up about 25 percent of state’s public school enrollment, which has stayed fairly constant into 2015. Yet minority teachers numbered just 5.7 percent of Indiana’s public school teaching force.

In other words, almost 94 percent of the state’s public school teachers were white in 2014 even while a quarter of their students were not.

That obvious disparity was troubling to McGuire. If schools could have more black staff members serving in roles such as as campus monitors or football coaches, he wondered, why couldn’t they be math teachers? Or principals?

So in partnership with Blake Nathan, a teacher in Warren Township, the two founded a group called Educate ME to encourage more black men to go into teaching.

“Let’s take the younger generation who don’t know any better, and let’s see if we can show them the value of a teacher,” McGuire said. “I believe, as a black male, I represent what students think of black men for the rest of their lives.”

Making the road to teaching smoother

McGuire and Nathan are focused squarely on attracting new teachers to the classroom by pushing more education and training for potential teachers and by providing incentives to get into teaching.

Educate ME has four tiers of initiatives aimed at high school students, college students, new teachers and veteran teachers who want become leaders. McGuire and Nathan hope that a mixture of scholarships, mentorship programs, college tours and financial support can lead to their goal of a bigger pool of black men teaching in Indianapolis.

Getting high school kids interested is the first step, McGuire, 27, said. But schools sometimes miss opportunities to entice kids into the profession. Lots of schools, for example, have classes, magnet themes or other opportunities to connect with careers, but teaching is rarely one of them, McGuire said.

“There’s journalism, there’s medicine, there’s law, why is there no teaching?” he said. “Every day you sit with a group of students. Why not create that pipeline?”

In its first two years, Educate ME has grown steadily. It had a launch party, and it built a website. In July, it expanded its work when a grant came through for $10,000 from KIND, a snack food company.

The group recently sponsored its first college tour in October, where Nathan and McGuire took 50 black boys on a tour of six Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The second tour leaves in March, and an all-girls version will follow soon after, McGuire said.

In January the foundation will begin recruiting teaching candidates at HBCUs in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Georgia. Interested candidates will then go on a “teacher retreat” in March to learn more about and tour Indianapolis and meet with district, charter school and community leaders.

But infusing the city with new teachers isn’t the only way to fix the problem.

Gwen Kelley, with the Equity Project at Indiana University and part of the Indianapolis Alliance of Black School Educators, cautioned teachers at an event held earlier this month that teachers need reasons to stay in the profession, too.

Many minority teachers tend to work in the highest-poverty districts, where turnover is highest and students struggle most often.

“Even though there’s a shortfall, the gap is starting to close with recruitment,” Kelley said. “However, retention is where the shift in our thinking is coming … The teachers who are leaving are the ones in the hard-to-staff schools, and that’s predominately where African-American and Hispanic teachers are going.”

Research shows teacher ethnicity makes a difference

It’s not as if black and Hispanic teachers automatically come with knowledge about how to better manage diverse classrooms or to be culturally responsive. Minority teachers aren’t magically better at reaching minority students.

But, said Paige Thomas, a Lawrence Township teacher who is biracial, they do bring their own life experiences. A shared background can be a useful way to connect to students who come from similar backgrounds or cultures but sometimes feel out of place in schools with few adults who share those experiences.

“After being in the field for three years, minority is more than just your skin color,” Thomas said. “Minority means that you have … a broad perspective and you have a desire” to use that in your classroom, she said.

The teachers union-affiliated Albert Shanker Institute compiled research for a 2015 report on teacher diversity, and many of the studies cited showed that students, from all backgrounds, benefit when teachers are not just one ethnicity.

Schools with mostly minority students in urban, high-poverty areas see the most teacher turnover, the report said, but minority teachers were shown to be more motivated to want to help minority students improve, so they tend to stick around longer.

A 2004 study from Stanford showed that math and reading scores improved for Tennessee students whose race was the same as their teacher’s, particularly for poor black students. Two other studies published the following year showed black and Hispanic teachers could help black and Hispanic students get higher gains on tests than white teachers.

At Harrison Hill Elementary School, where Thomas teachers second grade, there are five black teachers, and both the assistant principal and social worker are black. Just two men teach in the building, and neither are African-American.

Thomas said relationship-building with students is the most important part of her job. She credits her teachers and the Alliance of Black School Educators with playing a role in her success, and she wants her kids to have the same opportunities. She knows that her life experiences can shape the outcomes of her students, too.

“Building relationship it takes a certain amount of humility — you don’t know everything,” Thomas said. “Every black child and every Hispanic child don’t have the same story. That has been the most important thing I’ve ever learned, and I did not learn that in school.”

Connecting minority teacher recruiting to state efforts

The state has a few strategies in place to recruit minority teachers, but no specific teacher recruitment programs exist, said Samantha Hart, a spokeswoman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

2009 Indiana law called for the Indiana Department of Education to work with other state agencies and community groups to establish programs that focus on minority teacher recruitment and retention. A diversity coordinator was hired, Hart said, but no specific plan has been developed.

“There aren’t currently any state programs to recruit teachers, minority or otherwise,” Hart said in an email. “This is something that the Blue Ribbon Teacher Commission has discussed, and at the next meeting we should have a better idea of what specific ideas they have developed.”

Ritz’s 49-member commission on teacher hiring, formed this summer, has discussed strategies aimed specifically at minority teachers. The group is expected to present its legislative proposals at its last meeting today, although lawmakers have already gotten started work on bills, such as one that aims to attract high school students to study teaching in exchange for free college tuition.

Indiana colleges do make an effort to invite minorities into the teaching profession. Among efforts they have reported in a survey to the education department are scholarship offers to top students, targeted mail to possible minority candidates, and participation in local events such as the Black Expo and career fairs.

Recommendations from a 2015 White House presentation, which was part of a special initiative on educational excellence for African Americans, also suggested states consider recruiting minority substitute teachers or increase support for minority teacher aides to earn teaching licenses.

All school administrators, the White House presentation said, should be trained in racial and gender awareness, specific schools with low numbers of minority and black male teachers should get extra attention and community-based organizations should be invited to help.

But at least as a first step, making meaningful change can start with the simple example for minority students of more teachers who look like them in their schools and the understanding that they could follow the same path, McGuire said.

“I was never a person that believed that there was an achievement gap between the lowest- and highest-performing students,” McGuire said. “It’s an access gap. You provide minority students with the access to education, and watch them rise to the education. If you provide those same students the same access to teaching, watch them rise to the occasion.”

Literacy

How it feels to be Javion: 16 and struggling to read in Chicago Public Schools

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16. But now, he's working hard to change that — with help at home and in school. The stakes are high.

Javion Grayer’s aunt had given him the book thinking he might connect with the main character: a black teenager in crisis, struggling to make the right choices at school and evade trouble in a neighborhood affected with violence.

But two months after receiving “No Way Out,” 16-year-old Javion was still on the third page. Written at a third-grade level, the novel was too difficult for him to read.

He opened the book.

“Two days ago,” he started, “Grandma fell on the ….” He paused. “Front,” he said, and then “steps.” He skipped the next word, “banging,” then continued.

“Her head on the … porch,” he said, substituting another word for the correct one, “pavement.” Instead of the next two words, “spraining her,” Javion read “straining her.”

Then he looked up at his aunt, Katrina Falkner, with pleading eyes and turned the book her way, pointing at a word. “Ankle,” she whispered. He repeated it like he was weighing a question, and nodded.

Javion worked his way down the page, brow furrowed, stopping at or skipping over what he couldn’t understand. After five minutes, halfway through the page, he closed the book, exhausted.

“I can read some of it,” he said. “But I can’t read all of it, it’s a little too hard. I need help.”

It’s an assessment that everyone in his life shares — from his aunt, who became his legal guardian when his mother died two years ago, to his teachers at the small alternative high school he began attending this fall.

They know the stakes are high. An estimated three in 10 adults in Chicago lack basic literacy skills. They are more likely to earn lower wages, face unemployment, wind up in jail, and be mired in poverty than are adults who read well. Javion has little more than a year to avert becoming part of that statistic.

How Javion became a high school student reading at the second-grade level is impossible to say for sure. But multiple forces play a role: Intergenerational poverty and violence abetted by segregation and disinvestment that have strangled opportunities for black families in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. Underperforming schools concentrated in underserved communities. A special education system that avoided serving students. A patchwork approach to literacy instruction.

And thousands upon thousands of students like Javion, who have endured deep, searing losses and trauma.

“Things he may have missed.”

Javion was born at Saint Anthony Hospital on New Years Day 2002 to Margie Grayer. His birth certificate doesn’t list a father. Grayer, then a 26-year-old receptionist, lived with her three other children; her younger sister, Falkner; and two teenage cousins in a three-bedroom apartment at the Robert Taylor Homes in Bronzeville, a notorious public housing development forged from racist housing policies that reinforced segregation and further concentrated poverty on the South Side.

Chicago was already in the process of demolishing the neglected and crime-ridden housing project, so after Javion arrived, the family moved five miles south to Englewood, another segregated black community struggling with poverty and crime.

From kindergarten to second grade, Javion attended Woods Elementary Math & Science Academy, which was later closed for low performance and underenrollment. He missed many days of school, according to school records, and was forced to repeat second grade.

Grayer transferred Javion to Bass Elementary School a half a mile away. He passed second grade there, but was asked to repeat the third grade.

That happened at a third school, Stagg Elementary School in Auburn Gresham. The family moved there after a gunman on a bike shot and injured Javion’s two older brothers, then 15 and 16. They survived.

Javion arrived at Stagg just as it was undergoing a “turnaround,” a handoff to outside management and an often turbulent transition, designed to raise test scores at chronically underperforming schools. Stagg promoted Javion every year. At his mother’s request, the school evaluated him for the first time — in seventh grade — for special education services. That year, 87 percent of his fellow seventh graders were reading below level. Javion’s assessment found a mild intellectual disability, according to school records.

After that, Javion remembers, a dedicated aide started joining him in class once a day.

“She was the one lady who would help me a little, she would sit in the classroom and teach me how to read a bit and then she would leave,” Javion said.

But after a brief stretch of progress came calamity. Javion’s mother became ill and died suddenly the summer after he finished seventh grade. From tenuous stability, his life spun into turmoil that he could recount only much later.

Schoolwise, Javion thinks he didn’t get any one-on-one help during eighth grade. Nor did he get any at Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville, which he entered in 2017, around the time that he moved in with Falkner. He left that school after only a few weeks because of the long commute, transferring to Excel Academy, an alternative school in Englewood.

There, according to records, he participated in most courses, without any special accommodations beyond getting extra time and guidance from his teachers. The school determined that his disabilities didn’t require direct services from a special education teacher, although his teachers were supposed to consult with those specialists quarterly. The report cautioned that Javion had missed so much school — 16 of the first 42 days of the year — that the assessment could be incomplete.

This year, Javion started at a third high school, Community Youth Development Institute, where his annual meeting to review and update special education services took place this month, nearly halfway through the school year.

On the day that Javion’s evaluation team planned to share their conclusions, his aunt walked up the Auburn Gresham school’s steps seeking answers for her nephew.

“I’m just hoping somebody will finally help him out,” she said.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Javion’s aunt Katrina Falkner heads into his high school for a meeting with the special education team there.

When she entered the counselor’s office to discuss an individualized education program, Javion already was sitting in the cramped room with three women — a case manager, a psychiatrist, and his special education teacher — tossing a plastic stress ball into the air.

For the IEP meeting, the school had sized him up. Karen McDillon, the school psychiatrist, described Javion as pleasant, respectful, cooperative and “very soft-spoken.” She said he has many friends at the school, thrives socially, and despite his deficits, has strengths. He’s a strong visual learner who responds well to charts, favors nonverbal reasoning, shows willingness to learn, and benefits from individual explanations and coaching.  

But she said his reading scores from October placed him at the level of a second-grader. He struggles with how to decipher the individual sounds in a word and combine them. Word parts, prefixes and suffixes confuse him. Many of his reading errors come from dropping syllables or assigning incorrect vowel sounds to unfamiliar words.

However, evaluators finally have arrived at a welcome explanation for Javion’s struggles.

“We’re feeling that’s not so much a reflection of his ability,” said his case manager, Nancy Bobel, “and is more of an issue of things he may have missed early on in his education.”

Special education problems

It’s unclear why Javion seems not to have been screened for special needs until seventh grade.

His current IEP team believes that his seventh-grade review missed addressing his gaps, and that he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

That 2015 diagnosis identified him as having a cognitive impairment or intellectual disability, meaning that his capacity would be limited. But he’s made so much progress recently, in less than a semester, that Bobel said, “We’re changing his disability label to a learning disability, which means he has the capability of learning much more than what was originally thought.”

How could Javion repeatedly fall through the cracks?

Chicago Public Schools declined to respond to multiple queries related to Javion’s education. A spokesperson also declined to explain the district’s approach to teaching reading to older students like him who struggle to read.

If indeed the district neglected to provide Javion early on with special education, he wasn’t the only student who missed out.

A state investigation found in May that Chicago schools systematically shut out qualifying students from special education, by failing to train staff, improperly assessing students, and sending parents conflicting information, all in violation of state and federal laws. The state assigned a monitor to oversee the program, but parents and advocates still say that improvements have been slow to appear.

None of that has surprised parents and groups like Community Organizing and Family Issues on the Near West Side. Falkner joined the group even before she became Javion’s guardian, and attended training in leadership special-education advocacy. Buoyed by what she learned, she nudged her sister to push the school to evaluate Javion’s needs.

In July, at a Chalkbeat forum with caregivers at the organization, Falkner told a table of mothers, grandmothers and aunts about Javion’s reading challenges.

When she finished, there was barely a dry eye left among the group.

Javion now receives more than four hours a week of special help for all core subjects, and spends nearly two-thirds of his school time away from regular classes. A low student-teacher ratio offers more individual attention and fewer distractions, according to his evaluation.

And the school responded to Falkner’s demand to focus more on his reading skills to accelerate his fluency and comprehension.

“Hopefully, now that he’s going to be receiving services all through high school, we’ll be able to get him caught up to a level where he can function independently on his own in the world,” said school psychiatrist McDillon.

A late intervention

Catching up depends on Javion becoming a better reader.

He remembers failing reading assignments from an early age, and zoning out when he couldn’t read a worksheet or passage in a text. He doesn’t have a favorite book or writer. He also said he has always shied away from reading aloud in class.

“Some of it, I can get through it, but some of it I can’t. So I don’t like reading in front of other people,” Javion said.

As kids get older, catching up becomes much harder. After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

But Javion lacks the skills to do that effectively.

He’s hardly alone in moving ahead in school without mastering phonics. It’s possible his teachers never taught it. In teaching reading, many schools across the nation have pushed “whole language” over sounding out words. Instead, students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas.

Whether Javion’s elementary schools did that is not certain. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals a wider degree of autonomy to choose what and how students are taught.

When Tim Shanahan became director of reading for Chicago Public Schools in 2001, he asked for a list of the reading programs used at schools — “and they literally gave me two stacks of paper that went from the floor to the top of my desk.”

As he went through the stack, he said, “there were schools that didn’t have any program, and schools that have as many programs as you can imagine.”

A struggling reader who moves from school to school and gets direction that conflicts with what they have heard before might become frustrated and resistant to reading, said Shanahan, who is no longer with the district. He said the impact of Chicago’s scattershot approach to literacy instruction would be heightened for students like Javion who attend multiple schools in the pivotal early years.

Javion’s current school has an approach, but not a curriculum. Community Youth Development Institute is an alternative charter school enrolling 180 or so students ages 16 to 21. True to its start by a pastor and his wife in 1996, the school is operated in an old church building. Nearly all students are black, and from low-income households in and around communities like Auburn Gresham and Englewood.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

The school relies on a “personalized learning” model — mostly computer programs — to help students catch up. For Javion, that means working with a popular reading remediation program called Read 180, meant for students whose reading skills are several years behind.

It also means taking small-group classes with Kelly Morgan, the school’s sole special education teacher, who said she is building her curriculum “from scratch” based on their needs. Morgan has Javion working on learning common prefixes and suffixes so he can grow the number of words he can identify.

The special education team, which creates individual plans for all 30 of the school’s students with disabilities, also prescribed working on a page of the dictionary every day to build his arsenal of familiar words and practicing filling out job applications to tie lessons back to the real world. Those tasks, they said, would help Javion become a better reader.

“As he builds his vocabulary and his ability to decode, and to learn those sight words, then his fluency and his comprehension will improve,” said Bobel, his case manager.

Louisa Moats, a leading national expert on literacy, said that it’s unlikely Javion was ever taught to read properly if he’s reading at a second grade level. She suggested that even older students trying to learn how to read need to start at the beginning with phonics — putting letters and sounds together to make syllables that go into bigger words. Then, for practice, a student like Javion needs intensive instruction with a trained and supervised teacher.

Moats said research indicates Javion would require at least three hours of instruction a day taught by trained teachers. Half of that time would be the mechanics of reading, and the other half he’d need to make up what he’d missed in math and other subject areas, “because if he can’t read it means he’s probably way behind in his general knowledge,” Moats said.

“I’m not ashamed.”

At the IEP meeting, there’s some news. In less than one semester, Javion’s reading skills increased half a grade level, according to a STAR reading assessment administered in October — something that has likely has never happened for him before. The school special education teacher, Kelly Morgan, said she’s optimistic that he’ll continue to gain.

“I think he has a lot of potential,” Morgan said. “He’s a very intelligent young man, he’s very dignified, he’s very quiet, very thoughtful. I think that he just needs a little fine tuning in some areas, but he’ll be OK.”

Still, the odds are stacked against Morgan’s efforts, and Javion’s. In addition to starting from a deep skills deficit, Javion must contend with other ongoing challenges.

At the epicenter of those challenges has been his mother’s sudden death two years ago. In July 2016, Margie Grayer complained about shortness of breath. Her children urged her to go to the hospital. She refused for a week, Javion said, but finally went on Aug. 1. She died of pneumonia 10 days later.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Katrina Falkner at her Englewood apartment, holding an obituary for her sister Margie Grayer, Javion’s mom.

Javion recalls his brother shaking him awake in bed to tell him the news. The family gathered at the hospital and cried at her bedside.  

“It wasn’t anything going through my mind. I was just hurt,” Javion said. “I didn’t want to talk to nobody.”

“Now I try not to think about her, because if I think about her, I might cry.”

After Grayer’s death, her former boyfriend — the father of two of Javion’s siblings — cared for Javion and the other children. But in September 2017, the man vanished without an explanation.

That hurt, Javion said, because they were close, much closer than Javion and his biological father, who rarely shows his face. Javion does not know why he left or where he went, just that the lights were off and no food was in the fridge when he abandoned them.

That’s when his aunt took in Javion and his younger sister. But Falkner has her hands full. She’s also a foster mother to 10-year-old twins. They all live on a quiet block in Englewood, surrounded by vacant lots. Falkner volunteers with various community groups, and coordinates mentoring and education activities for area youth via her nonprofit 66th & Union Life Crew.

She works temp jobs. She spends a lot of time navigating the maze of guardianship and public benefits for the kids.

But Falkner has been able to advocate for Javion and his siblings. Still, she fears family history is repeating itself in Javion.

Falkner’s mother was functionally illiterate — meaning she lacked the reading and writing skills to meet everyday needs — like one of Falkner’s younger brothers.

“He’s 34, and he still needs help,” she said.

For Javion, other traumas followed his mother’s death. In December 2017, Javion and several companions narrowly survived a shooting connected to clashes with students from his former high school. Falkner said it was gang-related, but not directed at Javion. The shooting prompted Falkner to switch Javion’s school — the second time he transferred after a shooting.

Just three months later, in February, his 15-year-old cousin was shot to death on the South Side.

Javion’s life reflects the perfect storm that Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said young black men weather in Chicago and across the nation. An activist for black male literacy, Tatum says a lack of culturally responsive instruction, achievement struggles, and disproportionately high rates of school discipline together prevent black boys from succeeding in school — and having positive life trajectories.

“Those are triple threats that become a very dark abyss,” Tatum said.

“Young black men are not going to sit in classrooms where they don’t experience good things, and it’s hard to experience positive experiences in classrooms when you cannot read well.”

Javion’s special education plan puts him on track to graduate in June 2022, when he will be 20. He didn’t come to the school with a single credit earned.

Remarkably, despite the trauma, loss and turmoil in his life, Javion is upbeat. He’s getting counseling at school to help him deal with his grief now. He’s driven to improve as a reader, and remembers what his mom told him.

“She told me to read,” he said. “Because one day you might be able get a good job or anything. You can get anywhere. You can start your own business if you know how to read. I’m going to try to start my own business one day, designing clothes.”

That’s why on the eve of Thanksgiving, the day before what would have been Margie Grayer’s 43rd birthday, Javion woke up in bed with a purpose.

He joined the other kids for breakfast, and afterward, he and his cousin Myshayla, 9, walked to the living room of their Englewood apartment and browsed through the bookcase.

Javion grabbed “No Way Out,” the book he had struggled so mightily with a couple weeks earlier. Myshayla is the house’s resident whiz kid, and one of the only people who regularly reads one-on-one with Javion.

She watched intently as he started off where he stopped before.

This time, he’s able to finish the page.

“I’m not ashamed,” Javion said proudly. “I just want to get better.”

explainer

What it will mean if Betsy DeVos rolls back the Obama school discipline rules

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions participate in a meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety on August 16, 2018. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Two years ago, it seemed like scrapping Obama-era guidance around school suspensions might be at the top of Betsy DeVos’s to-do list as education secretary.

The rules encouraged schools to limit suspensions and expulsions, and have been supported by progressives and civil rights groups. But they have been heavily criticized by conservatives, who say they’ve made schools less safe. Still, the guidelines have stayed in place, even as conversations about school safety have taken on new intensity.

The Washington Post reported Monday that the final report of the school safety commission convened after February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will recommend that the guidance be eliminated. That would be a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools, a connection that remains questionable and hotly debated. The report is expected this month.

“The Federal Commission on School Safety has studied the topic of school discipline extensively and will make a recommendation on the Obama-era school discipline guidance in its final report,” Department of Education spokesperson Liz Hill said.

The debate about these guidelines is long-running and fierce. Here’s a guide to what’s at stake and what to look out for as decisions are made.

Catch me up: What is this guidance?

This all centers around a letter issued in January 2014 by the education and justice departments. It said that school leaders should seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom, especially when their behavior isn’t violent.

The guidelines also pushed districts to take a close look at how students of different racial groups are punished. The letter said that disparities could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law.

Leaders from both departments made clear that this was an issue they would take seriously. “We will enforce Federal laws to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination in school discipline,” they wrote.

Many districts were already changing their approaches. Research on the connection between suspensions and dropout rates, among other issues, had been pushing districts like Denver, Los Angeles, and New York City to eliminate “zero tolerance” policies and curb suspensions.

It’s unclear exactly how many more districts adjusted their policies because of the directives — one survey of superintendents in 47 states found that 16 percent of districts did — but Obama officials certainly encouraged the shift.

Why has it become such a big deal?

The short answer is that the guidance has become significant to both the political left and right, with practical and symbolic import. On the left, it represents the fight against racism and the potential of the Trump administration to set that back. On the right, the guidance represents a bungled top-down government intervention that allows misbehavior to go unpunished.

For instance, Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute, has described the guidance as “coercive.” According to Eden’s analysis, at least 350 districts were investigated by the Office of Civil Rights from 2009 to 2017 “for the purpose of intimidating them into adopting discipline policies favored by the Obama administration.” In his view, the guidance trampled on local authority, pushing districts to poorly implement changes that led to disorder in schools.

National school boards and superintendents groups have also been critical of the guidance, saying it cut into local autonomy. Teachers in certain districts have reported that they have been hamstrung without good alternatives to suspension. Some of those critics got a hearing before department officials late last year.

DeVos has also heard from supporters of the guidance. To them, the guidance simply codified longstanding laws meant to protect against discrimination. Some have conceded that changes were poorly implemented in some cases. But much of the education world — including teachers unions and certain education reform groups — has urged DeVos to maintain the Obama-era rules.

These tensions have likely been heightened by the president. Rescinding the guidance, to some progressives, would be an extension of the Trump administration’s racist policymaking. Indeed, the language used by some opponents has had racist undertones, like an essay in a Manhattan Institute publication titled “No Thug Left Behind.” Breitbart, the far-right site, has described the guidance as an “Obama-era school leniency policy of reducing reports of violent behavior committed by minority students.”

How did this all get connected to the school safety commission?

The February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, prompted the Trump administration to convene a school safety commission and reinvigorated conservative opposition to the discipline guidance.

Commenters blamed Broward County’s alternative discipline programs, meant to reduce suspensions, for allowing the shooter to escape scrutiny for earlier offenses. And they blamed the Obama guidance for leading to the creation of Broward’s program, a claim that percolated through conservative media.

That connection doesn’t make sense. Broward’s program launched in 2013 — before the Obama administration issued its 2014 guidance. But politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio repeated the claim that the guidance contributed to the massacre, which killed 17.

Trump named DeVos chair of the school safety commission, and “Repeal of the Obama Administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies” was one of its areas of focus, suggesting the decision was inevitable.

The Post reports that the commission, as expected, will not recommend new gun restrictions.

It’s also worth noting that legitimate questions have been raised more recently about Broward County’s initiatives to reduce suspensions, which were held up as a model by the Obama administration. The Broward superintendent originally claimed that shooter Nikolas Cruz was not part of district’s Promise program, which was meant to avoid referring students to police after non-violent offenses. A local NPR station would later report that he was. Other local reporting suggested that teachers felt ill-equipped to implement the disciplinary changes, and some reported that student behavior got worse as a result.

What will changes mean for schools and students?

The guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking and embolden opposition to discipline changes already underway.

Still, a number of districts have already said they are committed to seeing through the changes they’ve made.

If the guidance is rescinded, “I think in our district, it wouldn’t change anything,” Christopher Maher, superintendent of Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, said recently. Still, he said, “I think it helps when you have voices like that at a federal level making a statement.”

Going back to the core issue here — do suspensions really harm students?

There’s lots of evidence that students who get suspended have lower test scores and higher dropout rates than students who don’t get suspended. It’s also well documented that black students, students with disabilities, and boys are much more likely than others to be suspended or expelled.

To critics of exclusionary discipline, this is strong evidence that those disciplinary tactics are deeply problematic. But it’s also true that the connection doesn’t prove that suspensions harm students — only that students headed for worse outcomes are also the students who get suspended, which is not surprising.

Recent research gets closer to pinning down cause and effect, though. In Louisiana, a study  found that when a black student and a white student got into a fight, the black student was suspended for longer, though the difference was very small. And a handful of recent studies have shown that suspensions do actually cause lower test scores, though again, the effect was fairly small.

And has cutting back on suspensions made things worse, a key claim of discipline reform critics? There’s limited evidence, one way or another. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result.

Meanwhile, there’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.